By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009 1:09 PM
It has become a familiar chain reaction: Talk-show hosts whip up a noisy controversy, which hits higher decibels as it spreads to the establishment media, which costs some unfortunate soul his job.
But now the middleman -- the journalistic gatekeepers of yore -- may no longer be necessary.
By the time White House environmental adviser Van Jones resigned over Labor Day weekend, the New York Times had not run a single story. Neither had USA Today, which also didn't cover the resignation. The Washington Post had done one piece, on the day before he quit. The Los Angeles Times had carried a short article the previous week questioning Glenn Beck's assault on the White House aide. There had been nothing on the network newscasts.
"Where is the press on this?" Beck asked in late August during one of several rants against Jones. But it turned out the Fox News host didn't need the big news organizations to claim his scalp.
Beck's rhetoric may have been over the top as he denounced Jones as a "black nationalist" and "avowed communist" (Jones embraced communism in the 1990s but said he later changed his views). Yet Beck also trumpeted information that forced Jones to issue two public apologies within days. The first was for calling Republicans "a--holes" in a February speech, video of which was posted online by Beck backers. The second, more serious offense was that he had signed a 2004 petition charging "that people within the current administration may indeed have allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext to war." Jones said he didn't agree with that view, but his signature was on the "truther" document.
Although he began firing at his target earlier, Beck intensified his assault after a group co-founded by Jones, Color of Change, launched a boycott campaign that has led dozens of advertisers to withdraw from his television show -- a detail that Beck neglected to tell viewers.
As a proponent of creating "green" jobs, Jones was a respected figure within the environmental movement. But he was sufficiently obscure as a special adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality that major news organizations basically ignored him. Only The Post ran a profile, in December, and a story last month on his government work.
Beck, by contrast, drew an avalanche of coverage for calling President Obama a "racist" who harbors "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" -- the remarks that triggered the boycott. He also raised the race issue against Jones, touting a videotape in which the activist said last year that "the white polluters and the white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people of color communities." The other cable networks, meanwhile, gave Jones scant attention, with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann assailing Beck's role in the attacks.
Beck, who also hosts a popular radio show, is enjoying a ratings surge, averaging 2.25 million viewers on Fox. He regularly tries to deflect criticism by describing himself as a recovering alcoholic and "rodeo clown."
During his Aug. 26 denunciation of Jones, Beck said: "I have told my audience for years, after I sobered up, I admitted, I was a dirtbag, man. I was a dirtbag! I have tried my hardest not to be a dirtbag anymore. I still make mistakes."
In a resignation statement released shortly after midnight on Sept. 6, Jones said he was the victim of "a vicious smear campaign." Liberal commentators accused the White House of caving to right-wing pressure. Blogger Arianna Huffington called Jones a "remarkable man," even as she allowed he was "completely wrong" to associate with the truthers. Beck, for his part, told viewers he deserved no congratulations: "I can go on and on and on about this stuff every night, but if you don't care and it doesn't connect with the American people, what I say doesn't matter."
As a provocateur, Beck sometimes seems to revel in going too far. He accused the communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Yosi Sargent, of wanting to steer federal aid to "a bunch of hippie starving artists, dope-smoking progressives" as "blatant propaganda" for Obama. (The agency reassigned Sargent.) And Beck relentlessly promoted the conservative "9/12" demonstrations in Washington and across the country, and broadcast live Saturday, interviewing Republican lawmakers and others at the protests. "I know the mainstream media, everyone, will make fun of me . . . but I have wept for my children's future," he said.
In the Jones case, there is little question that the traditional media botched the story of an Obama administration official who, wittingly or otherwise, lent his name to those who believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney deliberately allowed thousands of Americans to be slaughtered. Some conservatives accused journalists of liberal bias; it is just as likely that their radar malfunctioned, or that they collectively dismissed Beck as a rabble-rouser.
New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson told readers online that the paper was "a beat behind on this story" and that while the Washington bureau was short-staffed during a holiday week, "we should have been paying closer attention."
The followup news pieces focused on the administration's failure to vet Jones's background. Perhaps the media bloodhounds should be just as curious why they failed to sniff out a story that ended with a White House resignation.
Public respect for the media has plunged to a new low, with just 29 percent of Americans saying that news organizations generally get their facts straight.
That figure is the lowest in more than two decades of surveys by the Pew Research Center, which also found just 26 percent saying news outlets are careful that their reporting is not politically biased. And 70 percent say news organizations try to cover up their mistakes. That amounts to a stunning vote of no confidence.
The new wrinkle is that Democrats are increasingly unhappy with a profession long viewed as liberal, with 59 percent saying news reporting is often inaccurate, up from 43 percent two years ago.
Of course, many respondents view such matters through their own political prism. While 73 percent of Republicans say the media are fair to the Obama administration, just 25 percent said that about the Bush administration's coverage four years ago. For Democrats, 68 percent approved of the Bush coverage in 2005, while 54 percent say the press is fair to Obama.
A partisan split is equally evident in the assessment of news outlets. Among Democrats, 81 percent have a positive view of network news, 75 percent for CNN, 60 percent for MSNBC and 43 percent for Fox News. Among Republicans, 72 percent have a favorable view of Fox, 55 percent for network news, 44 percent for CNN and 34 percent for MSNBC.
While most weren't familiar enough with the New York Times to express an opinion, 39 percent of Democrats and just 16 percent of Republicans view the paper favorably.
