James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, September 15, 2006

The press joins Republican smear campaign

The American press is catching up rapidly with broadcast news, becoming sillier, more irrelevant and more vapid with a speed I'd not have thought possible a decade ago.

Lately it is becoming plain vicious in its treatment of people, especially politicians, with whom it disagrees.

You see a lot of admiration for extreme right wing blogs expressed in newspapers today; maybe that at least partially explains the new nastiness.

The newspaper I once worked for has exposed itself in the current political season as atilt and absurd.

It's political coverage – the stuff in the news pages – frequently is distorted to the point of being propaganda on behalf of those candidates its arrogant political reporters favor, and against those they do not like. (More on this in a few paragraphs.)

These thoughts come out of what has been a strange summer and early fall for me. The peculiar character of the season explains my frequent long absences from this space.

In a nutshell, it's been a summer of relatives and family obligation trips. When my wife and I weren't traveling to an important birthday celebration or anniversary or wedding, or taking time off for funerals, we've had visitors almost without a break, and that will continue at least through next week.

It's not been a terrible way to spend a summer, but there's been precious little time to spend at my desk.

On the other hand, I've managed to keep up with the news, and with those who deliver it, and I've had the sad experience of observing first hand that the local newspapers in St. Paul and Minneapolis have simply joined the majority of the country's corporate broadsheets in tilting news to the right and catering to readers who have the sensibilities and maturity of 10-year-olds.

Off and on during long flights or long drives I've toyed with creating a motto for the Star Tribune, something along the lines of “Keeping the public entertained and ignorant,” or “Shielding you from the unpleasant truth” or....Well let it go.

I realized fully for the first time this summer that there now is more honest and accurate reporting in what was once called the “alternative press” than there is in the dailies published in most cities.

Since spring, I've had good looks at the press in San Francisco, Kansas City and Seattle and glimpses of what's going on in some smaller cities. Add those to several other cities big and small where I have long-standing familiarity with daily and weekly papers, and I came to the inescapable conclusion that the press, like television, has been homogenized, and gone sour; for a news junky, one place is much like another, and a good newspaper is as rare as a political reporter with a modicum of humility.

Although I read several newspapers in several places this summer, I didn't haul them home; newsprint is heavy, airports are difficult enough without a lot of extra weight in one's bags.

So I'll use my local rag for examples of what passes for political coverage this season, with the assurance that similar examples can be found in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, lots of smaller towns, to a growing extent in Los Angeles and, though the slip is slower, in New York (thinking of the Times).

Before the primary election campaigns really got rolling, I predicted that the Star Tribune would do its best to besmirch a Democratic candidate the paper's most favored political reporters were sure to hate for purely personal reasons.

You may now refer to me as Oracle and Seer Extraordinaire.

The candidate is Keith Ellison, a black state legislator who is a Muslim (not a “Black Muslim”). He hopes to replace 14-term Congressman Martin Sabo, who decided under some unacknowledged pressure to retire.

As a young law school student in the early 1990s, Ellison had an 18-month slender connection to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam. Mainly, he helped organize for the Million Man March in this part of the country. The movement was built on a message of improving the lot of black people in America, and millions of black men saw it as a movement of personal (and legitimate) empowerment. Ellison was not a member of the Nation of Islam.

During and after his students days, he did accumulate a bundle of unpaid parking tickets and had a squabble with the IRS over some taxes. Those problems were cleaned up some time ago.

(A personal revelation: Years ago, my wife similarly allowed a mess of parking tickets to go unpaid during a particularly hectic time in her work life. There even was a warrant for her arrest, but she paid the fines before she was nicked and thrown in the slammer.)

Over the summer and into the fall, I can recall only one Star Tribune story in which Ellison was mentioned that did not focus on his old problems and, at great length, on the supposed Farrakhan connection almost to the exclusion of his very clear and important political agenda. Other candidates stated their campaign messages in the Star Tribune's pages; the average reader of the Strib might not have known that Ellison had one.

