"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser


Time magazine's selection of "You" as its "Person of the Year" has -- justifiably -- drawn criticism.

Cat videos -- unlike NBC News -- don't impart conservative misinformation

Time magazine's selection of "You" as its "Person of the Year" has -- justifiably -- drawn criticism.

Writing for CJR Daily, for example, Christian Vachon argued, "By giving the award to 'You,' it effectively gave the award to no one. In doing so, it has insulted its readers with the assumption that they are too vain and gullible to know the difference."

Time's selection has been mocked by many of those it ostensibly honors (the magazine explained that it chose to honor online content creators "for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game.")

But perhaps the weightiest complaint came from NBC's Brian Williams, who suggested in an essay in Time that the democratization of the media comes at great "cost to our democracy":

The problem is that there's a lot of information out there that citizens in an informed democracy need to know in our complicated world with U.S. troops on the ground along two major fronts. Millions of Americans have come to regard the act of reading a daily newspaper -- on paper -- as something akin to being dragged by their parents to Colonial Williamsburg. It's a tactile visit to another time ... flat, one-dimensional, unexciting, emitting a slight whiff of decay. It doesn't refresh. It offers no choice. Hell, it doesn't even move. Worse yet: nowhere does it greet us by name. It's for everyone.

Does it endanger what passes for the national conversation if we're all talking at once? What if "talking" means typing on a laptop, but the audience is too distracted to pay attention? The whole notion of "media" is now much more democratic, but what will the effect be on democracy?

The danger just might be that we miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we fail to meet the next great challenge ... because we are too busy celebrating ourselves and listening to the same tune we already know by heart.

In November, Williams offered a more concise version of his complaint: "We're choosing cat videos over well thought-out, well-reported evening newscasts."

We don't argue with those who call Time's selection a cop-out or a pander; nor do we argue with those who think that, having selected Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush in recent years, Time would have done well to recognize a progressive leader: Perhaps Nancy Pelosi, who led her party to control of the House of Representatives and is about to become the first woman to be speaker of the House as a result. Or maybe Time should have decided it was time to honor those who have been right about the Iraq war, and spoken the truth about it, rather than continuing to favor those who have not.

But as tempting as it is to bash Time's choice, Brian Williams' reaction to the decision makes us wonder how off-base Time really is.

"We're chosing cat videos over well-thought-out, well-reported evening newscasts," Williams sniffs.

Which well-thought-out evening newscasts are those, exactly?

Just days before this year's midterm elections, Brian Williams led NBC's Nightly News with a report on Sen. John Kerry's "botched joke." Voters looking for a serious, substantive newscast to help inform their decision would have been just as well off watching cat videos.

Maybe Williams was thinking of his "well-reported" piece about the release of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, when he told viewers that Republican Rep. Frank Wolf "might not get the credit he deserves," as "[t]he whole Iraq commission was his idea," adding that Wolf "came up with the idea for the Iraq Study Group after ... returning from his third trip to Iraq after having seen how much the situation there had deteriorated and how violent Iraq had become."

In fact, Wolf returned from his third trip to Iraq and wrote an op-ed that, rather than explaining the deterioration and violence in Iraq, argued that "real progress is being made." Wolf did suggest forming an independent group -- to explore the "underreported but significant successes" in Iraq and "assure Americans -- no matter what their positions are on the war -- that every effort is being made to protect our troops and realize our goal of a secure and peaceful Iraq."

True, those watching cat videos instead of Williams' broadcast might not have learned of Wolf's role in forming the ISG. But at least they wouldn't have been told falsehoods about it.

Or maybe Williams was remembering his report about melting ice in the Arctic, in which he claimed, "There's no official explanation. Scientists can't say yet whether global warming is the culprit for the recent reported ice melt in the Arctic" -- despite the fact that the scientist who wrote the NASA study to which Williams was apparently referring called the melting ice "the strongest evidence of global warming in the Arctic so far."

At least cat videos can be entertaining.

Williams' worry about the democratization of the media likewise falls flat:

The danger just might be that we miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we fail to meet the next great challenge ... because we are too busy celebrating ourselves and listening to the same tune we already know by heart.

The danger, according to Williams, is that if we don't all continue to get our news from Brian Williams and a few dozen other national political journalists, we'll miss the "next great idea" because we're too busy "listening to the same tune we already know by heart."

After years of being told by journalists that every prominent progressive is dishonest and "inauthentic," while conservatives like Bush and McCain and Giuliani are straight-talking regular guys; after constantly being told that Republicans are strong on national security issues even as they screw up Iraq and the war on terror at every turn; after countless brainless narratives about "slick" Clinton and "fake" Gore and "angry" Dean and "elitist" John Kerry and "calculating" Hillary Clinton, "singing the same tune we already know by heart" seems to be the perfect description of how national political reporters like Williams do their jobs.

As Bob Somerby chronicled at the time, Brian Williams was positively obsessed with Al Gore's wardrobe decisions in 1999 -- and with what those choices supposedly revealed about him.

