Why Do Angry, Right-Wing Mobs Get Media Respect?
I guess Howard Dean was just ahead of his time.
When the liberal anti-war candidate ran for the White House in 2003 and 2004, the Beltway press was uniformly clear that Dean had an "anger" issue. When Dean launched his campaign and gave voice to the hundreds of thousands of activists who had marched and protested against the Iraq war, the media elites did not approve.
And in two features in the summer of 2003, The Washington Post described Dean as "abrasive," "flinty," "cranky," "arrogant," "disrespectful," "fiery," "red-faced," a "hothead," "testy," "short-fused," "angry," "worked up," and "fired up." And trust me, none of those adjectives was used in a complimentary way. In fact, the Post took pains to distinguish Dean's anger from that of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom the paper termed "brilliantly cranky."
Bad luck for Dean, because back during the Bush years, there was really no worse crime, at least in the eyes of the Beltway press, than being "angry." (Especially being an angry Democrat.) It was practically a deal breaker. Serious people simply didn't conduct themselves that way in American politics. They didn't let their runaway partisan emotions get the best of them.
But oh my, how times have changed! Suddenly this summer, as right-wing mini-mobs turn health care forums into free-for-alls, as unhinged political rage flows in the streets, and as the Nazi and Hitler rhetoric flies, anger is in. Suddenly anger is good. It's authentic. It's newsworthy. Reading and watching the mini-mob news coverage, the media message seems clear: Angry speaks to the masses.
Instead of being turned off by the displays of passion the way they had been when liberal protesters took to the streets prior to the Iraq war, media elites have been touting the mini-mob trend as a "phenomenon" (USA Today) staffed by a "citizen army" (Bloomberg News).
And make no mistake, the health care mini-mobs have been showered with a massive amount of media coverage. During the week of August 10-16, the topic of health care, and specifically the politics and the protests of health care, accounted for a staggering 62 percent of all cable news coverage, according to the Pew Research Center's weekly survey. My guess is that you would be hard-pressed to find a single week during the run-up to the Iraq war when liberal anti-war protests accounted for just 6 percent of the cable news coverage.
Why the gaping disparity? And how come Dean's anti-war anger was out of bounds, but mini-mob anger is perfectly acceptable? How come liberal anti-war protesters were shunned by the press, but the mini-mobs are showered with incessant coverage? It's because apparently when angry -- and overwhelmingly white -- conservatives protest, they come attached with a direct line to the American psyche. Liberals, though, most certainly do not.
Bottom line: Liberal protesters don't tell us anything about the mood of America. But angry right-wingers do, according to the press.
That glaring double standard is part of a long-running Beltway press trend in which media elites lash out at angry liberals, regardless of whether they're right or wrong. The trend was highlighted again just last week when news broke that former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge admitted that very senior players in the Bush White House urged him to raise the nation's terror alert system for purely political reasons. Writing at The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder defended journalists who scorned liberal Bush critics years ago when they made that exact same claim about the nation's terror warning system. Journalists were right to dismiss the allegation, wrote Ambinder, "because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence."
Salon's Glenn Greenwald quickly noted, "As always: even when the dirty leftist hippies are proven right, they're still Shrill, unSerious Losers who every decent person and 'journalist' scorns."
Please note Ambinder's emphasis on "gut hatred" of Bush (even if the writer did later retract the phrase). For elite journalists during the Bush administration, liberal hatred of Bush represented the most conspicuous red flag that signaled certain political players were not serious. Why? Because they were fueled by hatred. Serious people did not have hatred. They weren't driven by out-of-control passion.
Now, please compare that defining media elite principle from the Bush era to the mini-mobs and the ugly free-for-alls they unleashed this summer. Judging based on the insight into the Beltway media's mentality that Ambinder provided, the press dismissed Bush's liberal critics because they were too emotional, too full of "hatred," and not paying attention to the facts. You mean sort of like the anti-Obama mini-mob members who hang politicians in effigy, turn town hall forums into fact-free shriek-fests, arrive with loaded guns, wave swastika posters, and yell out "Heil Hitler"?
If ever there's ever been a political movement fueled by, and carefully constructed around, irrational "gut hatred," it's today's right-wing mini-mobs. But you don't hear much from Village pundits like Ambinder about the "gut hatred" of Obama, do you? That doesn't seem to turn off pundits, reporters, or producers.
In truth, right-wing "gut hatred" has become the news story of the summer. It's being celebrated and rebroadcast all season long. That deranged "gut hatred" of a new president barely halfway through his first year doesn't delegitimize the protesters in the eyes of the Beltway press in the way the same press corps seemed to write off anti-war protesters as being fringe radicals. (Too angry!) The "gut hatred" of Obama is what makes the mini-mob news.
As Media Matters senior fellow Duncan Black wrote last week at his blog, Eschaton, in relation to the Tom Ridge story:
Sometimes it's a bit hard to remember just how nutty the world was in those post-9/11 days. Suggesting that Bush was using the terror alert for political purposes would have made you a crazy person, the mere suggestion of it would've put you outside the bounds of acceptable discourse.
Sort of like suggesting today that the federal government might soon be in the business of selectively killing the elderly, right? Think again. High-profile conservatives who pushed the "death panel" nonsense, which fired up the mini-mobs, have not been shoved to the sidelines. Instead, they've been politely fact-checked on occasion.
Media to liberal war protesters: Go away!
And just so there's no doubt in people's mind, the blanket coverage the mini-mobs are lapping up (i.e. the mobs are hugely important!) stands in stark contrast to the way the press often did its best to ignore liberal protesters who spoke out against the war in Iraq.
For instance, in October 2002, when more than 100,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to oppose the war, The Washington Post put the story not on the front page, but in the Metro section with, as the paper's ombudsman later lamented, "a couple of ho-hum photographs that captured the protest's fringe elements."
For that same 2002 anti-war rally, The New York Times also bungled its reporting. The day after the event, the newspaper published a small article on Page 8, which was accompanied by a photo that was larger than the article itself. And in the article, the Times falsely reported that "fewer people attended than organizers had said they hoped for."
Let's watch and see how the Post deals with the mini-mob protest slated for September 12 in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Dick Armey's FreedomWorks. If 100,000-200,000 people turn out, let's see whether the Post keeps that story off the front page. (Yeah, right.) And let's see if the Times runs a brief article on Page 8 and reports that "fewer people attended" than organizers had hoped.
And remember how some in the mainstream press in 2005 treated anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey had been killed while serving in Iraq? An op-ed writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution claimed that "Cindy Sheehan evidently thinks little of her deceased son." The piece also attacked her as being "disgraceful" and her actions as "near-treasonous."
On MSNBC, Norah O'Donnell asked a guest if Sheehan had become "a tool of the left," while pressing another guest on whether it was wise to be associated with the "anti-war extremists" camped out in Crawford, Texas, near President Bush's ranch. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wondered if Sheehan would be remembered as a modern-day Lyndon LaRouche, the fringe political figure who's been accused of being a cult leader and fascist. Later that month, Milbank gave prominent display in the Post to a right-wing activist who accused Sheehan of being a communist.
On September 24, 2005, Sheehan helped lead a massive anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., which drew between 100,000 and 200,000 participants, making it the largest U.S. demonstration since the war began. As part of the protest weekend, Sheehan, along with about 370 anti-war protesters, got herself arrested outside the White House. That night, NBC's Nightly News completely ignored the arrests. (The Post gave the story 600 words on B1.) The evening newscasts on ABC and CBS mentioned the arrests only briefly, and CBS downplayed the numbers involved. It reported that Sheehan was arrested along with "dozens" of others. (What? As in 31 dozen?) And the next morning, ignoring the fact that nearly 400 people chose to be arrested in order to protest the war, CNN reported that "Sheehan and several others were arrested" [emphasis added].
If, come September 12, nearly 400 angry anti-Obama demonstrators decide to get arrested outside the White House, let's see if Nightly News boycotts the story. And let's see if CNN reports it was "several" protesters who got hauled away.
Let's see if the press continues to treat angry (unhinged) conservative protesters as inherently important and newsworthy after having spent years dismissing angry liberals as insignificant and out of the mainstream.