Opinion: Media Mangle

Beware the “hate beat” scam

The left pushes journalists to equate town-hall protests with Jim Crow

If you start seeing an increasing number of news stories suggesting a hint of racism in the raucous protests over President Obama’s health reform plans, you’re probably being punked.

Last week, MSNBC screamer Chris Matthews played the race card when he said,”I think some of the people [at town hall meetings] are upset because we have a black president.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne and New York Timesman Paul Krugman have gotten into the act as well.

Such talk doesn’t bother me, because these people are paid to provide their opinions, even if those insights are little more than partisan hackery.

What could be worrisome is if such attitudes start routinely seeping into so-called hard news stories, giving charges of racism a hint of credibility.

Readers of today’s News & Observer (and the Associated Press wire) got a taste of this with this story from national writer David Crary about potentially threatening subtexts in the public health-care debate. (Oddly, the N&O ran an abbreviated version online, so I found the full story via ABC News.)

Wrote Crary:

In this season of searing political heat generated by the health care debate, these incidents have raised divisive questions of their own. Are they simply the latest twists in a long tradition of vigorous, public engagement or evidence of some new, alarming brand of political virulence?

It’s worth asking where the AP was hiding over the previous eight years when the left routinely compared former President George W. Bush and his administration to Hitler or worse (see a roundup from just one “progressive” Web site here).

And to his credit (or perhaps the credit of his editors), Crary cites several sources who argue that today’s incidents are examples of nothing more than heated debate over a crucial public issue.

And yet. He quotes — in the fourth paragraph of the story — a recent newspaper column by University of Missouri journalism professor Charles Davis:

“Hate, if it ever truly threatened to leave the political stage, is most definitely back, larger and nastier than ever.”

Davis urges newspapers to create a “hate beat” to “report” on the growing danger from extremism in the public square.

As Matt Welch points out in Reason, this endeavor may be a lot of things, but journalism ain’t one of ’em.

To get all journalistically theoretical for a moment, what is the definition of journalism? Well, I don’t know, but I do know that one thick chunk of the idea is to write or say (or aim to write and say) things that are unequivocally 100 percent true, and hopefully verified in some way. This is even more true, if such a thing is mathematically possible, for those who deliver lectures on all that should be true and good about journalism.

What, class, do we notice about Davis’ statement above? IT IS DEMONSTRABLY FALSE. We used to have slavery in this country, and Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of officially sanctioned, legalized discrimination against disfavored minorities. And you want to tell me that hate is “larger and nastier than ever”?

Should ever-shrinking newsrooms set aside precious resources to cover this development at the expense of others? Even if they do, Davis makes it crystal-clear that the focus should be only on “hatred” from the right:

As a near-absolutist First Amendment advocate, my prescription for hate speech is always more speech: Give the bigot a microphone as big as the hatred, I say, and watch as the marketplace of ideas works its magic.

Perhaps that’s why I worry, as I watch an emboldened mob grow more irresponsible with each passing day, that the mainstream media fails to give hate the coverage it deserves today.

I’m pretty sure Davis would not consider the SEIU goons who beat up a guy who was selling “Don’t Tread on Me” flags at a St. Louis town hall part of the emboldened mob.

The question is how far the mainstream media will buy into the notion that opposition to Obama adminstration policies is illegitimate because it’s a form of racism. And whether, as Welch asks, if news pages claim that the level of anger in today’s health-care protests is at all comparable with the actual violence that took place during the civil rights era.

To draw any kind of equivalence … is not just kind of basically obscene, and an insult to the casualties on the often very lonely right side of the Civil Rights struggle, but it also serves to undermine faith in the very project under discussion. If this is the cavalier attitude with which ever-crusading journalists are going to treat the facts that concern them most, how can those of us who disagree with their basic premise begin to trust the forthcoming product from the Hate Beat?

There were genuine heroes of journalism during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and ’60s — among them, Southern newspaper editors led by Ralph McGill in Atlanta and Buford Boone in Tuscaloosa. Former N&O editor Claude Sitton, who was Southern correspondent for The New York Times from 1958-64, may have been the most important of all, as he offered a national audience clear-eyed reports of everything from the shutdown of schools in Little Rock, Ark, to the Freedom Rides to police attacks against blacks trying to register to vote in Georgia.

Today’s “hate beat” is likely to chronicle nothing of the sort, because there’s no comparison between the frustration expressed at this summer’s town hall meetings and the state-sanctioned violence (including murder) deployed against black Americans and their white allies in the civil-rights movement.

So as a service to readers, here’s some news you can use as you scan stories about the health-care debate. You can, with a clear conscience, discount (or skip past) any news story that treats the race hustlers at Southern Poverty Law Center as a legitimate source.

In fact, if Morris Dees’ organization starts appearing more frequently in the news pages in a favorable light, that’s a clear signal the fix is in, and the “hate beat” has found its place in mainstream journalism. Reporters who are either lazy or beholden to a left-wing agenda know they can get a quick quote from somebody at SPLC.

Over the past several months, I’ve attended about a half dozen Tea Parties and health-care rallies. I’ve seen a lot of passionate people. And, without question, a few whose dress and demeanor made me a little uncomfortable. But that’s part of the unruliness of civic activism.

What, you’d rather have everyone dressed up in Brooks Brothers suits?

But if the prestige press starts routinely associating those who oppose Obamacare — 49 percent of Americans, reports the most recent Gallup poll — with racist sentiments, then the media might as well write off another segment of its audience: serious people who are not card-carrying members of the political left.

Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal.