“Conservative Journalism”: Accountability Optional
Written by Eric Boehlert for Media Matters’ County Fair
Did you see that The Huffington Post had to take down a story this week?
The site had published an item accusing Andrew Breitbart of having “doctored” a video posted on one of his websites. But the claim just wasn’t true. So when confronted with the facts, the Huffington Post quickly posted a correction as well as an apology. They got the story wrong and alerted readers to that fact.
That’s how journalism, including opinion journalism, is supposed work, and The Huffington Post made that plain this week: If you make an irrefutable error you correct it. You don’t ignore it or try to explain it away. You own up your mistake.
But take a look at the far-right end of the media spectrum these days and you’ll see how those simple rules of accountability don’t apply to conservative media outlets, where covering up and ignoring obvious blunders has become a sad (celebrated?) hallmark of the movement.
It just so happens that the Huffington Post correction occurred the same time key right-wing players, such as Michelle Malkin and the Daily Caller, were doing their best to stiff-arm accountability. The contrast between The Huffington Post’s honorable response to a miscue and the right-wing media’s attempts at damage control tells us we all we need to know about how professionals play this game, as compared to rank amateurs.
Lots of conservative outlets pretend to be in the journalism game. But the embarrassing way they handled the recent fallout from imploding smear campaigns have made it plain they’re more at home in the propaganda camp.
We noted yesterday how Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller launched a nasty, bogus attack against New York Times reporter Jennifer Preston, claiming she offered advice to the White House via Twitter, and how that nasty smear was hyped by The Drudge Report, Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times, and Malkin’s site, among others.
Also, on Monday, conservative Commentary magazine concocted a hollow attack against CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, pretending that during a White House press briefing she revealed her liberal bias by expressing frustration at the final debt ceiling legislation. (In truth, she was quoting Democrats expressing their frustration.) Like the lame Daily Caller endeavor, theCommentary effort was utterly indefensible and widely picked up by the right-wing blogosphere.
The response when the stories quickly fell apart? At Commentary, writer Seth Mandel tried prop up his O’Donnell item with two misguided updates that failed to acknowledge his story was utterly bogus. Then, instead of offering up a much-needed apology to O’Donnell, Commentary editor John Podhoretz, while acknowledging “fair criticism” had been lodged against the piece, explained why it ran in the first place [emphasis added]:
But what Seth perceived and what I perceive in O’Donnell’s words (discernible in the 45 seconds before she said the words that we made controversial) is the revelation—through tone and comportment—of her own view. This is something to which I, as a conservative member of the media and watcher of media for three decades now, have long since been hypersensitive. The raised eyebrow, the cynical half-glance, the ironic turn of phrase, some inappropriate anger—these are all behavioral cues that reveal a supposedly objective reporter’s true feelings and in which they unconsciously express their ideological fealties.
Note to John: You should’ve stopped digging.
He’s claiming that staffers posted the gotcha item not based on what O’Donnell said during a White House briefing, but because she posed a question using behavioral cues that tipped off Mandel and Podhoretz to O’Donnell’s true, liberally biased intentions.
This is beyond embarrassing. And again, it’s not how real journalists respond when their claims are revealed to be bogus and unsustainable.
Just ask Neil Munro at the Daily Caller, who penned the ill-advised attack on Preston at the Times. After reading the factually misguided piece, she contacted Tucker Carlson’s publication and spoke to an editor. Here’s what she posted about the conversation:
A few minutes later, his immediate editor, Dave (I can’t remember last name) who sounded very nice on the phone, apologetic even, told me that he would correct the Daily Caller story. He acknowledged his reporter was not familiar with Twitter and that might have been the problem here.
Noted: The Daily Caller employs reporters who don’t understand Twitter but who write stories about Twitter.
Still, the good news was an editor promised Preston a correction, right? Wrong.
The mea culpa never materialized. Instead, Munro vaguely “updated” his story by softening some of the language and including quotes from Preston. At no point though did Munro, or the Daily Caller, acknowledge that the entire premise of the story — that a New York Times reporter had advised the White House — was unequivocally false.
Meanwhile, Preston also got in touch with Malcolm at the Los Angeles Times, who had used his partisan blog to question Preston’s professionalism by alleging she used Twitter to offer “helpful advice” to the White House. That plainly was not true. Anyone who can read a Twitter feed could figure that out. So what did Malcolm do when confronted with the facts? What did he do when contacted by the New York Times reporter at the center of a smear campaign who urged him to set the record straight?
Malcolm chickened out.
Like Munro, Malcolm posted a pointless “update” to his original Preston item and pretended that by adding a mishmash of a parenthetic paragraph he’d done his duty to tell the truth.
But hey, I suppose Malcolm’s feeble effort was at least slightly more honorable than how Michelle Malkin’s site handled the bogus Norah O’Donnell smear it published: Malkin’s site simply deleted the attack item not long after it was posted. No explanation, no signs of contrition. And certainly no apology. Just an online vanishing act as Malkin’s writer tried to wipe his hands from the irresponsible mess.
The bottom-less irony here? The right-wing media spend a huge chunk of their time whining about the mainstream press and how irresponsible it is. Yet when key players from the far-right media world are called out on their own mendacity, how do they respond? They run as fast as they can away from responsibility.
About the authorA senior fellow at Media Matters for America, and a former senior writer for Salon, Boehlert’s first book, “Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush,” was published in May. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note that these Media Matters columns appear here with permission but are not posted by Eric Boehlert.