Part 2—Competence gone: Was there ever a time when the theory was accurate?
On balance, we’d say there was. At one time, we had a pair of powerful gatekeepers—Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley.
Neither man was crazy or dumb. If you or your message was crazy or dumb, it wasn’t likely that you could get it on the air.
Today, that gatekeeper system is gone. What Dr. Keith Ablow did last week is, by now, completely the norm.
What did Ablow do last week? He aired twelve minutes of manifest lunacy on John Gibson’s mid-day show on Fox News Radio.
For yesterday's post, click this.
Ablow played the shrink all through the hideous segment. With manifest lunacy, he described the America-hating thoughts which have been running through Barack Obama’s America-hating head.
Anyone can gin up stories like that. But when such stories are ginned up by a fairly well-known commentator on a major radio network—by a man who once had his own syndicated TV show!—many citizens won’t understand that they are hearing The Crazy.
In the days of Cronkite and Brinkley, people like Ablow weren’t allowed on the air. Performances like his weren’t broadcast by the nation’s major news organs.
Today, heinous work of this kind is completely the norm. For better or worse, our gatekeepers are manifestly gone.
Work like this is completely the norm. Salon pushed back against Ablow and Gibson, but major news organs did not.
Our biggest news organs can no longer keep such craziness out of the discourse. Nor are they inclined to challenge such conduct—to cast themselves in the secondary role of the vigilant watchdog.
For years, we’ve argued that our biggest news organs should treat such events as news. It’s news when major figures like Ablow toy with the public in such ways. It ought to be reported as news—but organs like the New York Times shrink from providing that watchdog service.
In one way, it may be just as well. It isn’t just that the New York Times lacks the will to play that role.
On balance, the newspaper also lacks the smarts. But then, so do the liberal watchdogs who are now part of our sprawling, incompetent corporate media.
What happens when major liberal stars cast themselves as watchdogs? Consider Lawrence O’Donnell’s attempt to challenge the Times last night.
Lawrence challenged a front-page report in Saturday’s New York Times. In that report, Michael Schmidt described some of what Officer Darren Wilson has reportedly told “investigators” about the killing of Michael Brown.
Schmidt cited anonymous government sources. This is the way he started:
SCHMIDT (10/18/14): The police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two months ago has told investigators that he was pinned in his vehicle and in fear for his life as he struggled over his gun with Mr. Brown, according to government officials briefed on the federal civil rights investigation into the matter.Schmidt sourced his information to unnamed government officials. He later said that his account of Wilson's statements did not “come from the Ferguson Police Department or from officials whose activities are being investigated as part of the [federal] civil rights inquiry.”
The officer, Darren Wilson, has told the authorities that during the scuffle, Mr. Brown reached for the gun. It was fired twice in the car, according to forensics tests performed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The first bullet struck Mr. Brown in the arm; the second bullet missed.
The forensics tests showed Mr. Brown's blood on the gun, as well as on the interior door panel and on Officer Wilson's uniform. Officer Wilson told the authorities that Mr. Brown had punched and scratched him repeatedly, leaving swelling on his face and cuts on his neck.
This is the first public account of Officer Wilson's testimony to investigators, but it does not explain why, after he emerged from his vehicle, he fired at Mr. Brown multiple times. It contradicts some witness accounts, and it will not calm those who have been demanding to know why an unarmed man was shot a total of six times. Mr. Brown's death continues to fuel anger and sometimes-violent protests.
If it’s accurate, Schmidt’s report seems to include some new forensic information. Meanwhile, the reporter stated an important point in his fourth paragraph:
Wilson’s account of the struggle at the car does not explain why he fired at Brown multiple times after he left his car. That remains the major question in a potential criminal case. Wilson’s account of the fight at the car doesn’t resolve that question.
On last night’s program, O’Donnell cast himself in the role of watchdog concerning the Times report. In the course of a ten-minute monologue, he even made some accurate statements about various questions surrounding this case.
To watch the whole segment, click here.
That said, it didn’t take long for Watchdog O’Donnell to go substantially wrong. Instantly, he battered the Times for “pretend[ing] it had a scoop” in its front-page report.