He is, for the record, a progressive. He wants a U.S. pullout from Iraq, universal health care, more support for education and similar “extreme” programs – extreme if you're a right wing Republican or a Strib political reporter.

The main angle on the fake Farrakhan connection was that since Farrakhan was said to be antiSemitic, then Ellison must be a Jew hater. That theme was exploited again at great length – using the extremely nasty, Rovian proclamations of a Republican candidate who has no chance of winning the Congressional seat – in a lengthy front page story last Thursday, two days after the primary election.

Not once before the primary, that I can find, did the Strib report the fact that the American Jewish World, a Twin Cities-based, much respected and widely circulated Jewish newspaper, endorsed Ellison.

Neither did it ever report the fact that many Jewish religious and community leaders and Jewish politicians are backing Ellison, who has long worked with them in harmony on social and political issues. My own excellent representative in the Minnesota House, Frank Hornstein, is a Jew and a very strong supporter of Ellison's congressional run.

Since the primary, the only mention of the Jewish World's endorsement was a slander from a right-wing nut who declared that the Jewish newspaper is, itself, anti-Jewish – or at least anti-Israel – because it allowed criticism of Israel's recent deathly bombing and shelling of Lebonese civilians to be printed in its pages. There still has been no mention of prominent Jews supporting Ellison.

While repeating the other old and not very dirty dirt against the Democrat daily, the Strib writers did not repeat Ellison's measured and rational responses to the sliming. The paper's stance, therefore, is: “Fairness, what fairness? We don't do fairness.”

Given its present irrelevance, it's hardly worth mentioning, but, in fact, the Strib editorial page endorsed another candidate, Mike Erlandson, in the primary. Erlandson was for a time a very bad chair of Minnesota's Democratic party, the DFL – he made one stupid statement after another, followed by retraction and apology after retraction after apology-- and he has been Rep. Sabo's chief of staff for 13 years.

Erlandson ran on the claim that he “knows how to get things done in Washington” because of his experience with Sabo.

The truth is that Sabo retired in place long ago. He has done nothing useful for his constituents in at least a decade. Apparently the Strib editorialists figured it's good that Erlandson helped him do it.

There is a sort of tasty irony in the endorsement: The Strib has added its voice on several occasions to the chorus of those bellyaching about the Democrats' failure to mount a real opposition to Bush and the neocons. When a real progressive, anti-neocon voice appeared, the Strib quickly tried to silence it, favoring a candidate who knows where the big campaign contributions come from and who would never, ever rock the yacht.

Ellison won in the primary much more easily than the Strib or various other self-proclaimed political experts expected. A Thursday story therefore tries to make the primary win appear insignificant because of low voter turnout. Light participation in primaries is, of course, the norm.

(Actually, Strib opinion writers expressed surprise at the outcome of at least one other primary race, and hinted that they were taken aback by a couple of others. You get surprised, folks, when you talk only to each other and a handful of self-named political experts and your friends in your affluent suburban neighborhoods. Nobody among the many politically savvy people I know was much surprised by any of the primary votes.)

The Strib “reporters” are back to hammering at Ellison, and they will keep at it until the November elections and probably beyond. Ellison will win in his very heavily liberal Democratic district, but the Strib people seem to be insulted that they were ignored by so many primary voters and, anyway, they can try to use the now very tired Ellison negatives to separate him from, and weaken, Democratic candidates for other offices.

It is, in fact, the clearly, publicly stated Republican plan to try to force other Democrats to deny Ellison, and weaken themselves in the process, and the Strib folks are running with it as though they work for the party.

Oh, yes: The Washington Post and a couple of other newspapers reported at length a few days ago on how the Republican national congressional campaign organization intends to spend $45 million to $50 million to smear Democrats before the November election.

That's right. Republican insiders freely admitted that they're going to spend every dime they can lay their hands on to slime opponents. In addition to the massive outlay of dollars, they've already sent out an army of smear specialists to show the locals around the country how to get really dirty.

