From headlines surrounding the health care debate to media frenzy over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, NPR’s On the Media host Brooke Gladstone and NYU journalism professor and PressThink blogger Jay Rosen sort the messages and spin from the week’s news.
BILL MOYERS: And now the news. Or what passes for news. It’s harder and harder to tell these days, because so often what passes itself off as journalism is nothing more than instant opinion with or without the facts.
Take President Obama’s big speech in Cairo this week. Because of the time difference, it aired so early in the morning, most of us didn’t see it live but that didn’t stop the pundits telling us what we should think about it.
JOHN ROBERTS: We’ve got some of the best minds on television —
LIZ CHENEY: I think it missed some fundamental points —
PAT BUCHANAN: I don’t think this speech was an apology speech.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Over and over again apologies and moral equivalencies —
BILL SAMMON: He quoted from the Koran three times and we did a search to see how many times as president he’s quoted from the Bible.
BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile, NBC news this week delivered a candygram to the president — two prime time specials called “Inside the Obama White House.” President Obama couldn’t have asked for a sweeter salute…
BRIAN WILLIAMS: People react strongly to this president. We’ve seen people moved to tears after just the briefest encounter with him.
BILL MOYERS: As for an exclusive revelation about your government from behind the White House’s closed doors, well, hold your breath, here it comes…
BRIAN WILLIAMS: There are apples everywhere. Orchards worth of them in bowls throughout the building. They are meant of course to promote healthy eating but what we saw more often is this: the West Wing may lead the western world in candy consumption.
WHITE HOUSE STAFFER: These are official White House M&Ms.
BILL MOYERS: Now, I’ve been there, done that and got the tie clip. I can tell you this is the kind of Valentine every White House press secretary yearns to hand the boss. And it’s not all that hard to achieve, because many of our watchdogs are as housebroken as Bo the White House puppy…
On the other hand, right wing pundits tried to sully the reputation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic appointment to the Supreme Court.
SEAN HANNITY: Is she the most activist nominee in the history of the court?
RICK SANCHEZ: Let me start with you Judge Sotomayor is a racist?
TOM TANCREDO: Certainly her words would indicate that that is the truth.
WENDY LONG: She said I think as a Latina woman I’d make better decisions than a white man… It’s offensive it’s racist, it’s sexist
GLENN BECK: She’s not that intellectually bright and she’s almost a bully. She just loves to hear herself talk.
BILL MOYERS: Here to comment on this week’s coverage are two knowledgeable observers and analysts. Brooke Gladstone is managing editor and co-host of the National Public Radio weekly series “On the Media.” Previously; she was Senior Editor of NPR’s “All Things Considered” as well as NPR’s media correspondent. She’s writing a book called, “The Influencing Machine.”
Jay Rosen is a Professor of Journalism at New York University, as well as a widely published writer and media critic. One of the founders of the citizen journalism movement, he’s the creator of a popular blog called “PressThink,” subtitled “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine.” Ten years ago, he wrote a book asking, “What are Journalists For?” Something I keep wondering about.
Welcome back to both of you. The columnist E.J. Dionne, writing in “The Washington Post” this week, wrote, “A media environment that tilts to the right is obscuring what President Obama stands for and closing off political options that should be part of the public discussion. When Rush Limbaugh sneezes or Newt Gingrich tweets, their views ricochet from the internet to cable television and into the traditional media. It is remarkable how successful they are in setting what passes for the news agenda.” Do you agree with him?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What I see is that there’s a desperate need on the part of media all the time, and increasingly year after year, to respond to what they think are the concerns of the news consumer. And so, there’s a tendency to bend over backwards to prove they aren’t liberal. This is a canard that began with the Nixon administration, probably before, but really took off steam then. And they’re continually in an acrobatic position, trying to overbalance, show what they think are both sides, a side that isn’t being expressed by a mainstream media that is perceived to be liberal, or they believe it’s perceived to be liberal.
