The New York Times went to town on Andrew Breitbart and Fox News on Sunday and Monday, rehashing the racial controversy over the Shirley Sherrod tape and suggesting conservative media outlets were guilty of "tilting the field," blowing "obscure or misleading stories...out of proportion" and presenting "political opposition research" as news. Hmm. Isn't that what the New York Times has been doing to conservatives for years?
Media reporter Brian Stelter made the front of Monday's Business page with his Fox News-bashing take on the controversy, "When Race is the Issue, Misleading Coverage Sets Off an Uproar."
In the last couple of days, Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Web site operator, has been called a liar, a provocateur, a propagandist -- and even a race-baiter. But he says he knows who the true race-baiters are: some Democratic activists.
Andrew Breitbart highlighted the edited video clip of Shirley Sherrod on one of his Web sites. "It's warfare out there," he says.
It was one of Mr. Breitbart's Web sites, BigGovernment, that highlighted the heavily edited video clip of Shirley Sherrod, a black official at the Department of Agriculture, apparently saying that she had been biased against a white farmer she was supposed to help. Ms. Sherrod's full speech actually demonstrated the opposite, but do not expect Mr. Breitbart to be embarrassed.
Stelter later evinced a convenient concern for journalist credibility for "when obscure or misleading stories are blown out of proportion and when what amounts to political opposition research is presented as news." Stelter must have missed the Times's hit pieces on John McCain alleging an affair and suggesting his birthplace made him unqualified to serve as president, or the paper's sabotage of two successful Bush-era terror-fighting programs it disapproved of.
But it is an open question whether conservative media outlets risk damage to their credibility when obscure or misleading stories are blown out of proportion and when what amounts to political opposition research is presented as news.
Stelter pivoted to take on the bigger enemy, the Fox News Channel.
In the last month, Fox doggedly pursued an accusation of voter intimidation by a fringe hate group called the New Black Panthers on the day of the last presidential election. One news anchor, Megyn Kelly, devoted dozens of segments to the incident. (Ms. Kelly was even upbraided on the air by a Fox News contributor, Kirsten Powers, who accused her of doing the "scary black man thing.")
Not mentioned: Powers is a regularly appearing Democratic strategist/conservative foil on Fox News.
Stelter seemed to call Breitbart's stories "scurrilous."
Scurrilous stories meant to taint the Obama administration regularly take root online before gaining traction on television and radio. Mr. Breitbart calls this the "undermedia."
Yet after all the "conservative"-baiting, Stelter somehow managed not to stick a liberal label on Arianna Huffington or her popular leftist website: "Back in 2005, Mr. Breitbart helped Arianna Huffington set up The Huffington Post. Mr. Breitbart's work for Ms. Huffington did not last long."
David Carr was another Timesman to bite in his Monday media column, "Journalists, Provocateurs, Maybe Both."
Carr faulted new media conservatives for the current state of affairs, where "many are less interested in covering the game than tilting the field." This "tilting" is apparently an exclusively right-wing phenomenon that applies solely to conservative "provocateurs," not the New York Times.
Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger, lighted the race fuse by promoting a heavily edited tape of a relatively ancient speech by Shirley Sherrod, an Agriculture Department official. And last week, Tucker Carlson, creator of The Daily Caller, published another set of private postings from Journolist, a now shuttered e-mail list, that seemed to reflect a kind of conspiracy of left-leaning thinkers and journalists.
Both men, professed conservatives, would seem to be as much provocateurs as journalists. Mr. Breitbart famously brought Acorn to its knees by releasing heavily edited video clips that suggested the poverty organization had provided advice to a conservative activist posing as a pimp. Mr. Carlson has, among other things, bought the domain name KeithOlbermann.com, one more bit of mischief intended to bring attention and hits to The Daily Caller.
There's sure been a lot of huffing about The Daily Caller website trying to boost its hits. Is that not the mission of every single page on the Web? At least Carr made a stab at balance here:
There have been times when it seemed that Rush Limbaugh was acting as de facto head of the Republican Party, as the Democrats picked up talking points from Rachel Maddow. And Sarah Palin, through Facebook and Twitter accounts, has become an important source of political wisdom for many Americans.
Carr could have also mentioned that an extended clip from the June 25 edition of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show was featured in a clip from President Obama shown to Netroots Nation, the left-wing blogger convention in Las Vegas this weekend.
Even the most tradition-bound journalists would concede that while watching the world spin, they like to nudge it every once in a while. Why, after all, would someone spend their professional life enmeshed in the civic conversation unless they had a stake in it somewhere? But what is emerging is more of a permanent crusade, where information is not only power, but a means to a specific end.
As content providers increasingly hack their own route to an audience, it's becoming clear that many are less interested in covering the game than tilting the field.
Luckily columnist Frank Rich was there to make Carr and Stelter seem reasonable in comparison, providing unhinged overkill on the Sherrod fiasco. First he called conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart a "racial provocateur." And then Rich really got offensive, in his Sunday column, "There's a Battle Outside and It Is Still Ragin'."
This country was rightly elated when it elected its first African-American president more than 20 months ago. That high was destined to abate, but we reached a new low last week. What does it say about America now, and where it is heading, that a racial provocateur, wielding a deceptively edited video, could not only smear an innocent woman but make every national institution that touched the story look bad? The White House, the N.A.A.C.P. and the news media were all soiled by this episode. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, who believe in fundamental fairness for all, grapple with the poisonous residue left behind by the many powerful people of all stripes who served as accessories to a high-tech lynching.
Rich, always at hand with a hysteric metaphor, compared John Lewis's beating at the hand of racist state troopers during the Civil Rights era was somehow comparable to unsupported allegations of racial epithets shouted at him, as a congressman, on the frenzied final day of the health care debate on Capital Hill.
Rich, like the rest of the media, assumed as gospel truth the racial slurs alleged by Lewis's colleagues, though there has never been any documentation. In his column, Rich even made up "hundreds of eyewitnesses" to the epithets -- though again, none have surfaced to claim to have heard racial slurs at the rally and none revealed on video or audiotape, despite the air being thick with recording equipment.
Even the civil rights hero John Lewis has been slimed by these vigilantes. Lewis was nearly beaten to death by state troopers bearing nightsticks and whips in Selma, Ala., just three weeks before Sherrod's father was murdered 200 miles away in 1965. This year, as a member of Congress, he was pelted with racial epithets while walking past protesters on the Capitol grounds during the final weekend of the health care debate. Breitbart charged Lewis with lying -- never mind that the melee had hundreds of eyewitnesses -- and tried to prove it with a video so manifestly bogus that even Fox didn't push it. But he wasn't deterred then, and he and others like him won't be deterred by the Sherrod saga's "happy ending" as long as the McConnells of the conservative establishment look the other way and Fox pumps racial rage into the media bloodstream 24/7.
Note: This is a condensed version of three articles that appeared earlier today at Times Watch.