Behold a Pale Rider

It’s come up again – what you think is really going on depends on your news source. The recent events in Egypt show that. Andrew Sullivan says that the best coverage he saw by far was by al Jazeera and BBC World News America – ignore them and “you’re missing a huge amount of what’s going on in the world.”

Yes, they do talk to the locals more, but they also persist in reporting that what happened in Egypt – an actual revolution, perhaps – was not at all about America, or even Israel, or Sarah Palin. Glenn Beck may argue what this was really all about – Beck connects the original protests in Egypt to Islamic socialists, Marxist communists, food prices, Bill Ayers, Code Pink, ACORN co-founder Wade Rathke, the Tides Foundation’s Drummond Pike, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the AFL-CIO. And both Bush presidents in their Iraq wars never bombed the holy sites – true Babylon – so those two are also in on the plan to bring on the new worldwide caliphate. Yes there were no signs in the streets of Cairo saying Death to America or Death to Israel, or anything at all about Islam taking over the world. This seemed to be about local issues. But these folks are tricky. Beck was only reporting the truth – everyone else has agreed not to tell you the truth at all, because they’re in on it too.

Beck may be an outlier – or Rupert Murdoch hasn’t yet decided whether to unleash his news empire and have them tell us all this actual truth. So his television networks around the world and all the major newspapers he owns – the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London and so on – are not yet on this story of the vast conspiracy. And people are calling Beck crazy. Murdoch will need to decide. Does he stand behind Beck? Long ago, with that Watergate matter, Ben Bradlee stood behind Woodward and Bernstein – he bet the newspaper on them. If those two guys had it wrong that would have been the end of the Washington Post. Now it’s Murdoch’s turn. Does he stand behind Beck?

Well, that will have to wait. Give Murdoch time to think about it. And while you’re waiting check out Fox Nation:

This is an incredible piece of video. At the 1:20 mark you clearly see some greenish figure moving through the crowd.

Between the crowds of protesters and barricades, the video shows a flowing, pale green image that resembles an erect rider atop a horse in Medieval-like barding. The ethereal figure remains for a few moments before floating over protesters’ heads and off the screen.

Is this the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse?

The tape, from Cairo during the turmoil, is blurry, but this too is reporting. And you know the background:

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are described in the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, called the Book of Revelation of Saint John the Evangelist at 6:1-8. The chapter tells of a scroll in God’s right hand that is sealed with seven seals. Jesus Christ opens the first four of the seven seals, which summons forth the four beasts that ride on white, red, black, and pale horses which each symbolize Conquest, War, Famine and Death, respectively. The Christian apocalyptic vision is that the four horsemen are to set a divine apocalypse upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment.

It seems Fox News has a real scoop here – the end of the world. And they beat CNN and all the rest to it. But somehow this story, unlike the horse, just didn’t have legs. It didn’t even move from this Fox News website to the main news broadcasts, just the chat shows, even if a divine apocalypse and the subsequent Last Judgment isn’t exactly chopped liver. Yep, you can imagine Jesus up there, somewhere, saying, “Hey, what am I, chopped liver?” He was Jewish after all.

But the tape was blurry. Good reporters don’t report what they cannot verify, from multiple sources. Woodward and Bernstein knew that, or learned that the hard way. So Fox didn’t run with this. They just found it interesting. But if the world is about to end, remember that you heard it first on Fox News. Think of what Fox can charge for a thirty-second spot after that – not that it will matter with the world ending and all. But it is a scoop.

Of course no one is picking on Fox Nation and Fox News for their Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse story. Everyone knows they need to keep their audience of elderly white born-again angry geezers, and the young skinheads with guns. Consider it a demographic flourish. They need those eyeballs to sell ad time.

No, everyone has decided to pick on CNN’s Anderson Cooper – Behold a Pale Rider! No, he’s not Death itself on a horse – he’s just got that white hair. And it seems he did the unforgivable – he said a major figure was lying. He didn’t report that Mubarak of Egypt had said this or that and stopped there – he reported Mubarak, and other Egyptian officials, had said this or that and had flat-out lied. Cooper seemed to think that was his job. Others simply report that Senator X or President Y has said the sun rises in the west, the sky is green, and chocolate-covered bacon is good for you, and it let go at that. You know the deal – Senator X says the sun rises in the west and we’ll explore all aspects of this fascinating new controversy in a special segment later in the hour. Cooper would rather say, about the sun rising in the west, no, it doesn’t.

