Forty-eight hours ago the story was another bad apple found on Obama’s cart. By yesterday morning it was another black eye for Obama and Tom Vilsack for rushing to dump a blameless woman on no good evidence and cravenly or cowardly or pusillanimously running for cover because Breitbart, Roger Ailes and whatever other gods of The Crazy said boo! For progressives mad at their president, at some level, that’s understandable. They have no relationship with and expect only the worst from the Breitbarts and Fox Newses of the world. But with Obama they expect more. And it’s personal.
Still, you just have to back up from that and realize that as disappointing as Tom Vilsack’s first crack at this was, the idea that he or Obama is the bad guy in this story is not only preposterous but verging on obscene. It’s like the NYPD as the bad guy in the Son of Sam saga because they didn’t catch David Berkowitz fast enough. Or perhaps that the real moral of the story is that the woman with the stalker should have been more focused on personal data security. Not for some time has something so captured the essential corruption of a big chunk of what passes as ‘right wing media’ (not all, by any means, but a sizable chunk along the Breitbart/Fox/Hannity continuum) and the corruption of the mainstream media itself as this episode.
Let’s review what happened here. And for the sake of conversation, let’s assume that Breitbart and his crew didn’t edit this thing and hadn’t seen any of the rest of the highly exculpatory video. (I’m willing to assume that for the sake of the conversation. And I think it may even be true as a matter of fact.) That’s by far the most innocent explanation. And that means that Breitbart got a piece of video he knew nothing about and published it with a central claim (that it was about Sherrod’s tenure at the USDA) that he either made up or made no attempt to verify. No vetting, no calls, no due diligence, not the slightest concern to confirm anything or find out what was true. Even setting aside the fact that, as Josh Green ably notes, most of Breitbart’s scoops center on race and/or race-baiting, for anyone else practicing anything even vaguely resembling journalism, demonstrated recklessness and/or dishonesty on that scale would be a shattering if not necessarily fatal blow to reputation and credibility.
Yet most of the coverage has been along the lines of Breitbart sparks debate about racism or White House pratfall on prematurely canning Shirley Sherrod. Indeed, ABC tonight is sending out an exclusive on Breitbart, which is … a puff piece about how he got his start in new media.
Or what about the Fox News? To use to terminology of infectious disease, Fox was the primary vector of this story. And to the best of my knowledge, there’s been not only no disciplining of anyone in the news room but as far as I can see no retraction, apology (with the exception of a semi-retraction, on a personal basis, from Bill O’Reilly) or even discussion of their primary role in an obvious smear. The only ‘press criticism’ I’ve seen is this piece by my friend Howard Kurtz which can’t be called anything but a white-wash, even including a self-serving internal email leaked from Fox about taking a careful, thoughtful approach to the story. (My god!)
For that matter, you simply can’t discuss Fox’s role in the Sherrod episode without referencing their constant harping on the sham story about the Obama DOJ’s allegedly going soft on freak show black radicals intimidating voters back in 2008 — a story cooked up by one of the right-wing activist plants burrowed into the DOJ during the US Attorney firing era. Fox has become the primary purveyor of race-baiting attacks aimed at discrediting President Obama, a fact apparently too substantive and ugly to be a fit topic for ‘press criticism’ or ‘media reporting’, which apparently must focus on journalists considered “controversial” despite not being able to point to any actual wrongdoing on their part. That amounts to saying that virtually all of what goes under the name of ‘media reporting’ these days is a crock.
The current controversy over the ‘Journolist’ listserve is actually instructive. Much of the story is much ado about nothing since most of what’s discovered in these emails is self-proclaimed liberal opinion journalists displaying a liberal bias in their approach to politics and news. But what makes private expressions of bias relevant is the suspicion that it may lead to public dishonesty, deception or fraud — the fundamental infraction behind all journalistic wrongdoing. In the Sherrod debacle, however, we have an open and shut case of the real thing — outright journalistic fraud. But that’s apparently not as big a ‘media story’.
This is a journalistic felony, really the worst kind of thing that journalists can ever do — a reality only compounded by the fact that they refuse to admit not only culpability but even that they did anything wrong.
Now, you’re probably saying: tell me something I don’t know. And yes, I hear ya. I wouldn’t expect much else. What’s most instructive about the whole episode, however, is the cravenness of the legitimate press. You’ll see no end of ‘media stories’ about the Wiegel nonsense and now even more about ‘journolist’. Politico, I think, has published half a dozen pieces on each I imagine. But I doubt you’ll see many if any of these ‘media criticism’ or ‘media stories’ about the perpetrators of the offense in this instance. All I’ve seen so far is Kurtz’s piece referenced above, which is apparently intended as a Fox-defending corrective to the almost non-existent critiques of their role in the affair.
It’s much easier to focus on Obama or Vilsack or ‘what it says about race in America’ or whatever other nonsense. Because most reporters are simply cowed by Fox and Breitbart and Beck and the rest of the organized forces of bamboozlement — too afraid, too bewildered, too hapless to apply anything remotely approaching standards in analyzing the fourth estate of which they are the nominal custodians. So what we get is this ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak not at all’ routine from reporters and journalists who should know better.
In any other instance in life, when wrongdoing is committed, the primary goal is identification, apprehension and consequences for the guilty. The shortcomings of those who were affected by or mishandled the response to the offense is inherently secondary — whether that be cops who didn’t find the felon sooner or an over-anxious administration that jumped the gun in response to a fraudulent news story. We know who the guilty parties are here. Anything else is cowardice, denial or complicity.
(ed.note: In the course of a lot of criticism of mainstream journalism, I’d be remiss not to explicitly mention CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, two Atlanta-based news organizations that did the real spade work debunking this travesty.)
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.