By Don Hazen, AlterNet
Posted on February 22, 2007, Printed on February 22, 2007
As presidential aspirants announce their candidacies in an already mind-numbing procession, the "Sliming Bowl" is well under way. No candidate has been smeared more than Barack Obama, and no smearer more relentless than Fox News, as the short video (right) by Brave New Films demonstrates.
"Sliming" is the rabid, rapid, media barrage of persistently repeated lies and innuendo mastered by the right-wing media machine, which aims to tar candidates with negative associations before their campaigns get rolling. Or alternatively, to bruise them enough so that they will suffer under the burden of damaged goods as they try to gain footing.
The conservative roots usually puts out a speculative story through Fox News or Matt Drudge (of the Drudge Report), a powerful mouthpiece for the Bush White House. Then the right-wing echo reverberates as the lies make their way to talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere. Eventually, it gets picked up and carried by the mainstream media, with few understanding where the story originated.
In fact, disinformation conjured by the conservatives often has its most profound impact with the steady cooperation of the corporate press in repeating their lies. How many people still think that Al Gore said he invented the Internet?
The power of Fox and Matt Drudge to serve as kingpins of the Bush White House echo chamber, while at the same time being key agenda-setters for the mainstream press is a daunting problem for Democrats, progressive media makers, and bloggers.
Fox's ability to be blatantly partisan, yet be treated like serious news journalists, is an unprecedented and thus far successful, juggling act. Furthermore, Fox critics are perpetually frustrated with the counter-productive collusion of Democrats and some activists to cooperate with Fox by appearing on its shows, aiding Fox's claims of the legitimacy of its new organization.
But bloggers and activist groups are fighting harder to discredit Fox News for its bias. Just last week, it was announced that Fox News Channel, working with the Nevada Democratic Party and the Western Majority Project, will host an August 2007 Democratic Debate in Reno, Nevada, "which is expected to attract the top Democratic contenders for President."
Not so fast says MoveOn, Free Press, and others. Petition campaigns are under way, aimed at the Nevada Democrats and the DNC, applying serious heat to drop Fox's control of the event because it is not a legitimate news organization. There are also plans to target Fox's advertisers in a campaign reminiscent of an earlier successful one against Sinclair Broadcasting for its nightly rabid right-wing harangues that were forced upon their affiliate's news shows.
Push back on McCain hypocrisy
Willing to fight dirtier and make up bigger lies, the right wing has dominated smear campaigns going back decades -- remember Donald Segretti and Nixon's dirty tricks? Most recently the "Swiftboaters for Truth" campaign mercilessly and inaccurately maligned John Kerry's military record, playing a role in his defeat to Bush in 2004. The anti-Kerry campaign stands as the gold standard for conservatives' ability to get the mainstream media to carry their message without doing their own work -- even creating a new verb for the political lexicon -- swiftboating.
But the progressive internet media and blogosphere are pushing back, using the speed and versatility of the web to whack the conservative "wing nuts" and pandering candidates with some of their own tools -- albeit stopping far short of making stuff up.
Most recently John McCain felt the sting of the blogosphere as the hypocrisy of his "Straight Talk Express" persona, applauded and enhanced by the mainstream media, has been nailed in the video McCain vs. McCain produced by Robert Greenwald and his team at Brave New Films.
More than 300 blogs linked to the video and thrust Greenwald onto the front page of the L.A. Times to tell the story. Other media are now covering the hypocrisy angle as a N.Y. Times front page story focused on dissent in McCain's own back yard among the grassroots conservative Republicans in Nevada. There, Rob Haney, a Republican state committeeman in McCains's own district told the Nation's Max Blumenthal, "The guy has no core, his only principle is winning the presidency. He likes to call his campaign the 'straight talk express.' Well, down here we call it the 'forked tongue express.'"
While McCain has taken a much-deserved beating for his hypocrisy, blatant efforts at total disinformation have been aimed at Barack Obama, the fresh-faced Democratic candidate and senator from Illinois.
Obama has been hammered for a whole grab-bag of alleged misdeeds, most which he had nothing to do with -- such as his name, his early schooling, and his parentage -- while other "nuggets of expose," like the fact that he smokes cigarettes, is treated like a deep, dark media secret.
Fox News, with its Muslim bashing, leads the way in the smear campaign against Obama. A catalogue of Fox's propaganda aimed at Obama has been collected by Greenwald, who's highly popular film OutFoxed got wide distribution through Blockbuster, Net Flicks, and thousands of house parties across the country two years ago.
Paul Waldman, of Media Matters and the Gadfly, charts the first of what are already many false stories spread about Barack Obama -- that he attended a fundamentalist madrassa when he lived in Indonesia as a boy. Waldman writes:
When insightmag.com, a website owned by the right-wing Washington Times, put out a breathless report trumpeting the fantasy, Fox News immediately jumped on board, as did Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the talk radio bile spewers. "Why didn't anybody ever mention," asked Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, a man who makes Larry King look like Oscar Wilde, "that that man right there was raised -- spent the first decade of his life, raised by his Muslim father -- as a Muslim and was educated in a madrassa?"
This sentence contained no fewer than five falsehoods: Obama wasn't raised by his father, his father left the family when Obama was two years old, his father wasn't a practicing Muslim, Obama wasn't raised as a Muslim and he didn't go to a madrassa. "Well, he didn't admit it," chimed in co-host Brian Kilmeade. "I mean, that's the issue."
What to do
Lots of people tend to dismiss Fox's influence, saying that they have been discredited among those who matter, and its audience is mainly conservatives who are beyond reason. But that notion misses the point, as Fox's audience is larger than CNN and MSNBC combined, and many watch it for its perceived entertainment value.
More importantly, Fox, as one part of the right-wing echo chamber, is a key component in the feeder system into the mainstream media. Many journalists and editors revel in the right-wing disinformation machine as something akin to watching a car wreck and seem obliged to report accusations by right-wing media, even if made up.
And in the big picture, mainstream media does not seem to comprehend that in being unable or unwilling to find the truth before they report misinformation, they are contributing to their own demise. As the media system is increasingly transformed into polarized voices, mainstream media has already lost a good deal of its credibility and its audience.
As Waldman notes:
In their repugnant book "The Way to Win," ABC News political director Mark Halperin and John Harris of The Politico (and formerly of the Washington Post) explain that, as journalists, "Matt Drudge rules our world."
In other words, when Drudge -- a right-wing operative who closely coordinates his activities with the Republican National Committee -- puts up a sensational story on his website, Halperin, Harris and the rest of their cohorts simply have no choice but to run off and cover it, whether it is true or not.
In the case of the Madrassa issue, in what was seen as a marketing ploy to crow about the differences between CNN and Fox, CNN actually investigated the Insight/Fox lie about Obama's school being a hotbed of fundamentalism. Their journalist found the truth -- that the school Obama attended was benign and taught about various religions. But not before, as one example, the Washington Post's media reporter Howard Kurtz, who is also CNN's media reporter, featured the charges prominently in the Post, framing his story with the Insight/Fox lies, not with skepticism. He eventually followed up with more critical reporting and also debunked the story on CNN.
Many were cheered when Obama drew a line and seemed to take the position of refusing to go on Fox, in response to their disinformation campaign about him.
As Waldman sees it, "this kind of hardball is long overdue, not because Fox itself can be shamed into exercising some journalistic responsibility (shamelessness is one of the primary employment requirements at Fox) but because it sends a message to other journalists: We will hold you accountable for your actions. If you spread lies, we'll treat you like a liar, and we don't talk to liars." In terms of Fox's role in the possible candidates debate in Nevada, Hugh Jackson, writing for the Las Vegas Gleaner, writes that the Nevada Dems are getting "outfoxed."
An example of how disrespectful and counterproductive such Fox News-sponsored Democratic debates are, consider the Sept. 9, 2003, Democratic debate in Baltimore, Md., hosted by Fox News in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus. Fox News graphics, as well as a banner over the stage, titled the event as the "Democrat Candidate Presidential Debate," a misconstruction of "Democratic" used as an epithet. Fox News then summarized the debate with a story titled "Democratic Candidates Offer Grim View of America," continuing with such jabs as "the depiction of the president as the root of all evil began at the top of Tuesday night's debate."
Don't go on Fox
Filmmaker Greenwald feels adamant that in order to hold Fox accountable, Democratic candidates should not go on their shows:
Day after day, week after week, Fox viciously and brutally attacks, maligns and tries to destroy our values. And we participate in this obscenity to get some airtime? We are nuts to keep going on without a good fight about the rules. We should push back on them.
The idea that we will outsmart, outmanipulate, out-talk Hannity and O'Reilly on an ongoing basis is nonsense. And I say this having studied O'Reilly for a year. But there seems to be little appetite from our side, especially the politicians, to play hardball. Remember, Fox News is dead and gone if we don't go on so they have someone to fight with.
Jane Fleming may be an exception to the Greenwald rule. As head of Young Democrats of America, she has become a regular on Fox, and sees it differently:
I think if we don't go on Fox, it is a mistake. It allows them to continue to portray us as weak and not willing to fight back. I enjoy going on -- I think it gives us an opportunity to get our message out to Republicans and Independents and to show the Dems that are watching we are present.
I get emails from Republicans and Democrats thanking me for talking back to Hannity like: "Saw your clip from Fox News -- just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your performance against the she-devil and Hannity. You are making us proud -- keep up the good work!" and "I've seen you numerous times on Fox News representing the Democrats, and I wanted to let you know that you do a hell of a job! Some of our representatives on Fox are so lame, I think they might be closet Republicans, but you do very well handling the likes of Hannity and Coulter. Keep kickin' butt, Jane."
It remains to be seen if Obama and the other Democratic candidates are truly willing to hold journalists responsible for their actions. But, in the end the blogs and the progressive Internet can play a forceful role against Fox.
"They spread the facts, they put pressure on the media to report them accurately and they generally made the kind of ruckus the right wing has been much more effective at creating," wrote Waldman. "During the 2004 campaign, blogs were still a novelty ... years later they have become a major player, and journalists ... have finally realized that blogs can't be ignored. And if there's one thing bloggers don't hesitate to do, it is calling journalists to account when they have sinned ... The 2008 election will be a test of whether blogs have the power to enforce some standard of truth and shame on those news organizations that buy into made-up tales like the Obama madrassa story."
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.