Thursday, September 24, 2009


In today's Washington Post, Harold Meyerson dares to defend ACORN as an organization that's out there doing important work (campaigning against predatory lending, registering large numbers of voters with -- though he doesn't put it quite this way -- some cases of embarrassing but easily corrected voter-registration irregularity but little if any fraud involving actual voting).

But I want to talk about what Meyerson says about media coverage of ACORN:

...Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, and Christopher R. Martin, a professor of journalism at University of Northern Iowa, just concluded ... an exhaustive study of news coverage of ACORN. Looking at the 647 stories on the group that ran in leading newspapers and broadcast networks in 2007 and 2008, they found that not only did a majority of such stories focus on allegations of voter fraud but also that 83 percent of the stories that linked ACORN to those allegations failed to mention that actual instances of voter fraud were all but nonexistent.

"Only a handful of the stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal," Dreier and Martin note, "mentioned that actual cases of voter fraud were very rare" -- even though all three papers had covered the firings of the U.S. attorneys for their failure to find such cases. But the steady drumbeat from right-wing pundits and journalists about ACORN and voter fraud, the authors conclude, eventually set the terms of discussion even at elite mainstream media.

Nonetheless, the mainstream media have also come under attack for not giving greater play to the most recent round of alleged ACORN scandals because the stories were first aired on the TV broadcasts of such right-wing polemicists as Glenn Beck. On Sunday, The Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote that "one explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don't pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints." Dreier and Martin's study makes clear that in the case of ACORN, the reverse is true.

But these are two sides of the same coin.

When non-wingnut journalists don't pay attention to the obsessions of wingnuttia, they get caught flat-footed when a story the wingers are obsessing over breaks through -- catching up, they find themselves looking for context and finding it only in whatever wingers are yelling and screaming.

What I mean is: If non-wingnut journalists had noticed the right's ACORN obsession and been producing some calmer, saner coverage of ACORN all along, their stories on ACORN in recent days would have had more non-hysterical context.

I'm a big believer in paying serious attention to the obsessions of Limbaugh and Beck and Breitbart and Free Republic. The point is not to join in the wingers' craziness -- it's to acknowledge that the subjects these people cover are what a significant percentage of the population calls "news," therefore responsible news organizations ought to be doing responsible stories on the same subjects. When that doesn't happen, conspiratorialism runs rampant.

Stories don't go away because the major networks and The New York Times and The Washington Post think the stories are beneath them. They fester in Crazy Land, and non-crazy truth never emerges to counter the insanity. Crazy Land stories get spread by talk radio/Fox fans at the proverbial backyard barbecues. And then sometimes the Crazy Land stories go fully mainstream -- and only Glenn Beck feels prepared to provide context. That's not good for America.

Look at what the wackos are covering -- and cover it in a non-wacko way.

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