The trouble with Media Whores Online
By Brendan Nyhan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
With its sharply partisan attacks on conservatives and the media, Media Whores Online (MWO) has quickly established itself as the vanguard of liberal jargon. Since it was founded in 2000, the site has quickly won the loyalty of a large number of disgruntled Democratic partisans as well as praise from sympathetic liberal commentators like CNN "Crossfire" co-host Paul Begala, Gene Lyons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Joe Conason of Salon and the New York Observer. But perhaps the best indication of the site's increasing prominence are its growing list of citations in prominent media outlets (The Nation, Salon, Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times, among others).
Increasingly, MWO matters. That's why it's important to focus on what it actually publishes, rather than just the identities of the editors (as Salon's June 3cover story did). As they openly admit, MWO uses the worst tactics of its opponents: crude ad hominem attacks on the media, all-encompassing good guy/bad guy ideological dichotomies and inflammatory rhetorical attacks linking conservatives to dictatorship, Nazis, radical Islam and al Qaeda terrorists. This is simply not acceptable and the site's high-profile backers are wrong to indulge it; if MWO continues to gain strength, it will pull us further into the abyss of abusive and irrational rhetoric.
Eric Alterman, writing in the June 4, 2001 issue of The Nation, described MWO's mission based on an interview with founder/"guiding spirit" Jennifer Kelly:
Most of the site's material and commentary is designed to insure that the media's "credibility in the public mind be brought in line with its genuine lack of credibility." To do this, they're willing to "mimic the tactics of the wingnuts," referring to all with whom they disagree as "whores" or occasionally "fascists" and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they deem to be that of a "non-whore." Hypocritical, you say? "We don't believe it is hypocrisy at all to follow their standard, but fairness," responds Jennifer Kelly, the site's guiding spirit. "And what's more, it's really easy and doesn't require anything in the way of conscience or diligence."
The editors also justify their tactics by arguing that the site is "part parody" and intended to mirror the low standards of the mainstream media.
Like radio host Rush Limbaugh, MWO specializes in stripping away the complexity of our nation's politics, fitting events into a simplistic ideological framework. This worldview portrays a long-running struggle between noble-minded leaders supported by the broad American majority and a cadre of evil partisans acting in bad faith with the support of the media. By selectively choosing favorable topics and spinning those it can't avoid (especially by omitting context and contradictory facts), the editors manage to push an ideological line with little or no admission of conflicting truths.
In all fairness, MWO does get some things right, such as helping to debunk apparently incorrect stories claiming President Clinton was in talks to do a daytime talk show or the myth that Ken Lay slept in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton administration (we wrote about the latter extensively). They also make a relatively small number of outright factual errors relative to many of the pundits we write about, though I caught them in one recently.
Most days, however, the site simply presents angry, partisan spin and quotes from articles, transcripts and reader emails that bolster its viewpoint. Readers certainly understand what they are getting from the site, and the editors usually link to their source articles when making substantive claims (to their credit), making it easier to evaluate the information directly. Still, that's no excuse for some of the most aggressive jargon on the Internet.
Here's a classic example from Tuesday's edition:
Bush: I'm Authentic
In a nauseating AP puff piece on George W. Bush, Scott Lindlaw writes:
Bush knows that not everyone sees the charm of this hot, dry place, but he figures more people get it than do not. "Most Americans don't sit in Martha's Vineyard, swilling white wine," he says.
Of course what the moron is telling us is that those who do vacation in Martha's Vineyard are not really American.
In fact, many Americans both visit Martha's Vineyard and drink, even swill, white wine. But most Americans don't purchase a fake ranch for an election they ultimately steal from the American people, import a set of designer cows, and then pretend it's a beloved, generations-old family refuge as the paint dries. All distinctly un-American, but you won't hear it from the lazy, gullible, script-addicted media whores.
This is MWO's coloring book-style storyline: President Bush or other conservatives are completely malevolent ("un-American", hypocrites, frauds, etc.) but the "whores" in the mainstream media won't report this because they are incompetent buffoons ("lazy", "gullible" and "script-addicted" in this example). There are serious critiques to be offered of the media and our political leaders, but this crude propaganda does not qualify.
Screeds like this are part of MWO's larger effort to obliterate the distinction between news reports and commentary that it dislikes for ideological reasons and those that are genuinely unfair or biased. This tactic was developed by conservative critics of the "liberal media" and "liberal media bias" and honed by ideological watchdogs like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (on the left) and the Media Research Center (on the right). In MWO's case, it takes the form of calling disfavored journalists "whores" for virtually any reason. Further coherent distinctions are rarely made, although the editors devote a lot of thought to who exactly is a "whore" at any given moment.
To illustrate the incoherence of the "whore" term, consider the diatribe naming pundit and political advisor David Gergen "Whore of the Week" during the Florida election controversy. The reasons? He claimed that Republicans would be more angry than Democrats if their candidate lost (MWO: "If he thinks Democrats will accept a Bush presidency, he's out of his traitorous backstabbing mind"), he said "lost" rather than stolen in making this claim ("because he's a media whore"), his predictions are inaccurate (no evidence is provided of this), he's generally a "vapid, babbling has-been who writes lousy books" and the title of his book, Eyewitness to Power, "scream[s] 'two-faced tell-all-book-writing whore'" (apparently MWO didn't actually read the book, which had been published in September 2000).
