Press and punditry stampede tramples good judgment, and often the facts, too

The imam leading plans for an Islamic center near the Manhattan site of the September 11 attacks says he hopes to draw attention during his trip in the Middle East to the common challenges to battle radical religious beliefs.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

When the New York Times published a story last December about plans for a Muslim prayer space near the World Trade Center site, there was little reaction.

After all, the imam in charge was quoted as saying the building was an effort to "push back against the extremists" in the shadow of the terrorist attacks. Only months later did a conservative assault on the project morph into the most incendiary issue on the media landscape.

The herd was stampeding again.

You hear their thundering hooves on cable shows and talk radio, watch the gathering dust on the blogs. They trample everything in their path. Passivity is impossible: Everyone must form an immediate opinion on the matter at hand and defend it passionately.

The quickly labeled Ground Zero mosque -- an Islamic cultural center neither at Ground Zero nor specifically a mosque -- is a classic case. It is a symbolic slugfest that lacks the maddening complexity of health care legislation or banking reform -- "Don't you care about religious freedom?" "Don't you care about the families of 9/11 victims?" -- and is tailor-made for the sound-bite stampede.

The media herd loves to chase stories with colorful personalities that we can either love or hate, defend or denounce. Blago fit the bill: The jury deadlocks on 23 of 24 counts and the insta-punditry begins. Did the government blow the case? Were the jurors out to lunch? Could Rod Blagojevich actually have been . . . innocent?

When prosecutors first released the tawdry tapes, the media mob reached the obvious conclusion, that the Illinois governor was a sleazy operator. He was selling Barack Obama's Senate seat! But as he raced from one television studio to the next, less attention was paid to whether he could be convicted in court. The herd likes morality plays, not legal strategizing. Hey, didja see Blago got bounced off "Celebrity Apprentice"?

What about the facts?

Such lemming-like behavior was also on display in the case of Steven Slater. It's August, you see, and media folks so much wanted to make the JetBlue hothead into an overnight folk hero that they loaded up the story with sociological baggage. This wasn't just a matter of an erratic flight attendant sliding down the emergency chute, it was a clarion call for fed-up workers everywhere! "The last-straw moment a lot of people identify with," said NBC's Ann Curry. "He did what a lot of Americans would have done," said MSNBC's Ed Schultz.

The story soared even as Slater's account was falling apart. Passengers told reporters that he had been rude, that he hadn't been provoked, that he'd gotten a bump on his head before the flight began. But by then the herd was heading off in another direction.

The herd isn't dumb, but it moves so quickly that snap judgments prevail and nuance gets lost. It decided within hours that Shirley Sherrod was a racist, then concluded just as forcefully that she had been framed. The first charge took place over a maliciously edited videotape, the second after the release of the full tape. Having belatedly vindicated her, the herd began a furious debate over the role of the White House, Andrew Breitbart and Fox News.

Some stories appear naturally in the pack's path; others are planted there by people with agendas, as with the Breitbart snippet of a speech by the Agriculture Department staffer. Controversies favored by the right are often pumped up by the Drudge Report, Fox and Rush Limbaugh; liberal crusades get picked up by the Huffington Post and MSNBC. The escalating rhetoric pushes the dispute onto op-ed pages and network newscasts, and there it remains until some countervailing force knocks it off.

At times, the early noise gives way to serious debate. When the BP oil well blew up, plenty of newly minted experts held forth on the advisability of a "top kill" or "junk shot" or other esoteric approaches, not to mention the nonstop argument over whether the president was responding with sufficient emotion. But as journalists gradually educated themselves, the country got a lesson in the risks of offshore oil drilling and the shortcomings of federal regulation.

More commonly, though, the media crowd doesn't stick around long enough to do more than stomp around. There was a furious argument over Obama giving General Motors a $50 billion bailout; now that the company is profitable and preparing a stock offering, the herd is MIA.


It always needs something new to chew on: Is Elena Kagan qualified despite never having been a judge -- and what about those rumors about her personal life? And the herd loses interest when the outcome isn't in doubt. Once it became clear that Republicans wouldn't block Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation, the coverage dwindled dramatically.

The herd is easily distracted by whatever buzzes by. Dr. Laura using the N-word? Was she racially insensitive or just trying to make a point about who gets to use such language? Never mind, she's quitting already. Wait -- Sarah Palin is defending her?

The media treated the withdrawal of the final American combat units from Iraq last week as a one-day story, despite the bloody toll of the 7 1/2 -year conflict. Yes, it was symbolic, the war isn't over and 50,000 U.S. troops remain behind, but the conflict dominated our politics for years -- and claimed the lives of more than 4,400 service members and untold Iraqi civilians. Except on MSNBC, which carried embedded correspondent Richard Engel reporting from the scene for hours, and a few front-page stories, the herd seemed disengaged. The pullout was expected; the new battlefront is Afghanistan.

The controversy over the mosque got a big-time boost when Obama called it a matter of religious freedom, then told CNN's Ed Henry the next day that he wasn't saying the project should be built. But little attention was paid to a Politico report that organizers of the $100 million center have raised only $18,255 -- making it unlikely that it will ever be built. To dwell on that, of course, would spoil the herd's fun.

Media morsels

-- Newsweek is undergoing a talent drain as it waits for 92-year-old Sidney Harman to close on buying the magazine from The Washington Post Co. With Editor Jon Meacham, Mike Isikoff and Evan Thomas already gone or leaving, columnist Fareed Zakaria has jumped to Time. He already hosts a show on CNN, part of Time's parent company.

-- Fox's Greta Van Susteren has challenged her colleague Glenn Beck's plan for a Lincoln Memorial rally Saturday on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech: "Yes, he has a First Amendment right to do it . . . but what about the wisdom of it?" she blogged. Her solution: Move Beck's event to another location, and move the Manhattan Islamic project as well. "It does not help heal the country on so many fronts if we poke a stick in eyes."

-- Village Voice reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin broke the story about Citibank staffer Debrahlee Lorenzana, who filed a claim -- denied by the company -- that the bank fired her because her bosses found her voluptuous body too distracting. While it was "extremely pleasurable" to watch the tale go viral, she writes in Columbia Journalism Review, it was also "slightly disturbing. As a journalist, you spend so much time plugging away at stories that you hope will impact society. Then, suddenly, you hit on a sexy banker who lost her job, and, delighted as you are, you also can't help but wonder: Is this what it takes to be talked about all over the world?"

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

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