In flogging the bogus “Climategate” controversy and hurling anti-gay smears at Kevin Jennings, the conservative media have thrown their lot in with the grisly underbelly of political activism in their quest to delegitimize the president.
The conservative reaction to President Obama's election is turning downright Faustian.
As the rhetoric on the right has grown increasingly shrill, a few conservatives have raised their voices in alarm, counseling their ideological kin to step back from the abyss. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in August that “the increasingly angry tone of incitement being heard from right-of-center broadcasters” is likely to lead to politically motivated violence. Not two weeks ago, conservative blogger Charles Johnson articulated the reasons behind his departure from the right, citing conservative support for “anti-science bad craziness” and "[h]atred for President Obama that goes far beyond simply criticizing his policies."
If the past week is any indication, those warnings have been roundly ignored. The conservative media, in their quest to derail the president's progressive agenda, have thrown their lot in with the grisly underbelly of political activism -- dumpster-diving thieves, extremist hate groups, and scam-artist videographers who sacrifice credibility for sensationalism and value Web traffic over truth.
Take, for example, the hackers who illegally accessed email servers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and stole thousands of emails. From Fox News on down to the conservative blogs, right-wingers have seized on the stolen documents as “proof” that climate change science is a “hoax” and attacked the global scientific consensus on climate change as a “cult.” As Media Matters explained last week, the emails show nothing of the sort, and they are being wildly distorted. But the right not only wholeheartedly embraced these illegally obtained documents, it actively took steps to hide the fact that they were obtained by theft. Fox News spent an entire week describing the emails as “leaked,” “revealed,” and “uncovered.” The conservative media critics at NewsBusters chastised the media for “paint[ing] the 'stolen' e-mails not as laudatory whistle-blowing, but as an unwanted impediment to the left's global warming agenda.”
There were also new developments this week in another bogus “controversy” being stoked by right-wingers: the ongoing homophobic smear campaign against Department of Education official Kevin Jennings. Led by Andrew Breitbart and The Washington Times, conservatives falsely accused Jennings' organization of handing out explicit sexual materials to children, and smeared Jennings, who is gay, as a “deviant,” a "pedophile," the "buggery czar," and a "mega-pervert." It was later revealed that the falsehoods upon which these smears are based originated with a group called MassResistance, a Massachusetts-based anti-gay hate group that purports to chronicle the “brutal fascist tactics” of the “homosexual movement,” and whose leader compared the gay rights movement to Nazism.
Speaking of Andrew Breitbart, the Drudge-protégé and Twitter fiend received some bad news this week. An investigation by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger into Breitbart's much-publicized videos purporting to show ACORN aiding an undercover pimp and prostitute in tax evasion determined that the videos contained no evidence that the organization acted illegally. The report also found that the videos, shot by conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, “appear to have been edited, in some cases substantially, including the insertion of a substitute voiceover for significant portions of Mr. O'Keefe's and Ms. Giles' comments, which makes it difficult to determine the questions to which ACORN employees are responding.” Perhaps he'll have better luck with his next project -- rooting through ACORN's trash to find incriminating documents.
The newest right-wing smear centers on a deceptively cropped undercover video shot by an anti-abortion activist at a Planned Parenthood office in Wisconsin. The Fox Nation and other right-wingers claimed the video shows Planned Parenthood trying to force women to have abortions. In reality, the video is so heavily edited it's impossible to determine the context of any of the Planned Parenthood staffer's supposedly damning statements.
These are the big stories for conservatives right now, and they're all based on thievery, the smears of an extremist fringe group, and disreputable hucksters with video cameras.
Now, it's probably not completely accurate to say that the right's embrace of these types of people is a Faustian bargain -- after all, such an arrangement typically involves the good being corrupted or seduced by the evil. When it comes to the conservative media, which are already notorious for slander and falsehood, it's more like the next step of a natural progression. The real danger is that they are helping to mainstream these fringe characters. The Washington Post published an op-ed by Sarah Palin who used the -- ahem -- “publication of damaging e-mails from a climate research center” as a pretext to lie and mislead on climate science. The Post defended publishing Palin's op-ed by claiming that it didn't have time to fact-check it and that Palin “is someone who stirs discussion.”
And that's exactly the mindset these conservatives are preying upon: Forget the facts; we just want eyeballs on the screens.
Other major stories this week
O say can you CO2?
Don't for one minute think that with the Copenhagen conference in full swing that the “Climategate” faux-scandal was the only bit of climate-related nonsense coming from the right this week. In accordance with a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, on December 7, the Environmental Protection Agency released its endangerment finding on carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases, which stated that the six gases “threaten the public health and welfare of the American people.” As The Washington Post reported, the ruling enables the Obama administration “to limit emissions across the economy even if Congress does not pass climate legislation.”
