This one always had the smell of BS about it, but the reason I’m taking the time to highlight it is that, well, so did the Iraq war, and so many other stories lately. And although I fancy myself as someone who has a pretty good “BS detector,” it is precisely the widespread (and increasing) acceptance of such “gut-thinking” itself which allows for people (myself included) to make conclusions without restricting them to only the facts in evidence. The very phrase “trial by media” came into existence to describe one facet of this phenomenon. But here are some of the relevant facts in the now-concluded case, via the AP (by way of NPR):
Senior Deputy District Attorney Don Rees said in his memo that Hagerty and her attorneys were uncooperative, witnesses could not remember anything unusual, Hagerty failed a polygraph examination and she would not say whether she was paid by a tabloid newspaper for her story.
Those seem like good reasons, indeed, not to proceed with a prosecution of anyone thusly accused:
Hagerty had claimed unwanted sexual contact by Gore on Oct. 24, 2006, at the Hotel Lucia in downtown Portland, including an “open-mouthed kiss, an inescapable embrace” and the fear she was “on the brink of being forcibly raped.”
Yet that someone was quite obviously not just anyone. He was not Joe Average. He was not even your garden-variety powerful person, such as a corporate CEO whose name might be unknown to most but whose wealth and influence are substantial. This was a man whose name was already a household word, a former VP of the United States, and a man whose name has become synonymous with a political party (as many others have; Al Gore is considered one of the leading Democrats even though he no longer holds office and likely never will again), as well as with a specific issue (global warming/climate change). Finally, though in only a historical, but very real-world sense of the word, Al Gore is associated now and forever with the man in whose administration he served as VP, Bill Clinton.
None of that should matter, but the entire reason for both this post and, I will argue after the fold, the entire case itself is that in today’s media culture, of course it so clearly does matter that it almost seems silly to have to even mention that it matters. Had this been a story about “average Joe” or even about your garden-variety powerful person, first and foremost, it would likely not have even ever become a story. You and I would not know about its existence, unless perhaps we happened to live in the community in which both the crime and the investigation took place, and probably not even then unless we were in the habit of perusing the crime beat of the local section of the city paper.
Some of this is understandable and obvious: of course allegations of whatever nature made against a famous figure, whether Mick Jagger or Bill Gates or Al Gore, are going to have more news value than identical allegations made against Joe Average who is known to no one but his family, friends and creditors. I think that’s as it should be, and not objectionable in and of itself. That’s what fame is, in fact. But there are at least two other factors at work here which turn this from a rather obvious observation that news about Al Gore gets more play than news about Joe Average, into a story which definitely had more “legs” than that – and than it should have had – and also into a story that gets at something which is fundamentally wrong with our media culture today.
The first is the fact of where the allegations were originally broken: the National Enquirer. If, like me, you’re the sort of person for whom the National Enquirer is merely one of those mostly-undifferentiated “checkout-counter” magazines – the ones which typically prominently feature stories, mostly salacious, about celebrities and other public figures – then you may not know that the Enquirer is the oldest of such magazines still in existence today, or that it is considered the granddaddy of the genre by many. And you may also not remember that it was the Enquirer which broke the story of then-candidate John Edwards’ extramarital affair (in its usual tediously breathless fashion), and subsequently of his “love child,” to use the charming, appropriately sleazy tabloid nomenclature.
Credit where credit is due, of course: the Enquirer genuinely was the first major publication to give significant space to the notion of an Edwards affair (and baby). Nearly all of their reporting on the subject turned out to be true, and the Enquirer was able to enjoy a rare moment, reminiscent of the scene in Men In Black, where they were legitimately able to claim to have scooped the entire establishment media. The problem with that for the Gore case is that Gore is the first major national Democrat who’s come under the unwanted glare of unflattering and unwanted publicity via such salacious allegations in the Enquirer since Edwards. Mark Sanford became a household name for famously “hiking the ol’ Appalachian Trail” in the interim, but although both Gore and Sanford are national political figures, people associate Gore far more closely with Edwards than they do Sanford with Edwards. In short, the Edwards scandal is still relatively fresh in the public’s mind – and that goes double for anyone associated with the media or “civilians” who follow politics closely.
