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Yes, freedom of speech protects vicious liars

COMMENTARY | June 13, 2008

But there are standards, or at least there should be. Morton Mintz wants the owners and managers of news organizations to hold their talk show hosts and others accountable. And he wants journalism trade groups and J-schools to get in the act.

By Morton Mintz

The news that Sen. Ted Kennedy had a malignant brain tumor saddened countless Americans whether they like him and his politics or not. That day, however, nationally syndicated radio host Michael Savage opened his show with an audio of Kennedy singing a gleeful song in Spanish. It was interspersed, as the MediaMatters Web site noted, with

clips of news reporters discussing Kennedy's diagnosis and audio from the 1990 film Kindergarten Cop in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's character says, ‘It's not a tumor.’ Later, Savage played the Dead Kennedys song 'California Über Alles.'

This, for Savage, was par for the discourse:

  • May 15: Barack Obama is "an Afro-Leninist, and I know he's dangerous."
  • April 7: "I would round up every member of the ACLU and of the National Lawyers Guild and I'd put them in a prison in Guantánamo and I'd throw the key away."
  • March 31: Obama was "hand-picked by some very powerful forces ... to drag this country into a hell that it has not seen since the Civil War."
  • March 11: "[W]hy are there no queries being provoked about Saddam Hussein -- I mean, Barack Hussein Obama?"
  • February 28: "We have a right to know if he's a so-called friendly Muslim or one who aspires to more radical teachings."

Talk Radio Network, described in a 2007 Bear Stearns report as the second-largest provider of nationally syndicated radio talk shows nationwide, syndicates Savage to more than 350 radio stations by. Each week, according to Talkers Magazine, more than 8.25 million people listen to "The Savage Nation." This makes it "one of the most listened-to talk radio shows in the nation, behind only The Rush Limbaugh Show and The Sean Hannity Show," according to MediaMatters.

Savagery is the rule, not the exception, for dozens of talking heads who regularly reach many more millions of Americans seeking guidance, reinforcement of existing views, or some combination of the two. Just four days after Savage's odious treatment of Senator Ted Kennedy, a Fox News Channel analyst discussed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's reference to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. "[N]ow we have what some are reading as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama, um, Obama - well, both, if we could," said Liz Trotta, as reported by the New York Times.

But just as the First Amendment protects Savagery, as it should, so does it protect reporting that attempts to hold it accountable.

That's why I proposed three years ago, in this venue, a form of accountability built on the guarantee of freedom of the press. I'll recap it here and then suggest a complementary approach.

"Right-wing commentators," I said in 2005,

have become extraordinarily powerful influences on our politics, our governance, our society, and our future. They were indispensable to George W. Bush as a candidate and are bulwarks of his presidency and his party. In significant degree, I believe, they have become so influential precisely because in the name of informing the public, they routinely deceive, distort, mislead, and outright lie. Their pollution of civil discourse has been documented by David Brock in his book The Republican Noise Machine, and by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, among others.

Indeed, the invaluable MediaMatters.org documents and archives their wretched conduct every weekday.

It is because the scoundrels exert vast power that mainstream news organizations are duty-bound to monitor what they say and do. To be sure, the scoundrels do get occasional hits:

Think Frank Rich in the Times. In my view, however, commentary, no matter how much supplemented by MediaMatters, bloggers, and others, is neither a sufficient response nor a good excuse for the enduring failure of the Times, Post, and others to do in-depth, fair-minded, and sustained journalism about this gang. I'm talking about reporting, not invective.

I have in mind, for example, careful journalism comparing actual facts with what are alleged to be facts in the torrential outpourings of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and Ann Coulter, among many others.

Air-time and newsprint granted to right-wing pundits is effectively granted to allies and even agents of fake-conservative Republican presidents, vice presidents, lawmakers, and candidates. "A month after Bill Clinton's defeat of the Elder Bush in 1992," National Review reported, "Ronald Reagan sent Limbaugh, a man he never met, a letter in which he thanked Limbaugh "for all you're doing to promote Republican and conservative principles...[and] you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country."

Recently, the pundit half of the alliance was strengthened by Karl Rove, whose decades-long career of dirty trickery for Republicans is adorned by shabby conflicts of interest, assorted scandals, and non-denial denials. His conduct has been meticulously documented, most notably by James Moore, a former Emmy Award-winning television news correspondent who has traveled extensively with every presidential campaign since 1976, and Wayne Slater, senior political writer and an award-winning reporter for The Dallas Morning News. They co-wrote Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, which gave birth to the film "Bush's Brain."

While "few if any of the movie's allegations of unethical behavior by Mr. Rove can be proved," reviewer Stephen Holden commented in the New York Times, "the dirty tricks laid at his doorstep, mostly by association, add up to a pattern of contemptuous disregard for the truth..." Moore and Slater updated the odious record in The Architect: Karl Rove and The Master Plan for Absolute Power.

