Billy Graham’s 95th birthday bash: Happy or harpy?

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In the 1984 hit movie “Sixteen Candles,” Molly Ringwald’s character, Samantha Baker, awakens on what should be the biggest birthday of her life. Only, her family has forgotten the occasion.

Overshadowed by her older sister’s impending nuptials, Samantha spends the day hoping one of her family members will remember. Hilarity ensues. Eventually everyone wishes her a happy birthday — including her hunky, sportscar-driving, secret crush Jake. He shows up. And he brings cake! They kiss. Yippee!

I couldn’t help but think of this classic coming-of-age movie (the late Roger Ebert once quipped, “Molly Ringwald was the Molly Ringwald of the ’80s”) as I read USA Today’s rehash of last week’s celebration marking Billy Graham’s 95th birthday in Asheville, N.C.

Not that the Graham family didn’t remember their patriarch’s big day. Not that there wasn’t cake. It was that on this particular occasion, the MSM Graham storyline, like Samantha Baker’s, was just so very, very wrong. Friends and neighbors, was this really a political celebrity story?

At 95 and in frail health, Billy Graham often resists family entreaties to make excursions from his mountaintop home. But the nation’s most famous evangelist attended a birthday celebration Thursday night that featured hundreds of well-wishers and what is being characterized as his final sermon.

Given the lead player, his impact on the world religion stage and the role he has played in the lives of millions of believers in the 185 countries he has visited, you’d expect some retrospective in this story. Some context. At least allusion to the cultural changes that surrounded his ministry and the decades in which he preached. Words that attempt to capture the poignancy of Billy Graham choosing his 95th birthday to present his final sermon.

Instead we get a Fox News infomercial.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for instance:

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Palinphobia hurts journalism

The Washington Post published something yesterday that it shouldn’t have.

Why? Because it was false, as in fake.

Nevertheless, it’s worth highlighting here for the lessons we can learn from it. The piece was headlined:

Sarah Palin’s Plan to Reach Millions of Devoutly Religious People Through al Jazeera

It’s since been completely rewritten — because it was false — but the HTML for the botched item remains “sarah-palins-plan-to-reach-millions-of-devoutly-religious-people-through-al-jazeera.”

Oh, it remained that way when I first wrote this piece last night, but now it’s been redirected to “sarah-palins-when-politics-and-celebrity-meet/.” Interesante.

The entire hook of the piece was proven false, but the item was simply edited and rejiggered and so now the headline is:

Sarah Palin Tries to Stay Relevant

The piece was written by Suzi Parker, “an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of ‘Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.’” It’s the same misogynistic claptrap the media have been feeding us regarding Palin for years.

The item begins: “The Sarah Palin Story is a cautionary tale about what can happen when politics and celebrity meet.”

I’d argue that this whole embarrassing debacle for the Washington Post is actually a cautionary tale about what can happen when unbridled fear and loathing of Palin meets journalism.

It’s been bad for Palin, obviously, but just horrible for journalism. It has destroyed trust with many of its readers. It has turned some journalists and the media outlets that publish them into laughing stocks.

Two thoughts, though. The first is that if you are a media outlet that falls for a fake news item on a satirical website (that in this case published the item about Palin joining al Jazeera) and you run an entire piece about it, the proper correction is not to rewrite the story so that the “point” stays the same but, rather, to simply pull the story. The limp correction (since beefed up slightly) is not sufficient.

Secondly, the item wasn’t just false. It fell short of other journalistic standards as well. It included the old trope of quoting a poly sci professor who happens to agree with the journalist. Isn’t that also something we need to get past? How hard is it, in this country, to find an academic that will back up your hatred for a particular Republican?

That Suzi Parker wrote a false story is bad enough. And I get — believe me I get — how much the media are deranged when it comes to Palin. But certain journalistic standards must be met.

I didn’t go to journalism school but I have some advice I’d like to offer in any case: Don’t run false stories. When false stories are run and then proven to be false, retract them, don’t edit them as if they were “false, but essentially true.” Balance out stories with perspectives that are — wait for it — different from your own rather than those perspectives that reinforce your prejudices. Am I missing anything?

Picture of man whose fear and loathing of Sarah Palin has left him on the brink of insanity via Shutterstock.

SPLC to get Sarah Palin treatment any day now

I want to talk about media coverage of the man who was convicted today of shooting up the Family Research Council. But let’s first go back to the horrible story about the murderous rampage that one disturbed individual went on in Arizona.

The mainstream media narrative, initially, was that a right wing Tea Party supporter acting under the orders of Sarah Palin had assassinated a sitting member of Congress. Precisely none of that was true or even close to true, but it didn’t keep the media from pushing a particular narrative about it for some time. (It wasn’t the biggest religion story, per se, but see our posts here, here and here) I also wrote a post about the role that alternate realities played in the shooting and media coverage of same. The shooter was said to engage in alternate realities. But, I argued, the same might be said of the media, feverishly trying to create a world where political opponents could be blamed for the most brutal crimes imaginable even if the facts didn’t support that.

For days the media focused on the need for civility, and how this shooting was the result of conservative political rhetoric. Some media outlets suggested that campaign and battle words be avoided when talking about politics. See, a PAC associated with Sarah Palin had put out a map with races to “target” and had identified those “targets” with crosshairs. The Atlantic Wire highlighted some of The Atlantic‘s writers on the matter in a piece headlined “Did Sarah Palin’s Target Map Play Role in Giffords Shooting?

In the wake of his shocking and senseless attack, a number of commentators are asking, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows put it, “whether there is a connection between” such “extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery” as that published by Palin and “actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be.” In other words, did Palin’s map cross the line famously described by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic?”

The Washington Post wrote a story headlined “Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings.” The story acknowledges that it’s written as the “result of a national tragedy in which there is no known connection between anything Palin said or did and the alleged actions of Jared Loughner, who is accused of fatally shooting six and severely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 13 others.”

More from The Atlantic (which also included folks who didn’t blame Palin):

Palin at Fault

  • What Palin Did Wrong  The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan clarifies, “No one is saying Sarah Palin should be viewed as an accomplice to murder. Many are merely saying that her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged. We are saying it’s about time someone took responsibility for this kind of rhetorical extremism, because it can and has led to violence and murder.” He points out that Giffords herself had expressed concern about Palin’s map.
  • ‘Imagery of Armed Revolution’  The New York Times’ Matt Bai writes, “it’s hard not to think [Loughner] was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon.” Bai explains, “The problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.” He says Palin and other used “imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘socialism’ when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms. “
  • The Psychology of Incited Violence  At Psychology Today, neurologist David Weisman writes, “The question is not ‘did Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric cause this shooting?’ The question is ‘does inciting violence factor in a multi-factorial process?’” Weisman explores the decision-making process and role of unconscious biases, concluding, “Although there is little clear evidence in this case, the data highlights the importance of butterfly events on human actions. Jared Loughner is clearly deranged. He drank deeply from internal insanity and external stimuli.  His actions did not take place in a vacuum.”

So yesterday, Floyd Lee Corkins II pleaded guilty to three criminal counts involving his August 2012 attack on the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council. He told the FBI that he picked his target from a “hate map (!) on the web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That’s the liberal group that is frequently used as a legitimate source in news reports (I sort of thought they jumped the shark when they identified “pick-up artists” as hate groups but this Reason archive might be worth a read for developing a tad of skepticism of their treatment by the media).

OK, so we have a real criminal who cites a real “hate map” as a key factor in his violence. How do you suppose the media treated that story?

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