< The Seeds of a Story


Friday, September 18, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week the House voted to deny the federally-funded group ACORN any more money. ACORN staffers have been fired and the group, which provides assistance to low-income families, is now conducting its own internal investigation, all prompted by a sting conducted by two young activists, James O’Keefe, playing a pimp, and Hannah Giles, posing as a prostitute, who taped ACORN workers offering advice on how to cheat the system in five different cities. Their incriminating videos were posted on the conservative website Biggovernment.com.


FEMALE ACORN EMPLOYEE: Let me make sure there’s a code for it, okay?

JAMES O’KEEFE: A code for prostitution?

FEMALE ACORN EMPLOYEE: Okay, let’s see what we got here. Performance art, independent artists. You could be that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart had harsh words for the mainstream media.


JON STEWART: You’re telling me that two kids from the cast of High School Musical Three -

[LAUGHTER] - can break this story with a video camera and their grandmother’s chinchilla coat, and you got nothin’?


BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the role of the mainstream media here? They didn't break the story, but they could contextualize it, describe ACORN, its function and, yes, even its role as a political lightning rod since the election. But mostly what we get is the tape, which definitely is news, but it’s news generated for a political purpose, and its trajectory into the mainstream media has followed a pattern that has found much success in the Obama era – to wit, an independent conservative blogger digs up or generates a piece of information, real, like the ACORN story, or imagined, like the doubts over the President’s citizenship. It gets picked up by a bigger conservative site, like the Drudge Report or WorldNetDaily and jumps from there to FOX News, which covers it relentlessly while tweaking other news outlets until they pick it up. Here’s FOX News’ Glenn Beck.


GLENN BECK: FOX has had 133 reports on it, CNN, 90, MSNBC, 10. How’s that possible? Hey, ABC, how’s it working out for you with 2?


BROOKE GLADSTONE: From the birthers to the tea partiers, to town hall disruptions, to past actions by former green czar Van Jones, to past remarks of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, stories of varying import and validity are lofted into the headlines pretty much the same way, ripped from the blogs. In this month’s Atlantic magazine, writer Mark Bowden traces how Sotomayor’s off-the-record comments were run on every TV news outlet without much, if any, context. He explains precisely what she meant, which couldn't be discerned from the snippets, and his frustration is palpable.

MARK BOWDEN: Frankly, Brooke, one of the things that really surprised me was that to my knowledge none of the major news organizations went back and actually listened to those comments in the context in which they were offered, because it doesn't take a great deal of time to see that those snippets presented out of context misrepresent her point of view.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So cast your mind back to one of the first blog-generated controversies, when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party and he expressed regret that Thurmond hadn't won the presidency when he ran much earlier in his career as a segregationist. Is this what you would consider, in your words, news as ammunition?

MARK BOWDEN: I think to some extent. From my memory of Trent Lott and that instance, I think that too much was made of that comment weighed against the balance of his public life. What I lament is when I see large news organizations basically forfeiting their journalistic role and handing the platform over to political activists. In the case of Sotomayor, or, I would argue, in the case of Trent Lott, fairly viewed, I don't think that you had something that was anywhere near the consequence that it was being given by being broadcast out of context repeatedly. I think the design of the political operative is to draw the largest possible inference from these specific episodes, and I think it’s the role of professional journalists to put these kinds of things in perspective.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you make of the fact that after the Van Jones resignation, FOX’s Sean Hannity declared that they were going to systematically go after and take down every one of Obama’s, quote, unquote, “czars”? And their next target was Cass Sunstein, who is the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. On Thursday, a story appeared on WorldNetDaily quoting Sunstein as saying, “It’s desirable to give American wealth to poor nations.”

MARK BOWDEN: Well, I think what you’re seeing is what I'm lamenting in this essay in The Atlantic, and that is when major news organizations are replaced by people like Hannity or by websites that are advocating a particular point of view, you live in a world that’s sort of a ping pong world where facts are shot in one direction or the other and you’re, as the viewer, sitting there turning your head from left to right to left to right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, thank you very much.

MARK BOWDEN: Okay, Brooke, bye-bye.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.