The Biter Bitten
June 6, 2002 (APJP)
The first saliva in what may be billed The Presstitute Pack Attack appeared with Jennifer Liberto's "Rabid Watchdog" in the 6/3/02 edition of Salon.
As we shall show, Liberto in her own disarming manner sustained through the article a level of demagoguery that Ann Coulter is reputed to achieve only at climax. We shall further show that Liberto apparently violated several basic journalistic and ethical precepts. Whatever the intent of her article, the effect was to injure the speech rights of private citizens, citizens attempting to use those speech rights to reform that very same corporate media.
Does the word "green" describe Liberto, in the professional and not the political sense of the word? As Eric Alterman ever-so-delicately pointed out, Liberto cited "The Nation" rather than "Alterman" as the source of an interview of the editor of MWO , suggesting her journalistic talent could use another year on the woodpile. But, no, "green" is not the word.
Her other journalistic offenses aren't easily explainable as those of inexperience.
Salon is hardly a right-wing retail shop. But it is an underachieving webzine -- increasingly a dog, so to speak. Hard-hitting writers like Gene Lyons, Joe Conason and Greg Palast are increasingly out. "Pander" and "attitude" are increasingly in.
The rest of the miscreants said to be going after MWO are media malefactors of the kind that resent the fact that 58% of citizens say their reporting is "often inaccurate" . Resenting is so much easier than reporting. But is this just about the swollen egos of journalism? Or is this most properly viewed through the lens of the privatization of free speech?
Consider what the quote accomplishes as a rhetorical device. It takes the charge that media personalities like Brown are prostitutes to corporate power and inverts the accusation, soiling the protests of citizens by association with cheap motels.
We'll take Mr. Brown's word that he's well acquainted with cheap motels and their activities. But as cheap as Brown's opening shot was, he then bid substantially lower. He called the letters he received "comparable to 'anti-abortion protestors [who] call doctors murderers and satanic on their web sites [which] emboldens people of like mind to cross the line, sometimes with tragic results.'" Liberto, incredibly, called this letter "magnanimous".
Now, Mr. Brown's ego may be more precious to him than life itself but what, exactly, is the relative body count between pundits and abortion providers? The very worst example of nasty mail that Brown could muster was that "one e-mailer wrote to tell him he 'hoped my daughter was raped by a Republican so that I would know what the rest of the country was going through.'"
That's a mean letter. Tasteless as it may be, it doesn't even qualify as a threat (see Stylebook below). On the other side of the metaphor, one has murdered doctors, maimed nurses, terrorized patients. Who's hysterical -- the mean, misguided letter-writer? Or Aaron Brown?
This theme of criminalizing media critics runs through the Liberto piece, such that one can say that a major objective of the piece seems to be to criminalize. For example, Liberto writes ominously about MWO's listing of Buddy, Socks, and Clinton as website contacts:
Liberto devoted an astonishing 700 words in a 3000 words essay to the process of conceding amid dark utterances that listing "Buddy, Socks and Clinton" as contacts is perfectly legal and normal. It's hard to see why, unless she wanted to taint MWO's desire for anonymity. Indeed, a quarter of Liberto's piece was devoted to associating MWO with prostitution, the murder and mayhem committed against abortion providers and ominous activities covered by anti-terror legislation. Associating MWO with very illegal, very reprehensible activities is a nasty rhetorical device -- and evidently a major function of this "news" piece.
The Real War on Tayrah.
There is, in fact, no particular reason why anyone should believe Aaron Brown's claim that MWO readers are particularly uncivil. He has been, so to speak, dining out on this story about a smattering of brusque and tasteless e-mail for some time, yet we are given no evidence that any significant number of letters generated by readers of MWO are abusive, much less threatening. Indeed, Media Whores Online has presented 36 pages of evidence that refutes Brown's claim. MWO's presentation is devastating to Brown's charge that MWO readers write "cookie cutter" or uniformly "nasty" letters . And there's one thing more -- but back to that later. When there are two sides to a story and a reporter reports one, that's not good journalism.
