Above the Fold: Media Wolves, Draped in Sheep's Clothing | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Above the Fold: Media Wolves, Draped in Sheep's Clothing

    Once upon a time, not so very long ago, public figures who used lies and hatred to incite violence within the most hysterical part of the population were treated like pariahs by the mainstream media.   

    The reasons why that was a sensible approach were especially obvious this week, as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and their legions of less-well-known imitators used their programs to compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler (“Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate,” Rush intoned)–and to organize the mobs which turned town hall meetings about health care into riots.

    Congressmen were the subject of death threats, as giants of the conservative commentariat like Charles Kruathammer decried the efforts of the Obama administration to confront the multiple lies about its health care plans as “unbelievably hypocritical.”

        “This only happens when you have a conservative protest,” said Kruathammer.  “It is called a mob. If it’s a liberal protest, it is called grassroots expressing themselves.”  Actually, these things are only called mobs when they include physical threats against the elected officials hosting them.

    What’s new, nowadays, is the hip, post-modern, and utterly-repellent impulse of everyone from The New York Times and Time magazine to The New Yorker to write fawning profiles of these “zany entertainers” instead of dissecting the garbage they routinely disseminate.

    Last summer, FCP thought it couldn’t possible get any worse than Zev Chavetsappalling love-letter to Limbaugh in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, which featured fabulous aperçus like these:

* “Limbaugh’s program that day was, as usual, a virtuoso performance.”

*  “He’s a phenomenon like the Beatles”

* Limbaugh entertains, but he also instructs. He provides his listeners with news and views they can use, and he teaches them how to employ it. “Rush is an intellectual-force multiplier,” Rove told me.

* “Unlike many right-wing talk-show hosts, Limbaugh does not view France with hostility. On the contrary, he is a Francophile. His salon, he told me, is meant to suggest Versailles. “

* A fastidious man, Limbaugh has a keen eye for domestic detail.”

*  “He lives the way Jackie Gleason would have lived if Gleason had the money. Some people are irritated by it.”

* “Limbaugh sees himself as a thinker as well as showman.”

*“He’s a leader,” Rove said. “If Rush engages on an issue, it gives others courage to engage.”

    But instead of an aberration, Chavets’s piece turned into a template for how to describe these magnificent men.   On Time magazine’s website, its infantile TV critic, James Poniewozik, gurgled on about Beck’s program this way:

Sure, he may be selling a sensationalistic message of paranoia and social breakdown. But politics, or basic responsibility, aside, he has an entertainer’s sense of play with the medium of TV that O’Reilly, or perpetual sourpuss Neil Cavuto, don’t. ..There’s this livewire sense of unpredictability to his show, a compulsion to constantly put on a show—be it with Barbies, cutting a cake to illustrate the budget, or building a Jenga tower—that is at least a corrective to being growled at by Papa Bear for an hour.  Of course, it is also a grown man whipping up a vague conspiracy on national television by playing with dolls. So there’s that. But there’s a part of me that has to respect Beck for at least being willing to own his nuttiness.

    Maybe all this affection developed because Poniewozik was once a guest on Beck’s earlier program on CNN.

    Over on the front page of the New York Times last spring, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter offered a similarly brain-dead approach : “Mr. Beck presents himself as a revivalist in a troubled land…Mr. Beck’s emotions are never far from the surface. ‘That’s good dramatic television,’ said Phil Griffin, the president of a Fox rival, MSNBC. ‘That’s who Glenn Beck is.’ 

    They quoted Beck as saying that those “who are spreading the garbage that I’m stirring up a revolution haven’t watched the show”–and added that Beck had offered “a 17-minute commentary — remarkably long by cable standards — last Monday, answering criticisms, including one from Bill Maher that he was producing “the same kind of talking” that led Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

     “Let me be clear,” Mr. Beck said. “If someone tries to harm another person in the name of the Constitution or the ‘truth’ behind 9/11 or anything else, they are just as dangerous and crazy as those we don’t seem to recognize anymore, who kill in the name of Allah.”

     (Young Mr. Stelter’s most recent accomplishment–dissected here  by Glenn Greenwald–was to report on corporate efforts to silence the war between Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.  “Incredibly,” wrote Greenwald, “Stelter, doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone examine, what makes the story so significant”–the fact that the corporate suits at both networks were trying to censor their own news operations.)

    But all of these articles pale in comparison to Kelefa Sanneh’s profile of Michael Savage in last week’s New Yorker magazine, perhaps the most embarrassing article to appear in those pages since Tina Brown ran a piece in the “Talk of The Town” devoted entirely to the size of the male-member of an actor then appearing nightly on Broadway.

    This week, Savage has been as active as anyone in fomenting violence, with wonderful monologues like this one  : “We’ve been taken over by a group of criminals.  I want to see all the disparate groups joining together. I want to see the motorcycle groups–and I mean from the far-extreme violent motorcycle groups to the motorcyle groups that are disorganized and nonviolent. When they start joining the citizen groupss and they start revving up their motorcycles outside these town hall meetings, you’re going to see change in this country.”

    But in his relentlessly fawning piece, Mr. Sanneh explained that “the immoderate quotes meticulously catalogued by the liberal media watchdog site mediamatters.org are accurate but misleading, insofar as they reduce a willfully erratic broadcast to a series of political brickbrats.” This brings to mind George Orwell’s famous observation that “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”  In Mr. Sanneh’s case, perhaps that’s because he was a relatively talented pop critic for The New York Times before he made the fatal mistake of turning his attention to politics in The New Yorker.

    To his credit, Mr. Sanneh does quote Mr. Savage’s most famous outburst on his short-lived MSNBC brodacst–“Oh, you’re one of the sodomites.  You should should only get AIDS and die, you pig.”  But then he goes on to make a whole series of observations that might even make Zev Chavets blush:

    * Savage is “a deeply sentimental man.”

    * “Limbaugh’s main legacy might be his media criticism”

    * “G Gordon Liddy’s show, which had a peculiar hypnotic power”

    * “Glenn Beck, who conjured a mystical fervor..”

    And finally, there is Mr. Sanneh’s uplifting kicker, taken, naturally, out of the mouth of his beloved subject, Mr. Savage: “I’m their voice of freedom.  I’m the last hope.  I’m the beacon.  I’m the staute of Liberty.  I’m Michael Savage.  I’ll be back.”

    The one thing Mr. Sanneh’s article does reaffirm is the utter stupidity of Janet Malcolm’s most famous declaration in the pages of very same New Yorker magazine, many years ago: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.  Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone,   so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns–when the article or bookappears–his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their
temperaments.  The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

    What Ms. Malcolm was “too supid” or “too full of herself” to mention is the fact that all too often, it is the subject who seduces the journalist, instead of the other way around: “When he invited the journalist into one of his undisclosed locations, he proved to be a first-rate host, chatty and solicitious.” Mr. Sanneh enthused about Mr. Savage.  “A steady supply of beer refills lubricated the conversation.”

    When this sort of thing happens, the result is truly the most morally-indefensible kind of journalism–the kind written by Messrs. Sanneh, Stelter, Carter, Poniewozik and Chavets, which celebrates the most dangerously despicable “commentators” of our time.

(Special thanks to FCP contributor EG)