Storming Camelot: Sen. Kennedy’s Death Brings Out Worst from the Right

Karl Frisch

By Karl Frisch

Following Wednesday’s early-morning news that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had lost his battle with brain cancer, Media Matters posted the following statement from president Eric Burns at 3:51 a.m. ET on the County Fair blog:

“Ted Kennedy was a true American statesman. The values that he so eloquently and tirelessly championed represent the best of our American ideals. He reached across the aisle to get hard work done but never sacrificed principle. Though he is gone, the dream will forever live on. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Vicki Kennedy, the Senator’s family, his loyal staff and the millions of lives he touched throughout his historic life and career.”

Far from letting Kennedy rest in peace, many media conservatives savagely attacked the Senate’s last liberal lion. Leading the charge was radio host Rush Limbaugh, who began his broadcast Wednesday morning eulogizing Kennedy by calling him “the lion of the Senate” before noting that “we were his prey.” Hardly finished, El Rushbo would go on to say that “Kennedy screwed up everything he touched.” He said Kennedy’s opposition to Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination was “the beginning of the dawn of the age of the current hate.” He claimed Kennedy “used the government to take money from people that work to give it to people that don’t work” and that “most of Senator Kennedy’s plans ended up damaging the people he seeks to help.” Finally, Limbaugh marveled at the fact that “the Constitution is still there, even after Ted Kennedy in the Senate for 52 [sic] years.” All that and more led MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Politico‘s Patrick Gavin to agree that “Limbaugh showed great restraint” in discussing Kennedy’s death. Can you imagine what Rush would have said had it not been for such “restraint?”

Limbaugh was hardly alone in his disgusting attacks on Kennedy. Radio host and Fox News political analyst Tammy Bruce kept it classy, claiming on Twitter that Fox News Sunday‘s Chris “Wallace noted the last great act of Kennedy’s career was to endorse [President] Obama. I agree: he left a woman to drown and now he’s left us to drown.”

Eric Sanger, a director at Premiere Radio Networks, ABC Radio/Citadel Media and The Sean Hannity Show, said on Facebook (emphasis added), “The irony is that the media is already positioning Ted as a champion for the little man against wealth and privilege. This piece of garbage was the poster child for wealth and privilege. Hopefully, this event will mark the end of this repugnant family and all the endless crap, entitlement, personal indulgences and collateral damage (Kopechne, Bessette, Bowman, Moxely, etc.).”

Wesley Pruden, a Washington Times columnist, wrote that Kennedy’s death was “a good career move” and that Democrats “are smiling through their tears,” while Andrew Breitbart, a fellow Times columnist,called Kennedy a “villain,” a “duplicitous bastard,” and a “prick” on Twitter, as noted by Politico. Riehl World View, a right-wing blog, came to Breitbart’s defense, claiming that liberals criticizing him were “hypocrites” because when Dick Cheney dies, they’re going to do the exact same thing. That’s right, liberals today are hypocrites because of what they might do in the future. Now that’s some crazy fortune-telling.

Fox News host Sean Hannity told his audience that “out of respect for his family,” he had decided not to “bring up Mary Jo Kopechne” or Kennedy’s “radical socialism.” Seriously.

When they weren’t busy attacking Kennedy’s legacy, media conservatives — like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham — were attacking Democrats for purportedly attempting to use his passing to stifle debate and enact health care reform legislation, repeatedly calling this supposed tactic the “death card.” In a true episode of pot meets kettle, conservative media figures — like health care serial misinformer Betsy McCaughey — have used Kennedy’s death to attack health care reform, some even baselessly suggesting that if reform passes, elderly cancer patients — as Kennedy was — will be “denied” treatments or that their treatments will be “rationed.” Limbaugh said that “Ted Kennedy didn’t have to read a death book,” while Tom Marr, guest-hosting Lou Dobbs’ radio show, said under a public option, a “bureaucrat” would have told Kennedy, “77, brain tumor, bye-bye.”