The easy connections to make between the Gore case and the previous Edwards case center around two things: a) the Enquirer was right last time (as well as being the first to report it), so perhaps (the thinking goes) we should maybe not be so quick to blow them off or discount them this time (this is a connection anyone, regardless of agenda or affiliations might make), and b) he (Gore) is another dirty, groping Democrat who lies about his affairs publicly; they’re all the same. This second incorrect assumption is likely only to bedevil those who are predisposed to think ill of Democrats in general, especially when it comes to matters of sexual misconduct. That would be most of the right-wing press and public, which is why it’s not surprising at all to see “articles” such as this one at Andrew Breitbart’s “Big Journalism” (why is everything Breitbart names called “big” something? Is he trying to get past sadness or embarrassment over the fact that there are things about him which are small? Ahem.), that are rife with smirking and now-hilariously wrong factoids and innuendo such as this:
To my knowledge, not a single reporter from a mainstream news outlet has investigated Gore’s affairs or whether he broke any laws. Why not? With the sexual assault allegation in Oregon, the public deserves to know if Gore — like his former boss — has assaulted women.
Al Gore’s extramarital affairs could also have federal legal issues, since some allegedly occurred while he was in public office. If Gore was having affairs while he was Bill Clinton’s vice president, several important legal questions arise. Did the vice president’s official White House staff set up his rendezvous? Who in the campaign or official staff knew of the affairs and covered up for Gore? Did Gore or his staff use official taxpayer funds or campaign funds for travel or payment to these women?
Instead, the media elite is refusing to act, so the crack investigative team at the National Enquirer is holding Gore accountable. The Enquirer was in the running this year for a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the John Edwards affair which directly led to his being investigated by a federal grand jury, which no mainstream media outlet covered.
Has it all, doesn’t it? The bashing of the mainstream media, the unproven rumors/allegations of previous extramarital affairs by Gore (which are obviously quite different from sexual assault of a complete stranger), the desperate linking to Bill Clinton in an attempt not only to tar by association with the same brush but also to regain the heady days of the Lewinsky prosecution years, when right-wing idiocy and partisanship was funded with millions of taxpayer dollars and empowered to pursue an endless series of investigations of “scandals” supposedly involving the Clintons. Everything from trying to get Vince Foster’s death labeled a politically-motivated murder to the near-unbelievable tale that the Clintons ran cocaine out of the Mena, AR airport was under taxpayer-funded investigation for a while. This BJ story recalls it all; it’s even got the obligatory musings about whether public funds might have been used to enable Gore to perpetrate his slimy (and possibly criminally violent) sexual escapades. Really brings back that Clinton-era feel, doesn’t it?
Hilariously, in the original Big Journalism version of the last paragraph I quoted above, the words “no mainstream media covered” are a link which goes to another Big Journalism story detailing the Edwards matter through the lens of punishing the mainstream media for not having covered the Edwards case thoroughly enough or soon enough. That BJ story breathlessly declares that “even after the Enquirer caught Edwards visiting Hunter and their daughter in a late night rendezvous at the Beverly Hilton in July 2008, there was no coverage in the traditional press for weeks.” BJ’s reporter for this piece does note that “Edwards finally confessed on ABC’s Nightline on August 8, 2008.” What he carefully elides, however, is the fact that the story on the Beverly Hilton meeting between Edwards and Hunter/baby was published by the Enquirer on July 22, 2008. From then until the end of July is nine days. The prime-time Nightline confession from Edwards occurred on August 8th. That means that when BJ’s “journalist” says there was “no coverage in the mainstream media for weeks,” he means seventeen days. That’s two weeks and three days, which officially – though barely – qualifies for the appellation “weeks.” And of course, BJ completely fails to mention that the reason Edwards chose to make a public confession on Nightline was that Brian Ross and the ABC team had already been working on a story about the matter.
