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In journalism's crossfire culture, everyone gets wounded

FIRE AWAY! Bill O'Reilly apologizes for the Shirley Sherrod gaffe. Keith Olbermann said Fox News had "assassinated" her reputation.
FIRE AWAY! Bill O'Reilly apologizes for the Shirley Sherrod gaffe. Keith Olbermann said Fox News had "assassinated" her reputation. (Above: Fox News; Below: Virginia Sherwood, Nbc)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

The nastiness index keeps on rising, and all of us are getting sullied in the process.

Media outlets, which once merely chronicled this era of hyper-partisanship, now seem to be both the purveyors and often the targets of ugly attacks.

In just the last few weeks, Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh and CNBC contributor Howard Dean have accused Fox News of racism; conservative crusader Andrew Breitbart has delighted in pushing a maliciously edited video smearing Shirley Sherrod and refused to apologize; Fox hosts have denounced mainstream organizations as Obama lap dogs for downplaying a case involving the New Black Panther Party; e-mails from an off-the-record discussion group showed one liberal pundit wishing for Rush Limbaugh's death and another suggesting that conservatives such as Fred Barnes be tarred as racist; Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings was accused of betraying journalistic ethics with the story that torpedoed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Hastings's critics were ripped as lackeys of the military establishment.

It's journalism as blood sport, performed for the masses.

To say this atmosphere is troubling is to risk being pilloried for defending the old regime against a New Media Order, which comes equipped with a new mission: exposing the corruption of those who wield the megaphones, or at least bloodying them up a bit. (Actually, to say anything at all these days invites a fresh dose of venom from the pontificators, pugilists and potshot artists who have real-time platforms -- a jeering section that has its healthy aspect while also contributing to a sense of cacophony.)

In short, as the polarization of the Bush years has yielded to the polarization of the Obama era, a search-and-destroy culture has emerged that is as likely to vilify journalists as political and corporate leaders.

Cable news channels were pioneers in vituperation, as politicians learned they were more likely to get invited back by breathing fire. The rise of highly opinionated hosts at Fox and MSNBC helped fuel the trend, as has the invasion of pols-turned-pundits -- Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, James Carville, Eliot Spitzer -- who have blurred the distinction between us (the journalists) and them (those we cover).

Targeting one another

Certain bloggers were once singled out as bomb throwers, but now just about everyone in the news racket is blogging or tweeting or trying to entice the gods of Web traffic -- which is easier to do when you hit the hot buttons.

"Responsible people in power and in the mainstream media are only beginning to grapple with this new environment -- in which facts hardly matter except as they can be used as weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war," Politico editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei write in a provocative essay.

And they acknowledge their venue's complicity: "We are both an enabler (in the eyes of some critics) of the deterioration of political discourse, and a target of it (as we try to defend our values as neutral journalists amid constant criticism from activists who think we fail at neutrality or are disdainful of the goal in the first place)."

New York Times columnist David Brooks put it this way on "Meet the Press": "A different sort of media, squabble culture, has come up on the left and the right. . . . They build audience by destroying other people."

And sometimes they destroy themselves. Helen Thomas had to resign after telling a rabbi with a video camera that the Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine." This was a public statement, unlike the invective of Dave Weigel (such as his suggestion that Matt Drudge should set himself on fire), which cost him his Washington Post blogging job after the Daily Caller obtained off-the-record e-mails from the liberal group JournoList. (Weigel last week joined Slate, another Post Co. property.)

Erick Erickson, the founder of RedState.com, wrote when Justice David Souter announced his retirement that "the nation loses the only goat [expletive] child molester ever to serve on the Supreme Court." When CNN hired Erickson as a contributor, he told me his comment was "about the dumbest thing I've done" and that it was time for him to grow up. Soon afterward, however, Erickson said that if an American Community Service census-taker came to his house, he would "pull out my wife's shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door."

A toxic atmosphere

The firing of Sherrod two weeks ago was a classic case of finger-pointing gone wild, as an administration allowed its fear of Glenn Beck to trump any skepticism about a video excerpt posted by Breitbart, who speaks of waging war against the ostensibly liberal media. After much of that media ran with the video -- only to learn that the full version of the Agriculture Department staffer's speech to the NAACP exonerated her from the charge of being anti-white -- the story unleashed a tidal wave of racially charged invective.

While Sherrod deserves enormous sympathy, she has also used excessive rhetoric, telling the liberal advocacy group Media Matters that Fox "would love to take us back . . . to where black people were looking down, not looking white folks in the face . . . and not be a whole person." And Sherrod told CNN that Breitbart would "like to get us stuck back in the times of slavery."

I know what it's like to be caught in the crossfire. When I reported that Fox News did not air the Sherrod video until after she had been fired, I got hammered by the left, and some commentators just ignored the chronology. (And conspiracy theorists pounced when I left out that a Fox online story had run an hour or so before the firing -- hardly the reason that Sherrod was canned.)

The previous week, when I suggested that Fox was overhyping the Justice Department's decision to all but drop a voter intimidation case involving two New Black Panther members, I was assailed by Bill O'Reilly -- even though I cast it as a legitimate story that the New York Times and Washington Post were slow to cover. Many colleagues have had the experience of being labeled by partisans as not just wrong but wrongheaded -- or worse, a shill! A tool! A patsy! -- for one side or the other.

O'Reilly regularly portrays his network as the antidote to hopelessly biased rivals: "If you want to know what's really happening in America, you have to come here because you will not get it in much of the mainstream media." His chief antagonist, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, said Sherrod's reputation had been "assassinated by Fox News" and "that scum Breitbart," but he did not spare what he called "the cowering media, this network included."

The news business, aloof from criticism for far too long, should absolutely be held accountable. These days, though, the constant swirl of accusations, the charges of bias and personal perfidy, have tarred even those who are working hard to be fair.

No media person is perfect, including me, but I cling to the belief that facts matter. That, however, is in danger of becoming an old-fashioned view, along with the virtue of calling people for comment before you unload on them. (Too slow, why wait, let them deny the charge later.) Instead, the toxic atmosphere that many media outlets tolerate, and sometimes foster, is slowly poisoning the discourse, for us and, yes, for you.

All the incentives these days -- for ratings and circulation and Web hits and just getting noticed -- lie in the direction of running and gunning. Many news consumers are sending a message that they simply want their own views echoed and amplified. But if journalists devote much of their energy to savaging one another, can they really be surprised that we look so horribly scarred?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."


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