And the first to pick on Anderson Cooper for this foolishness was Jim Rainey in the Los Angeles Times:

It’s not often that American television news figures accuse government officials, foreign or domestic, of lying. But CNN’s Anderson Cooper made up for that, big time, this week. He heaped the pejorative on Egypt’s leaders 14 times in a single “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Rainey says this must have been some sort of new high for mainstream American news:

Cooper’s accusations of “lies” and “lying” got so thick on Wednesday’s show that the host seemed to be channeling comic (and now U.S. Sen.) Al Franken’s 2003 book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

Rainey found this funny and kind of absurd, or so it seems, but he also found it understandable:

The CNN star regularly devotes a segment on his show to “Keeping Them Honest.” Some critics have noticed Cooper’s pronounced shift toward more opinion-making in recent months. One theory is that CNN – which has hewed to traditional he-said/she-said reporting in the past – may be trying to adopt the more commentary-heavy approach of its higher-rated competitors, Fox and MSNBC.

And you see that Rainey sets up an either-or here – either say nothing about the veracity of what is being said, or choose sides and stop being a journalist entirely. You can say the guy said this, the facts are these, and they don’t match at all. But you cannot say he lied. A reporter cannot report that someone lied. A reporter can only report that someone said something. Does it match the facts? Don’t know, don’t care – here are the facts – your problem, not mine.

And Rainey describes the situation:

Cooper, who had been roughed up by thugs a couple of times during his recent visit to Egypt, made no bones at the top of his Wednesday night show about the direction he would take. “A lot happening tonight,” he told viewers. “We’re again devoting nearly the entire hour to Egypt, the entire hour to debunking the lies the Egyptian regime continues to try to spread about what is really happening there.”

A moment later he described the efforts of “Egyptian government efforts to hold on to power by lying to Egyptians and lying to the world.” He was off and running. By the time his show was over, Cooper also noted that the government “continues to distort or hide the truth about how many people have been killed or detained in the demonstrations.” (Nice change-ups, Anderson, but those don’t get logged on our tote board, because they aren’t derivations of the verb “lie.”)

Cooper cranked out another five lie-derivatives in reference to an Egyptian anchorwoman, who had quit state-run TV because she was no longer willing to fib, prevaricate and mislead. Cooper also hit now-ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak and his government with a trifecta of deceit: for saying journalists had started the unrest, for claiming the only options in Egypt were chaos or totalitarianism and for charging protesters with resorting to violence. “Lies,” “lies” and “a lie,” Cooper declared, though not all in one breath.

And Cooper didn’t stop there. He also nailed Egypt’s foreign minister and a few others, and then Rainey says he got embarrassingly defensive:

The CNN anchor noted that some viewers complained via e-mail that his unforgiving tone toward the Mubarak regime was “somehow personal, because I and my team was attacked by thugs on two occasions, that somehow I’ve lost objectivity.”

He moved to quash that notion: “Answer to that,” Cooper said, “This is not personal. This is not to insult Egypt. This is about the truth, and all the reporters on the ground, and frankly all the people in that square and most of the people around the world have seen the truth in Egypt.”

And Rainey found it tiresome:

Indeed, it’s hard to find fault with what Cooper had to say, though it did begin to sound a little one-note after about the sixth or seventh “liar, liar.” We got the point a few minutes into the show. And its doubtless many in the audience didn’t understand, since the evidence appeared right on our TV screens all week.

But then Rainey threw a sop to those who somehow oddly like it when a news anchor reports that someone is just lying:

“I have no problem with this point-of-view reporting because it was fully substantiated and accurate,” said Marc Cooper, a veteran journalist and professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “I applaud its honesty, even if motivated by commercial concerns. But it begs a monster question: Is CNN permitted to call only foreign leaders liars? How refreshing it would be to see that same piercing candor directed at American politicians when they overtly lie.”

Fully substantiated and accurate reporting is okay, really. One senses that Jim Rainey reluctantly accepts that premise with a single caveat – don’t say someone is lying. Or don’t say it often. It’s just not cool.

Of course Rainey took a lot of crap for that, and then responded:

Out here in the blogosphere that mild commentary – and my opinion that Cooper, despite being correct, sounded a little one note – has been twisted into something quite different. Apparently, I’ve learned that I’m guilty of a flat-out denunciation of the cable journalist and his truth-telling. Further tortured re-castings suggest I also have a problem with those who speak truth to political power. To which I respond… huh?