Days before his resignation as Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush last Aug. 31, the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Rove to testify about the administration's politicization of the Justice Department and the highly suspect firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Rove ignored the subpoena, failing to show up on the day he was supposed to testify. The other day, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed him for an investigation that, NiemanWatchdog colleague Dan Froomkin wrote at the Washington Post's Web site,

is particularly focused on allegations of selective prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. And because Rove—now a pundit and columnist—has been so outspoken in denying any involvement with the Siegelman case, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers argues that Rove's refusal to appear at a public hearing and testify under oath is particularly inappropriate.

It is all but inconceivable that a person whose credentials included "contemptuous disregard for the truth," supreme mastery of dirty political tricks, and other aberrant conduct, later capped by dodging congressional subpoenas would be hired as a reporter. Yet these credentials did not deter Fox News, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal from transforming Karl Rove into a "celebrated pundit and columnist."

My supplemental, First Amendment-based proposal for pundit accountability is simple: A journalism school or professional journalism organization should undertake a fair-minded but urgent inquiry into the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the absence of, or need for, ethical standards for commentators. Because of their self-proclaimed goals, the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, separately or together, would appear to be top candidates.

The NCEW says it "exists to improve the quality of editorial pages and broadcast editorials, and to promote high standards among opinion writers and editors." Its "Mission Statement" underscores these goals, saying that the 61-year-old organization is "dedicated to advancing the craft of opinion journalism through education, professional development, exploration of issues of public importance and vigorous advocacy within journalism organizations."

The Project for Excellence in Journalism describes itself as:

a research organization that specializes in using empirical methods to evaluate and study the performance of the press. It is non partisan, non ideological and non political.

Our goal is to help both the journalists who produce the news and the citizens who consume it develop a better understanding of what the press is delivering. The Project has put special emphasis on content analysis in the belief that quantifying what is occurring in the press, rather than merely offering criticism and analysis, is a better approach to understanding.

The Knight Foundation says:

We choose, as the Knight brothers chose, to seek opportunities that can transform both communities and journalism, and help them reach their highest potential. We want to ensure that each community's citizens get the information they need to thrive in a democracy. And we ask, as we evaluate opportunities and grants, '"Is this truly transformational?"

I would argue that the focus of the NCEW on "editorial pages and broadcast editorials," of the Project on "journalists," and of the Foundation on transforming "communities and journalism" not only does not leave the proposed inquiry outside the jurisdictional boundaries of these organizations, but that they should undertake it because commentators with vast audiences are enemies of the quality journalism they seek to enhance.

These questions strike me as being of the kind that the proposed inquiry should raise with senior executives of leading newspapers and news magazines; News Corporation, and ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC:

  • Do you have ethical guidelines or standards for your news reporters, producers, and editors, are they in writing, and are they available on request to the public?
  • Do you have ethical guidelines or standards for your staff and regular outside commentators, are they in writing, and are they available on request to the public?
  • If your ethical guidelines or standards for news editors and reporters differ from those for either or both categories of commentators, how do they differ, and why?
  • If you do not have ethical standards for either or both categories commentators, why not?
  • Would you discipline a commentator just as you would a news staffer for violations of traditional journalistic ethics and norms, such as dishonesty, character assassination, making or implying false accusations, inciting hatred, bullying, faking quotes, concealing a conflict of interest, promoting a relative's or a friend's business, writing a speech for a political candidate, advising a politician, effectively being an agent of a political party or of a special interest, or undermining honest reporting?
  • If you would not penalize a commentator who commits such violations, why not?

For both those top executives and for their counterparts at Premiere Radio Networks (Rush Limbaugh), at Talk Radio Network (Michael Savage), and at the other media enterprises that broadcast or syndicate pundits, regardless of their political leanings, further questions like these could be considered:

  • Do you have written procedures to address internal and external complaints that commentators have violated traditional journalistic ethics and norms such as those described immediately above? If you do, are they available on request to the public?
  • If you do not have such procedures, why not?

The answers—and and non-answers—would be enlightening. And news.


There IS no Journalism
Posted by Artemus K
06/23/2008, 08:16 PM

Unfortunately Mr. Mintz seems to have overlooked the fact that the commentators he singles out are NOT journalists - nor do they claim to be. I have listened occasionally to Limbaugh for years and found him to be a radio talk show entertainer reflecting the ideas and values of the American conservative. These talk show "hosts" as they freely acknowledge their title to be, are little different than David Letterman, Jon Stewart or Jay Leno. They are primarily entertainers.

Sadly in the past ten years one finds it hard to identify ANY true journalists - except on the uncontrolled internet. There at least, writers, outside the confines of traditional media outlets, appear to speak their mind. Not parrot the lock step "news" carried by major media. Major media news is so locked into step with itself they don't bother to change the editorial language from outlet to outlet. So you will hear the same phrase over and again, e.g. "thrown under the bus" by purportedly separate, competitive news agencies. Limbaugh on occasion uses this as one of his bits of business.

Unfortunately this means there is no free, mainstream press anymore. Which is why millions of people have turned to "entertainment news." Anathema to the truth. It is created to entertain and sell advertising. Those who create it are cynical, greed driven misanthropes whom the wise refuse to lend mind share to.

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