Free Republic poster J Chamberlain got it:
Anyone who writes critically of the right can only laugh with Chamberlain. Harassment by the far right of its critics is systematic and dates back many decades. The roots of smearing and instigating FBI investigations of opponents of Ronald Reagan's Central American policy, for example, were in a well-funded disruptor organization called The Maldon Institute . This group acted as a private secret police from the late 1960s until 1983, committing acts amounting to invasion of privacy and defamation on a mass scale. Many similar organizations existed and exist largely to police thought crimes..
Probably one of the best-documented recent episodes of harassment of an individual for a thought crime is the restaurant manager who had the temerity to report Jenna Bush for illegally buying alcohol at Chuy's, an Austin trough catering to students. In addition to publishing the name, address and telephone number of the manager, the Free Republic printed her driver's license number, date of birth, even the name of her infant daughter -- and then commented about what lamentable things could befall her and her family. "Tracer" said:
Free Republicans also boasted in planning to place phony orders for food, file false reports of drunk driving by patrons, make unfounded accusations of tax violations by the restaurant and the manager and -- speaking of abortion clinic protestors -- dump "buturic [sic] acid" in the restaurant.
Far less prominent enemies of such "Rethuglicans" are treated to tactics just as vicious. Journalist Johnny Angel, a contributor to the LA Weekly and other publications tells me that he "got a hate letter once telling [Angel] that he had exposed [Angel] to the LAPD as a known child molester." . A former editor for Newsweek of my acquaintance has also mentioned this sort of false accusation being used against him. In fact, it is difficult to think of a single nasty tactic that has not been used by the right to suppress opposition opinion, right up to and including the execution-style slaying of radio host Alan Berg by right-wing fanatics . Those who dare write critically about the hard right face quite knowingly any number or combination of indignities and injustices -- from identity theft to false accusations to threats against their children to violence. They do so knowingly, because no society can long survive if decent people do not stand forward.
Cluephone for Brown and Liberto: A Stylebook of Nastygrams
This is Rude (letter from one of my readers, edited for brevity, clarity and taste):
This is Marginally Abusive (post from online bulletin board, one word edited for taste):
This is Threatening (KKK letter to judicial candidate Professor Bill Quigley):
This is Immature (Post by a senior member of Free Republic):
This, according to the American media, is Entertainment (Limbaugh):
Do The Washington Post or The New York Times (or any other major paper) sign their editorials? Yet the editorialists are protected by phalanxes of well-fed corporate lawyers and friendly politicians, not to mention corporate security and gated communities. Their reporters use faceless "sources" to slime political opponents or, in Bob Woodward's case, to write political fiction labeled news. For that matter, the wealthy people who control the media hide, as shareholders, behind the corporate veil. Talk about no accountability! (And talk about improper editorializing on the part of Liberto).
Furthermore, as pointed out by a friend, this country has a long history of anonymous pamphleteering. The Federalist Papers, which were the basis for adopting our Constitution, were done under pen names. Sites like Media Whores Online and Bartcop are the great grandchildren of patriot Tom Paine's broadsides.
Yet 1021 words of "Rabid Watchdog" were devoted to prurient speculation about the identity of the editor(s) of MWO and to the unwanted outing of the editor of Bartcop. It's difficult to see what function these twenty or so paragraphs serve except to invade the privacy of the people who run these websites. Because of the willingness of the right to use tactics ranging from harassment to false accusations to violence, privacy becomes inseparable from free speech. Strip people of their privacy and you silence them. Was that was, as a reasonable person might infer, Liberto's prime directive in writing "Rabid Watchdog"?
This is Journalism?
Betraying a promise to a source is NOT a rookie error, especially when the topic of the article is anonymity. Especially not when your sources are telling you they seek anonymity because they are afraid of reprisals. This is a full-blown ethical pantsload.
There were other questionable journalistic practices, but they are, by comparison minor:
There were indications of bias. Liberto editorialized in a news article and, as amply demonstrated above, failed to provide vital balance and context. Failing to mention that MWO responded to Brown's protest by emphasizing to its readership that letters should be polite was negligent at best. And the failure to seriously examine the controversy, the failure to mention 36 pages of evidence that MWO readers do not write "nasty" "cookie cutter" letters is journalism at its laziest and most credulous.
