The Media, health care, and racism — bad medicine

The debate over the recently passed health care bill has been heated and passionate. As it turned out, so has the coverage of the issue by journalists. One issue that particularly caught my attention was the weekend of the vote, where it was reported that U.S. Reps. John Lewis and several other black lawmakers were called the N-word by health care opponents while walking into the Capitol.

U.S. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver told Capitol police he was spat on and identified his attacker and later said he declined to file charges. One report said, though, Cleaver may not have been to positively identify his person to police and no arrests were made.
Conservative talk show hosts seemed to dismiss the incident, stating there was no proof since it wasn’t heard on tape. There were plenty of video cameras there to record the loud chatting of “kill the bill.”

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, on his March 28 edition of his CNN show “Reliable Sources,” a program I often reference in my media ethics class, took on the mainstream media in a discussion on if it were adopting Democratic talking points that Republican rhetoric against the health care was sparking death threats and violence.

Kurtz had three guests on the panel to talk about the pros and cons of the subject. He challenged one on how can he could make a jump from one Republican’s passionate opposition to the bill to violence and death threats and brought up that the media didn’t seem so interested in civility in the heated criticism of George W. Bush during his presidency.

Kurtz, though, found the wrath of Bill O’Reilly and Bernie Goldberg on O’Reilly’s No-Spin Zone March 29, when Kurtz took a shot at a fellow Fox talk show host.

“Where I was concerned was where you had Sean Hannity on Fox News openly doubting, remember the rally at the Capitol last weekend and all the protesters showing up before the health care bill passed. You had people like Barney Frank, John Lewis and Emmanuel Cleaver show up and having the N-word yelled at them, and anti-gay epithets hurled at them. Hannity said how do we know it even happened because there’s no video of it. That is where I would have a problem.”

On O’Reilly’s segment with Goldberg, O’Reilly said he had not seen the show but went on to say, “What they were doing on that show is saying if you question of voracity of what was reported, without any tape, any arrest, cops said they didn’t hear anything, if you question it, what are you? Evil? Stupid? What was the theme?”

Goldberg answered: “What do you say when you crossed the line, I want to know you crossed the line from what to what? From being a decent human being to being a bigot, I assume? . . . We live in an age, and I’m on thin ice again here, we live in an age where if you criticize Barack Obama about anything, you take a big risk in being called a racist.”

He followed with random headlines from newspapers from the debated incident to prove his point about the media’s siding with Democratic rhetoric, one headline stating, “Tea Party turns into Klan Rally.”

Wait a minute. Did I miss something? Kurtz didn’t call Hannity a racist. Not even close. What he seemed to be calling for is holding everyone, even Hannity, to the same journalist standards we all are held to. Did the racial name calling that day happen? It’s up for reporters to do their research and find out, but we should never blindly accept it, nor instantly dismiss it until that happens.

I went back to look at the newspaper coverage. The McClatchy News Service seemed to be the one most prominent in the reporting here. The article quoted lawmakers who said they heard the slurs. A reporter from the Huffington Post said he heard the anti-gay remark against Barney Frank. The newspaper report also added comments from Republicans, as well. I doubt if I would have changed anything about those stories except maybe talking to some people in the crowd, but that may have been done as well. We report on stories based on interviews with people involved in such events all the time. It’s routine. Video or audio confirmation would have been great, but we are trained to also make judgments on the credibility of our sources. Again, that’s a routine part of journalism. That credibility has a very high standard because, in the end, we want our stories to be stand up to scrutiny and accurately reflect the event we’re covering.

Hannity openly doubting what happened? Well, that’s what he does. Frankly, I’m surprised that Kurtz would be so worked up about it. Big deal. It’s the end of journalism as we know it. That’s if Hannity actually practiced journalism, but I digress.

Goldberg, though, who is a solid journalist, is comparing apples and oranges. Yes, you can make the argument that some will see any negative comments about Obama as racist. The media’s coverage of this incident specific simply doesn’t rise to that level – either directly or indirectly.

We in the media tend to look for easy, quick definitions for groups. We have limited space and airtime – not to mention the nano-second attention span of our audience. It’s a job requirement. That’s why getting our journalistic arms around the subject of health care has been such a media nightmare and at times all over the place. Throwing in other complicated hot button issues – like, uh, race – will bog down things even more. Liberals, conservatives and the media should be careful and cautious about mixing the two or we’ll find ourselves far away from the original subject. The media connecting the entire Tea Party movement to racism is as misguided as blindly dismissing claims of race without doing the work journalists routinely do to get at the truth.

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