by Eric Boehlert
What happens when media monitors mangle journalism in ways far more severe than the work they’re supposed to be appraising? What happens when press critics, instead of calling out newsroom missteps, simply propagate their own blunders in the name of analysis? When they weigh down their critiques with blatant misinformation?
It’s a constant quandary when it comes to right-wing critiques of the press, which are typically filed by ideologues who, rather than trying to improve journalism, want to eradicate it, which pretty much sums up the painfully (purposefully?) unserious work done at Brent Bozell’s NewsBusters outpost.
But the question becomes more problematic when those kinds of factually challenged critiques are embraced and presented by the mainstream media themselves. (Yes, it’s ironic and sad that the traditional media often provide a forum for dishonest media criticism.) It’s troubling when a phony, partisan attack on the press gets dressed up as a thoughtful examination and is hosted by one of the country’s largest newspapers, the way Jonah Goldberg’s anti-press piece was last week by USA Today.
Even for Goldberg, who makes his living casually smearing liberals as fascists, his USA Today media critique was an embarrassment. (For the paper as well as the writer.) It only highlighted what a mockery writers like him have made of the conservative media criticism genre. Poorly sourced and constructed around lazy, clichéd writing — and in a couple of cases, outright falsehoods — Goldberg’s piece simply illustrated how, rather than illuminating shortfalls of the press, conservatives often just create more work for the rest of us. Because now I have to critique Goldberg’s god-awful critique.
The headline for his misguided USA Today column read: “Day 15 of Obama’s honeymoon: One doesn’t have to break a sweat searching for examples of the news media’s ongoing love affair with our president. In this, he is like FDR.”
Immediately, I wondered how Goldberg would prop up his argument about Obama’s supposed media honeymoon when there’s already been so much Beltway chatter suggesting the opposite — that Obama’s press honeymoon has already been cut historically short. What evidence did Goldberg see that others ignored or had failed to detect? Because as a media critic myself, I understand that it’s paramount to provide proof to back up your claims. And that if you don’t, then you’re simply peddling propaganda for political purposes. You’re not making serious arguments, you’re just clowning around.
Let’s start with the column’s first sentence: “Barack Obama and his supporters have been relentlessly comparing the new president to Franklin Roosevelt.”
The new president has been “relentlessly” comparing himself to FDR? Note that Goldberg offered no evidence in his column — no quotes, no nothing — to back up that claim. I searched through Nexis and Google and couldn’t find examples of Obama comparing himself to FDR. Have his supporters and some pundits made that comparison? Yes, some have. (It’s often in the context of a new Democratic president inheriting an economic disaster from his Republican predecessor.) And Obama has occasionally quoted or evoked Roosevelt, as many Democratic presidents over the generations have. But Obama relentlessly comparing himself to FDR? No, there’s simply no evidence of that, which meant Goldberg concocted the very first fact in his column, a column that was supposed to instruct us about how shoddy journalists do their jobs. (Trust us, the irony only became thicker as the column progressed.)
Next up, Goldberg unfurled his main point, which was that the press had been swooning over Obama and giving him a free pass, a romantic honeymoon. That the White House press corps resembled “a gaggle of aging love-struck groupies following Jon Bon Jovi around.”
What’s telling is that Goldberg’s knee-jerk premise ran counter to some pretty obvious examples in the media recently. For instance, if the press were rooting for Obama, would journalists have falsely, and repeatedly, reported that the Democratic president’s inauguration cost four times as much as the one held in 2005? Probably not. And if the press were gaga over Obama, would so many outlets have spent weeks irresponsibly hyping the Rod Blagojevich story, insinuating incessantly that somehow Obama and his close aides were knee-deep in the scandal and that it was damaging the new administration? I suspect not.
That’s just my opinion regarding two completely phony stories the press recently used to beat up on Obama. But what about the facts on the ground inside the Beltway right now? How did Goldberg explain away the fact that in a column for the conservative Washington Times — headlined “Obama press aide gets bashed in debut” — reporter Joseph Curl wrote that the White House spokesman was “hammered” for an hour at the first Obama-era press briefing by reporters who “yelled,” “shouted,” and even “spat” questions? The combative back-and-forth “dispell[ed] the notion that journalists would go easy” on the new president, announced Curl.
And how did Goldberg explain similar headlines elsewhere, such as “Game On! Obama’s Clash With The White House Press Corps” and “Obama flashes irritation in press room“?
Didn’t those pretty much trample Goldberg’s honeymoon angle? And if so, how did he deal with that impediment to his tired “liberal media bias” thesis? Simple. Goldberg, as conservative press critics and their editors tend to, just played dumb. Rather than being honest and acknowledging the rash of news reports that undermined his “honeymoon” argument, and rather than trying to explain how Curl and the right-wing Washington Times completely failed to spot the media swoon unfolding right inside the White House briefing room, Goldberg tightened his right-wing blinders and marched on.
And oh, what a march it was.
Now, remember. According to Goldberg and USA Today, the Obama-media honeymoon angle was a no-brainer; the “examples” were self-evident. So, of course, diligent media critic Goldberg simply stuffed his column with irrefutable, stone-cold examples of the news media’s love affair, right? Not quite. Instead of facts or figures or even examples, readers got priceless nuggets like this:
There’ve been no standing ovations — yet — with Obama, but there’s no denying that many in the news media are clapping on the inside.
Uh-oh. That was definitely not a good sign. Goldberg claimed it was impossible to miss the examples of obvious liberal bias, but already, up high in the piece, he concedes biased journalists are “clapping on the inside.” We need to look into the souls of reporters to spot their shifty bias? But wasn’t the headline quite clear: “One doesn’t have to break a sweat searching for examples of the news media’s ongoing love affair with our president”? Which was it? Were the examples obvious, or were they hidden “inside” reporters?