In that regard, Liberto mischaracterized -- or at the very least, presented a very one-side view of-- the exchange between MWO readers and Aaron Brown. MWO produced excellent documentation. Rather than discuss it, Liberto deceptively labeled a link to it as Aaron Brown's "remarkably magnanimous" comparison of MWO readers to clinic terrorists. Stripped of all of Liberto's pejoratives, this is what seems to have happened:
Brown criticized White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. MWO readers wrote to express approval. Brown apparently took issue with the fact that some writers used, however innocuously, the word "whore" in relation to the corporate media. According to the record presented in MWO, he then wrote nasty, accusatory one-liners to many people. Basing it on the one mean letter he got, he vented on all letter writers, tying them all together as to blame for the dissing of his daughter by one writer. And he rubbed in the sense of powerlessness that people feel in the face of the corporate media by calling those who speak back to it "small".
If this is impression of how this episode unfolded is correct, it sounds like -- at the very least-- petty and immature behavior on Brown's part. There is a technical name, which I disremember, for the personality type that can generate Internet flame wars by seizing on some minor perceived slight and posting the same complaint repetitively. Was Brown really surprised at the angry response he got? And so the question arises -- did Aaron Brown pick the quarrel with MWO?
I've read those 36 pages of documentation. I think he did.
At the very least, there are two sides to this story. A journalist is supposed to dig them out. Liberto apparently just assumed that that nice soft-spoken man, Aaron Brown, "gentle soul", "Mr. Nice Guy", would never lie.
But Heaven help me... I've seen 36 pages of documentation that contradicts his telling of the tale and no evidence but his word to support him... I think he did.
In the interest of restoring some balance, I have contacted a number of people who were interviewed by Liberto and include their statements, unedited, in a Sidebar. Some highlights:
WPR said, in the spirit of Mencken,
Seems like a journalist -- or at least a journalist without an agenda-- could have found something interesting and quotable in there, instead of simply characterizing the MWO people as "acolytes" and "disciples", cultist lugs too incurious to care about the anonymity of the site. If nothing else, Liberto could have and probably should have told her interviewees ahead of time that she was primarily interested in identifying the owner of the site. And she surely didn't have to fake sympathy regarding the threats people face when they try to exercise their speech rights without the shield of anonymity -- as she apparently did in the interview with MEC. If she had been more straightforward in getting the interviews, there might not be such hard feelings now.
WORD COUNT STATISTICS ON RABID WATCHDOG (your mileage may vary)
The primary objective of Liberto's article, or at least the practical consequence of it, appears to have been to attempt to expose the editors of Bartcop and MWO to reprisals by partisans and the corporate media. In so doing, Liberto simply exposed the hypocrisy of the corporate media that hides behind the anonymity of the editorial board and the corporate veil, while denying that right to those they call "small people". Fortunately, MWO's editor has a certain "flinty integrity"  likely to guarantee the Kool Kids many drubbings in the future.
A failure to cite properly, gaining an interview under the false pretense of promising to keep a source's name out of the article -- these are things no real journalist wants to be guilty of. Liberto also failed to provide context for the problem of incivility, failed to balance to Brown's statements with evidence that he may be twisting the facts, committed rhetorical abuses and editorialized in what was supposed to be a news piece. And, ask yourself: at the end of the day, did she answer the question central to the whole article, namely why MWO has become one of the hottest sites on the 'Net?
If journalism doesn't inform, what good is it?
For the pack of eight journalists said to be following Liberto's trail, a word to the wise: citizens are watching and witnessing against bad journalism. Journalism schools are always in need of nicely-documented ethics cases for inclusion in the curriculum. You too can become immortal!
About the author.
He can be reached at CharlesUtwaterII@aol.com.
References (links were correct when the article was prepared. Please do not contact webmaster to report broken links).
1. T. Baker, American Politics Journal, "The Mighty Wurlitzer Redux", 6/4/02
SIDEBAR. The Voices of the Silenced
MEC: What I clearly remember telling Jennifer Liberto (next time I'll be cynical enough to take notes -- or record myself):
- My professional background is a little journalism and a lot of technical writing and editing, which makes me very particular about fact-checking. I'm disgusted with the unconcern for accuracy that I see in the mainstream media, and that's why I'm a regular visitor to MWO.
