Friday, July 23, 2010

Right and Wrong

David Frum has turned breaking ranks in the name of common sense into a point of personal pride, and he's of course paid dearly for it.

Here he asks the very necessary question, "Why is the conservative press not stomping Private Breitbart's guts out?" You know, rather than selectively editing out his and Fox News's role in the Sherrod mess, if you get my drift, and now making the story about how the Obama administration slipped on the banana peel the right-wing media inadvertently dropped on the ground in front of it.

The Week: "Shirley Sherrod and the Shame of the Conservative Media/7.21.10

The gist of it:

"You want to see media bias in action? Okay — look at the conservative media reaction to the firing of Shirley Sherrod... When people talk of the "closing of the conservative mind" this is what they mean: not that conservatives are more narrow-minded than other people — everybody can be narrow minded — but that conservatives have a unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact."

By the way, he's right when he reiterates what any sane person should already know: Breitbart's going to come out of this thing totally unscathed, or at the very least no worse off than he was in legitimate circles before all this shit went down.

Here now, just for the hell of it, are the two columns from earlier this year that detail my own personal run-in with the always level-headed Breitbart: the piece I wrote that brought him inexplicably to my digital doorstep in the middle of the night, and my reaction to his decision to confront me.

"We Report, You've Already Decided" (Originally Published, 2.3.10)

I'm not sure there's been a story in recent memory that's better illustrated the unnavigable divide between the perspectives of the left and right than the whole James O'Keefe controversy -- especially when it comes to each side's opinion of the media. As far as the right is concerned, O'Keefe is a modern day folk hero, the conservative press's answer to Michael Moore and Bob Woodward and a guy whose efforts to rage against the liberal machine by way of supposedly capital-J journalism is deserving of a Pulitzer. To the left, meanwhile, O'Keefe is a joke -- a rich, dumb kid whose irrational hatred of progressives has tainted and compromised every "investigation" he's ever undertaken, culminating, of course, with his arrest following what seems to be a failed attempt to tamper with the phones at a Democratic senator's office.

The battle lines over O'Keefe are just about set in stone. He's essentially the Elian Gonzalez of the perpetually stalemated left-vs-right media war: Anybody who takes an interest in his case isn't likely to be indifferent to how the whole thing turns out.

Maybe that's why a couple of new reports about James O'Keefe, while mildly eyebrow-raising at face value, don't really amount to much in the great scheme of things -- simply because they're just not going to change anyone's already made-up mind. Today both Salon and the Washington Independent are reporting that O'Keefe attended and played a hands-on role in a conference in 2006 that hosted leading white nationalists -- basically putting O'Keefe in the direct company of racists and anti-Semites and implying that he may be one himself (or that he at least had issues with those who weren't white, Christian, Americans during his time as a campus Republican activist).

It's certainly true that more than a few of O'Keefe's stunts have seemed to specifically target minorities, but does that make him a racist or simply your average conservative -- given that issues like affirmative action and illegal immigration have traditionally been right-wing boogeymen -- and is there even a distinction to be drawn? There's just no way around the fact that a guy who refers to himself as "James O'Keefe III" on his Twitter profile and dresses in a faux-ghetto get-up -- what Real Time with Bill Maher's Chris Kelly humorously refers to as "Prescott, the Preppie Pimp" -- to dupe an urban outreach group is going to face some serious questions about his motives and mindset.

The problem, though, is that those who've already eagerly jumped to the defense of O'Keefe aren't going to be swayed from their beliefs; it would take the revelation that their hero wandered the streets of Lower Manhattan, Bateman-like, scooping homeless peoples' eyes out with a pen knife for them to possibly rethink their devotion -- and even then, the story would have to be reported by Andrew Breitbart himself for the right to even believe it was true. And that's the real point, and the real shame: The distrust between the two media factions is so toxic that each side simply discounts any negative press against it by the other as made-up mudslinging. The Fox and Breitbart people aren't going to give a good crap that Salon and the Washington Independent have uncovered what could be a history of racist behavior or sympathy on the part of James O'Keefe -- the same way the left was hardly willing to consider that O'Keefe may have been on to something when he targeted ACORN.

My opinion? Since he first entered the spotlight with a hell of a lot of fanfare, I've always pegged James O'Keefe as an arrogant and obnoxious little tool -- a modern young-conservative cliché in just about every way and damn sure not the brilliant investigative journalist he claims to be (for a whole host of very objective reasons). Much of this is why the notion that he has issues with minorities -- and that they seep liberally (no pun intended) into his advocacy -- doesn't faze me in the least because I can't say that I didn't expect it. But I'm willing to concede that the very fact that I feel this way is likely part of the problem.

