Running with a bad crowd

Last fall, editors at The New York Times and Washington Post announced that they needed to be more responsive to conservative media and quicker to pick up stories that their conservative competitors promote. After several months of obviously false claims from the right-wing media, those statements look even more foolish now than they did at the time.

For a few weeks last fall, editors and ombudsmen at The Washington Post and New York Times seemed obsessed with the idea that they should be paying more attention to right-wing media and websites. In the wake of some wildly hyperbolic claims about ACORN, the nation's leading news outlets apologized for being too slow to run chasing after every “scandal” ginned up by Andrew Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and their ilk.

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli worried “that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It's particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view” -- a concern echoed by his deputies and Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander.

At The New York Times, managing editor Jill Abramson said the Times suffered from “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio” and that the paper would assign an editor to monitor such media. Public editor Clark Hoyt criticized the Times for being too slow to pick up the ACORN allegations, fretting that the delay made the Times look “partisan.” And Hoyt took the Times to task for what he thought was too great an emphasis on the political motivations behind the attacks on ACORN:

By stressing the politics, the article irritated more readers. “A suspicious person might see an attempt to deflect criticism of Acorn by highlighting how those pesky conservatives are at it again,” said Albert Smith of Chatham, N.J.

I thought politics was emphasized too much, at the expense of questions about an organization whose employees in city after city participated in outlandish conversations about illegal and immoral activities. (Acorn suggested some videos were doctored but fired or suspended many of the employees.)

Hoyt went on to criticize the Times article for omitting mention of a video of, and allegations about, ACORN workers in Brooklyn.

The hand-wringing at the Post and the Times about being insufficiently attuned to conservative arguments should ring false to any fair-minded person who remembers the role those papers played in the relentless hyping of Clinton-era non-scandals, their heavily slanted coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign, or their disastrously inadequate coverage of the Bush administration's march to war. (Alexander and the Post editors have ducked requests that they reconcile the paper's coverage of those events with their statements that the Post needs to be more responsive to conservatives.)

But even worse than the myopic view of their treatment of conservatives over the years was the misguided premise that the media should pay attention to certain people simply because they are ideologically conservative -- as if a person's ideology, rather than the accuracy and honesty and importance of his claims, determines whether he should be taken seriously.

That's dangerously wrong. It's the kind of thinking that leads the media to grant equal weight to scientists who say the Earth is warming and politicians who respond by pointing out the continued existence of snow.

And, indeed, the conservative media have spent the last several months proving again and again that they simply do not deserve to be taken seriously.

Take, for example, the ACORN tapes that the Post and Times apologized for not covering sooner. Turns out the right-wing activists behind them were badly misrepresenting what they showed (we're still waiting for the Times to correct its false claim that James O'Keefe was dressed in an outlandish pimp costume while meeting with the ACORN employees). And the Brooklyn district attorney has reportedly found that the tapes were misleadingly edited:

The video that unleashed a firestorm of criticism on the activist group ACORN was a “heavily edited” splice job that only made it appear as though the organization's workers were advising a pimp and prostitute on how to get a mortgage, sources said yesterday.

The findings by the Brooklyn DA, following a 5½-month probe into the video, secretly recorded by conservative provocateurs James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, means that no charges will be filed.

Many of the seemingly crime-encouraging answers were taken out of context so as to appear more sinister, sources said.

Remember: Times public editor Clark Hoyt criticized his paper for not covering that Brooklyn tape. And he complained that the paper's coverage of the ACORN allegations focused too much on the political motives of the accusers. Think maybe he'd like to have that one back?

Or consider The Weekly Standard's comically inept attempts to create scandal out of whole cloth, which involve inventing a totally baseless allegation of vote-buying, then rapidly back-tracking once they're called on the improbability of their claims.

Then there's the absurd-on-its-face conspiracy theory that President Obama wants to ban fishing. Believing such a thing requires tinfoil-hat-level paranoia and inability to reason -- and yet Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and several right-wing bloggers eagerly peddled that nonsense. Stupid, or dishonest? It doesn't matter -- either way, it's further evidence that nobody should take anything they say seriously.

And how about Beck's claim that an alternative measure of the poverty level proposed by the Obama administration would classify him as “in poverty,” despite his millions of dollars in annual earnings. That's obviously false -- yet Glenn Beck said it. How can you trust anything said by someone who is willing to say things that are obviously false? On Fox & Friends, the hosts assert that Democrats “want Americans to pay 70% of their income in taxes.” Is that true? Of course not! So why do they say it? Because they have no hesitation whatsoever when it comes to lying.

And yet The New York Times and The Washington Post think they should pay extra attention to claims that come from the right-wing media; that they should be quicker to repeat the nonsense churned out every day by this pack of professional liars, simply because they are conservatives. But the decades-long track record suggests the opposite: The fact that Fox News or The Weekly Standard is promoting some story is pretty good reason to assume it isn't newsworthy.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.