News & Politics

5 of the Biggest Hacks in American Media

Excerpted from Alex Pareene and Salon's 2011 Hack List, here are five of the worst, most predictable and least interesting pundits in America.

The Salon Hack List is a list of our least favorite political commentators, newspaper columnists, political news show hosts, and constant cable news presences, ranked roughly (but only roughly) in order of awfulness and then described rudely. Criteria for inclusion included being wrong about literally everything, shameless sycophancy, appearing on “Morning Joe” and being “Morning Joe.”

Last year, our countdown was based on each hack’s entire career. We’re still looking at their whole bodies of work, but we’re focusing on the hackiest thing each entrant did in this rapidly ending year.

 

1. Mark Halperin 

What more is there to say about Mark Halperin? He certainly hasn’t gotten any better since last year, when a panel of experts (me) named him the world’s second biggest hack. He’s still wrong about everything. He’s still shallow and predictable. He’s still both fixated solely on the horse race and also uniquely bad at analyzing the horse race.

Halperin spent 2011 gearing up for the presidential elections by parroting transparently lame spin from Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, insisting that Palin was really going to run for president and taking Trump’s farcical vanity “campaign” seriously as anything other than a time-wasting stunt. He still takes Mark Penn seriously as a wise campaign sage and not an amoral grifter. And he got in trouble for calling President Obama a “dick” on “Morning Joe,” because the president criticized the GOP at a press conference. (This after Halperin spends years writing columns calling him a weak-willed wimp, because he is a Democrat.) The worst thing was not that he called the president a dick, it was that the president hadn’t even been dickish. (Well, the worst thing was the whole “Morning Joe” team giggling like stoned teenagers that Halperin said a bad word.) Halperin is so dedicated to being wrong about everything that, upon his return to the airwaves, he actually made a point of mentioning that, had he been on TV during his suspension, he would’ve been wrong about something. Plus he did a “Morning Joe” appearance from an airplane bathroom which is surely illegal.

All that’s left, really, is to proudly announce his ascension to the throne as worst hack in America.

HACKIEST 2011 MOMENT:
Halperin’s worst low of the last year actually happened in 2010, but it occurred after the Hack 30 was finished, and is thus eligible for inclusion here. Immediately after it was announced that Elizabeth Edwards had died, MSNBC had Halperin on to eulogize her. Halperin did not mention his integral role in the national smearing of Edwards as a harridan (“an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazy-woman,” in the eyes of unnamed “insiders,” according to Halperin’s last book).

2. Erin Burnett

Erin Burnett was a perfect fit at CNBC, a business news network that interprets its mission as reporting for business leaders and the finance industry and not on them. A former Goldman Sachs analyst who also did a stint at Citigroup (business journalism might be worse than political reporting when it comes to team-switching and fraternizing among “sources” and “journalists”), Burnett epitomizes the CNBC worldview, where the ideal business journalist is a levelheaded interpreter of the omniscient market and ally of the wise men who’ve been enriched by it. Making the switch to being a news program host for us regular folk, on CNN, has not been without a couple of hitches for Ms. Burnett. Turns out, regular people don’t naturally perceive CEOs and bankers as heroic figures, especially in the midst of a mass employment and consumer debt crisis that the wealthy have escaped unscathed.

Burnett, despite her youth, is a relic of a bygone age. She embodies ’90s “market populism,” to use Thomas Frank’s phrase, now still surviving on our airwaves as a zombie idea. The idea of America as a mass “shareholder society” is a sick joke in a nation currently sharply divided between struggling debtors and bailed-out creditors, but the dream is popular enough among the well-off professionals in charge of our news networks that CNN pinned its prime-time hopes on Burnett appealing to a mass audience. (If ratings are any indication, it’s not working.)

CNN, the network that refuses to take a side on anything, naturally assumes that being objectively pro-finance is the same thing as being objective. Hence her parroting the Wall Street party line that “everybody” (meaning “everybody” in the sense of American citizens and not financial professionals) was “responsible” for the massive financial crisis that plunged us unto a recession. This came after her revisionist claim, on Bill Maher’s show, that “everyone in this country knew there was a housing bubble,” an attempt to excuse the blinkered cheerleading of pre-crash CNBC. (She followed up with a line treating a hypothetical “soak the rich” tax as an objectively bad idea, asserting that Wall Street had already lost too much in the crisis to require such a draconian measure.)

And there was her amazing response to Donny Deutsch’s 2009 suggestion that Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs give some minuscule percentage of their obscene profits to Haiti. “Hold on, Donny,” she shouted. “What would they do with all that money down there in Haiti?” I’m sure they could think of something.

Finally, I have no problem with professional entertainers playing make-believe on Donald Trump’s asinine “reality” show, but it’s embarrassing for a supposed journalist to pretend to be the fake-billionaire’s “advisor,” a part Burnett played on “The Apprentice” before she left the NBC family.

HACKIEST 2011 MOMENT:
Clearly, her confused, confrontational response to Occupy Wall Street. She saw “bongos” and “a clown,” but these stupid fools didn’t know how wonderful Wall Street was, and how much it helps all of us, every day! One person didn’t even realize that TARP was an unalloyed positive thing for the nation as a whole! Burnett’s refusal or inability to understand what could possibly outrage people about the extraordinary actions involved in rescuing Wall Street from its colossal mistakes as the rest of us muddle through a protracted non-recovery was only improved by her hostile and dismissive treatment of regular people actually endeavoring to make the country a slightly fairer place. If you want snide, condescending apologism for powerful people you should rightfully worship as your betters, CNN’s got the show for you!

3. Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson is a generic right-wing blogger whose only notable quality as a commentator is his cowardly unwillingness to stand behind the various vitriolic things he says and writes. He’s not a good writer or interesting thinker or particularly funny or savvy. His idea of a good gag is calling David Souter a “goat-fucking child molester” and then deleting that tweet and then hastily rewriting it when he got called on it and then crying to Howard Kurtz that he regretted ever writing it.

Even the many vile and stupid things he says are repetitive and predictable. He’s called Barack Obama a Nazi on multiple occasions, for crimes like “criticizing the insurance industry” and “wanting to host the Olympics.” Who can forget the time he idly wondered when citizens would “march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp” over a Washington state proposal to regulate phosphates in dishwasher detergent? That’s quality political analysis right there! No wonder CNN hired him!

When he’s not hyperbolic and violent, he’s just wrong and lame.

And it gets no lamer or wronger than the “We are the 53% movement,” a stillborn, inadvertently hilarious right-wing response to Occupy Wall Street involving self-proclaimed members of the producer class crowing about their Randian productivity while decrying everyone else as leeches. The name was taken from the premise that “only” 53 percent of Americans pay taxes, which is true only of federal income taxes, and is true only because there are a lot of poor Americans, and a few lucky Americans who are skilled at taking advantage of Republican-supported tax loopholes.

Erickson led off the “53%” movement by declaring that he “works three jobs,” at least two of which are simply spewing a never-ending stream of risible bullshit. Other contributors to the “We are the 53%” site included a number of people who were clearly not in the 53 percent, being apparently unaware that they were clear beneficiaries of government social spending, or in one instance, being a dog.

HACKIEST 2011 MOMENT:
Surprisingly, not his 53 percent activism. The hackiest thing Erick Erickson did all year was withdraw support from an insurgent GOP candidate because his rich bosses are personal friends of George Allen. That’s the sign of a true careerist hack right there.

4. David Brooks

Last year, we gave New York Times columnist and liberal editors’ favorite moderate conservative David Brooks grief for being milquetoast and lazy. But this year, let’s hand it to the guy: When you want a truly vile opinion dressed up to sound innocuous, Brooks is your guy.

He can make a defense of racist demagoguing sound benign. He obfuscates and misleads on income inequality, while, as always, accusing those damned coastal liberal elites of disrespecting Real Americans. Accusing liberals of disrespecting Real Americans is one of Brooks’ go-to lines, even though there’s absolutely no evidence that he has any clue whatsoever how the middle and working classes live in America in 2011.

Everything, with Brooks, comes down to “values.” Bad things happen because of a lack of the correct “values,” and the correct “values” are essentially white upper-middle-class mid-20th-century bourgeois values. Poverty happens because the poor don’t have those values. Earthquakeshappen because of a lack of those values. The sexual abuse of childrenhappens because — you guessed it — America lost those important pre-’60s values. The abuses at Penn State, in Brooks’ worldview, went unreported because America has become “a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness.”

HACKIEST 2011 MOMENT:
That linked column on the abuses at Penn State was the sanitized version of Brooks’ comments on “Meet the Press,” in which he blamed both the failure to report the sexual abuses to the police and the riots following the firing of Joe Paterno more explicitly on “30 or 40 years” of “muddying the moral waters.” If it weren’t for women’s lib and the self-esteem movement, those kids could’ve been protected!

5. Megyn Kelly

Megyn Kelly is one of Fox News chief Roger Ailes’ favorites, and it’s easy to see why: She’s equal parts gorgeous and belligerent. She’s smart and quick enough to hold her own in any interview, and she has no qualms about beating the drum for whatever crackpot right-wing story line the network’s lead propagandists are currently pushing, no matter how dubious. Hence, we get a year’s worth of terrifying stories on the awesome political power of the New Black Panther Party, complete with unlikely Justice Department conspiracy theories and b-roll footage designed to unnerve old white viewers. When the story has outlived its usefulness, it’s summarily forgotten, and we move on to the next tale.

There’s really no one who better represents the insidious nature of the Fox project than Kelly. Hannity and O’Reilly are packaged and sold as right-wing shouters. Kelly’s an “anchor” who professes to have no partisan bias of her own. And she could very well be telling the truth! She doesn’t need to personally believe the things she says, after all. When she casually refers to the tax burden on “the so-called rich” (so called because they are, generally), she’s just doing her job. When Kelly, in the midst of excoriating a Democrat, claims that Fox personalities don’t regularly compare liberals and Democrats to Nazis, everyone (besides some unknown non-savvy portion of her audience) knows we’re not supposed to take her seriously.

I imagine that perma-sneer, that disgusted look of disbelieving contempt that remains plastered on Kelly’s face during the entirety of “America Live,” disappears the minute the red light on top of the camera goes off, because Megyn Kelly doesn’t actually give a shit about the National Day of Prayer or seriously believe the New Black Panther Party represents a threat to democracy. She’s just happy to have a job doing something she loves: being a reliable bile-delivery system for a massive political messaging organization.

Recently, in an argument with some repulsive talk radio hack, Kelly defended not just her own paid maternity leave — the sort of professional perk that a high-powered attorney like herself would (justifiably!) feel totally entitled to — but went on to seemingly endorse European-style government-mandated paid leave for all, including fathers. The fact that a pre-leave Kelly had savagely mocked the idea of paternity leave is amusing but unsurprising. She’s a former attorney. Her primarily professional skill is convincingly making whatever argument you pay her to make. (She said as much to Rebecca Dana, in fact.) Which is so much worse and hackier than being a simple ideologue.

HACKIEST 2011 MOMENT:
Her offhand claim that police pepper spray is “a food product, essentially,”which seems like a very rough first draft of a right-wing talking point that was not quite ready for standard use by the noise machine.