I do my best to keep an open mind these days, but if they have their way, the echo chambers and spin merchants on both sides of any politically charged story will be happy to reach a conclusion for me -- do the heavy lifting so I don't have to. And the noise they're pumping out is so loud that you, literally, can't hear yourself think anymore -- which is probably the idea.

So James O'Keefe may have broken bread with racists and anti-Semites. The people who hate him won't be shocked and the people who worship him won't believe it or won't care. And if no one's really listening, it makes you wonder if it's even worth reporting at all.

"The Notorious 'Big'" (Originally Published, 2.4.10)

I have a new BFF.

This morning at 3:13am, I got an email from Andrew Breitbart.

Let's go to the video:

[Title] do you care that okeefe as racist meme is built on bed of lies?

less than a week after same media suffered devastating exposure that 'watergate jr' wasnt and the media that ignored acorn was at forefront of a preposterous rush to judgement?

yet, i have to be a one-man correction cudgel because the press grants james less fairness than any gitmo detainee or al qaeda pantybomber.

you're insinuation that james is a racist is equally egregious: does it ever dawn on you that we conservatives can't fathom how lefties can't see how horrible their social policies have turned out to be for poor and minorities. explore for one minute the implications of what are found on the acorn tapes: almost every employee is SKILLED at helping unqualified people hooked on complicated government run systems like welfare, creating 501C3s as fronts, explaining how to skirt the tax codes, even getting underaged illegal immigrant prostitutes set up as dependents.

james' planned parenthood tapes, similarly, attempt to show how the media narrative is a false one, driven by 'morally superior ' types who think the group is simply good and unquestionably benevolent. a simple google search will show that the group has a racist past and the amount of black fetuses killed since roe is far greater than that of whites.

can james at least not have the opinion that abortion and abortionists are bad and that the philosophy behind PP'a origin in the US is filled with Margaret Sanger and a racist and Eugenics background?

james fucks with liberal narratives. and they can't take it. i am gleeful he has found me. what an historic innovator. i'm sure you and the rest of the town elders will vote that he and his friends can't dance. but i promise you the futre won't be stopped by john lithgow & co this time.


Got all that?

It's kind of unfortunate that it would be so easy to summarily dismiss Breitbart's jumbled words as nothing more than the poorly thought-out product of late-night exhaustion or, seemingly, a hell of a lot to drink. It'd be equally simple to go almost line-by-line and either refute his incoherent arguments -- beginning with the claim that I essentially called James O'Keefe a racist, which I didn't -- or point out how quite a few of them only hold water if you believe that the media have banded together to gang up on conservatives and ensure that they never get a fair shake, which I don't at all. Thing is, it's that very distinction in how the left and right view the media that led me to write yesterday's quickie piece about O'Keefe -- the one Breitbart was commenting on -- to begin with.

My point yesterday was that political coverage may still be important on the surface, because it's true that an informed electorate is a strong electorate, but the partisan voices have become so powerful that it's almost impossible to discern the truth above all the noise. What's more, tainted advocacy journalism has become prevalent to the point where no one needs to bother seeking out an opinion that differs from his or her own anymore. As a nation, we're so fucking divided politically, with each side in possession of its own bullhorn, that there's rarely any common ground for the two sides to meet on because there doesn't need to be any; the left and right have their respective sets of "facts" and that informs their intransigent worldviews. Now more than ever, it's possible to work backward from the conclusion you want to reach and make the details fit that end: Believe progressive America can do no wrong? Watch Olbermann. Think only the Tea Partiers can save this country but the liberal media refuses to report it? Watch Fox -- or read Breitbart.

The problem is that guys like Breitbart assume the role of angry paranoiacs; the entire reason for their entry into the media echo chamber is supposedly to be a single candle against the near-total darkness of the liberal press. Breitbart believes that just about all media are slanted to the left and therefore out to get conservatives in any way they can. This is a fun little parlor trick and justifies all kinds of lapses in logic: All Breitbart has to do to refute bad press about him or the political stances he happens to take is to ask his readers to "consider the source." It's utter horseshit as an argument, but it's music to the ears of the rabid partisan crowd, who go to his site specifically to have their biases confirmed and wouldn't accept a contrary assertion if it came wrapped up with a bow.

If you need proof of this, look no further than Breitbart's response to the Salon and Washington Independent pieces dealing with James O'Keefe's supposed attendance of a 2006 conference that hosted white nationalists. For the past 24 hours -- through his website, his Twitter page and, apparently, email -- he's been on a fucking talking points rampage. A post on Breitbart's amusingly misnomered "Big Journalism" site takes aim at Max Blumenthal, author of the Salon piece, for, among other things, being Max Blumenthal. The post's author identifies Blumenthal as the son of a "Clinton apparatchik", which is all Breitbart's readership needs to hear to understand that he's not to be trusted. The post goes on to call the stories about O'Keefe proof of "how the left distorts, invents and lies." Ad hominem attacks are par for the course in the ridiculous Kabuki theater that passes for political discourse these days, but what makes the Breitbart piece by Larry O'Connor especially flagrant in its lack of adherence to the basic standards of honest journalism is its acceptance of O'Keefe's own take on events as being somehow above reproach.