JAY ROSEN: I think there is a dynamic where it is in the interests of reporters to portray our political debate as standing between people like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich on the right, and Barack Obama on the left. And what E.J. Dionne was saying is that there are plenty of people to Obama’s left who deserve as large a platform as a Rush Limbaugh or a Newt Gingrich or perhaps even more so.
And I think this involves one of the subtler things that journalists do in our public life, Bill. Which is they set the terms of what a legitimate debate is. They marginalize certain people as not a part of it. And they include other people, who perhaps ought to be marginalized as a central part of it. And it’s very hard for us to hold them accountable for those decisions, because they are subtler than we sometimes recognize.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I do think, though, we have to be careful in not regarding the media as solely the mainstream media, as solely the mainstream television news outlets. Or even the big daily papers. There is a huge raucous, wide-ranging discussion going out there. And even though it is not the dominant media in this country yet, it will be a far more democratic discussion as we move forward.
BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about —
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I really do believe that.
BILL MOYERS: — the internet? Permanently?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I am talking about the internet. I’m talking about all the different conversations, local, national, and global that are outside the realm of these filters and these nervous Nellies who are concerned about being perceived as liberals.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but the big megaphone belongs still to the networks. Both the commercial networks and the cable channels, right? So, ultimately, all this has to be filtered through their microphone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Bill, and I’m asking you this honestly, ’cause I don’t know the answer. Do we know that Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich have managed the great task of tarring Sonia Sotomayor as a racist? I don’t think so. Rush Limbaugh backpedaled just as Gingrich had, to a certain extent, earlier this week. And said that he would support Sonia Sotomayor if she turned out to be pro-life. Well, that’s, you know, at least a policy question that Rush Limbaugh raised. Very out of character for him. Just as earlier Gingrich said, “I’m sorry I used the word racist.” He backed away from the word. He didn’t back away from the charge, as we know.
BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s a valid point, Brooke. But the fact of the matter is they still got away with some deplorable tactics.
I mean, here is the twitter that Newt Gingrich sent out. And which got huge play throughout that stage you were talking about. “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw.” Now, that’s not ambiguous. That’s very clear. Sotomayor is a racist.
JAY ROSEN: I don’t think it’s true that what’s on television automatically influences the American people. Sometimes people look at what the shouting heads are saying. And they reject it. And certainly that may have happened with Gingrich in this case. But it’s true that because he is perceived as a legitimate political figure, he may say something that’s completely out of bounds, and yet it will ricochet around the political system.
Because we don’t have a press that’s willing to say, “this is not a legitimate argument this person is making.” We don’t have a press that’s willing to say, “this, he said it, but it’s completely out of bounds. Or it’s completely baseless. Or it has no grounding in reality.” We just don’t have a group of political interpreters who are willing to say that.
BILL MOYERS: This is Rush Limbaugh speaking about Judge Sotomayor.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: How do you get promoted in the Barack Obama administration? By hating white people…She brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court. I don’t care if we’re not supposed to say it. We’re supposed to pretend it didn’t happen. We’re supposed to look at other things. But it’s the elephant in the room…How can a President nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That’s what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive.
BILL MOYERS: Now, that played for several days. The press picks it up, beats the drum. I mean, he slathers mud everywhere, and then when the dirty work’s done, he conveniently takes it back, creating yet another news cycle for his so called retraction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did he take it back, though? Not because the dirty work was done, necessarily, but because the mud just didn’t stick. How often does Rush backpedal? And he has. Suddenly he sees her as a viable candidate if she would be pro-life. Which, you know, I don’t know where she stands on that. But the fact is that suddenly she is out of the realm of inadmissible to a policy discussion. Rush himself recently made that change. How come? Is it possible because he’s not longer speaking in such an impermeable echo chamber that these things can reverberate around without consequences.
BILL MOYERS: All right, but let’s talk about that echo chamber. I’m going to show you two clips, one of Andrea Mitchell talking to the right winger Pat Buchanan.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Do you agree with what Rush Limbaugh said?
PAT BUCHANAN: Yeah, I do agree. I don’t agree with some of the terms. But I do agree that Sonia Sotomayor, she does believe in race-based justice. Basically, at the expense of white males to advance people of color. But the truth is, that’s what Barack Obama believes, as well.
