Mindless march of the media herd

While the debate continues to brew around the mosque being built near Ground Zero in New York City, Muslims have been worshiping at another Sept. 11, 2001, crash site in Washington, D.C..
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; 9:12 AM

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.

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