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Unfriendly fire: The angry media

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.)

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 this was "about the dumbest thing I've done" and that it was time for him to grow up. Soon afterward, he said that if an American Community Service census-taker came to his house, Erickson 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 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 wrong-headed -- 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?

Meet the new leader

Is John Boehner ready for his makeover? Salon's Steve Kornacki says it's a tradition:

"The House minority leader -- who will become the next speaker if the Republicans win back the chamber this fall -- is trying to shed his 'clubby' reputation on Capitol Hill and to recast himself as a wholesome product of working-class Midwestern roots. The idea is to persuade skeptical would-be donors from far outside the Beltway that Boehner is as culturally allergic to Washington as they are -- and, presumably, to begin warming up the general public to the face of the House GOP.

"If this all sounds vaguely familiar it's because Nancy Pelosi tried something similar four years ago, when Democrats found themselves with the political winds at their back -- and in position to end their 12-year exile from House control. Back then, Republicans were insisting that they'd retain control of the House by playing up the prospect of a Pelosi speakership -- Jane Fonda with a gavel, as one GOPer said to me at the time. And more than a few influential Democrats, still spooked by the savage effectiveness with which the GOP caricatured John Kerry in 2004, feared they might be right.

"And so, Pelosi launched her own preemptive image campaign, one that downplayed her San Francisco liberalism and played up her Catholicism and family life. As the GOP increasingly featured her in their attacks, the stock reply from Pelosi's office would go something like this: Why are the Republicans attacking a churchgoing mother of five and grandmother of five?"

It's all their fault

At National Review, Mona Charen says the Democrats have no choice but to go negative:

"Come in. Make yourself comfortable. What's that? You're a congressional Democrat? You voted to triple the national debt; destroy a health-care system that an overwhelming majority of Americans were happy with in a way that creates a massive and infinitely complex new entitlement; bail out the banks and auto companies; and 'stimulate' the economy with an $862 billion boondoggle that hasn't created a single private-sector job? Your president is suing the state of Arizona for having the effrontery to enforce a law he wishes not to enforce (though he does have the constitutional responsibility to 'take care that the laws be faithfully executed')? The war in Afghanistan is not going well? The president's approval ratings are under water? Congress's approval ratings are running even with Mel Gibson's? Naturally you're upset.

"Relax. Here, wipe your tears. The wizards at the Democratic National Committee have the answer. The strategy is one you may remember from past campaigns. They call it the Great Smoke Blower. Jimmy Carter used it against Reagan in 1980. When things are objectively bad and you can't run on your record, you accuse the Republicans of extremism. . . .

"The newest ad from the DNC seeks to link the Republican party with the tea party. Flashing faces on the screen: now Rand Paul, now Paul Ryan, now Sharron Angle, now John Boehner -- all distinctions are blurred. Then they present the 'Republican Tea Party Contract on America,' with ten items."

But there's a vacuum to be filled, since the Republicans haven't exactly put forward a plan, except for more tax cuts and more opposition to just about everything Obama does.

Sunday debut

Christiane Amanpour had a steady debut at the helm of ABC's "This Week," particularly with her strong interview of Nancy Pelosi. But she will take some getting used to, and the roundtable -- with the remote addition of a Pakistani journalist -- was quite flat. Clearly a work in progress.

Says Mediate: "What was most striking about the show this morning was how little had changed. In fact it was hard not to get the sense that Amanpour was merely filling in for [Jake] Tapper. . . . If nothing else the roundtable seemed more subdued -- I feel like Amanpour's dignified presence may keep the liveliness to a minimum."

Trying the knot

Chelsea Clinton got married amid a media frenzy on Saturday -- here's the front-page piece in the New York Times. For the record, the Times played Jenna Bush's wedding, while her dad was president, on Page 23. (The Washington Post had both on A-1.) One theory I've heard: Chelsea got married near New York, while fewer journalists wanted to trek to Crawford.

Power mad

You know how people say a news story looks very different when they're involved? That happened to me last week.

A half-hour thunderstorm on Sunday afternoon, July 25, knocked out power to 300,000 homes in the Washington area. I called the outage line of our local utility, Pepco, and a recording assured me the lights would be back on by 10 p.m.

Fat chance. And anyone with experience with Pepco, which has been promising to improve its notoriously slow response to outages for two decades, knew to be skeptical.

As I kept complaining on Twitter, days went by with no electricity and no information from Pepco about when power might be restored. Even as some homes were brought back online, anger mounted in neighborhood after neighborhood about the information blackout. But the media didn't really capture that.

The Washington Post did a perfectly competent job in covering the impact, with stories like this: "Tens of thousands of people in the Washington region are likely to be without power for days, officials said Monday, as Pepco struggles to repair the damage from a ferocious storm Sunday that claimed three lives, produced hurricane-force winds and crippled neighborhoods." There was a piece on the impact of those with special medical needs, and a profile of a Pepco PR guy who tweets (inspired by his response to my Twitter message, which was: "Pepco combines the efficiency of BP with the customer service of Comcast").

If you've lost your power, especially if you've got a family, and the temperature is in the high 90s, it's a calamity. Not knowing when your electricity might come back makes it impossible to plan -- do you dump your food? Stay with a friend? Seek out a hotel? (There were five-day outages after last winter's snowpocalypse, but at least that was a killer storm; this one was followed by sunshine.) And yet, as the number of affected homes dwindled to 30,000, and then 10,000, The Post's coverage dwindled as well. The story was "over" -- except for those still sweltering in their homes.

My Maryland town spent a day trying to get Pepco's approval to remove a fallen tree by the downed power line; no response. On Wednesday night, a Pepco truck came to my neighborhood and restored power to most of the homes -- but not a half-dozen of them, including mine. The truck then left, a worker helpfully informing a neighbor that because we were such a small group, we would now slide down the priority list.

Stunned, I called Pepco for an explanation. Was this official policy? "I hate using that term, lower priority," a spokesman said. But it was true.

On Thursday morning -- this was Day 5 -- a Pepco rep assured me that a truck had been dispatched to my block, would arrive soon and that power would be restored. Hours later, no truck. I called back. It all depends on the meaning of the word dispatch, I was told. By the third call, I could only get a recording saying there would be no electricity until 11 p.m. Friday -- two more days. My head was spinning from the runaround.

But that night, I spotted a repair truck around the corner and asked (okay, begged) for help. The crew, on loan from the Eastern Shore, was incredibly professional, continuing to work on my street's overhead line even during a brief, heavy rainstorm. Relief was minutes away. But it was for naught: the storm knocked out power again to a much wider swath of the surrounding neighborhood.

Power finally came back on Friday morning, Day 6. But I wouldn't have had it had I not commandeered the truck. I was left wondering why even a monopoly business can't do better at communicating with its customers -- and how a disastrous event that upends your life is no longer a story for the press once the numbers shrink.

I'm outta here for a few days; talk amongst yourselves.

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

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