In other words – words which aren’t anywhere in the Big Journalism piece(s) on the matter – Edwards was essentially forced to confess because he knew that a well-respected national broadcast news service was going to do a story on his affair with or without his consent. Ross and his ABC team had begun to pull a story together on it for broadcast on August 8, meaning they’d been working on it for a while, likely since within only days of the Enquirer story. Edwards, a media-savvy guy, correctly judged that the ABC story would be sufficiently well-researched and indisputable that it would cause him more damage to continue to deny it than to “get out in front of the story” by making a confession that the allegations were true. Notably, that’s something that Edwards didn’t decide was necessary to do (confess) when it was just the National Enquirer hyping the piece. Yet if you read the BJ piece, you come away with the technically true but quite misleading impression (17 days IS “weeks,” but only just barely) that only the National Enquirer (and, they imply, BJ’s own valiant journalistic selves) covered the story of a national Democrat’s scandalous affair, presumably because the Enquirer is real journalism while the New York Times, say – or ABC News – is not, which in turn is presumably because the media is liberally biased in favor of Democrats to the point of complicity in covering up crimes to protect prominent Democrats from damaging news.
Coming from Breitbart, the man whose websites recently brought you the “Shirley Sherrod is an anti-white racist” story, and prior to that, the ACORN/pimp story (both now laughably and universally discredited), such twisted partisan motivations should quite literally surprise no one. “Journalism” is about as apt a description for what Breitbart’s vanity propaganda websites practice as “running a dating service” is an apt description of the efforts of the people who abduct impoverished young girls from foreign countries to perform forced work in brothels. I mean it quite literally when I say that NO ONE should be surprised by this. Unfortunately – and this is where we tie back into the problem of the Gore story (as well as that of Shirley Sherrod) – too many are not only surprised by it, but continue to be swayed by propaganda as obvious as Breitbart’s. The most important factor people should have kept in mind with regard to this Gore/sexual assault story is that the National Enquirer is not a legitimate news organization. It is a tabloid scandal-sheet, a gossip rag. The fact that they got the Edwards story correct is merely evidence, as the old saying goes, that even a stopped clock is right once in a while. What it is not, and most emphatically should not be taken as evidence of, is that the Enquirer is a legitimate news organization – or even a non-traditional news organization (such as many blogs) which has the right motives and standards toward reporting and choosing what to publish as news.
The National Enquirer did not publish the Edwards story because it was interested in the truth, it published it because what the Enquirer does is publish salacious stories about public figures. Every so often, these figures are politicians and not the usual film, TV or music celebrities. And even more rarely, the stories themselves are true. People, including public figures, do indeed sometimes have messy affairs or even commit crimes. But far more often than not, the stories are either wildly overblown or completely false. The National Enquirer has had to defend against lawsuits from a virtual who’s who of celebrities. Many, as I said, are from the world of entertainment. But they’ve also run variations-on-a-theme stories against everyone in the political arena from Sarah Palin to Ted Kennedy, and gotten sued for those stories. Many of these suits resulted in out-of-court settlements which the paper pays because they know the public figures they accuse (especially the political ones) have a strong self-interest in keeping such bad publicity from “damaging their brand,” which means that they will likely be keen to avoid a trial even if they know they can win it. So the public figure threatens (or files) a suit, the Enquirer suggests arbitration, and ultimately pays a vastly reduced out-of-court settlement which comes with a “gag order” (both sides agree not to discuss it), and which they factor into the cost of doing business — the business of writing salacious (and only occasionally accurate) stories about famous public figures).
That is literally the Enquirer’s unwritten business model. It’s what they do. And, as with Breitbart, no one – literally no one – should be surprised by it. Yes, the motivations of the two outlets are different – Breitbart is an ideological conservative hack who will say anything regardless of its truth in order to discredit liberalism and/or the Democratic party, while the Enquirer is a business which exists on celebrity gossip, usually of the negative variety – but the two are identical in one way that converges in these stories: neither is primarily, if at all, interested in actual reporting, in the classically-understood “telling the public the truth” sense of the word. They’re both thrilled if what they can print is in fact true…but when that’s not the case, it doesn’t stop them; the song is always the same. In Breitbart’s case: “Liberals/Democrats are bad and wrong,” and in the Enquirer’s: “Celebrity X did horrible things, details inside!”