The rhetorical nastiness is pervasive. The editors have gloated about the drug problems of Michael Reagan's son, mocked the sordid personal problems of the Wall Street Journal's John Fund and called conservative syndicated columnist/author Ann Coulter "Ann 'Thrax'" repeatedly.
One favorite technique in this vein is drawing comparisons between conservatives and totalitarian or authoritarian figures, regimes or tactics. MWO wrote that pairing Coulter and Begala as "Crossfire" hosts would be "roughly the same" as Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Andrew Sullivan's article attacking President Clinton's record on terrorism was compared with "'stab-in-the-back' hate perfected by the Nazis in the 1920's and 1930's". And, in an extended commentary, Kelly, the founder, scoffed at a conservative backlash against comments by News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch's son, James, criticizing the Falun Gong movement in China:
What Murdoch's fellow anti-freedom, anti-democratic brethren are really upset about is not that he is speaking out against "rabble rousers" acting against the wishes of an oppressive government, but that Murdoch isn't being 'stealthy' enough for their purposes. They understand America isn't quite ready.. yet.. for open advocacy of violent military action to thwart voices contrary to their own...
Those involved in this effort of "kinder, gentler fascism" are no less oppressive than Chinese government officials. They are no less totalitarian or disrespectful of all things democratic or spiritual, if the spirituality in question is not their own prescription. And they are no less willing to employ the use of force if necessary. That is, if Democrats should be so foolish as to put up a fight. [her bold and italics]
In these attacks, MWO echoes Limbaugh's "feminazi" epithet and Ann Coulter's claim in Slander that "the left is itching to silence conservatives once and for all".
The editors also keep trying to rhetorically link their opponents with terrorism and fundamentalist Islam, an effort that intensified after September 11:
In a longer and even more explicit example, the editors have written that "[c]onservative extremists in America are terrorizing our country using their own strategically delivered, familiar brand of political Anthrax. They are making themselves willing allies of the anti-democratic, anti-diversity, theocratic, absolutist terrorists, by seizing on their attacks against America as excuses to divide Americans." These tactics directly mirror efforts by Oliver North, Limbaugh and GOP Congressional leaders to link Democrats with terrorists since September 11.
In short, MWO does not have "a wonderful joie de vivre" as Alterman has written. It is not true that, "however nutty the person/people might be, they have a certain flinty integrity" (Alterman on his Altercation weblog in June). They are not endearingly "scrappy" or "pesky activists" (Gene Lyons, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 5/1/02 and 2/27/02). And they are not "great" (Begala).
MWO's tactics simply pollute the public discourse. While many intelligent people read the site and are not seduced by its methods, the overall effect is to build a self-reinforcing community of aggrieved partisans and to help break down taboos among liberals against the rhetorical viciousness promoted. The editors' claim that their actions are a justified response to the tactics used by others is both insufficient and, ultimately, circular: anyone who listens to Limbaugh, for example, knows that he often uses the same rationale. The reality is that, with liberals increasingly agitated, both sides will continue to escalate their rhetoric to the point of hysteria, all the while pointing wildly at each other to rationalize their actions. In the end, these tactics are unacceptable no matter who uses them.
[Full disclosure: I wrote an American Prospect Online story and a followup that directly involved MWO and two of its readers. Also, note that the links above are to MWO webpages on their server as well as copies of older pages from the site that are saved in the Internet Archive.]
Update 9/1/02 1:14 AM EST: Eric Alterman objected to my quotation of him above shortly before I left for a recent vacation. Here is the full paragraph from his Altercation weblog on MSNBC.com:
I believe I was quoted unfairly and out of context in Spinsanity's attack on MWO. I will let them fight their own battles, as they are quite good at that, but I should like to say for the record that I saluted their "flinty integrity" specifically with regard to their refusal to cut my friends a break when I asked them to. Brendan insists that the fact that my Altercation editor inserted a paragraph break between the topic sentence and the back-up evidence that my meaning was left ambiguous. I don't want to make a big deal of just, just note for the record that I feel pretty strongly that my words have been misused here.
Here is the original item in question as published on Altercation:
First off, Ms. Liberto [the author of Salon's story on MWO] does not address the accuracy level of MWO stories. As I've said here in the past, IMNSHO, they've always been highly accurate, if occasionally hysterical. Second, since I seem to be only person to have published a (short, e-mailed) on-the-record interview with the person behind the site, I would have expected to have heard from Ms. Liberto. Alas I did not, though the quotes are attributed to "The Nation," where my column appeared. Finally, I would just add that however nutty the person/people might be, they have a certain flinty integrity.
I have asked, on more than one occasion, to turn off the spigot on some friend of mine who has been branded a "whore." When they think I've made a case, they do so. When they think I'm just trying to catch my friend a break, they tell me to get lost. (If the story is behind Salon's $ wall, send me an e-mail and I will send it to you, unless I hear from their lawyers first.)
As Alterman wrote, I believe the meaning is too ambiguous as written to justify a correction (and in any event, I reject the premise that MWO has a "flinty integrity" when they refuse to stop calling Alterman's friends "whores" for whatever reason), but I have posted it here so that readers can make up their own minds.