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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Howard Kurtz's fear of facts

(updated below)

Howard Kurtz, media critic for CNN and The Washington Post, wanted to write a column about what he calls the "rather low state of this campaign season," and these are the five examples he provided to support his claim:

A GOP ad against Senate candidate Harold Ford -- featuring a white seductress who says she met the black lawmaker at a Playboy party and that he should call her -- is so odious and racially tinged that Ford's Republican opponent, Bob Corker, denounces it.

Republican Wyoming congresswoman Barbara Cubin tells a wheelchair-bound Libertarian candidate after a debate: "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you in the face."

Hillary Clinton's opponent says she used to be ugly -- and why did Bill marry her, anyway? -- but now looks okay thanks to millions in plastic surgery.

Rush Limbaugh says Michael J. Fox is exaggerating his Parkinson's in political ads.

A John Kerry spokesman calls carping liberal bloggers "cowards."

As we all learned to inquire from Sesame Street -- which of those examples does not belong on that list? The column is about mud-slinging in order to win political campaigns (the headline is "Down in the Mud"), and Kurtz's first four examples, appropriately enough, are ones in which partisan political figures spew repugnant personal insults against their political opponents in order to win elections -- which is the topic of Kurtz's column.

But then he tacks on an example at the end in which some spokesman for John Kerry, who isn't on any ballot, calls an anonymous blogger whose identity nobody knows a "coward" for insisting that Kerry donate more of his horded cash to Democratic candidates. That has nothing to do with Kurtz's topic, nor does it have anything to do with the lowly state of political campaigns or dirty ads. That incident might be an interesting example to illustrate the tensions between establishment politicians and bloggers, or to examine the competing views of Internet anonymity. But the Kerry-blogger exchange has nothing to do with the slimy, insult-driven state of political ads or the midterm campaigns, nor does it even arguably compete in the slime department with the other examples he provides.

The reason Kurtz added that incident is painfully and depressingly obvious -- it's because he had no examples of Democratic campaigns doing anything remotely equal to the acts of Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Cubin and Hillary Clinton's opponent, but he was afraid to point out that fact. So, instead, he cowardly strove to contrive the appearance of superficial "balance" and decorative nonpartisan objectivity, even at the expense of actual objectivity and factual reporting. Under the rules of the type of vapid and corrupt "journalism" which Kurtz practices, the overriding mandate is to criticize both sides equally and blindly even if only one side is guilty of the crime in question.

And therein lies the gravest illness of modern journalism -- the refusal on the part of people like Kurtz to report on matters honestly and factually. When reporters have as their central mandate that they must criticize each side equally -- even if doing so causes them to report on matters dishonestly -- it encourages one side to sink as low as possible, to be as deceitful, corrupt and dishonorable as possible, because the media will never report that fact and will never identify the guilty side as doing anything different than the other side. In the world of Howie Kurtz, both sides are always equal and identical and the same, even when they aren't.

It is just objectively true -- verifiably, demonstrably true -- that Republicans are running far more personal and scurrilous attack ads than Democrats are in this election cycle. Michelle Malkin went on John Gibson's Fox show yesterday -- let's repeat that: Michelle Malkin, John Gibson, Fox -- to discuss the repugnant state of political ads and they discussed only Republican examples, because those are the most glaring and abundant, by far. That Michelle Malkin and John Gibson can honestly confront an anti-Republican fact that Howard Kurtz is afraid to acknowledge and thus actively conceals speaks volumes about our national media.

There is no journalistic justification to avoid acknowledgment of this fact. It doesn't necessarily mean that Republicans are craven and evil and Democrats are angelic and noble. It is just a fact of political life that whichever political party which has the disadvantage concerning the most significant political issues will have more of an incentive to drag races into the gutter and have them focus on slimy personal assaults. In this case, Republican policies (particularly Iraq) and Republican political figures (starting with the President) happen to be deeply unpopular, and Republicans -- rationally enough -- are therefore seeking to have the election decided on less substantive grounds.

Even George Allen, ironically enough, described this dynamic in his interview this week with Captain Ed:

One of the most unfortunate aspects has been that we have been diverted for talking about the issues Virginians care about. Campaigns are supposed to be about a robust discussion of the issues so that voters can make educated and informed choices. I have said that I brought some of this on myself, but much of this is baseless allegations. It seems that those who are scared about running on issues try to change the subject because they know that if this election is decided on issues, we’ll win.

The fact that Allen delivered this sermon at the same time that his campaign was urging reporters for weeks to write stories on Jim Webb's novels -- finally settling on Matt Drudge to do the dirty work -- is as good an example as any of the lowly state of our political system. But Allen's abstract point is nonetheless correct -- candidates whose views on the issues (such as the Iraq War) are deeply unpopular will seek to have the election focus on other things, such as filthy personal assaults.

And in this election, it is the Republicans who are deeply unpopular on the issues and political substance, and they are therefore driven to drag the campaigns into the personal gutter because that is their only hope for winning. It also happens to be true that Republicans -- through the carousel of Lee Atwater, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, the Clinton sex scandals, and Karl Rove -- have perfected the art of personal assaults as a campaign device, but they have extra incentive to use such tactics now.

None of that is to say that Democrats are innocent, just that, for whatever reasons, Republicans in this campaign are far more active in the mud and filth department than Democrats are. That's just a fact (a fact which Michael Grunwald, Kurtz's colleague at the Post, honestly reported the day after Kurtz's column, in an article noteworthy because of how honest it was: "The result has been a carnival of ugly, especially on the GOP side, where operatives are trying to counter what polls show is a hostile political environment by casting opponents as fatally flawed characters").

But establishment journalists like Howard Kurtz will actively work to obscure and distort facts if those facts reflect too poorly on one side -- and, given their particular fear of being labelled part of the "liberal media," the fear is heightened substantially when the fact reflects poorly on the Bush movement. They would rather present a false and inaccurate (though superficially "balanced") account than a factual and accurate version, because they think that's what journalistic objectivity requires. False, dishonest "balance" is prioritized over accurate reporting. Howard Kurtz is the perfect person to serve as the referee for the way journalism is practiced in this country because he has such a deep understanding of its truth-distorting, shallow rules and adheres to them as diligently as anyone.

UPDATE: There is much more worth reading on this topic from Billmon, here.

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