On top of the relentless smears from media conservatives, several mainstream press outlets repeated without question the GOP claim that Kennedy’s absence from the health care debate prevented lawmakers from reaching a bipartisan compromise and that had Kennedy been present, agreement on health care reform would have been more likely. Several progressive commentators have identified this talking point as GOP spin intended to disguise Republicans’ obstructionism, with’s Joan Walsh, for example, stating that “absolutely no evidence supports that point of view” and blogger Ezra Klein noting that Kennedy’s committee has already reported out a bill — a progressive one, at that.

In another example of, shall we say, interesting reporting, ABC’s Jonathan Karl claimed on August 27 that if “last night’s town hall meeting in Phoenix is any indication” of whether Kennedy’s death will “inspire newfound unity on health care reform,” “the answer seems to be no.” But the video Karl aired to support his claim was from an August 25 event that occurred before Kennedy’s death, not from “last night.”

Perhaps worst of all, conservative media figures — like Fox News’ Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity,Limbaugh, and National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, to name a few — have returned to the tired smear that the memorial service for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) became “a political rally” to suggest that progressives will excessively politicize Kennedy’s death. But as now-Sen. Al Franken documented at length, the claim that Wellstone’s memorial was politicized is a myth based on distortions propagated by the conservative media.

Which leads me to think this is becoming a case of déjà vu all over again.

Other major stories this week

Death becomes them

An increasingly morbid culture is dominating conservative attacks against health care reform. Not content to accuse Democrats of merely seeking the deaths of seniors and the disabled with supposed “death panels,” conservatives have now accused them of seeking to turn the Veterans Affairs Department into a euthanasia organization — for veterans. Yes, it was the week of the “death book.” The book in question was “Your Life, Your Choices,” or YLYC, originally published in 1997 and designed to help vets consider end-of-life issues. According to the right, though not according to fact, the Bush administration had temporarily put the book out of use, but Obama’s VA has brought it back, among other similar works.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that in 2005, the Republican-controlled Senate proposed calling on Medicare to cover voluntary advanced planning consultations — end-of-life counseling, as it were. Fox News, of course, ignored the story. But consistency isn’t their bag — hypocrisy is.

And so, after an August 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed argued that YLYC contained an unmistakable “hurry-up-and-die message,” Fox News’ Chris Wallace repeatedly cropped quotes from the new Veterans Health Administration (VHA) document mentioning the book in order to falsely suggest the Obama administration was requiring veterans to read it. When his guest, assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth rebutted his accusation, he said she was lying.

The conservative noise machine swung into action. The baseless assault was soon repeated by multiple Fox News guests. A Washington Times editorial raised rationing fears and claimed that “the book fosters dark thoughts about a difficult life somehow being less of a life.” Sean Hannity said the administration was doing something “unimaginable.” Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted on her Facebook page that the book “encourages veterans to forego care as they make end-of-life decisions.”National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg said that the VA was telling “veterans that maybe they should be euthanized.” Fox News’ Karl Rove said that vets were being pushed toward “assisted suicide.” Even Sen. John McCain agreed that the book was like a “death panel.” (Sadly, CNN entertained the smear, too.)

When The New York Times reported on the story, it neglected to note a fact that just might get to the heart of the story. The author of the original Journal op-ed, H. James Towey, runs a nonprofit group that has published its own booklet on end-of-life issues, a book by Towey himself. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Towey has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the VA to adopt his literature instead of YLYC.

How do veterans feel? The Vietnam Veterans of America weighed in on Wednesday, saying that “it is outrageous for some partisans to politicize the debate by targeting veterans with blatant scare tactics.” But don’t look for them to get much airtime on Fox. That’s not what the conservative media mean when they talk about “supporting the troops.” blogger Richard Smith criticized Towey’s assertion that YLYC presents “end-of-life choices in a way aimed at steering users toward predetermined conclusions,” noting “if the document was really trying to get veterans to pull the plug on themselves, then first suggesting to them that their life should be prolonged at all costs is a pretty stupid way to do it” [emphasis in original].

As was the case last week, there were good examples of media coverage to be celebrated. MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer noted that Betsey McCaughey, who is normally treated by the media with a sort of reverence, was forced to resign from a medical company’s board over “conflict of interest” concerns. NBC News’ David Gregory corrected Sen. Orrin Hatch’s false claim that “tens of millions” of Americans will switch to a public option if it is offered. MSNBC’s David Shuster debunked claims about the “death book” and rebutted the idea that Democrats will provide health care to undocumented immigrants, while his colleague Keith Olbermann also took the “death book” smear to task, as did Alison Stewart, guest-hosting for Rachel Maddow. While interviewing McCain, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pushed back repeatedly against the baseless conservative spin. CNN’s Howard Kurtz discussed a poll finding that 75 percent of Fox News viewers believe the false “death panel” claims — which turned Fox News’ Shepard Smith into an outlier when he forced Carl Cameron to note that there are no “death panels” in Democratic health care legislation. Look for him to face renewed criticism from conservatives for daring to set things straight.

Conspiracy theorist Beck loses 46th advertiser

Did Glenn Beck forget that he called Obama a “racist”? And does the fact that nearly 50 advertisers to date have abandoned his program in response to a grassroots campaign have anything to do with Beck’s sudden bout of monumental amnesia?

Why do we ask? Because when Beck visited Bill O’Reilly’s show this week to bemoan attempts by nasty liberal “loons” to shut Beck up, to snatch away his freedom of speech, there wasn’t a single mention of what exactly Beck had done to attract such scorn from progressives. At Fox News, that smear seems to have been flushed down the memory hole, and all that’s left is playing the victim.

We’re used to Beck being “out there,” but Thursday’s show was special. Beck’s hour (the second day in a row in which he didn’t say a thing about Kennedy’s death) was all about the supposed secret army being built by Obama. In fact, Obama’s comments about the necessity of a “civilian national security force” came from a July 2, 2008, speech on service, and they referred to expanding the foreign service, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps.

This secret army idea — not supported by any facts, though possibly written in invisible ink that Beck can interpret — is a pet cause of fringe radio host Alex Jones, who is something of a leader in the underground 9-11 “truth” movement, which believes that the attacks were an inside job and that all the governments of the world are controlled by a cabal of the uber-rich who want to kill two-thirds of the world’s population. Jones has repeatedly alluded to the existence of a secret army being built by Obama, a charge similar to the one leveled by Beck on his show. The difference, of course, is that Jones mostly transmits over the Internet and shortwave radio. Beck has a show on a cable “news” network. Beck’s previous flirtation with the idea that FEMA was building detention camps for conservatives is also an article of faith with Jones and his followers.

When Beck wasn’t occupied with scrawling wild conspiracy theories on a chalk board (by the way, it became apparent this week that Beck could use some spelling lessons), he was begging his audience to “call a friend and tell them to watch the show this week.” Surely, this had nothing to do with the legions of advertisers fleeing his show. By the way, Palin was happy to oblige, inviting her Facebook fans to tune in.

Sean Hannity for president, Hahahaha …

Here’s a good laugh to close out the week. On Monday, the right-wing Fox News web site linked under the headline “President Hannity?” to a WorldNetDaily article that claimed the Fox host “would make a formidable candidate, with the likability of Reagan, good looks and strong convictions.” Adding more fuel to the hilarious fire in an “exclusive commentary,” Joseph Farah, a birther and founder/editor/CEO of WorldNetDaily, weighed in: “I could get excited about a Sean Hannity candidacy. I could get excited about a Sean Hannity presidency. I even hear he has a birth certificate.” For his part, Hannity said Thursday: “I would run for office at some point in my life.” Could America be so lucky? Try not to swoon.

This week’s media columns

This week’s media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert looks at how to media, angry right-wingers are important, while angry libs are annoying, and Jamison Foser discusses the media’s health care filibuster.

Greg Lewis brings us “‘Rush Limbaugh showed great restraint’? Please …” in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh’s radio shows over the past week.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube or sign up to receive his columns by email.