Ellison's nominal Republican opponent, Alan Fine, a professor in the University of Minnesota's business school, followed the Rovian script, saying that “as a Jew” he is offended by Ellison's candidacy and blatantly attacking the Democrat's religion and claiming that it is apparent that Ellison hates Jews, and so on truly ad nauseum. Radio and television stations and the local daily newspapers pretty much let him get away with it, although a couple of commentators expressed their disgust.

Another irony: Friday, the lead editorial in the Star Tribune warned readers that the Republican smear campaign is getting underway and even suggested that Fine, who until the past week had a reputation as a decent moderate, was spouting filth put into his mouth by the Rove machine. The paper's news operation continues to cooperate with the smear campaigners.

The big money, the Republican party types told the Post, is going into searches for dirt – such as the huge fishing program operating in Minneapolis to find something, anything, the Republicans can use to smear the Minnesota Democrats' Senate candidate, Amy Klobuchar. And it's also going for ads, of course.

The $45 million to $50 million doesn't include other Republican campaign operations and individual campaigns. It's all been planned by that remarkable public servant, Karl Rove.

Other than the Post, a couple of major dailies have explained to their readers what's going on. The Strib has made one mention of the smear campaign, on an inside page and with the truth watered down, even though the Republicans fairly bragged about what they're doing. The amount of money involved was not clearly stated in my paper, not even mentioned in some others I've checked. The Strib has not linked the so-far totally unsuccessful anti-Klobuchar dirt hunt to the national campaign and I'll be very surprised if it ever does.

I'd say that a smear campaign and witch hunt, admitted and even bragged about, is a hell of a story, but I guess the current crop of “modern” newspaper people disagrees.

A couple of other quick examples of the paper's willingness, even eagerness, to play megaphone for the political right:

* A few days before Sept. 11, the Star Tribune had a front page story on “conspiracy theories” that claim Bush & Co. had something to do with blowing up the World Trade Center. The article centered on a couple of far-out accusers, notably one retired academic, and then cutely extrapolated from that. The crux of the piece was that anyone who has any questions about the WTC tragedy and the egregiously inadequate answers to legitimate questions is a nut case.

Folks, there are some serious questions about the behavior of the Bush Administration and other officials in the aftermath of 9/11, and much information has been hidden. That is not the same as saying the Bushies blew up the building, but that's what the Strib story strongly implied. The article was a preemptive strike, its only purpose to prevent criticism of the handling of the 9/11 disaster after the fact.

* “The Path to 9/11,” the ABC/Disney propaganda piece that ran in two parts on Sept. 11 and 12, promoted as a docudrama, got a staff-written piece in the Strib a couple of days before it was broadcast. The story appeared after Bill Clinton, several members of his administration and many others complained about the obvious distortions and lies in the show.

The Strib staffer who did the piece normally writes about television celebrities, “reality” shows and similarly weighty topics, which is precisely what he is qualified to do.

He obviously saw one or two wire stories about the complaints against the show, and his piece suggests he also read an ABC press release defending the thing. There is no evidence nor suggestion that he did any other research. His article showed unmistakably that he did not understand the program's contents. The story, then, said that Democrats were angry, but that ABC said the show had no political agenda and the Democrats were wrong. It all but gave blessing to the contents of the lousy propaganda piece. That's about par these days.

If you get hot about such things, and you should, write the people responsible. At the StarTribune, email the editor, Anders Gillenhaal at Andersg@startribune.com, the so-called reader representative (Kate Parry) at readerrep@startribune.com and/or the editorial page editor, Susan Albright, at Salbright@startribune.com.

For other newspapers, look for the masthead, usually at the bottom of a page in the first few pages of the front section of the newspaper. That names the paper's editors and other officiers and usually gives email addresses. It always provides a regular mail address and phone numbers.

If you'd like to write directly to the no-chance Republican candidate for Congress in the Minnesota Fifth District – the guy who is being used as Karl Rove's tool to slime Ellison – he is Alan Fine. His email address is Alan@fineforcongress.org

It only takes a few minutes to tell them what you think about their efforts.