A journalist with a political agenda is not necessarily a dishonest one, and a journalist who claims to be objective is not necessarily honest. These are useful facts to bear in mind as media liberals call for Andrew Breitbart's head.
Breitbart posted video of recently-fired USDA official Shirley Sherrod claiming she considered race in allocating federal agriculture funds. The apparent racism was debunked when the entire video surfaced, showing that Sherrod had actually discouraged such actions. "This is what happens" wrote Eric Deggans for the St. Petersburg "when ideologically-focused noise machines are treated like real news outlets."
Conspicuously absent in Deggans's screed is any mention of the recently-discovered attempt by liberal commentators to maliciously - and falsely, by their own admission - brand their ideological opponents as racists. Also absent: any mention of the litany of instances of dishonest and counter-factual reporting from the purportedly "objective" media.
Let's take those in order. For those completely disconnected from the realm of political journalism, the Daily Caller recently unearthed a 2008 effort by a number of the left's leading reporters and commentators to bury the Rev. Wright scandal, which almost sank Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
"Pick one of Obama's conservative critics," wrote Spencer Ackerman, then a blogger with the Washington Independent, "Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares -- and call them racists." The phrase "who cares" demonstrates that neither Ackerman nor anyone who took his advice cared if the targets of this smear campaign was racist. Malicious intent is self-evident.
Why did Deggans completely omit this bit from his piece? He chose to focus only on Breitbart, who, he claims, had no part in editing the video in question nor knowledge that the context of the video contradicted the apparent racism he thought he was exposing.
Obviously Breitbart has a significant interest in proclaiming his lack of culpability for dishonest journalistic practices. But no one has provided any evidence contradicting his claims. But the point is that Ackerman and his JournoList cohorts planned on portraying commentators as racist when they knew the opposite to be true. On its face, that is a more condemnable journalistic offense.
While this glaring double standard undermines Deggans's credibility in discussing honest reporting, the numerous examples of similar journalistic malfeasance on Old Media's part - conveniently omitted from Deggan's column - undermines the argument itself.
Deggans speculates on what the intended impact was of Breitbart's video:
unveiling video so explosive that media outlets are pushed to jump on the story without properly vetting it, amplified through hundreds of like-minded platforms. Mainstream media outlets get sucked into the frenzy by allegations that moving slowly is evidence of liberal bias, while all involved are pressured to shut down the story quickly as possible with a resignation or similar action…
Once again, mainstream news outlets have been accused of bias in moving slowly to cover a story trumpeted by ideologically slanted media outlets -- the Washington Post's ombudsman even chided his own newspaper for moving too slowly on the story…
But Sherrod's case shows exactly why fair-minded news outlets should be careful -- taking time to make sure these stories trumpeted by media outlets with clear political agendas are examined carefully. It's time to put the brakes on a runaway media culture open to manipulation and subversion; outlets moving slowly on stories shouldn't necessarily be penalized.
In other words, by Deggans's account, "ideologically slanted" media outlets, simply by their nature, encourage a lackluster approach to the news by the "fair-minded media outlets," who are working either to avoid being pre-empted on a story, or to avoid being accused of bias.
But then the issue is not the format of the news - who reports it through which medium - but rather the standards of journalism at play. Deggans fails to account for the litany of cases in which traditional - what he calls "fair minded" - media outlets have committed journalistic malpractice strikingly similar to those of which Breitbart stands accused.
Just to take two high profile examples, "fair-minded" outlets have leveled very serious false allegations against the last two Republican candidates for president.
In 2004, of course, CBS "60 Minutes" anchor Dan Rather's career ended after the supposedly-groundbreaking documents showing that George W. Bush had failed to follow orders and was excused from basic duties during his stint in the Texas Air National Guard were complete forgeries.
Not only were the documents fake, not only did CBS move forward with the report without vetting the story properly, but it was in fact ideologically-driven bloggers - the type Deggans thinks are "hurting America" - who exposed the story as the fraud that it was.
Four years later, the New York Times printed a front-page story suggesting that then-GOP presidential candidate John McCain had had an affair with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. There was no evidence whatsoever to back up the claim, but the Times ran it anyway. By the end of the day, when it was clear the story was a sham, the paper was furiously backpedaling and trying to shift the public's focus away from its shoddy journalistic practices.
Before it could, though, the story spread like wildfire - another phenomenon Deggans erroneously attributes uniquely to new media. As Brent Bozell wrote at the time,
The mystique of the New York Times remains so great in the media establishment that within hours, the network morning shows all rumbled forward with furrowed brows chanting it was a crisis...for McCain.
CBS morning host Harry Smith found a bombshell hedged with a may-have: "This bombshell report that Republican front-runner John McCain may have had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist who was a visitor to his office and traveled with him on a client's corporate jet." On ABC, former Clinton sex-denier George Stephanopoulos laughably claimed this could be an earthquake. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being fatal, George guessed this flimsy slime bubble was a "six or a seven...a damaging story, there’s no doubt about that." On NBC, Tim Russert said the story would "play out today in a very big way."
In sum, "ideologically slanted" journalists are not inherently less honest than Old Media's "fair minded" reporters, nor are they necessarily more sloppy with their verification. The truth is the truth, regardless of one's politics.
Breitbart's video was clearly dishonest (whether or not he intended it to be). But let's not pretend that dishonesty in journalism is confined to the digital right.