In the GOP’s current, hypocritical anti-earmark frenzy, centered around the “Omnibus Bill,” anti-Democratic hacks like Breitbart have had a field day over supposed examples of “runaway government spending.” The latest idiocy from Breitbart (though, in truth, this is how the entire right-wing noise machine functions; Breitbart is just one of its most zealous and successful practitioners of late) concerns Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver having requested a $48 billion earmark for the upcoming year. That’s billion, with a B.
Forty-eight billion dollars? That would indeed be “the mother of all earmarks” (as Gateway Pundit Jim Hoft – a popular right-wing blogger referred to it). If only it were true. First, the anatomy of how a smear like this develops, then I’ll give you the facts – and the surprising source from which they come.
As it happens, both Rep. Cleaver and Gateway Pundit Hoft hail from Missouri, which explains Hoft’s interest in Cleaver, but does not explain his sloppiness in fact-checking when it comes to pursuing stories which would smear anyone even vaguely from the left side of the aisle. Here’s how this current non-story began: yesterday, on December 15th, in a smallish local newspaper called the Southeast Missourian, there appeared a column by Mike Jensen entitled “Redistribution on Steroids.” If that phrase sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s been in regular use by the brothers Limbaugh – Rush, on his radio show, and brother David, as far back as an October 2009 column about some other perceived outrage concerning Democrats…and particularly President Obama. Redistribution, reparations – these are common themes for Republicans and tea party types over the past two years, and it’s no accident: that’s how they intend you to think of President Obama and to a lesser extent, all Democrats.
Neither is it an accident that the Southeast Missourian is based in Cape Girardeau, MO – the very town the brothers Limbaugh emerged from. The paper has a total local circulation of well under 17,000. It’s owned by Gary Rust, a minor media mogul who himself pens thoughtful columns at the paper he owns, like the one from May 26th of this year about how Rush Limbaugh’s newsletter is the best conservative newsletter in existence today. In short, it is provincial, tiny in both scope and influence, and very, very conservative (at least on the editorial pages). None of that, of course, invalidates what the paper chooses to print, or makes their reporting incorrect on its face. For that, one has to turn to the actual facts of columns such as this one by Jensen…or the lack thereof.
In the column, Jensen “reports” that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver “has proposed a $48 billion earmark.” Jensen goes on to wax flatulent with fauxtrage over the supposed scandal that “Cleaver has clearly not gotten the memo that we’re in a financial crisis.” The rest of the column, as you might imagine, is long on such excoriating rhetoric (as well as on innuendo), short on supporting evidence.
Before the day is out, far more widely-read and influential (though I’ve no idea why) Jim Hoft has picked up the story, breathlessly coining the unimaginative-though-eye-catching “mother of all earmarks” moniker for the title of his own post. Hoft’s post links to Jensen’s column – in fact, Hoft’s post is little more than a lengthy excerpting of Jensen’s column, with a few additional right-wing rhetorical flourishes thrown in for good measure by Hoft, such as the über-Randian comment “This is theft” (in bold, of course), and “You sure wouldn’t wouldn’t have heard this if you only followed the state-run media. They’re too busy attacking Republicans for their hundred thousand dollar earmarks.”
No, Jim, the other reason you wouldn’t have heard this from other sources is because what you refer to as the “state run media” (but everyone else mostly just calls “the actual media”) have a thing called journalistic standards. Also, competence at their jobs. I’ll get to that in a moment. So now, the story has a national profile, since conservatives from all over the country read Hoft’s blog daily to have their preconceived notions confirmed. Within hours, the story is picked up by the current bete noire of…uh…the truth: Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government. A column on Breitbart’s even more widely-read propaganda site links to Hoft’s blog post and echoes and amplifies both the “mother of all earmarks” language and the “redistribution” language. In fact, the Big Government column sounds uncannily like the post Hoft wrote. Closer examination reveals why this is the case. The author of the article on Big Government which references the Hoft post so extensively?
Small world in right-wing journalism circles, isn’t it? My favorite part of Hoft’s exceptional attempt at journalistic auto-fellation is at the very beginning of his piece on Big Journalism which he begins with the sentence: “Earlier today it was reported…” (emphasis mine) in the passive voice, with a link to his own post (but no explanation), as if “it was reported” by someone who was actually, you know, a journalist, instead of by Hoft himself.
