Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Phony Equivalence

Watching Jon Stewart’s valedictory speech at his Rally for Sanity this past weekend I was struck by three undeniable facts. The first should be obvious. The nation is caught in a vortex of polarizing partisanship the likes of which haven’t been seen, I dare say, since the days of the Civil War and Reconstruction. And, to Stewart’s credit, he correctly pointed out how even people who are diametrically opposed to one another can still work together to accomplish their goals without stooping to juvenile name-calling and race baiting. At heart we have more in common than we think or have been told by the pundits. Point taken.

But, like so many other passionate observers to the political scene, Stewart makes the classic mistake when he lumps both “extreme” camps into the same leaky lifeboat. You’ve seen this movie before: Fox is conservative, MSNBC is liberal, and CNN is, well when you find out please drop me a line. Kind of like David Brooks is a conservative and Thomas Friedman is a liberal. What’s so bad about that? To coin a phrase, fair and balanced, right? And naturally when Fox steps overboard and leans too far to the right and MSNBC follows suit and leans too far to the left, we’re all supposed to say, “Time Out! Both of you go back to your respective rooms and don’t come out till you agree to behave like adults.”

Except there’s one problem with that assumption: it’s false. The truth is there is no equivalence between what Fox does and what MSNBC does, and Stewart knows that full well. Throughout his storied career as Comedy Central’s political satirist extraordinaire, he has made his bones on more Fox faux pas than Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schutltz combined.

Even if you grant the underlying premise that conservative values and progressive values tend to naturally clash and can, at times, get heated, there is a staggering difference between a mere bias and a deliberate twisting and, in some cases, falsification of news stories to suit a political agenda. MSNBC is not the tit for Fox’s tat. You’re allowed to have a point of view and be passionate about it; you’re not allowed to make shit up.

When Mark Shields and David Brooks appear on PBS they frequently argue their points both passionately and with civility. Both are unapologetic about their stances and both are committed to a journalistic integrity that speaks volumes to who they are as professionals.

Now let’s bring in MSNBC and Fox. OK, so Olbermann is Shields on steroids; fine. The man is a textbook lib. So is Maddow; and, yes, Schultz too. To deny the obvious would be stupid. Now enter, stage right, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly. Not only aren’t any of these “individuals” Brooks on steroids, on their best day, none of them could hold his water. Hannity is a conservative the way Hitler was a Chancellor, and if Beck gets any more unhinged the men in white coats will be coming for him. And we haven’t even begun to “discuss” O’Reilly’s stalking methods against personalities with whom he vehemently disagrees with. If this is journalism, I’m Abe Lincoln.

While MSNBC’s lineup tends to include journalists who are unabashedly self-described liberals and/or progressives, Fox’s lineup consists mainly of Republican pundits – Hello Karl Rove - and, in some cases, actual Republican politicians – Yes, you too Mike Huckabee. About the only prominent Republican who doesn't have either his own show or forum is Mitt Romney.  While one network leans, the other leaps. There is no comparing the two, not without a drastic leave of one’s senses and intelligence. I can watch Countdown, knowing full well that it will never be unbiased, but also knowing it has never stepped over the line and perpetrated a fraud.

Watching Fox is like watching a GOP press release in the guise of journalism.  Worse, the network makes no attempt to hide their utter contempt for things like fact-checking.  It plays to an audience who is xenophobic and hopelessly lost in a narrative that bears little resemblance to reality. There is something sinister in the way it portrays itself as “fair and balanced” that is both incorrigible and loathsome all at the same time. The mob-like tactics employed at Fox would make Tony Soprano blush.

Which brings me to my third fact and second false assumption. There has always been this myth, one which Stewart, and other well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided, souls tend to fall victim to. The inherent belief that the bully on the block will cease his assault if only the other side stops contesting. Ask anyone who has ever gotten his brains kicked in if not resisting helped in any way. Of all the ridiculous claims made by the far Right none have been more insulting than the suggestion that the tactics used by it are somehow justified and that they wouldn’t need to employ them if only the other side wouldn’t provoke or stand up to them. Worse, they are forced to employ them because the other side is somehow conspiring against them. That is akin to a gun owner blaming the victim for being in the path of the bullet.  It is also classic paranoia.

Fox’s whole raison d'être, we’re told, is to combat a mainstream media which is overtly liberal and openly hostile to conservative values; values that they have set themselves up as guardians of. They aren’t bullies, they’re bodyguards. That is the modus operandi at News Corp. If the industry weren’t so slanted, they wouldn’t have to resort to such tactics.

Hogwash. You don’t blame the guy getting pummeled just because his chin keeps getting in the way of your fist, and you don’t lie down in the face of such conduct, no matter how intimidating or imposing. You confront it. If we can take anything away from this year’s mid-term debacle it will be that cowering in the face of falsehoods was the ultimate sin that will know no redemption. One does not get brownie points for being “reasonable” in the heat of battle. One must have the good sense to know when one is at war and with whom one is at war with.

There will be a time when ladies and gentlemen of all walks of life will sit down together at the dinner table and work out their differences with grace and dignity. But only if and when the bully is escorted out of the dining room. On that day we can all attend a rally and celebrate our common heritage.  And I'll be there in the front row screeming my butt off and making a fool of myself as usual.

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