This is somebody who is worried that if we don't all get our news from him and his fellow members of the Gang of 500, we'll miss the "next great idea"?

We'll take our chances.

One of this column's regular themes is the need for all progressives, not just those for whom the media is a primary or professional focus, to hold the media accountable when they get things wrong. Last week, we noted that the reaction to Jeff Greenfield's CNN report on Barack Obama's middle name and style of dress gives us hope that "progressives may be ready to do something about" the media's constant repetition of negative (and often substance-free) caricatures of progressive candidates.

Many of the most insightful and effective progressive media critics (full-time and part; professional and amateur) do their writing and organizing online, giving us more than a little reason to reconsider our initial dismissal of Time's POY choice. We've mentioned some of the following before, and we're leaving off more worthies than we're including, but anyone interested in the media should be reading at least some of the following:

But if progressives -- or neutral observers -- want to stop the media's relentless peddling of bogus, frivolous attacks on progressive leaders and policies, it isn't enough to criticize journalists for their transgressions. Progressives have to make a conscious effort not to validate those attacks. As Somerby wrote this week:

[W]hen we talk about what is "appealing" and authentic," we enter extremely subjective territory. And oh yeah -- we validate the type of discussion the mainstream press corps is eager to have. Once we allow this type of discussion, they can create any novel they want about who's "authentic" and who isn't. And surprise! As an upper-class and corporate institution, the press corps will increasingly tend to judge that Republican candidates seem "authentic" -- and that the Dems do not.


Here at THE HOWLER, we don't really have a favorite between Obama, Clinton, Edwards and others. We say this -- let them battle it out. But it's extremely easy to criticize Clinton (and Gore before her) for being somewhat guarded in public. During Campaign 2000, for example, why did Gore sometimes "seem to measure every word and gesture, calculating whether they will get him into trouble?" Simple! He seemed to do that because he had to -- because, the way the game was being played, if he got one syllable out of place, the press corps would land on his head like a mountain, turning it into a vast referendum on his deeply disturbing lack of character. Hillary Clinton has also had to play by these gong-show rules. She has absorbed an astonishing amount of abuse in the past fifteen years, and (like Gore) she has done a miraculous job of soldiering on despite it.


If Dem and libs have an ounce of sense, we will resist the press corps' desire to craft discussions about "authenticity." It's just a cover they adopt -- one which lets them lower our discourse to the place where they can type their novels. And, as an upper-class, corporate cohort, they will always tend to say that the Republican is really the "authentic" person. If you're a Democrat or a liberal, Hillary Clinton has died for your sins. That doesn't mean she should be the nominee, but she deserves your respect, as does Gore. Each has taken a ton of shit -- while our "liberal leaders" have stared into air.

Which of the hopefuls is most authentic? We have an answer to that: STFU! If we Democrats have an ounce of sense, we'll steer the discussion toward serious topics -- topics which are less subjective. In the past fifteen years, the public has generally agreed with Dems on the vast range of major issues. For that reason, Republicans wants to talk "authenticity" -- and so does your script-reading press corps.

Somerby is right. Destructive and baseless narratives about progressives spread not only because Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity repeat them, not only because Republican operatives promote them, and not only because too many political journalists can't seem to get enough of them.

These narratives spread because journalists like Jeff Greenfield and Jeanne Moos (presumably unintentionally) legitimize right-wing efforts to equate Barack Obama with Saddam Hussein by treating it all as a big joke. Were Greenfield and Moos really suggesting that Obama's name is a reason to dislike him? We assume they were not. But their focus on the topic only encourages others to continue their focus on the topic.

These narratives spread because progressive pundits join in, as when MSNBC's Flavia Colgan repeatedly suggests that Hillary Clinton will have an "authenticity" problem because she used to wear what Colgan describes as "Coke-bottle glasses." Does Colgan think Clinton's long-ago choice of eyewear is a good reason not to vote for Clinton? We don't know; probably not. But it simply doesn't matter. Her comments legitimize disliking Clinton for such ridiculous reasons. They encourage other media figures to keep focusing on such foolishness. Her intent simply doesn't matter; the content of what she says -- and its effect on our discourse -- is what matters.

And they spread when "liberal" columnists like Joe Klein write the "left wing" of the Democratic Party has a "hate America tendency." And when "liberal" columnists like Richard Cohen write, as he did in 2003, that "[o]nly a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman" could doubt that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Three years later, Cohen would have the audacity to complain about receiving uncivil emails from progressive critics. No, really. He did.

Progressives are right to be outraged that the likes of Ann Coulter and Debbie Schlussel and Glenn Beck are given a forum by the nation's most powerful news organizations.

But they should also take action when those who are ostensibly speaking for them in the media start to sound like Beck and Coulter. How can we expect Coulter not to dismissively compare progressives to the French when Richard Cohen does as well? How can we expect Chris Matthews not to obsess over Hillary Clinton's appearance when Flavia Colgan does too?

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