- I don't have a problem with MWO's anonymity because I don't need to know the person's name to know whether information is reliable; the information itself determines that. All the articles in MWO are linked to source material; readers can check it out and decide for themselves whether it's trustworthy. So far, all the information provided in MWO *has* been proven to be trustworthy.
- I contribute to MWO because I've seen a long-term trend of mainstream journalists trivializing the news, ignoring important stories, misrepresenting events, and outright writing falsehoods. I've also seen them use rhetorical tricks to lead people to conclusions not supported by the facts. They need to be held accountable. I don't believe that MWO *right now* is all that influential, because it's small compared with what it's up against and doesn't have clout. But if enough people get the truth from MWO and make enough response to the mediawhores, at least the whores will know that they're not getting away with sloppy and irresponsible journalism.
- I can't speak to why the owners of MWO choose to be anonymous. But I know from personal experience that rightwingers will attack anybody who publicly espouses a liberal viewpoint. I gave a speech on media bias in April 2001, and when the event was publicized the nice people in the Free Republic tried to find out where I lived -- and pointedly mentioned that I have two cats. I know people who run other liberal websites who've received threatening phone calls [Bev Conover for one]. (I distinctly remember her "Ohmigosh!", mingled horror and sympathy.)
- I think the reason that so many people suspect Joe Conason or some other "insider" is behind MWO is that the mediawhores are incapable of believing that any outsider would have the "sophistication" to create such a site. (Kinda like the way the British aristocracy didn't believe the colonial rabble could govern themselves.) It shows their contempt for their audience -- and is a perfect example of why increasing numbers of "news consumers" are disgusted with what's being foisted on them as news.
LR: I am so glad that somebody is doing this [reinterviewing Liberto's interviewees]! I found Jennifer's article to be nothing less than bizarre. When I talked with her on the phone- the first question she had was, "Did it bother me that MWO remains anonymous?"
I responded that I thought that was a VIRTUE- that they let their reporting stand for itself instead of trying to become the story- or worse a celebrity (i.e. Matthews, Feinman, etc.).
I added that MWO (as well as Buzzflash and Bartcop) provide:
Such praise fell on deaf ears, I'm afraid. Not a problem. They'll keep buzzin, hitting the hammer hard and bringing the mainstream press to their knees.
WRP: Once upon a time, it was the job of journalists to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. H.L. Mencken was never one to shy away from caustic, abusive language, and he is today lionized as a hero of the profession. Methinks Ms. Liberto falls under the category of 'the afflicted comfortable' after reading her piece on Salon regarding MWO. I suppose we should pity her for trying to slap down a website that seeks to reinvigorate the principles of her chosen career. After all, it's not like the country lives and dies on the free exchange of ideas and criticism...right?
I wonder if Thomas Paine would have been lashed by Ms. Liberto's pen.
I wonder what Mencken would say, were he living today. I can guess: 'It is impossible to think of a man of any actual force and originality, universally recognized as having those qualities, who spent his whole life appraising and describing the work of other men.'
Exchange 'man' with 'Liberto' and we may have an answer.
MWO is the most important website on the internet. Period. Let Liberto and the other comfortables rail about internet activism by concerned citizens. I, for one, rejoice when I see Americans taking an active interest. Many, many of the ills and horrors we live with today would simply not exist if We The People did more of that."
GRL: I was hopping mad when I read the Salon article since I had no inkling of the slant it would take. Liberto said that "After an intense examination, it seems to me, and correct me if I'm wrong, please, that most of the website's content is generated by contributors like yourselves... Educated yet politically savvy individuals, including some fabulous writers, who, by writing a piece, have decided to step up to the role of watchdog, because nobody else is." I thought she "got it." Then, she snuck in, within a series of questions, what I saw later saw in the article was her real interest--the anonymity question:
My answer was, " Does it bother me that MWO is uncredited?? NO! Because they have to protect themselves!! This is Ashcroft land now and frankly, a lot of us are scared about what's going on in this country. MWO ... and they could easily be taken out of action..." I told her that CNN had been mangling their URL every time it was mentioned by James Carville on Crossfire and it was that type of thing that made many of us suspicious of the media and why the existence of MWO was so important.
I felt betrayed by Liberto, since her overall tone and focus on attacking MWO downplayed my expression of how important a site it was especially since the media, including Liberto, is in the pocket of the Bush Administration
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