BILL MOYERS: To me, there’s no doubt this has an effect. ‘Cause let me show you a quote from Bob Schieffer on last Sunday’s “Face the Nation.” And then I have a question to both of you about it.
BOB SCHIEFFER: I want to get right to the quote that has caused all of the controversy that Washington has been talking about all week. What Justice, or Judge Sotomayor said in the speech eight years ago. And here it is. She said, “I would hope that a Latina woman, with the richness of her experience, would more often than not, reach a better conclusion than a white male, who hasn’t lived that life.” Senator Kyl, is that enough to keep her from being confirmed as a Justice on the Supreme Court?
BILL MOYERS: So, instead of deconstructing the quote, Bob plays the beltway card: is this going to cause her not to be confirmed?
JAY ROSEN: Well, first of all, Bob Schieffer forgot to ask himself whether the controversy that had gripped Washington was a legitimate controversy. And surely that’s one thing we need him for.
BILL MOYERS: Who’s to decide that? Legitimacy —
JAY ROSEN: Well —
BILL MOYERS: — or illegitimacy?
JAY ROSEN: Well, Tom Goldstein, an author of the SCOTUSblog, which is a very carefully put together blog about the Supreme Court, and a law professor — looked at the record of Sotomayor’s decisions. In 96 cases, where there were discrimination claims before the court, she decided against the claim of discrimination 78 times. And there were only about ten where she sided at all with a plaintiff charging discrimination.
Now, if you know that, if you know that record, then the whole controversy looks kind of fake from the beginning. And so, what Bob Schieffer did was take what Washington is buzzing about, refused to fact check it, take it as a given, and ask a kind of insider political question. “Is this going to sink her nomination?” Which is premature and which abandons his role as a journalist in determining what is a legitimate controversy. What should we be arguing about? Which views have standing as facts, as fact-based?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s disappointing to be sure. And I’m really sorry that that responsibility was abrogated. On the other hand, what this is a clear example of, and I hope I don’t sound like a broken record at this point, is increasingly how the Washington punditocracy and those who preside over it, and the Republican Party are marginalizing themselves. By focusing on these people whose influence, whose direct influence seems to be, used to be broadly at the country at large. But if we are to believe the polls, and I guess that’s a whole different show for you, it seems that the importance of Rush as a mover of opinion, not as a generator of audience, necessarily. But as a mover of opinion — and Newt Gingrich is diminishing. Fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Republican.
So, you see this false balance being created in the news for the purposes of having something that generates a lot of heat without much light to talk about. And you see a medium, a class of experts. A political party. All in the process of marginalizing themselves in pursuit of generating some excitement on television.
BILL MOYERS: So, if you’re right, this is happening without what Jay identified earlier. Very few progressive voices to the left of Obama are having a role in the national debate. So, what’s happening that is bringing people around to challenge the Limbaughs and the Gingriches, when in fact those alternative voices are rarely heard?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a fascinating question. And I venture to say, that it’s probably Obama. Obama is an enormously appealing character. And he has placed himself in front of the cameras everywhere. He’s given tons of so-called exclusive interviews everywhere. He has made himself the best spokesman for his own moderate position. And the country likes it. And that’s what the polls suggest. It seems quite simple, but that’s the stand in for the entire other side of the debate. And the people to the left of him, you are right, we don’t see them. And it would be useful to see more of them on television. But we do see them on the net.
JAY ROSEN: I think there’s a very interesting dynamic here, which is that Obama makes a living by not being what the right wing says he is. And it was very powerful in the election, when he showed up at the debates. He didn’t look anything like or sound anything like what the heated fantasies of the conservative wing had said. And simply by not being who Rush says he is, he ends up seeming way more trustworthy than perhaps he actually should be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And makes Rush less credible.
JAY ROSEN: And makes Rush less credible. But even though I agree with you, Brooke that the conservative base is kind of marginalizing itself. It isn’t necessarily being marginalized by the news media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s for sure. I completely agree with you there.
