President John F. Kennedy called Washington, D.C., a city "of Northern charm and Southern efficiency." This city—the one I reluctantly call home—is indeed inefficient and charmless: The reason for the former should be obvious, though the latter can be blamed on those oleaginous hordes of pompous and self-important politicians, bloggers, and journalists that make D.C. “Hollywood for ugly people.” (Yes, I am one of these types, but, in my defense, I have a perfectly reasonable understanding of my low-level of influence and importance, and I don't harbor an earnest desire to change the world or score victories for “my side.” I’ll let the reader decide how physically repulsive I am.)
If you haven’t noticed the recent “news,” you blissfully missed another week of Beltway navel-gazing, of self-referential media stories, holier-than-thou sermonizing about journalistic ethics, and the usual bipartisan accusations of race-baiting. We have all heard the deeply serious denounce our loathsome celebrity-obsessed media culture, with all of its reporting on Britney, Mel, and Lindsey. Scoff, eye-roll, harrumph—queue the dissident MSNBC anchoring tearing up a Paris Hilton news story on camera, the Solzhenitsyn of the cable news age.
Serious people don’t report on the unserious gossip from Hollywood, though how about the unserious gossip from Ugly Hollywood? Cut to the furrowed brow, finger-wagging panel of experts discussing the firing of Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel, the leaked emails from obnoxious and unfunny liberal journalists, and the outraged discussion on just how a hyperpartisan troglodyte like Andrew Breitbart had snuck into our club. Sure, we bowdlerize quotes and accuse non-racist people of secretly harboring Orval Faubus tendencies, but we do it with élan and a journalism school degree.
So nonsense replaces nonsense, Britney to Breitbart, but it’s the only thing this charming and efficient city is talking about.
First, there was the Journolist leaks, in which members of a listserv inhabited by liberal journalists and academics expressed their desire to see Rush Limbaugh die of a heart attack; to toss their enemies through plate glass windows; to call random conservatives racists; and to rid the country of those “fucking NASCAR retards.” In other words, a confirmation of preexisting conservative stereotypes about members of the liberal intelligentsia. But was the group of 400 writers—the Learned Elders of the Left—attempting to coordinate news coverage?
Former JournoList members scoff at charges of collusion, that they were members of an all-powerful clique recalibrating White House policy, burying coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and plotting to force Fox News off the air—all from a Google Group. Critics counter that, whether opinion journalists or straight news reporters, the group was attempting to “organize a media narrative,” to use Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan’s phrase.
The whole tedious debate misses one interesting point. While commenters have noted blogger Spencer Ackerman’s sleazy suggestion that liberals start labeling random Republicans “racist”—pick a conservative, like “Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists"—few noticed the obsession with accusing opponents not of being misguided or wrong, but motivated by racial animus and Nazi-like hatreds. But more on this in a minute.
The other media-centric obsession was a selectively edited video released by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, suggesting that a black employee of the Department of Agriculture discriminated against white farmers while working for the Obama administration. A terrified White House forced the employee, Shirley Sherrod, to resign, thus seeming to confirm the charge that the administration had purged the USDA of a dangerous racist, the Angela Davis of the farm lobby.
When the unexpurgated video was released, Sherrod was vindicated, offered an apology from President Barack Obama, the NAACP, Bill O’Reilly, and dozens of others quick to believe the racism charge, and offered her job back. In other words, Sherrod was slimed and maligned because someone falsely accused her of being a racist. But then again, Sherrod, who CNN’s David Gergen compared to Nelson Mandela, doesn’t subscribe to the ghastly views of Karl Rove and Fred Barnes.
Most members of the media, both liberal and conservative, expressed outrage over Sherrod’s sacking and the unfair media coverage that followed. Keith Olbermann denounced the “political guillotine” of Fox News and Breitbart, and the conservative desire to “convict the benevolent as racist.” It was important, Olbermann maintained, to remember that facts matter and that hyperbolic bloggers who end up treating their quarry like Danton should be humiliated. And if you thought these pleas for level-headedness, for the media to tone down the rhetoric, were sincere, the MSNBC host employed another analogy from French history, comparing Sherrod to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the French military officer famously sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in an anti-Semitic frame up.
Even Sherrod, having just observed the consequences of sloppily charging people with racism, told CNN that Breitbart “knew what effect [the video] would have on the conservative, racist people he's dealing with.” And as the scripted media introspection and the rehearsed “conversations” about race were inaugurated by those who already knew the answers, blogger and former Journolist member Matt Yglesias was falsely accusing libertarian economist Arnold Kling of racism—the second time Kling has had to endure the toxic charge. But Kling, unlike Sherrod, is an enemy.
If all this counted as a teachable moment, it is unclear who the students were.
But the unfair charge of racism, fascism, and Nazism, correctly denounced when spouted by Glenn Beck, seems something of a regular feature on Journolist. A blogger named Lindsay Beyerstein wrote of Obama’s opponents: “I’m not saying these guys are capital F-fascists, but they don’t want limited government.” Richard Yeselson, another liberal blogger, agreed: “This is core of the Bush/Cheney base transmorgrified (sic) into an even more explicitly racialized/anti-cosmopolitan constituency. Why? Um, because the president is a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama.” Yeseleson argued that the Tea Partiers wanted a “militarist/heterosexist/herrenvolk state,” using the German word for “master race.” An essay by Victor Davis Hanson arguing against illegal immigration is “very close in spirit to the classic 1970s racist tome The Camp of the Saints, where White Guys struggle to make up their minds whether to go out and murder brown people or just give up.”
But false (or flimsy) accusations of racism abound—they are everywhere one looks—though they rarely provoke the level of outrage seen in the Sherrod affair. This week, in a fit of boredom, I found myself leafing through a deeply silly book by William Kleinknecht, a crime reporter for a newspaper in New Jersey, portentously called The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America. If it wasn’t enough that Reagan betrayed, attacked, humiliated, and sold Main Street to corporations the reader is informed that after the 1980 election the United States was “turned over to...thinly-veiled racists.” Nowhere does Kleinknecht substantiate the charge, but when the accused is Ronald Reagan, why bother?
This whole “debate,” if we can charitably call it that, is a mess of straw men, hypocrisy, stupidity, and reflexive defenses of one’s own tribe. It has nothing to do with fairness, journalistic ethics, or the immorality of dragging the reputations of innocents through the mud in an attempt at scoring political points.
Racism is the most powerful and toxic accusation in American discourse, one that derails careers and destroys futures. Yet despite its toxicity it is also the one that requires the least amount of evidence; the racism, we are told, is institutionalized or subterranean, so trust that it’s being divined in good faith. Well, that won’t do. Because there is no penalty for unfairly calling someone a racist, as David Frum points out—if it sticks, a point for your side; if it doesn’t, who cares?
All of this will soon be forgotten, thankfully, and the charming and efficient pundits of Washington, D.C. will go back to observing the “racist” Tea Party movement and that stupid conservatives aren't stupid but “neo-fascists." And we’ll be back to business as usual.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.