Back to Earth
If you have the impression that President Obama is losing his media glow, you're right.
Although his coverage in the first 100 days was 59 percent positive, a new study says, that dropped to 43 percent positive -- and 57 percent negative-- in the next 112 days, through mid-August. In short, reporters have noticed that the candidate of hope has run smack into Washington reality.
Under the umbrella of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, researchers for George Mason University and California's Chapman University examined the nightly newscasts, the New York Times, Time and Newsweek. The president's policies drew the toughest scrutiny -- 42 percent positive coverage -- while in personal and other evaluations, the assessments were 68 percent positive. The administration fared least well on terrorism and Guantanamo Bay (26 percent positive) and best on the financial stimulus (47 percent positive).
The most favorable evaluations appeared in front-page Times stories (61 percent positive), while ABC's "World News" was the most positive newscast (53 percent positive) and "NBC Nightly News" the least (45 percent positive). Separately, the study found that Obama's coverage was just 23 percent positive on the news segments of "Special Report," Fox News's Washington newscast.
David Corn has a theory, at Politics Daily:
"I believe I may have an insight into why so many conservatives crazy-hate Barack Obama: He's a liberal. A true liberal. An unabashed liberal. Yes, there's a liberal in the White House -- and most Americans aren't disgusted by that. In fact, most approve of him. (His approval rating is on par with that of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan eight months into their presidencies.) Worse, he's a liberal with an ambitious liberal agenda. And even worse, he might just succeed in enacting it. . . .
"It must painfully frustrate right-wingers to watch Obama pull this off. It must drive them nuts -- the way that Ronald Reagan aggravated liberals with his ability to drape hard-right views with folksy popular appeal. While trying to win over independents and moderates on Wednesday night, Obama offered up a full endorsement of liberalism. And it worked. No wonder conservatives can't stand the guy."
Gee, but many on the left don't seem all that happy with him at the moment.
Obama the Orator
The president also seems to be getting under the skin of National Review's Rich Lowry:
"Everyone marvels at Barack Obama's rhetorical prowess. But don't be overly bedazzled. With these 13 easy steps, you, too, can give a Barack Obama speech.
"1) Create a false center. In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama positioned himself between the Left's calling for a single-payer system and the Right's agitating to end employer-based health insurance. Presto -- he's the very definition of a centrist. Anyone advocating almost any position can benefit from the same insta-centrism.
"2) Scorn ideology. Obama warned against 'the usual Washington ideological battles.' Message: He has no philosophical commitments himself. He's pushing a Great Society redux only as a matter of practicality. Superficial pragmatism is the ideologue's best friend.
"3) Talk about your openness to ideas from opponents. The more you do this, the less you have to adopt any of their ideas. 'I will continue to seek common ground,' Obama said. 'I will be there to listen. My door is always open.' While he does all this common-ground seeking, he will be whipping up the Democratic votes to pass a massive, liberal reordering of the health-care system. But he'll be listening!"
Maybe. But Republicans aren't exactly acting like great compromisers these days.
Back in Kenya
The Boston Globe has an interesting piece from Obama's native country on attempts to cash in:
"The price of land here has skyrocketed because of rampant speculation about an Obama family museum that the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism has promised to build. And there have been some modest, but tangible, signs of progress that seem tied to the village's new notoriety. Within a week of Obama's election victory last year, the government began to pave the main road to town. It also brought in an electricity and water lines to Obama's step-grandmother's compound.
"Some relatives have also set up foundations, trying to raise money for development projects using the Obama name. And strangers are suddenly a common sight in the market, attracted by safari companies that advertise heritage tours about the first African-American US president. A tourist hotel is planned.
"But what is missing is a direct infusion of cash from Obama or the U.S. government, say local residents and members of the extended Obama family, some of whom say they have relayed funding requests through e-mails and letters to Washington."
If you're enamored of that idea, you might want to check out this NYT piece, which recalls what happened when administration officials created an online "Citizen's Briefing Book" for people to submit ideas to Obama:
"They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing -- not so much to the administration as to us, the ones we've been waiting for.
"In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology's tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.
"Once in power, the White House crowdsourced again. In March, its Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an online 'brainstorm' about making government more transparent. Good ideas came; but a stunning number had no connection to transparency, with many calls for marijuana legalization and a raging (and groundless) debate about the authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate."
The people rule -- sometimes badly.
Glenn Reynolds on John Stossell jumping to Fox News:
"That's too bad, though I'm sure he'll find Fox more congenial. I don't think he was appreciated at ABC, despite the stellar ratings he brought. . . .
"A couple of readers wonder why I think the move is 'too bad.' It's because with Stossel at ABC, some viewers might be exposed to non-conventional (at ABC) views. I very much doubt that ABC will replace Stossel with someone of similar libertarian inclination, though I'd love to be proven wrong. Fox viewers, on the other hand, will appreciate the quality of his work, but it's not likely to be the same kind of wake-up call it is to the Barbara Walters crowd."
One Harsh Headline
In the grand tradition of contrarian magazine covers -- you know, like "Why Hitler Wasn't So Bad" and "Toxic Sludge Gets a Bad Rap," Newsweek comes up with "The Case for Killing Granny."
In reality, however, the article is distressingly reasonable, with Evan Thomas describing the struggle he had with his ailing mother.