He says that’s not what he meant at all:

I simply noted that Cooper had been tilting for some months in the direction of the commentary-heavy reporting made popular by Fox News and MSNBC. The old barriers between news and commentary are less and less discernible on cable TV–an observation that I think hardly anyone would refute.

In this instance, Cooper’s accusations of lying seemed well supported by the facts and, therefore, not open to any sort of factual challenge. As noted, I found no fault in the reporting.

What I wrote related, instead, to degree and editorial approach.

Rainey, it seems, likes courtesy and newsmen who have mastered feigning absolute complete dispassion. That’s the problem with Anderson Cooper. It has nothing to do with truth or any of that stuff. You just cannot show you care one way or the other about what you’re reporting – or something like that. And maybe that’s best. Your audience can confuse your passion with the facts at hand and miss the point, or think something is more important than it actually is. But you can also mislead people with your absolute complete dispassion. Some things are damned important. It’s a puzzle.

Glenn Greenwald at salon.com has more to say on this:

Though Rainey ultimately concluded that “it’s hard to find fault with what Cooper had to say” – meaning that everything Cooper identified as a “lie” was, in fact, a “lie” – the bulk of Rainey’s column derided the CNN anchor for his statements (“Cooper’s accusations of ‘lies’ and ‘lying’ got so thick on Wednesday’s show that the host seemed to be channeling comic (and now U.S. Sen.) Al Franken’s 2003 book, ‘Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them'”). Rainey also suggested that the harsh denunciations of Mubarak’s false statements were merely part of “Cooper’s pronounced shift toward more opinion-making in recent months . . . trying to adopt the more commentary-heavy approach of [CNN’s] higher-rated competitors, Fox and MSNBC.” To Rainey, when a journalist calls a government lie a “lie,” that’s veering into “commentary-heavy opinion-making” rather than objective journalism.

And he notes that Howard Kurtz went even further on his Reliable Sources program when Kurtz showed a video clip of Cooper and then asked Christopher Dickey of Newsweek the big question:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN: What we heard were the same lies we’ve heard from [Mubarak] and his regime for more than two weeks now. What we heard is a man who clearly believes that he is Egypt. He kept repeating this lie that this is all some sort of foreign interference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Chris Dickey, Anderson Cooper repeatedly using the word lies. Now I think most journalists would agree with him, perhaps most Americans would agree with him. But should an anchor and correspondent be taking sides on this kind of story?

Greenwald:

To Kurtz, when a journalist accurately points out that a powerful political leader is lying, that’s “taking sides,” a departure from journalistic objectivity, something improper. In reply, Dickey agreed with that assessment, noting that “part of the soul of [Cooper’s] show is to take sides” and be “committed to a certain vision of the story.” Like Rainey, Dickey was forced to acknowledge that all of the statements Cooper identified as “lies” were actually lies, and thus magnanimously decreed: “I think Anderson can be forgiven for using that word in that context.” Kurtz then patronizingly noted: “And of course, Anderson Cooper was repeatedly punched in the head when he was covering the demonstrations” — as though his departure from good journalistic objectivity can at least be understood here (though of course not justified) because of the emotional trauma he suffered.

Rainey, Kurtz and Dickey all have this exactly backwards. Identifying lies told by powerful political leaders – and describing them as such – is what good journalists do, by definition. It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press.

“Objectivity” does not require refraining from pointing out the falsity of government claims. The opposite is true; objectivity requires that a journalist do exactly that: treat factually false statements as false. “Objectivity” is breached not when a journalist calls a lie a “lie,” but when they refuse to do so – when they treat lies told by powerful political officials as though they’re viable, reasonable interpretations of subjective questions. The very idea that a journalist is engaged in “opinion-making” or is “taking sides” by calling a lie a “lie” is ludicrous; the only “side” such a journalist is taking is with facts, with the truth. It’s when a journalist fails to identify a false statement as such that they are “taking sides” — they’re siding with those in power by deceitfully depicting their demonstrably false statements as something other than lies.

There’s much more, but that’s the crux of it. The original either-or argument is too limiting.

