As soon as the words escaped my lips, live on national television, I suspected I might have a problem. I’d used the phrase trying to explain why Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spent so much time chatting with Fox News, why he’s kept the mainstream press at bay, and why he seemed so awkward and stiff around minorities.
It didn’t take long for my suspicions to be confirmed. Within hours, my Blackberry was filled with racist hate mail, my Twitter account had been ravaged, I was on indefinite suspension, and my 28-year career was in jeopardy.
The Right Wing Noise Machine — a small cabal of self-appointed watchdogs on a perpetual hunt for perceived liberal bias — had struck again.
By now, my cautionary tale is familiar: after saying Romney, a millionaire businessman, is more comfortable with around people like him was like waving a red cape waving in front of a charging bull — namely, Big Media, an arm of the late Andrew Breitbart’s online empire, and DC Caller, a web site scandal sheet run by Tucker Carlson. After rummaging through some 3,000 tweets, they cherry-picked ones designed to prove their flimsy case: that I was biased against Romney, a racist against whites and a representative of my employer’s slant against conservatives.
At this point, I have to own my role in the story: I was careless on Twitter, ignored some warning signs, and realized too late that my followers weren’t the only ones watching me. Life on the business end of a scandal, is mortifying; an old friend told me I’d raced past the blues singer and the rock guitarist to become the lead result in a Joe Williams Google search, for all the wrong reasons.
Yet it’s easy to miss the larger lesson in my cautionary tale — that a tiny group of organizations with internet access, a money pipeline and next to no credibility can coerce powerful, independent news organizations that pride themselves on speaking truth to power. Rather than inform the public or operate as a legitimate check on the media, pointing out gaps in newsroom diversity or errors in coverage, members of the RWNM only care about their agenda: harassing, undermining, discrediting and embarrassing people who don’t agree with their view of the world.
Breitbart.com, the group that targeted me, is the same outfit behind the case of Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official who was fired after a video surfaced of her making racially inflammatory remarks — a video that was later shown to be heavily edited and taken out of context. Another RWNM member: James O’Keefe, the conservative agent provocateur whose ham-fisted, out-of-context “stings” helped take down ACORN, an organization dedicated to registering minority voters, led to the firing of an NPR executive for making disparaging remarks about the Tea Party – and landed him in jail for tampering with the phones in the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) while trying to engineer another elaborate, phony set-up.
And Daily Caller, the group that posted embarrassing tweets of mine that had nothing to do with anti-Romney bias, employs Neil Munro, the reporter who harassed President Barack Obama by yelling out irrelevant questions during a White House press conference a few days ago.
Given that dismal track record — and the big “reveal” trumpeted by Breitbart himself, a decades-old video that showed Obama, as a law student, once said some nice things about Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell — it’s surprising that any allegations these groups make are taken seriously, and that major news organizations with solid credentials don’t tell these guys to take a long hike off a short pier.
Yet the specious claims and hollow arguments of the RWNM’s promoters somehow are still heard and accepted by those who have the power to change the dynamic. Too often, however, they don’t, with results akin to a kid forking over his lunch money whenever the schoolyard bully decides to shake his fist.
Just ask Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes. For simply questioning whether the word “hero” is overused to desensitize the American public to perpetual war, he got a face full of shrapnel from “outraged” RWNM conservatives who publicly questioned everything from his patriotism to his manhood. Hayes issued an apology days later, but the Right Wing Message Machine’s phony outrage had done its work, adding more ice to the chilling effect it’s layered on American journalism and critical thought.
Reporters and news organizations have always prided itself on being fearless, independent and intrepid, willing to push back on government and stand up for free speech. Now, in a hyper-kinetic, hyper-partisan age, it seems we’re not even willing to push back on our own critics, which doesn’t bode all that well for my colleagues.
I’d bet my last dollar that I’m not the only journalist in Washington who’s written, said, tweeted or done something that Breitbart.com and company would see as biased. To paraphrase an old adage, they see themselves as hammers, and journalists are the nails.
To my great regret, I wasn’t the first person to stumble into their cross-hairs, and I’m certain I won’t be the last. Unless journalists and their employers decide to stand up to the bullies, only one question remains: who’s next?