Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pretending Not to Notice

Eric Boehlert noticed a strange — if not unsurprising — double standard among the Villagers this past weekend.

If you don’t think there’s a media double standard that favors Republicans over Democrats, then let’s play a game of what-if.

What if, in 2006, at Yearly Kos, the first annual convention of liberal bloggers and their readers, organizers shelled out $100,000 for former Vice President Al Gore to address attendees? And what if the same organizers booked as an opening-night speaker a fringe, radical-left conspiracy theorist who’d spent the previous year pushing the thoroughly debunked claim that some Bush White administration insiders played a role in, and even planned, the 9-11 attacks. What if the speaker (also proudly anti-Semitic) received a standing ovation from the liberal Yearly Kos crowd?

Given that backdrop, and given the fact that the 9-11 Truther nut had for weeks bragged about his chance to share the stage with Gore, do you think the press would have demanded that Gore justify his association with a hateful conference that embraced a 9-11 Truther? Do you think pundits would have universally mocked and ridiculed Gore’s judgment while condemning the Yearly Kos convention as being a hothouse of left-wing hate? Do you think Gore’s appearance would have become a thing?

I sure do.

Gore and liberal bloggers would have been crucified by the press and the D.C. chattering class if the scenario I described ever unfolded in real life. (FYI, it goes without saying that organizers for Yearly Kos, now known as Netroots Nation, would never dream of mainstreaming an anti-Semitic 9-11 Truther via a prime-time speaking gig.)

But this past weekend in Nashville, at the first National Tea Party Convention, the Beltway press did just the opposite with regard to Sarah Palin’s keynote address, which did follow a prime-time speech by “birther” nut Joseph Farah, who over the years has carved out a uniquely hateful and demented corner of the right-wing blogosphere. Because, yes, at the Tea Party convention, Farah, a proud Muslim-hater and gay-hater, did receive a standing ovation from the conservative crowd after he unfurled his thoroughly debunked birther garbage. (i.e. Obama “doesn’t have a birth certificate.”) And Farah did brag in the weeks leading up to the event about his chance to share the stage with Palin, to associate with Palin. (“Sold out! Palin-Farah ticket rocks tea-party convention,” read the headline at Farah’s discredited right-wing site, WorldNetDaily.com.)

Worst of all, though, the press played dumb about the whole thing.

It isn’t so much that the press “played dumb” as it is that the press demonstrated either laziness or cowardice in covering the Tea Party. I happen to think it’s the latter. Simply put, the media is afraid to criticize the people — both the attendees and the promoters — of the Nashville convention because they think there would be a backlash against them. Mocking Sarah Palin for her collection of schoolyard rants and taunts would have brought torrents of accusations of sexism and misogyny from people who regularly use racist and homophobic slurs in their everyday speech. That’s why the big news of the convention was her handiwork. Glenn Beck would have gone on some crying jag about how the “liberal media” is conspiring to paint the “real Americans” as marginalized lunatics that represent a minority of a minority of views, and the major networks would have gotten death threats from people who carry signs proclaiming “freedom of speech.” An appreciation of irony has never been their strong suit.

In Mr. Boehlert’s scenario, the press and the pundits would have gotten a free ride to trash such a Netroots Nation convention because they know that the left never hits back. The right may be wrong, but you will never get them to admit it; there’s something comforting in being so secure in your beliefs even when they turn out to be utterly without merit or fact. And the right wing is also very good at “working the refs” — intimidating the press. That’s probably because they know that if they don’t, they wouldn’t get past the laugh test.

But it’s always been easy to sow doubt among the lefties — or at least get them to say, “you know, you might have a point” even when they are on solid ground. It’s not that they lack conviction; they’re just not as doctrinaire as the right wing, and they’re not as likely to go off like a Roman candle when you call them out on it. That’s why someone like Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) got so much attention last fall when he did a mild counterpoint version of right-wing talking points about healthcare (“The Republican health care plan is this: ‘Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly'”) on the floor of the House. He caused a sensation — and got a huge reaction from the media — for doing what any number of Republicans had been doing day in and day out without getting much more than a “Worst Person in the World” rating from Keith Olbermann. OMG, the media said; a Democrat is being sharp-tongued!

In one respect it’s probably a good thing that TP’ers got as much attention as they did; otherwise the rest of us would not have heard about Mr. Farah’s nutsery or been reminded of what a thoroughly loathsome and unreconstructed racist Tom Tancredo is. But the press also has an obligation to at least point out the errors, inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and just plain craziness when they see it and holding the perpetrators accountable. Pretending not to notice because you’re afraid of the reaction is a disservice to journalism in a free society and to the people who both practice it and who count on it.