Do Strong Cable-News Ratings Excuse Defamation?
A wise man once said, when describing the role of the American news media, that "commentators don't have to be balanced, but they do have to be fair."
He was referring to a basic journalistic standard — one that should be applied not just to hard-news reporters, but also their pundit colleagues who offer opinions on the news of the day. And on its face, I think most people would agree with that standard.
After all, being fair when presenting opinion commentary doesn't necessarily require one to sideline his or her biases. It doesn't restrict speculation on a topic, or even the drawing of a dead-wrong conclusion. What the standard does preclude, however, is the willful misrepresentation of facts.
In other words, if a commentator is simply making things up, or knowingly misstating the obvious reality of something, he or she should not be working for a legitimate news organization...in any capacity.
Of course a number of news-industry commentators have violated this standard over the years. Former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann used to do it with some frequency, especially during the Bush years and at the beginning of the Tea Party movement.
Some may recall a particular incident in which Olbermann insisted that then U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown endorsed violence against his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, at a political rally.
Olbermann's proof? He presented a video in which Brown spoke the words "We can do this" into a microphone, right after someone in the loud crowd before him yelled, "Shove a curling iron up Martha Coakley’s butt!"
Olbermann cited this as evidence that Brown was a "supporter of violence against women."
Of course, it was painfully clear to anyone who watched the video that Brown was addressing the entire crowd, in the context of winning the election. He had likely not even heard the foul-mouthed man among them, let alone acknowledged him.
Several conservative commentators (including network colleague Joe Scarborough) denounced Oblermann's charge, along with other vitriolic accusations Olbermann had directed at Brown. Even liberal darling and self-professed Olbermann fan, Jon Stewart, publicly took the MSNBC host to task.
Some on the Right framed the act of blatant defamation as grounds for MSNBC firing Olbermann, and frankly it was. This wasn't simply biased or tainted commentary. It was a sheer fabrication.
However, the network stuck with Olbermann until the Comcast acquisition (a year later), in large part because his show brought in relatively strong ratings (by MSNBC standards, anyway). There was a news market for portraying Republicans and conservatives not simply as wrong, but evil. And MSNBC apparently felt it was more important to maintain and expand on that audience than it was to forbid their on-air talent for creating and spreading hard-left fan-fiction.
Conservatives used to have no tolerance for this kind of thing, and who could blame them? It was bad enough that some in the mainstream media earnestly believed (and thus openly speculated) that Republican opposition to President Obama was inherently racist. But to have a national media figure (employed by a major news organization) willfully pervert an individual's words into a disgusting, alternate-reality meaning was beyond any range of acceptability.
Yet, years later, we continue to see examples of this same kind of thing being done by high-profile members of the conservative media.
On Wednesday, multiple Fox News commentators picked up on an accusation that appeared on FNC's official Twitter account (after earlier making its rounds on some right-wing websites), stating:
".@CNN ‘s Jake Tapper Says ‘Allahu Akbar’ Is ‘Beautiful’ Right After NYC Terror Attack"
In reality, this is what Tapper said to a guest on his CNN show, The Lead, after Tuesday night's attack:
"The Arabic chant 'Allahu Akbar,' God is great, sometimes is said under the most beautiful of circumstances. And too often, we hear it being said in moments like this."
That's a far cry from claiming that 'Allahu Akbar' is "beautiful." So far of a cry that it couldn't have possibly been interpreted in the way it was framed by whomever is behind FNC's social media.
Regardless, on The Five, co-host Jason Chaffetz covered Tapper's remarks this way:
"Jake Tapper, also from CNN, felt the need to remind viewers how beautiful the phrase 'Allahu Akbar' can be."
Again, at no point did Tapper refer to the phrase as "beautiful."
Understandably angered, Tapper took to Twitter to defend himself, tweeting the below thread (pieced together from multiple tweets by me):
"Fox News is lying. I said it can be said at beautiful moments (wedding, birth) and too often at times like this (horrific terrorist attack). 'Allahu Akbar' is a prayer; if we don’t understand how radical Islamic terrorists justify their evil using religion, West cannot defeat it. Fox News chooses instead to deliberately lie about what I said. Following the slime-coated path of DailyCaller and infowars. Disgusting."
In response, Fox News's tweet was eventually deleted, and Chaffetz tweeted out somewhat of an apology:
"In retrospect I don't think I gave @jaketapper a fair shake tonight. My bad."
But Sean Hannity's prime-time show on Fox had yet to air that night, and when it did, Hannity was feeling less than conciliatory. Using a wimpish voice, Hannity mocked "liberal fake news CNN’s fake Jake Tapper" (as he put it) for saying that the phrase in question can be used in "beautiful circumstances."
At least Hannity got the context right. But then he falsely stated that Fox had accurately relayed the context for Tapper's comments in their earlier coverage, and accused Tapper of unfairly criticizing his network with his tweets.
Again, this was after the misleading tweet had been removed, and after Chaffetz had admitted wrongdoing.
"Hey Jake," Hannity smugly added. "maybe that’s why you have low ratings. Tell your audience the truth."
Again, it comes back to ratings. If your show has strong, profitable cable-news viewership (as Hannity's absolutely does), you can apparently say whatever you want, even if its pure fiction (including the spreading of a conspiracy theory at the expense of the family of a murdered DNC staffer).
To their credit, some conservatives (mostly Trump skeptics) in the media spoke out against the blatant misrepresentation of Tapper's words. But far too many were silent, and the general consensus among those on the Right was indifference.
Later on his show that night, Hannity welcomed on regular guest, Sebastian Gorka, who doubled-down on the false context that Hannity, just minutes earlier, insisted hadn't come from his network:
"I'm still trying to struggle with...What kind of mind goes on live television as seven bodies are on the street of Manhattan, and a child, and then talks about the 'beautiful phrase' 'Allahu Akbar'? Where does that motivation come from, from Jake Tapper? The desperation of trying to explain that they did this because of animus to America or our foreign policy."
Want to take a guess as to whether or not Hannity corrected Gorka, and explained that Tapper neither called the phrase 'beautiful' nor sympathized with the terrorist who had used it?
I'm betting you guessed correctly. But what does it matter as long as the segment pulled a big number, right?