A few weeks ago I sketched out the pattern by which bogus stories like the New Black Panther Party "scandal" make their way from the right-wing fringe to the mainstream media, with Fox News as a key intermediary. It's since been dubbed The Fox Cycle, and at the time the New Black Panther foolishness was at the third step in the pattern, wherein right-wing media outlets and Fox News, after devoting wildly disproportionate amounts of coverage to the story, started complainingthat the rest of the media were ignoring it.
We've since moved on to step four (mainstream networks cover the story and echo the right-wing distortions), and Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander is flirting with step five, in which Fox News is credited for being ahead of the news curve.
First, a quick review of the process by which manufactured right-wing outrage becomes headline news:
1. Right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts, and other conservative media outlets start promoting and distorting the story.
2. Fox News picks up the story and gives it heavy, one-sided coverage.
3. Fox News and conservative media attack the "liberal media" for ignoring the distorted story.
4. Mainstream media outlets eventually cover the story, echoing the right-wing distortions.
5. Fox News receives credit for promoting the story.
6. The story is later proven to be false or wildly misleading, long after damage is done.
In the weeks since conservatives began complaining that the "biased" media were ignoring the story, it has since been featured on CNN and in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Notably, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz took up the story on CNN's Reliable Sources yesterday, during which CNN contributor Roland Martin attributed the mainstream outlets' coverage of the bogus story to fear of backlashes from conservative critics.
Meanwhile, the conservative media have busied themselves by further distorting the already tortured story, and engaging in some of the most blatant and unvarnished race-baiting we've seen during the still-young Obama presidency.
It's in this environment that Alexander penned his most recent column for the Post, in which he took the paper to task for being "virtually silent" on the New Black Panther story. He argued that the paper should have been quicker to weigh in, and cited Fox News' aggressive promotion of the story as a factor:
To be sure, ideology and party politics are at play. Liberal bloggers have accused Adams of being a right-wing activist (he insisted to me Friday that his sole motivation is applying civil rights laws in a race-neutral way). Conservatives appointed during the Bush administration control a majority of the civil rights commission's board. And Fox News has used interviews with Adams to push the story. Sarah Palin has weighed in via Twitter, urging followers to watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's coverage because "her revelations leave Left steaming."
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 Adams is pursuing a right-wing agenda, he should be exposed.