By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009
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; MSNBC's Keith Olbermann assailed 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 and dope-smoking progressives" as "blatant propaganda" for Obama. (The agency reassigned Sargent.) And Beck relentlessly promoted the conservative "9/12" demonstrations in Washington around 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 follow-up 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.Thumbs Down
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.
While his coverage in the first 100 days was 59 percent positive, a new study says, that dropped to 43 percent positive -- and 43 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.
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."