JAY ROSEN: So, let’s marginalize them. If they’re self-marginalized.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean? Do you mean because they still, as E.J. Dionne wrote, they still are the dominant voices in the so-called mainstream media? Is that what you’re saying?
JAY ROSEN: What I’m saying is they’re still useful in presenting the journalist as the even-handed person sitting in the middle. And because they have that role, they don’t get eclipsed.
BILL MOYERS: I want to ask you about the health care debate. The swiftboating of health care reform has begun, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The fact that is that what has widely been regarded as a swiftboat event began, and was by some of the people who did the Kerry swiftboating, and by some of the people who sunk, many years earlier, the Clinton plan. And all the fact checked organizations have gotten on board, not to mention a profoundly aggressive campaign by the Obama administration itself, which likes using the word “swiftboat” all over the place, to short hand that, you know, you can’t believe anything these people say.
And in a way, it’s an effort to undercut any debate about the health care proposal. But at least it does place a spotlight on the outright lies.
BILL MOYERS: One of the subjects not in the debate over health care reform is single-payer. And contrary to what many people think about it being a far left proposal, the polls show that it has substantial support among a large swath of the American people. Many of whom would not call themselves far left.
But Senator Baucus said, its not in the discussion because we’ve gone too far now to go back and consider single-payer. There it seems to me is a very good example of how a legitimate idea gets delegitimated in the debate between the powers that be.
JAY ROSEN: I think it’s a classic example of the real religion of the Washington press, which is savviness. And from a problem-solving point of view, we would certainly want to consider single-payer, because it’s an important option in a debate. But from a savvy point of view, the inside players know that single-payer is never going to be the answer. And they’re already factoring that into their political calculations about what’s likely to result.
Which in a way cuts off the debate that we need to have. And so, the inside players in Washington are able to kind of contain the debate by anticipating the outcome, and then talking about the things that are most likely within that set of assumptions. And this is a normal process in Washington that goes on all the time. And it’s one of the ways that journalists shape the terms of debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You make an important point when you talk about the fact that Baucus himself said it’s off the table. The fact is that reporters most often take their cues on almost any subject from national security to domestic legislation from the debate on Capitol Hill. If they are constraining their own debate, reporters who go outside and report on these other issues are seen as outliers. Are seen as activists pushing the discussion in one direction or another.
So, then you have to raise the question, “Why isn’t it being raised on Capitol Hill?” Which is the question you raised. And I honestly think that our Democratic Party is suffering under the same paranoid concerns that the press are. That this putatively liberal party may be too liberal.
BILL MOYERS: Let me show you a clip from a commercial that’s being run by groups that are opposed to a public option in the health care debate. And then I have a question for you.
RICK SCOTT: Before Congress rushes into overall health care, listen to those who already have government run health care.
FEMALE VOICE: In Britain, Katie Brickell. Denied the Pap test that could have saved her from cervical cancer. Kate Spall. Her mother suffered on a wait list as her renal cancer became terminal. Angela French. Cost cutting keeps her waiting for the medication she needs to stay alive.
RICK SCOTT: For those tragic stories and more at CPRights.org. Tell Congress to listen, too.
BILL MOYERS: CPRights.org is sponsored by Richard Scott, who had to leave his company. The largest health care chain in the world, Columbia/HCA. After the company was caught ripping off the feds and state governments for hundreds of millions dollars in bogus Medicare and Medicaid payments. He waltzed away with a $10 million severance deal. And $300 million worth of stock. And here he is telling us that his way of health reform is the way the public should go. Now, how does the public get the facts about an ad like that. And a guy like Rick Scott?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you get the facts? The fact is that I’ve seen Scott being identified, more or less, as you did, in every single story about this campaign. You know, I think that there is now a willingness, as there wasn’t even during the Kerry swiftboating earlier on, and certainly not during the sinking of the Clinton health care plan, to acknowledge the source of these ads. I think that all of us, as news consumers, as the American people, are becoming more and more aware that just because you see it on TV doesn’t mean that it’s true.
JAY ROSEN: I agree with Brooke in this sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yay!
