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THE ROAD NOT IMAGINED! Alexander, Kristof and Walsh get it wrong--and Milbank gets it right: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 19, 2010

Hannity and Colmes—and Malik Shabazz: Did the Justice Department mishandle a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party? Race was all over the news last week. This story was one of the vehicles.

Before we recommend a new column, let’s sing some words of praise for this report by Tom Allison of Media Matters.

The New Black Panther Party has never been an especially influential group—unless you were watching the Fox News Channel during parts of the last decade. In particular, the now-defunct program Hannity & Colmes interviewed New Black Panther leaders with great regularity, offering silly, ginned-up examples of High Racial Tension and Peril. For an example of the kind of nonsense this program routinely offered, here’s the start of an interview in 2003—the first appearance by Malik Shabazz since becoming the party’s national chairman:

COLMES (7/9/03): Welcome back to Hannity & Colmes.

The New Black Panther Party is making headlines again. Just last week during a press conference held in Morristown, New Jersey, their national chairman announced they would demand $20,000 from the mayor and town council to support a Million Youth March they plan to hold in September. So what's their agenda and why should tax dollars be expected to pay for it? Joining with us an answer, we hope, the national chairman of the New Black Panther Party, Malik Shabazz.

Welcome back to Hannity & Colmes, Malik. Why should the city give you $20,000? For what?

SHABAZZ: Because there is gang violence, there are underprivileged, uneducated black youth in Morristown, throughout the cities of America, but specifically in Morristown. And city council members and administrators of project homes in Morristown have asked us come help. So we're demanding that the major and city council are asking that they release funds to help black youth get to New York—

HANNITY: You're saying “demanding.” You know, “demanding” has a certain ring to it. When you make a “demand,” what if the demand is not met? Isn't “demand” a little different than “ask,” and what happens if your demand is not met?

Shabazz was “demanding” a big bag of money! This sort of nonsense was routinely churned on Hannity & Colmes during the last decade. In his report at Media Matters, Allison listed the dozens of times New Black Panther leaders were featured on Fox programs, most often on Hannity & Colmes. Indeed, Shabazz appeared on this program so much, it almost could have received a face lift. At times, we thought the program might change its name to Hannity and Colmes—now, with Malik Shabazz!

These appearances were silly, clownish Cable Race Theater. Just consider the actual context surrounding this particular case:

According to a Nexis survey, there had been exactly zero “headlines” about this “demand” for $20,000 from Morristown. We’ll assume that Shabazz actually held the press conference Colmes described. But according to Nexis, no one other than Hannity & Colmes ever bothered to mention it. On July 2, two newspapers (Newsday and the New York Daily News) had done short news reports about the fact that the Panthers were going to do another Million Youth March. But each report was 300 words long—and each stressed the troubled history of this event. “The most recent, in Harlem in 2000, drew only a few hundred people,” the Daily News reported.

That was the full extent of the news coverage preceding this Hannity & Colmes gong-show. But so what? The boys were soon debating Shabazz about who caused 9/11. (“You want to put that blame on the mantle of George W. Bush?” a troubled Alan Colmes gasped.)

This interview was a ludicrous cable con; Colmes’ opening statement was a lie. In this way, this gruesome program tried to gin up racial excitement among its millions of viewers. Very few liberals have mentioned this history in the discussions of the past few weeks—but then, very few liberals ever watch actual programs on Fox. We send our compliments to Allison for recording this pitiful history.

For an intriguing column about another part of America’s racial fabric, we recommend this New York Times column by Ross Douthat, which we hope to discuss at a later date. Also, this fascinating review of the new book, Freedom Summer, also from today’s Times.

THE ROAD NOT IMAGINED (permalink): In his basic assessment, we’d have to say that Andrew Alexander was right: the Washington Post should have reported the New Black Panther story sooner than it did. (Alexander is the Post’s ombudsman. To read his assessment, click here.)

Point of comparison: The New York Times did a full news report on the New Black Panther flap on Wednesday, July 7. The Post didn’t publish a comparable effort until Thursday, July 15. On that day, Krissah Thompson’s report was clear and well-written—though it did have at least one major shortcoming, as was true with the Times report. But this story had become a major flap long before Thompson’s report appeared. The Post was slow off the mark in reporting this topic, just as Alexander says.

Joan Walsh’s claims to the side (see below), Alexander doesn’t hugely take sides in this dispute, which has boiled up from conservative sources. But we were struck by one key passage in Alexander’s report.

In the passage posted below, Alexander imagines who might turn out to be at fault if the Post would just get off its duff and report this complex affair. For our money, Alexander is reasonably fair-and-balanced in his presentation—as far as he’s willing to go.

