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Political Animal

Mass Distraction

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/28/2004

Long ago, the English author G.K. Chesterton penned this famous aphorism: "Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive." The difference between the journalism of the times of the esteemed Chesterton and the journalism of today is that the people now telling us about the death of Lord Jones have already forgotten themselves that he ever drew a breath. The modern life span of a political editor's memory is akin to that of a housefly. If it hasn't landed in some shit in the last three days, shit might as well have never existed.

At the Jan. 22 Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, Peter Jennings, the anchor for ABC's World News Tonight, asked Gen. Wesley Clark to defend a statement by Michael Moore--who has endorsed Clark--in which the filmmaker called President George W. Bush a "deserter." Jennings added, "Now, that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts, so I was curious to know why you didn't contradict him, and whether or not you think it would've been a better example of ethical behavior to have done so."

The anchor of the newscast once trumpeted as the place "more Americans get their news . . . than from any other source" said that. Oh, Lord Jones, we hardly knew ye.

We here at Animal Control pull down an order of magnitude less money than Jennings, though we have more collegiate credits, we might add. Regardless, we tend to remember news items after we have read them and consigned the newspaper to the fireplace. In no less ignominious a place than this space last May 14 ("R.I.P."), we wrote, "let's revisit quite possibly the least-covered political story of the 2000 presidential election: the May 23, 2000, story by Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe headlined 'One Year Gap in Bush's Guard Duty.'" Apparently news has now come down to the dictum, "if we didn't cover it, it didn't happen."

Sadly, the opposite is not often true, especially when it comes to news reported by the typical Rupert Murdoch-owned news outlet, such as the Fox News Channel or the New York Post, or the lockstep Washington Times. The veracity of a story doesn't matter, as long as it verifies the agenda they want to push.

Last November, Editor and Publisher ran a story on how the conservative Weekly Standard, another Murdoch publication, reported a supposed "operational relationship" between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The mighty media trio of the Right picked the story up--despite the fact that the Pentagon, in the two days between the Standard story and the Fox/Post coverage, even put out a release stating that "news reports that the Defense Department recently confirmed new information with respect to contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq . . . are inaccurate."

Did this bother the cheerleaders at all? Hell, no. As E&P noted, the New York Post titled its editorial about the supposed Saddam/bin Laden connection, "Bush Was Right." Since then, we know the conservative stories were wrong, as it's been widely reported that Saddam drew up memos, discovered by the CIA, that warned his troops and followers not to ally themselves with religious jihadists coming in to fight U.S. troops. This, as usual, bothers the right-wing media not a whit, as it has already moved on to the next horse it would like to beat to help assure the armor-clad correctness of the administration.

We've come to expect this from what American Prospect writer Robert Borosage called "the right's Wurlitzer," but what we used to call the "mainstream" media also has been afflicted with a mass hysteria of stupidity, inaccuracy, and vapidity. At a Democratic candidates forum last November CNN planted an idiotic question with a Brown University student about whether the candidates preferred Macintoshes or PCs. The student, Alexandra Trustman, later wrote for her school's student newspaper about how she came prepared with a serious question, and the CNN producers handed her a note card with their dim-bulb question and told her that her original query wasn't lighthearted enough.

In a later debate, on Dec. 9, Ted Koppel, ordinarily a paragon of moderator excellence, spent more time trying to set the candidates at each other's throats by challenging them with horse-race questions, and got rebuked by Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich--who was applauded by the audience for having the effrontery to try and keep the subject about issues that matter.

Bush will have close to $200 million on hand to run for re-election. Despite using misleading and nonexistent evidence to lead the country into war, presiding over the largest loss of jobs since the Great Depression, turning what used to be projected trillion-dollar surpluses into record-setting deficits, and alienating nearly every ally the United States possesses across the globe, our mass media is still focused on Howard Dean's hollers, Clark's clothes, and John Kerry's hair.

We expect this tripe from Maureen Dowd of The New York Times--but the whole industry seems to want to walk in her Manolo Blahnik-clad footsteps. Chesterton had another salient quote about authors: "A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." Bad media does as well.

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