Now that our gatekeepers are gone, how competent are our watchdogs? Barely two minutes into his segment, this would-be watchdog said this:
O’DONNELL (10/20/14): The useful information in the New York Times article is the circumstantial evidence leaked by the government officials who told the Times that the FBI forensics tests show that the officer’s gun was fired twice inside the car, with the first bullet hitting Michael Brown in the arm and the second bullet himself him completely...How competent are today’s high-profile corporate media stars? With our gatekeepers dead and gone, just how competent are our potential watchdogs?
The Times then gets very confused about what those forensic findings mean. The article says it “contradicts” some witness accounts, but then fails to point out any contradictions, because the New York Times and its reporters do not seem to understand what an actual contradiction is in eyewitness testimony.
Lawrence O’Donnell is very well-paid. He likes to say that he went to Harvard. He has been a major media figure for more than fifteen years.
But alas! Less than three minutes into his watchdog report, O’Donnell was flatly wrong:
In the passage quoted above, he mocked the Times for getting “very confused” about those forensic findings. More specifically, he said the Times “failed to point out any contradictions” in its report.
He said that the Times doesn’t seem to know what an actual contradiction looks like!
Gack! The Times report does specify at least one “direct contradiction” between Officer Wilson’s reported account and an eyewitness account. That contradiction is specified in the passage below. Did Lawrence read this report?
SCHMIDT: Few witnesses had perfect vantage points for the fight in the car, which occurred just after noon on Aug. 9. Mr. Brown was walking down the middle of the street with a friend, Dorian Johnson, when Officer Wilson stopped his S.U.V., a Chevy Tahoe, to order them to the sidewalk.We don’t know what happened at the car, but that sounds like a fairly direct “contradiction” to us! But as he continued last night, O’Donnell acted as if the Times was only claiming contradictions concerning the number of shots which Officer Wilson fired.
Within seconds, the encounter turned into a physical struggle, as the officer and Mr. Brown became entangled through the open driver's-side window.
Mr. Johnson's description of the scuffle is detailed and specific, and directly contradicts what Officer Wilson has told the authorities.
Mr. Johnson has said that Officer Wilson was the aggressor, backing up his vehicle and opening the door, which hit Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown and then bounced back.
''He just reached his arm out the window and grabbed my friend around his neck, and he was trying to choke my friend,'' Mr. Johnson told reporters after the shooting. ''He was trying to get away, and the officer then reached out and grabbed his arm to pull him inside the car.''
Officer Wilson then drew his weapon, Mr. Johnson said, and threatened to shoot.
''In the same moment, the first shot went off,'' he said. ''We looked at him. He was shot. There was blood coming from him. And we took off running.''
Never, Mr. Johnson said, did Mr. Brown reach for the officer's weapon.
On and on the watchdog went, explaining that witnesses are often wrong about the number of gunshots which get fired. He acted as if he hadn’t read the actual Times report.
O’Donnell has been a high-ranking media figure for fifteen years. Did we mention the fact that he went to Harvard?
Despite serial proclamations of greatness, Lawrence bungled quickly last night. In our world, the gatekeepers are gone—and the watchdogs are often incompetent or heavily biased.
Having said that, let us also say this: There was plenty to clarify about that Times report.
The Times report focused heavily on the struggle at the car. After the initial disclaimer shown above, it largely abandoned the central question which remains in this case—the question of why Wilson fired a large number of gunshots, killing Brown, after the struggle at the car was over.
There was a great deal to clarify in that report. But when he tried, our liberal watchdog was almost instantly wrong.
Cronkite and Brinkley are gone, long gone. For better or worse, no one can play the gatekeeper role at this time.
Our gatekeepers are gone, and even worse, our watchdogs just aren’t very sharp! That’s certainly true of the New York Times, a point we’ll examine tomorrow.
Tomorrow: Horrible front-page reporting
The Way We Are: We’re in Week 3 of our current award-winning series, The Way We Are. The series examines the way our discourse actually works, as opposed to the way we might hear it described by major media figures.
To us, The Way We Are seems grim. For all previous posts, click here.