That said, he fails to mention one obvious possible miscreant. He leaves this one party alone.

There’s a road Alexander refused to imagine. Who might turn out to be wrong in this case? A rather obvious possibility doesn’t seem to have entered his head:

ALEXANDER (7/18/10): The Post should never base coverage decisions on ideology, nor should it feel obligated to order stories simply because of blogosphere chatter from the right or the left.

But in this case, coverage is justified because it's a controversy that screams for clarity that The Post should provide. If Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his department are not colorblind in enforcing civil rights laws, they should be nailed. If the Commission on Civil Rights' investigation is purely partisan, that should be revealed. If [Christian] Adams is pursuing a right-wing agenda, he should be exposed.

National Editor Kevin Merida, who termed the controversy "significant," said he wished The Post had written about it sooner. The delay was a result of limited staffing and a heavy volume of other news on the Justice Department beat, he said.

We agree with Alexander’s basic framework. This story has become a major controversy, one which “screams for” clarification. But Alexander imagines three possible villains emerging from future Post reporting. In fairness, two of the three are conservative villains. (The current Commission on Civil Rights is dominated by conservatives.) But he fails to imagine a fourth.

Who might turn out to be wrong in this matter? Do you mind if we rewrite that passage, giving Alexander a backbone—reminding him of the possible villain he chose to ignore?

ALEXANDER, REWRITTEN: In this case, coverage is justified because it's a controversy that screams for clarity that The Post should provide. If Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his department are not colorblind in enforcing civil rights laws, they should be nailed. If the Commission on Civil Rights' investigation is purely partisan, that should be revealed. If Adams is pursuing a right-wing agenda, he should be exposed.

If Fox News has been misinforming, confusing or deceiving its viewers, that should be brought to light too.

There! Do you see how easy it was to mention that fourth possible villain?

Might we share a dirty secret? In its endless reports on this matter, Fox News has been rather aggressively misinforming millions of viewers. On the O’Reilly Factor, for instance, the initial complaint involved a flat misstatement, as we noted last week. (The decision not to bring criminal charges was made under the Bush Administration. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/13/10.) Meanwhile, how absurd was O’Reilly’s work by the end of last week? On Thursday night, he complained that the Obama Administration decided not to pursue legal action against New Black Panther chairman Malik Shabazz, even though Shabazz has admitted that he ordered the action at the Philadelphia poll. Sadly, this is the kind of consummate nonsense which passes for “proof” on Fox:

O'REILLY (7/15/10): Okay. Now, as far as Mr. Holder is concerned, his failure to prosecute is simply a dereliction of his sworn duty. I mean, come on, Mr. Shabazz admitted to Megyn Kelly that he ordered the intimidation.

(begin videotape)

KELLY: Didn't you order the New Black Panthers to go to the polling stations, sir? Didn't you order them to go saying they needed to “stop angry whites” and use “all means at your disposal?”

SHABAZZ: Our intelligence indicated that prior to this election, that there was serious threats against blacks who would be voting for what is now a black president.

(end videotape)

O'REILLY: The guy admits it! And it's not like the Black Panther party is misunderstood or anything. Listen to this garbage about Osama bin Laden.

Really? That constitutes an admission? But this is the sort of “logic” which constitutes “proof” on Fox.

As Alexander noted, Fox has been stirring up a great deal of fury about this controversy. But when he listed his possible villains, it didn’t even enter his head that Fox might turn out to be at fault, if the Post would just do its reporting. In this manner, Alexander took the route of “professional courtesy”—a route which mainstream journalists often take in matters like this.

Alas! Life is much easier when mainstream journalists don’t challenge the work of news orgs like Fox. For another example of this spineless deference, consider Nicolas Kristof’s warmed-over column on climate change in yesterday’s New York Times.

Kristof discussed a significant story: “NASA says that the January-through-June period this year was the hottest globally since measurements began in 1880.” (On Friday, USA Today reported this story on its front page, sourcing it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.) Kristof offered a thoroughly familiar rumination about the possible long-term consequences of this matter. He offered the standard, hackneyed old stuff about the frog in the boiling water; he asked the standard, hackneyed old questions about whether we humans will react to this news in time. Surely, Kristof’s readers have encountered these frameworks a hundred times before—for example, in the Oscar-winning 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth. But there was a much more recent matter which Kristof avoided mentioning—the stupid clowning which went on display in the wake of Washington’s snowstorm this year. To the extent that we humans get conned by the clowns who staged that world-class nonsense, then no—we won’t react in time. But Kristof failed to mention this ludicrous conduct, which was widely presented on Fox.

Kristof loves to pose as a moral exemplar. But alas! Life for such giants is much easier when they don’t challenge Fox.

(USA Today mentioned last winter’s snow in its front-page report, citing the NOAA report: “Heavy snow, like the record snows that crippled Baltimore and Washington last winter, is likely to increase because storms are moving north.” This offered a perfect chance to tell the world about the silly clowns who distort the climate debate.)

We can’t go inside Kristof’s head to find the cause of his omission. We can’t say why Alexander failed to imagine the possibility that Fox has been at fault. We can tell you this—careful, self-dealing mainstream “journalists” constantly take this cowardly path. And hurrah! Today, we’re able to hail Dana Milbank for taking a different approach.

Some scorn Milbank as “Dowdinpants,” a fatuous inside player. But in Sunday’s Post, Milbank hammered the ludicrous people who have been comparing Obama to Hitler and Stalin. In the process, he was willing to go where the rubber’s been meeting the road:

MILBANK (7/18/10): These sentiments have long existed on the fringe and always will. The problem is that conservative leaders and Republican politicians, in their blind rage against Obama.these last 18 months, invited the epithets of the fringe into the mainstream. Godwin's Law has spread from the chat rooms and now applies to cable news and even to the floor of the House of Representatives.

Consider these tallies from Glenn Beck's show on Fox News since Obama’s inauguration: 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, according to transcripts, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels. Most of these were directed in some form at Obama—as were the majority of the 802 mentions of socialist or socialism on Beck's nightly "report.”

Milbank could have taken the safer route. Like Kristof, he could have pretended that Fox News doesn’t exist. To his credit, Milbank went where the lunacy has been most frequent. He went to Beck’s widely-viewed program.

Alexander was right in his basic assessment—the Post should have started reporting the New Panther story sooner. Kristof was right in his canned report about the frog and the jar. But each of these men showed a standard old strain of mainstream press corps deference. These powdered fellows agreed to pretend that Fox News barely exists.

One way or another, will we boil in a jar? If mainstream “journalists” keep acting this way, the chances are good that we will.

Walsh may have been worse: Meanwhile, if it’s pseudo-liberal cant you enjoy, just drink in Joan Walsh’s absurd account of Alexander’s piece. In paragraph 2, the perfect nonsense commences:

WALSH (7/17/10): But right on time, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander chimes in to keep the specious [New Black Panther] story alive, chiding his paper for ignoring it while valiant journalists like Fox's Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh fought to bring light to the darkness. The Post's "silence," Alexander complains, "prompted many readers to accuse The Post of a double standard. Royal S. Dellinger of Olney said that if the controversy had involved Bush administration Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, 'Lord, there'd have been editorials and stories, and it would go on for months.'"

Did Alexander “chide his paper for ignoring” this story “while valiant journalists like Fox's Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh fought to bring light to the darkness?” Good God. Limbaugh and Hannity aren’t mentioned by Alexander; Kelly is only mentioned when Alexander quotes a statement by Sarah Palin. (According to Alexander, Palin’s statement shows that “ideology and party politics are at play” in the Panther dispute.)

Throughout her piece, Walsh seems offended because Alexander has “chided his paper for ignoring” the Panther story. At the same time, Walsh chides herself for failing to have Salon cover the story more. Walsh is certainly right on that point. Like other liberal publications (Media Matters valiantly excluded), Salon sat around and twiddled its thumbs while this story picked up steam via Fox. Maybe Joan ought to take a look in the mirror, instead of making up silly claims about what Alexander has said.

Walsh includes some important information which Alexander might have included in his piece. Specifically, Alexander might have referred to this debunking piece in the National Review by Abigail Thernstrom, one of six conservatives on the eight-member Civil Rights Commission. (Almost surely, Alexander had written his piece before Politico reported its later interview with Thernstrom. But Thernstrom’s piece in the Review appeared on July 6.) That said, might we offer a bit of advice? It isn’t smart to make liberals dumb by misstating facts in so blatant a fashion. And if we’re trying to affect the mainstream press corps, the mainstream press will simply stop reading when we offer ludicrous claims like that claim in Walsh’s second paragraph.

By the way, Alexander isn’t the only major player who has failed to mention Thernstrom’s piece. According to a Nexis search, Thernstrom’s name has never been mentioned on Fox News in all its wailing about the Panthers! That is just another example of the malpractice conducted at that channel.

Fox viewers have been played again, kept from hearing Thernstrom’s objections. But alas! As with Kristof, so with Alexander: Mentioning this obvious, ongoing problem was a road too far.