JAY ROSEN: I think that an ad like that is assuming that the receiver of it is an isolated person, who hearing these scary tales of government — run health care will therefore pick up the phone and pressure Congress. And the way the ad imagines the viewer is in social isolation. Where no other messages will get through. And I think that is what’s changing. Is that people are not isolated anymore. They’re not sitting on the end of their television sets and receiving messages from the center only.
And in a way you could see these kinds of campaigns where you raise money from rich people to scare less educated people. Or low information voters, as they call them in the political trade. As a sign of weakness. The rhetoric might be more furious, the ads might be more outrageous. But it’s because this kind of communication is actually weaker and it’s working less.
BILL MOYERS: This is going to be a long, hot summer. We’ve got so many issues on the front burners. Afghanistan, health care, Supreme Court nominations, and who knows what else is coming? What will you be looking for this summer, as the news cycle unfolds?
JAY ROSEN: Well, I’m looking for a press that recognizes that the world has changed. And that the political class in Washington created a lot of these huge problems, and doesn’t necessarily have the answers to them. And that the way of doing politics that has sufficed in the capitol for so long, of you take your polls, you raise your money, you run the ads, you scare people, you win the controversy of the day, you win the news cycle. That that system itself is failing. And those who participate in it are, month by month, losing credibility.
And I don’t think that the press has realized that they are a part of that system that is failing. And that they, too, need a new approach. Let’s take David Gregory, for example, the host of “Meet the Press.” He hasn’t quite realized yet that he’s got to go outside the political class. To bring in new thinkers, new ideas, different parts of the political spectrum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are you talking about? He’s twittering.
JAY ROSEN: He’s twittering, but he’s not listening. And twitter doesn’t update you. It’s just a trendy thing.
BILL MOYERS: No. You get Newt Gingrich twittering, right? About racism.
JAY ROSEN: I mean, the political class in this country has failed. And if we have a talk show system that is nothing but the same old players, then that system is going to fail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I am really interested in what’s going to happen to what’s increasingly called the media ecosystem this summer. Precisely because of all these sources for optimism that I seem to have. There are a number of polls where people talking about the media and how horrible it is and the echo chamber phenomenon online. And the biased or lopsided discussion on television. And they always say, in greater and greater numbers, you know, I’m not really worried about me. It’s the other people. They’re going to get all manipulated by this. They’re going to get all fooled by this. It’s the other people. Quote unquote, you know? The “stupid people.” Who aren’t going to be able to figure their way out of this.
And if all of those people answering the polls aren’t worrying about themselves, and they’re just worried about the stupid people, then maybe those people, besides from being a bit arrogant, are increasingly engaged. And what I think we are going to see is a greater positive symbiosis. Not the negative ones we’ve seen between, you know, the early symbiosis. Where you know, the blogs will start, you know, an obsession.
Did Michelle Obama actually say “whitey?” And then it makes its way onto the cable news. But a more positive symbiosis, where there is a charge made in one place. It’s fact checked in another. The fact check ricochets in more places. Corrections happen more quickly. So that symbiosis. And then another symbiosis between the online world and news consumers that don’t have their own blogs that are willing to, but who are nevertheless willing to participate and present their own facts and experiences, and send that stuff onto the blogs, where it can be, you know, processed and then bounced back and forth. It’s going to be a really interesting summer, because there’s so much fuel. And it’s just going to be interesting to see what kind of energy comes out of it, and whether there’s a lot of pollution or whether it’s clean energy.
BILL MOYERS: Well, there really two places I heartily recommend my viewers go. One is to “On The Media” at NPR.org and to PressThink.org. Jay Rosen and Brooke Gladstone, thanks for being with me again on the Journal.
JAY ROSEN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for this week. To read additional media analysis from Jay Rosen and Brooke Gladstone, go to the Moyers Web site at PBS.org. You can also find out more from Jeremy Scahill and about the current situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Just log onto PBS.org, click on Bill Moyers Journal.
I am Bill Moyers. See you next week.
This transcript was entered on May 16, 2015.