Oh, but wait. In the next paragraph, Goldberg made good on his promise and tagged an actual journalist, by name, as a prime media swooner:
Though no one’s idea of an objective reporter, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews does express the euphoria nicely. On The Tonight Show, he told Jay Leno that the Obamas “are really cool. They are Jack and Jackie Kennedy when you see them together. They are cool. And they’re great looking, and they’re cool and they’re young, and they’re — everything seems to be great.”
Thud! Keep in mind this was Goldberg’s first/best example of a named journalist in a column that was supposed to document glaringly obvious media bias. Yet the first/best example was a guy nobody considers to be an objective reporter. And Goldberg quoted the non-reporter (Matthews) making comments to a comedian while appearing on a late-night talk show.
Ugh. I became discouraged and nervous that Goldberg might not provide any “examples” of the rampant bias plaguing the Beltway press corps. Nonetheless, I trudged on in search of some actual fact-based media criticism. Soon I found the section in which Goldberg recalled how President Bush became the butt of jokes back in 2005 when, following a press conference while traveling in China, the president was unable to find a door to exit through. Here’s the famous photo from the moment:
Goldberg claimed the press “tittered at his buffoonery,” and to prove his point about how nasty the press was, Goldberg included a link. But all the link did was lead readers to a YouTube video clip of Bush losing his battle with the locked door. Did the press mock Bush’s run-in with the locked door? Readers didn’t know for sure because Goldberg couldn’t be bothered with providing any documentation. Instead, readers were just supposed to take his word for it.
But in the very next paragraph, Goldberg illustrated why taking him at his word represents a fool’s errand. Continuing directly from his reference to Bush in China, Goldberg wrote:
Yet last week, when President Obama walked into an Oval Office window that he thought was a door, much of the news media looked the other way — perhaps recognizing his genius at spotting where a door should have been.
Oh, my. It was getting gruesome. Why? Because Obama never walked into a White House window. Period. But Goldberg, writing as a (cough, cough) media critic, manufactured a claim in order to prove how soft the press has been on Obama, to prove how the press looks the other way when Obama does something goofy, just like Bush used to do goofy things.
But again, in this case, Obama didn’t do what Goldberg claimed he did. Maybe that’s why the press didn’t make a big deal about it — because it didn’t happen. And maybe that shows how the press sometimes adheres to certain standards that Goldberg and his conservative cohort find to be so annoying.
Here’s the background on the non-story about Obama and window: On January 28, the New York Daily News, for whatever reason, thought it was newsworthy that after less than 10 days in the White House, Obama still wasn’t completely familiar with the sprawling complex. Fine, whatever. To illustrate its point, the Daily News reported:
It looks like President Obama hasn’t gotten acquainted to his White House surroundings. On the way back to the Oval Office Tuesday, the President approached a paned window, instead of the actual door — located a few feet to his right.
The key word? “Approached.” Here’s the photo the Daily News ran:
Obama never “walked into an Oval Office window,” as Goldberg claimed. But for the right-wing media critic, suddenly scrounging around for examples of liberal media bias and the supposed Obama honeymoon, the anecdote worked better if it was embellished, if it was manufactured. So that’s what he did. Goldberg made up a story in order to critique the press for its coverage of Obama. (Did we mention it got gruesome?)
Mercifully, Goldberg soon brought his hollow exercise to a close and ended with this beaut:
CNN’s John King recently said “nobody disputes” that journalists are too enraptured by Obama’s historic presidency; he seems to think it will wear off when the serious work of the nation kicks in.
Finally some meat on the bone, right? Slight problem: Goldberg only directly quoted two words from the CNN reporter (“nobody disputes”) before using his own words to describe what King supposedly said. Considering the fact that Goldberg had just made up the claim about Obama having “walked into” a window, I’d want to double-check the King quote.
So I searched Nexis and Google and TVEyes. But I couldn’t find anything even remotely close to matching what Goldberg claimed King had said about the press being enraptured by Obama. I even searched through the NewsBusters archives, where every imagined liberal media bias slight is documented by Bozell’s army of overeager scorekeepers. But nothing about King claiming “nobody disputes” that journalists are too enraptured by Obama. And trust me, if King had said that, the people at NewsBusters would have posted it, sent out email alerts, and called their congressional representatives. It would have been a huge deal.
But even NewsBusters couldn’t find King’s “nobody disputes” quote. Only Goldberg had caught it. Who knows, maybe King said it “on the inside.”
To recap: Goldberg’s media critique began with an outright falsehood about Obama and FDR. Goldberg simply ignored scores of media reports (including one from the right-wing Washington Times) that suggested Obama’s press honeymoon had been surprisingly brief. The first journalist Goldberg cited by name as being liberally biased was a TV personality who was “no one’s idea of an objective reporter” and whose quote Goldberg culled from an appearance on a comedy show. Goldberg made up a story about Obama walking into a window and then criticized the press for not covering as news the story Goldberg concocted. And then Goldberg ended with a two-word quote from CNN’s John King that only Goldberg seems to be familiar with.
And for the record, in a column supposedly brimming with “examples” of Obama’s press honeymoon, I couldn’t find a single one that withstood the slightest amount of scrutiny.
The painful lesson for USA Today? When you hire Jonah Goldberg to be a press critic, you get what you pay for.
UPDATE: Goldberg responded to my column. My rebuttal is here.
Source: Media Matters for America