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Unfriendly fire: The angry media

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010; 9:34 AM

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 past 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.)


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