But there’s an additional factor:

Most establishment journalists are perfectly willing to use the word “lie” for powerless, demonized or marginalized people, but they genuinely believe that it is an improper breach of journalistic objectivity to point out when powerful political officials are lying. They adamantly believe that such an activity – which is a core purpose of political journalism – is outside the purview of their function. …

That these establishment journalists believe that pointing out the lies of powerful political leaders is “not their role” – indeed, is a violation of the rules that govern what they do – explains a large part of the failings of both America’s media class and its political class.

And it comes down to this:

Had Anderson Cooper used such harsh language to describe the statements of someone universally despised in American mainstream political circles (an American Enemy – such as, say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez), it would likely have gone unnoticed. But here, Cooper used such language to condemn one of America’s closest and most cherished allies, and it was thus gently deemed a departure from journalistic propriety. But had Cooper said such things about a leading American political official, then a true journalistic scandal would have erupted. Declaring the statements of an American political leader to be a lie is one of the most rigidly enforced taboos in American journalism.

And this:

The important point is not whether something is labeled a “lie” – whether that word is used (although it should be when appropriate and clear) – what matters is that factually false statements are clearly designated and documented as such, not treated as merely “one side of the story” deserving neutral and respectful airing on equal footing with the truth.

And see Andrew Sullivan In Defense of Anderson Cooper:

I’ve seen a few curveballs hurled at him this past week, but I have to say his coverage struck me as superb. I don’t mean the ambush on the street – which he rightly downplayed given what everyone else was going through. I mean his unequivocal use of the word “lie” to describe the simple untruths that the Mubarak regime was disseminating: that violence was being fomented by the demonstrators, not their own undercover thugs, that there was foreign influence, that the Muslim Brotherhood was controlling the revolt, etc, etc.

And Sullivan raises this point:

What if journalists actually used the word “lie” to describe when the US government lies? Not spins but says something it knows is untrue and we can independently verify is untrue. It’s funny but I don’t remember a single moment on national television this past week when anyone described the tactics of Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s police as “enhanced interrogations” or their victims as “enemy combatants.” And yet every single news outlet used those terms when deployed by Bush and Cheney. Yes, Egyptian torture was often far more sadistic. But the ability of a single man to arrest anyone and torture them – Egypt’s Emergency Law – is indistinguishable in practice from John Yoo’s and David Addington’s view of American presidential power.

Well, there are certain things we just don’t say. What is a free press for, after all?

But it probably doesn’t matter. That probably was the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse in that blurry video clip. We’re all going to die, soon. And Anderson Cooper’s unseemly passion, which some of us like, won’t matter at all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Behold a Pale Rider

  1. Rick says:

    Everyone here is missing the point. They all, accusers and defenders alike, seem to agree that what Anderson Cooper called “lies” were indeed “lies,” but only disagreed on whether he should have called a “lie” a “lie”.

    There are reasons reporters don’t call people liars, and it has to do with the definition of a “lie” — which is “an intentionally false statement.” Since reporters are not, and cannot be, mind-readers, they can’t be certain of anyone’s intention, and so they are not in a position to call someone a “liar”. Therefore, when anyone calls someone a liar, (a) he almost always does it in anger, but also, when it comes right down to it, (b) he’s only giving us his opinion. Real reporters don’t give us their opinions, they present facts and let us form our own opinions.

    What reporters are in a position of doing, on the other hand, is test the veracity of a statement itself. If, for example, Hosni Mubarak claimed all the hubbub was instigated by foreigners, Cooper could have asked everyone he met in the crowd if they witnessed any foreigners fomenting a revolution of some sort, and then report that (assuming this is what he found) he found no evidence of it. If Cooper did any of that, I’ve not heard it mentioned. (It might also have helped if Christiane Amanpour had, during her interview with Mubarak, asked what proof he had to back up his claim.)

    If you think I’m being a bit too picky, that may be because our perspective has been skewed by us all living in the world of Rupert Murdoch, where all the stodgy old rules of journalism are largely scoffed at, and reporters are urged to become giddy participants in the story they cover, be it embedded in the invasion in Iraq or the uprising in Cairo. I must admit, I too am a fan of Anderson Cooper, despite the fact that he had no prior experience in journalism before seeming to fall out of the sky into a news job.

    I think he does an okay job, but you get what you pay for: He’s not a reporter, at least not in the traditional sense, he’s a commentator — although in the world we live in now, there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between the two.

    Rick

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