Yet all too often lately, everyone from other, so-called “mainstream” media outlets to the White House itself IS in fact swayed or even convinced by the “reporting” of outlets like Breitbart’s or the National Enquirer. Step back and think about that for a minute: the White House (actually, the USDA), in the Shirley Sherrod matter, literally fired Mrs. Sherrod in less than twenty-four hours because (as Sherrod told the media later) “you’re going to be on Glenn Beck tonight.” And they did so without ever even checking out the basic facts of the story to see if they were true, despite the fact that the video first surfaced on propagandist Breitbart’s site. That’s power – power that outlets like Breitbart and the Enquirer quite literally do not deserve, by virtue of their respective histories of how they operate. Of course it’s possible for either Breitbart or the Enquirer to report something that is true, even to be the first to do so (witness the Edwards matter). But what’s much more likely, in any given scenario, is that outlets like Breitbart and the Enquirer are simply doing what they usually do, which more often than not includes publishing stories which are simply not true, and which in many cases have been consciously altered to make the exact opposite of the truth appear to be true.
The media, and the White House (each are equally important in this particular matter) need to step back and remember that. They need to “consider the source” before jumping to conclusions or taking actions which will only cast them in a justly unflattering (and possibly dangerous, either legally or politically) light in very short order when the actual facts are revealed. In short, they need to stop caring what the Glenn Becks or Rush Limbaughs of the world might think or say about it, and they need to practice what real journalists have always done: fact checking and verification. Had that been done in the Sherrod case, the White House would never have fired Mrs. Sherrod – as even they now admit. Had the rest of the mainstream media not gone along with countless other FOX/Breitbart/Drudge-generated anti-Democrat memes over the years, we might live in a very different country today, not just in terms of our media culture, but in terms of the actual state of things.
In the current Gore/sexual abuse case, the media DID do its job…sort of. The bad news is that they rushed to publish the conservative-whooped-up news that the former VP had been accused, overplaying the story to the detriment of an innocent man who has now been fully vindicated. The good news is that the same media are now being quite forceful about publicizing the fact of Gore’s vindication, and of repeating the Portland authorities’ statements that there was found to be no basis whatsoever to the charges. What we need, so desperately in this country right now, is for the influential “mainstream” media to remember to do that kind of investigative work BEFORE untruths and half-truths of the sort promulgated and hyped for various reasons by outlets like Breitbart and the National Enquirer make their way around the world via the internets and become embedded in the public consciousness about various people and groups. Had the media done so in 2000 – had they spent less time waxing coquettish about Gore’s Earth tones and more time checking to see if the conservative-generated GOP attack that Gore had said he “invented the Internet” was true (hint: it wasn’t) we might have had a very different 2000s decade. Think about THAT for a moment.
Sure, I know: coulda, shoulda, woulda. It’s easy to play such games, and of course the truth is that if just one of many things had been only slightly different, an election as close as the one in 2000 might have ended very differently. And who knows what a President Gore might have been like? Too many variables. But in regard to the media, the point is that it is hypocritical for them to look back upon past events like this and say “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” because they have both the power and the duty to the public to either discredit or play up such stories. They had it then with those stories, they have it today with the Sherrod and Gore stories, and they will undoubtedly have it into the foreseeable future, on stories which have yet to even happen. They possess enormous power to not just deliver the narrative, but to actually shape it, to judge which of those roads to take; whether to ignore or to talk up such “scoops.” It is for this reason that those in power – but particularly those with the power of the media – must learn from their mistakes. They must exercise more caution and judgment than they have in the past. In short, they must practice journalism: examining and verifying facts and checking them against the narratives advanced by the Breitbarts and Enquirers of the world, before they rush to print them. And they must be willing to have the courage to call BS when they see it, even if that requires the courage to risk Glenn Beck’s or Rush Limbaugh’s opprobrium.