Fox News, lies and videotape

Andrew Breitbart

Most journalists remember Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter, who in 1980 wrote a fake story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.  We also remember Stephen Glass, who wrote fake articles for The New Republic in the mid-1990s and Jason Blair, who did the same in the New York Times.

They all have one thing in common – that they all were fired, and will never work again for a reputable publication.  In Jason Blair’s case, the editors who hired him went down with him.

It’s another story Andrew Breitbart of Fox News.  The only price he will pay for his transparent lies about Shirley Sherrod is a non-apology apology, and a resolution to stick to more plausible falsehoods in the future.

For those who don’t know, Shirley Sherrod is a 62-year-old black woman who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  She grew up in rural Georgia; when she was 17, her father was murdered by a white man who was never tried for the crime.  She gave a speech to the NAACP about how she had overcome her bad feelings about white people, and come to the realization that poor whites and blacks are the same and equally deserve help.

Brietbart aired a videotape of the speech doctored to make it appear that she thought only blacks, not whites, deserved help.  The Obama administration immediately fired her, only to apologize the next day when the full videotape was aired and the truth was known.

Brietbart’s mistake was to air a lie that could be so easily checked.  In the case of James O’Keefe’s faked tapes of the community organization ACORN, which make it appear ACORN employees gave aid and comfort to a pimp, it took a number of weeks to uncover the truth.  By that time the damage was done, and the truth never was able to catch up with the lie.  ACORN lost its funding and most people believe the original false story.

The same pattern holds for the so-called “climategate” scandal, the Obama administration’s alleged dropping of a Black Panther voter intimidation case and many others.  By the time the charge is proved to be without any basis, the public and the press have lost interest.

Rupert Murdoch

The real responsibility for all this does not lie with Brietbart, nor with Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.  The responsibility lies with Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., the parent corporation.  He could have devoted Fox News and his other radio-TV and newspaper outlets to reputable journalism.  He has made a deliberate choice to renounced journalistic standards and appeal to prejudice to further his right-wing agenda.

This does enormous harm.  How many lives might have been saved in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, if National Guard troops hadn’t held back on going in because of lying reports looters were shooting at rescuers and the city had become like Somalia?

I don’t wish harm to anyone, but Rupert Murdoch is an old man, and I hope his heirs think about their family’s reputation in history.

Click on The Full Shirley Sherrod Video to hear what she actually said.

Click on Shame on Obama? and The Breitbart Circus for commentary on Breitbart’s race-baiting and the silence of the larger journalistic community.  The only people with the guts to call out Fox News for its lies on a regular basis are Jon Stewart, a comedian, and Rachel Maddow.  The more typical commentary is what I heard on Washington Week last night, generalities about the “failure of journalism” without naming any names.

Click on Still Making An Innocent Man Look Bad for the fate of Juan Carlos Vera, the ACORN employee that James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles approached with their fake pimp story.  Vera did exactly the right thing – heard the full story, took complete notes and reported it to the police.  Yet he lost his job when Andrew Breitbart published O’Keefe’s video making it appear that Vera, representing ACORN, aided pimps and prostitutes.  Breitbart never issued a correction, and the fake video remains on-line. [Added 12/29/10].

There have been a number of surveys that show Fox News watchers are more misinformed about verifiable facts on public affairs than any other segment of the American public.

Click on Fox News and Health Reform and Fox News and Iraq for survey data on this. The alarming thing about the Iraq survey is that although Fox viewers were more misinformed than anybody else (80 percent believed in 2003 that links between Iraq and al Qaeda has been found, weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq or world opinion favored the U.S. invasion of Iraq), a majority of all network viewers except viewers of PBS were incorrectly informed.  Those who got their information mainly from newspapers and magazines were only 53 percent correct, 47 percent misinformed.

The health care poll showed MSNBC/CNN viewers were less misinformed than Fox News viewers, but they looked good only by comparison. It is not as if American TV journalism as a whole, with the honorable exception of PBS, is covering itself with glory.

Click on Misinformation and the 2010 Election for a University of Maryland study of the electorate.  The part about how Fox News increases misinformation begins on Page 20 of the PDF file.  [Added 12/17/10].

Click on Voters Say Election Full of Misleading and False Information for a summary of the study. [Added 12/30/10]  Hat tip to Benjamin David Steele.

Click on Health Care Reform Closely Followed, Much Discussed for a Pew Research Center survey showing Fox News viewers are more likely than average to believe the Affordable Care Act creates death panels.  [Added 12/30/10]  Hat tip to Benjamin David Steele.

Click on Remembering Daniel Schorr for a reminder of what a true professional journalist can be.  Hat tip to Anne Tanner.

This was edited to make it clear that James O’Keefe and not Andrew Breitbart produced the fake ACORN videos. [12/30/10]

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2 Responses to “Fox News, lies and videotape”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    What horrified me about this story was that not one reporter thought to call the alleged victims of the incident mentioned in the video and ask them if what she said was true. They had to come forward themselves to back her up. News media now pick up stories from Fox News, supermarket tabloids, Entertainment Today, and other salacious media without bothering to check for facts. It is so sad.

    Ordinarily, victims of this kind of distorted reporting can’t sue successfully, but since they deliberately doctored a videotape to achieve a lie, couldn’t she sue? I’d love to see her do it.


  2. philebersole Says:

    CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which are both based in Georgia, exposed the fraud, and deserve credit. Journalistic professionalism isn’t quite dead yet.

    This column by Van Jones gives the perspective of another of Andrew Brietbart’s smears.

    [added 7/27/10]

    In fact, in this particular case, the mainstream news media have nothing to be ashamed of. I hadn’t quite realized this. I had assumed it was the usual stampede. Maybe we are learning.

    The rush to judgment was in the Obama administration and the NAACP, which rushed to condemn Shirley Sherrod without getting her side of the story.

    [added 7/28/10]

    Some of the right wingers are still going after Shirley Sherrod. They claim she was exaggerating when she said her father was “lynched” because he was merely beaten to death by a white sheriff and two deputies.


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