Read this and try not to laugh:

"...Here at Big Journalism we think it’s a good idea to actually seek the truth.

So we spoke with James O’Keefe today. This is what he tells us:

He was not 'manning a table' at the event
He was not involved with the organization or operations of the event.
He attended the event with many of his Leadership Institute co-workers since it was
right across the street from their building in Arlington, Va., and it was organized by other LI associates.
The organizer who is being called a 'White Supremacist' is half Jewish and half Korean.
One of the panelist was an African-American named Kevin Martin.
The event was forced to move to a Georgetown University building in Arlington, not at a cross-burning.

We know all this because we called Mr. O’Keefe and asked him. Which is more than other media outlets have done."

Well, that settles it then.

I'm by no means comparing James O'Keefe to a criminal, but imagine the police dragging the suspect in an investigation in for questioning, then upon hearing that suspect say, "Nope, I had nothing to do with it," releasing him, satisfied that he was telling the truth. In order for something like that to happen, you'd have to believe the guy wasn't guilty to begin with and reverse engineer your investigation -- which is exactly the stance Breitbart's site is taking and what it's doing. The problem is that true journalists are like police officers. They dispassionately pursue the facts. They may chase down leads they believe strongly in, but if those leads don't pan out they don't make shit up just to get a collar (at least not in theory). They have an obligation to the truth.

There's a difference between the brand of journalism trumpeted by Breitbart and O'Keefe -- "Big" journalism, I guess -- and that practiced by those who at the very least try to remain objective about the issues they're covering. Which do you think, just at face value, would be more trustworthy?

For the record, what Larry O'Connor was complaining about in the piece on Breitbart's site -- that Max Blumenthal supposedly didn't try to contact James O'Keefe for comment -- is being contested by Blumenthal himself today. He says he did in fact reach out to O'Keefe but got no response. Maybe if O'Keefe had been on Blumenthal's payroll he would've had as little trouble getting the subject of his article on the phone as Breitbart's people did after the fact. This may seem like a cheap shot, but it can't be a coincidence that O'Keefe has generally turned only to friendly outlets -- the ones guaranteed not to hardball him -- when he wants to make a statement or answer questions about his arrest or the various controversies surrounding him. Like Sarah Palin, he knows full well that these days there's no need to suffer through an adversarial interview when his side has its own state-approved media megaphone and all he needs is for the already apostolic to believe and support him for everything to be okay. Besides, any agent of the press who would ask him tough questions about his behavior is simply in league with the enemy anyway.

This is the way Breitbart thinks. The way he, not coincidentally, accuses the left of thinking (and which Eric Boehlert of Media Matters occasionally helps fuel by getting into ugly internet pissing matches with him). As it turns out, each extreme is right about how wrong the other is -- which makes each each extreme more than a little hypocritical. Where Breitbart goes completely off the rails -- besides simply his shoddy journalism, and that's a pretty objective assessment -- is in his demonization of almost all media, his belief in the giant liberal media conspiracy. That's just fucking crazy.

But not as crazy as ending a 3:30am email to a complete stranger with a Footloose reference.

Footloose? Really?


Alanna said...

It's seriously insane and completely deplorable how he's probably going to walk scot-free from all of this.

I wonder if these blurbs will incite twitter feed war part deux with you. ha.

Eric said...

The other day my Dad called me to talk about the Sherrod thing and how angry he was about the way she was treated, and he asked me (rhetorically) when somebody was going to stand up and ask the famous question from the McCarthy hearings: "Have you no sense of decency, at long last?"

And even though I knew it was a rhetorical question, I had to give him the awful answer, that nobody's going to ask.

I guess that's not totally true. There are people asking. But nobody with enough weight to really throw around has the decency left to ask the question anymore.

Breitbart's an awful person. If there was anyone left with the decency to ask him if he had any himself, he doesn't. He wants to win whatever it is he's trying to win--hell, I'm not even sure if there's really even a prize anymore or if it's just the abstraction of "winning," of having the nebulous feeling somebody else lost.

It's depressing and awful, is what it is. I'm not even sure I can think about it right now.

drater said...

So according to Mr. Frum "conservatives have a unique capacity to ignore unwelcome fact." But they're not narrow minded. Riiiiiiiiiiight.