Of course, when media conservatives catch a whiff of anything that even hints at increased government regulation -- even over substances that threaten to disrupt the climate and cripple global economies -- the default reaction is to loudly freak out over the corruption of “big government” and the demise of America. This time around, the preferred buzzword was "blackmail." Glenn Beck said: “This is blackmail. It is a bogus gun to our heads.” Rush Limbaugh screeched that the EPA is “blackmailing elected officials -- representatives of the people.” Charles Krauthammer chimed in, saying the EPA finding is “command and control, which is a polite way of saying Soviet control, meaning it's all regulation, it's all sort of arbitrary on the part of the EPA. It's an amazing admission, and it is a kind of blackmail.”
The EPA finding also offered an opportunity to revisit one of the sillier fake scandals from earlier in the year -- the saga of “silenced” EPA “scientist” Alan Carlin. To recap, back in June, it was revealed that Carlin, an EPA economist (not climate scientist), had authored an unsolicited report challenging the agency's endangerment finding on CO2 (a report Carlin himself acknowledged was hastily prepared and full of errors). Carlin complained to his superiors that his findings were being ignored, at which point emails were “leaked” (starting to sound familiar?) and the right embraced Carlin as a “whistleblower” who had been “silenced.” The official release of the endangerment finding brought Carlin back to the fore, with Fox Nation and Human Events pulling out the “silenced scientist” shtick. Unfortunately for them, neither Carlin's allegations nor his scientific bona fides have improved with age.
What it all comes down to is that the conservative media would have you believe -- contrary to common sense and the glut of scientific evidence accumulated over the decades -- that there is no climate change, but rather, as Laura Ingraham put it on December 8 on Fox News, “a concerted global effort to reduce the standard of living for all Americans -- bring us down so the rest of these countries can float up.”
Yep, it's crazy. But there is a potential upside -- perhaps the tin foil on their heads will reflect a little sunlight safely back into space.
Health care fearmongering on the rise
We're fast approaching the point where there can be no reasonable response to the conservative commentary on the health care reform bills before Congress. Sure, a few of them are sticking to easily debunked falsehoods, like Fox News' Martha MacCallum, who claimed Senate Democrats were not willing to enroll in the public option even though Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown, Chris Dodd, Russ Feingold, Al Franken, and Barbara Mikulski co-sponsored an amendment mandating members of Congress do exactly that. But the big names in conservative talk are gunning for complete and total nonsensical hysteria.
Glenn Beck, after somehow arriving at the conclusion that health care reform opponents are painted as “Holocaust deniers,” offered a full-throated defense of the American health care system that consisted mainly of making fun of Indians and the funny-sounding things they have in their country, like “that one big river they have there that sounds like a disease.” You'll remember, of course, that a couple of years ago, Beck had nothing but bad things to say about his “eye-opening experience” of “receive[ing] health care in the United States.”
Rush Limbaugh, for his part, cast health care reform as part of Obama's grand scheme of “aborting the private sector,” and predicted that by pushing health care reform, the Democrats are “guaranteeing a revolt.” And these attacks were in conjunction with the garden-variety Nazi-Cuba-totalitarian references and the “death panel” smear that just won't die.
You know you've reached a bad point in the health care debate when Nazi comparisons become garden-variety.
NPR's Fox News problem
It was revealed this week that National Public Radio executives had approached national political correspondent Mara Liasson and asked her to reconsider her regular appearances on Fox News in light of the channel's increasingly partisan programming. Liasson rebuffed her bosses, explaining that she appears only on the network's news programming, not its opinion shows. Her explanation likely elated Fox News executives, who have been pushing the “hard news” -versus-opinion distinction in response to White House criticism of the network's overt partisanship. To have NPR's national political correspondent make that argument for them was quite the credibility boon.
And that's exactly the problem. There is no discernable distinction between Fox News' opinion programming and its news content. Special Report and Fox News Sunday -- Liasson's homes away from home -- are every bit as capable of the same dishonest and partisan hackery as Sean Hannity. The fact that they engage in the same shenanigans behind the fig leaf of “hard news” actually makes them in some ways worse than their openly opinionated colleagues. Liasson brings with her NPR's good reputation and credibility and confers them upon Fox News, even though it routinely undermines its credibility with ideologically-driven agendas.
And this isn't the first time NPR has faced this problem. Earlier in the year, the organization asked news analyst Juan Williams, who had been making a habit of going on The O'Reilly Factor to trash Michelle Obama, to stop identifying himself as an NPR employee when he went on Fox News.
NPR's executives clearly recognize what an embarrassment Fox News is, it's a shame Liasson and Williams don't.
This week's media columns
This week's media columns from Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert looks at the end of The Washington Times and Rev. Sun Myung Moon's right-wing charity; and Jamison Foser examines The Washington Post's Tiger Beat.
Greg Lewis notes the “Dittohead” resistance movement in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh's radio shows over the past week.
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This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Simon Maloy, the deputy research director at Media Matters for America. Maloy also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive