Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fists of Fury

About a year ago, the American news media spent several days consumed by a racial slur made on the air by Don Imus, which ultimately led to his ouster. The clip, showing Mr. Imus denigrating a basketball team comprised primarily of African-American women, percolated on the internet for a day or two, found its way on to the nightly news, and played in what at times felt like a constant loop on MSNBC, CNN and Fox. At the time of his firing, some (including yours truly) observed that Mr. Imus's position near the center of the political spectrum was lethal to his chances of escaping the conflagration unscathed, because neither the right nor the left saw "one of their own" as the target of the attack.

More recently, Jeremiah Wright (and by association Senator Obama, who was a member of his congregation) was vilified by many on the right for sermons deemed anti-American and that were filled with the kind of racial animus that most people of good conscience would prefer did not infect thoughtful debate on national political issues.

But the story plays out a little differently when a right-wing media outlet is the source of equally vile slander. On June 6, 2008, E.D. Hill, a Fox news anchor, previewing an upcoming segment on body language, wondered aloud whether the tapping of closed fists by Michelle and Barack Obama on national television was, "A fist bump? A pound? A terrorist fist jab?" (emphasis added). Here is the clip (the offending segment is right at the beginning; the balance of the clip is included because it demonstrates the gratuitous nature of the teaser (i.e., she never gets back around to explaining what in the world she was talking about by referencing a terrorist)):

The offending jab, initiated by Mrs. Obama and followed by her husband, is familiar to even the occasional sports fan, not to mention anyone under the age of 30, as a casual salutation or congratulations. A high five for the 21st Century. It is difficult to imagine Ms. Hill making a similar comment (ore even taking note) had Bill and Hillary Clinton exchanged a fist bump, or if John and Cindy McCain had done so. (Though perhaps an older candidate would have appeared to be trying a little too hard at a gesture that, by any objective account, came naturally to the Obamas; indeed, it was perhaps the only unscripted moment of his entire evening). But Mr. Obama is not any candidate as far as Fox is concerned: not only is he black, he's a Democrat to boot. The nerve.

There is of course no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Obama is a terrorist (in fact, he was the candidate who opposed the war in Iraq -- a violent engagement designed to achieve political ends). Instead, Mr. Obama is an American citizen of partial African descent. But this inconvenient truth is no barrier to Fox's "news" anchors, who demonstrate again and again that Fox's credo - "we report, you decide" - is at best tongue-in-cheek. Worse still, this is hardly the first time that Fox has engaged in a less-than-subtle campaign to link Mr. Obama with Islamic terrorism. He attended a Wahhabi madrassa, didn't you know?

A terrorist, at least in common parlance, is one who uses violence for political ends, someone who kills innocent people with bombs, airplanes and hacksaws. We revile terrorists in this country, and we are scared of them. But every few months, another slip-up at Fox; another misstatement, or report taken out of context. And each time, because of both the color of his skin and the content of his character - or is it the lack of theirs? - Senator Obama is linked with terrorism.

So where is the outrage? Where is my Al Sharpton to charge to the airwaves demanding that E.D. Hill be fired, or at least held out for public scorn? Is there any public figure who speaks for individuals of good conscience who are shocked and appalled by the depths to which Fox News will sink to smear liberal and left-leaning political and public figures. Senator Obama himself cannot (and should not, in my view) dignify such scurrilous remarks with a response. Likewise other Democrats, whom Fox can shake off as partisan hacks making much ado about nothing. John Stewart, Michael Moore, and Al Franken are dismissed as far left comics with an agenda.

And that's the problem. When Mr. Imus was castigated for his remarks, no one came to his defense because he was not a player in the game. When Jeremiah Wright yelled "God Damn America!" it was the curse heard 'round the world, and politicians and pundits on the right lined up around the block to dole out their lumps. But when one of their own says or does something that is morally repugnant (or in this case, racially and culturally insidious), any would-be critic is deemed to have their own "agenda," dampening the impact of their criticism. And these tautological justifications are blindly accepted by the very people who constitute the target audience for the slander in the first place. Ergo propter hoc indeed.

This is not to say that there have been no consequences for the slur. Ms. Hill was removed from her anchor position (a move Fox insists had nothing to do with her on air remark), and she also "apologized" for linking the Obamas with terrorists. Naturally, though, hers was a non-apology, and in so doing Ms. Hill managed to use the words "terrorism" and "Obama" in the same breath, subtly reinforcing the slight for which she was purportedly demonstrating some level of contrition. Or, as the New York Times observed:
It is, of course, one of those non-apology apologies. Ms. Hill says she was simply reporting how the gesture was “characterized in the media” — without any reference to where she had seen it reported that way. It’s a shameless dodging of personal responsibility for an ugly act.

Here's the clip:

There are also a number of independent outlets --, the site responsible for spreading the word about this comes to mind primarily -- that are waging a campaign to make Fox answer for this kind of ethno-racial slander, and require a real apology of Ms. Hill.

But whatever minor fallout results, it seems unlikely that there will be any "major" consequences: Imus got fired, Obama had to leave his church, and E.D. Hill offers a disingenuous apology that reinforces the very stereotype that got her in trouble in the first place. And that's too bad. We hardly need a political correctness officer for the airwaves, and I doubt anyone but the most sensitive viewers and listeners have an appetite for a constant barrage of reporting on gaffes and mis-statements by radio and television hosts (indeed, one of the primary criticisms of Media Matters is that they just need to relax a little bit; too much Ned Flanders and not enough Homer). But we also need to draw the line somewhere, and comparing a candidate for President of the United States to a terrorist based on nothing more than the color of his skin and his African heritage seems to be a pretty reasonable place to start.

Perhaps the "marketplace of ideas" is strengthened by a news organization that will spin its coverage right, rather than left. And perhaps CNN and MSNBC and the New York Times and USA Today are out of step with "average" Americans. But no matter what value is contributed to public discourse by having a conservative slant on one channel, nothing is gained by such an appeal to the absolutely lowest common denominator. Here's to hoping that Fox eventually gets the message.


Open Bar said...

It's a nice post, but your "Big Words to Fart Jokes" ratio is way too high. This is a blog, brah!

(Oh, and thanks for the no-comment-then-cockblogging of my post, too. Why do you hate me?)

ChuckJerry said...

cockblogging...that's amazing.

I find it somewhat fascinating that the stereotype is that the media, from newspapers to magazines to TV to cinema, is controlloed by the "Jews" or the "Liberal Media", when in fact the only stories that get legs are the ones propagated by the right.

Fox News has definitely mastered making or downright creating news while ostensibly reporting it.