Sunday, October 04, 2009


Clark Hoyt, the public editor of The New York Times, is clearly a glutton for punishment: everyone in the left and right blogosphere (except me) mocked his column on ACORN last week, in which he also noted that the Times "would now assign an editor to monitor opinion media."

Righties think this is laughably inadequate, while lefties think this is making wingnut crazies the assignment editors for the Times; that was clear in the blogosphere's reaction to Hoyt's column last week, and it's clear from most of the responses Hoyt quotes this week, which echo the mainstream left and right blog reactions almost exactly.

And then there are these reactions:

Leigh Allen of San Francisco ... said she relies on The Times to keep her informed: "I often don't hear about the latest conflict until I read a Facebook rant from an old high school friend or talk on the phone with my mother (both in conservative Orange County, Calif.). It's embarrassing not to be able to respond with facts when I hadn't even heard about the issue." Michele Cusack of Novato, Calif., said that when someone asked if she had heard the latest about Acorn, "I had to answer 'no' because I get all my news from The New York Times."

Well, exactly.

A hell of a lot of people still get their news exclusively from the Times and other old-line news organizations, which have long felt that much of the crazy, conspiratorial chatter on the far right is beneath them. And then there's a segment of the population -- possibly a third of the country, and possibly the population subgroup most fixated on politics -- for which all that crazy, conspiratorial stuff is the news. Somebody needs to cover the crazies' top stories in a way that isn't crazy and conspiratorial, so the people in the former group can talk to, and (let's hope) rebut, the people in the latter group.

Is that making the crazies into "assignment editors" for the mainstream press? Yeah -- and so what? It's only a problem if the mainstream press lets the crazies dictate conclusions; if, instead, the non-crazies shed light where the crazies have heretofore shed only heat, what's the problem? (And yes, I know: that's a big if.)

Activists and rabble-rousers and hell-raisers, across the political spectrum, always force stories onto the national agenda; that's part of the point of being a political activist. So let's acknowledge the success of the right-wing Wurlitzer, which is both a corporate-funded counterrevolutionary force and a ragtag bunch of troublemakers, for its ability to make a third of the country think something is news whether or not it should be news. And let's stop pretending that playing hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil with regard to this sort of thing is somehow going to make the topics in question disappear from a large of percentage of the country's radar. It seems to me that if a seemingly marginal topic can go from one of Andrew Breitbart's Web sites to the floor of Congress as fast as a Maserati going from zero to 60, then the sane press ought to weigh in before Breitbart steps on the gas.

UPDATE: Last word on this. I fully understand skepticism about the Times and other mainstream news outlets. It's hard to imagine them pursuing right-wing stories without echoing the right-wing line, and I understand that. But there's a need for someone to do this, and to do it right. For years we've let the right push stories into the public consciousness without effectively rebutting those stories. We respond to the right-wing noise machine the way Democrats and progressives responded to the town-meeting agitations -- with too little that came too late. That's got to stop.

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