In the Big Journalism piece, Hoft provides additional rhetorical emphasis but little new evidence (though he did manage to dredge up shocking fact that the gentleman requesting the $48 billion earmark for his organization…is married to a woman who also works for the same organization. The horror). It hardly matters, though, because now, the story has appeared on Big Government, and is thus being mainlined, even as I write this, into the consciousness of right-wingers everywhere, resulting in countless tweets like this one, as well as (no doubt) an even greater volume of unrecorded “did you HEAR about…” nonsense of a similar nature spoken around the water coolers and beer halls and meeting rooms of America amongst like-minded conservatives. Voila! Conventional wisdom created, in less than thirty six hours!
Now for the entirely unsurprising other shoe you had long ago figured would be dropping: none of it is true. Of all sources, the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal debunks the nonsense handily in a blog post by Louise Radnofsky:
The House Appropriations Committee has had a rule since January 2009 that lawmakers are supposed to explain the earmark’s purpose and “why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds” on their websites.
For almost all the House members requesting earmarks for the 2011 fiscal year which began Oct. 1, that means posting a list of all the earmarks they’ve sought…
But three House Democrats — Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan — instead posted details of all the earmarks requested by constitutents, but didn’t say which ones they actually sought.
That’s had some bizarre consequences, especially for Mr. Cleaver, who had been asked to help secure a $48 billion (yes, billion) grant for a proposed urban reclamation project for poor neighborhoods. The request was noted on the final page of an earmark spreadsheet on Mr. Cleaver’s website…but after a state newspaper columnist described the earmark as something Mr. Cleaver had “proposed,” a Cleaver spokeswoman said today that he hadn’t done so. “We did not propose it, we do not promote it, and we did not submit it to the House Appropriations Committee,” said Mary Petrovic.
Ms. Petrovic said that Mr. Cleaver did not specify which earmarks he had actually supported because “the rules do not require us to do so.”
Simple, logical and in fact, a step beyond what the Appropriations Committee requires in terms of transparency (which is probably why only three congresspeople did it): instead of just listing the earmarks they’d actually submitted to Appropriations, Cleaver and the other two listed every earmark they’d received qualified requests for from constituents.
In other words, Cleaver didn’t submit this earmark formally, never told the constituent who filed the request that he would be submitting it or that he approved of it, and there is literally no story here, except perhaps the not-very-surprising fact that some people in America send rather odd requests and letters to their congresspeople. In any normally functioning media environment, this would never have gotten past the “laugher” stage. Come to think of it, perhaps we should take some comfort in the fact that it appears NOT to have gone past the “laugher” stage in the actual media…which is what led Hoft to mutter conspiratorially into his Yoo-Hoo that the “state-owned media” were somehow “suppressing” this blockbuster of a story.
Since we live in the Internet age, however, as the cliché has it, anyone with a few bucks and a computer can publish whatever they wish, with neither meaningful editorial control nor obligation to be truthful. Men like Hoft and Breitbart have learned that lesson well, indeed. In the “ACORN-pimp” story story, the Sherrod story and various other instances, Breitbart has repeatedly demonstrated that he will always prioritize his own ideology over accuracy and truth, as long as he feels he can get away with it. In their hatred for all things liberal, Democratic and (especially) Obama, Hoft and Breitbart and a small army of like-minded right-wing zealots have simply become (no, that’s not true; they’ve always been) nothing more than widely-read liars, partisans and demagogues of the worst sort. The genius of their approach – and virtually the only thing that’s kept them relevant in either a business or journalistic sense of the word – is that they’ve figured out that there’s a market out there for people who already think as they do and wish to have their suspicions confirmed by something that vaguely resembles what they’ve identified as “journalism” by reading actual newspapers. For those readers, Hoft and Breitbart are better than actual journalism, because they’ve learned how to write in a similar style…but have none of even our debased and lazy media’s annoying fealty to actual verifiable facts.
The result is an entirely closed ecosystem of self-reinforcing (sometimes literally, as in this case of Hoft-quotes-Hoft) theories, beliefs and even, sadly, facts. In a commercial for his new MSNBC show, Lawrence O’Donnell says “on my show, you’re entitled to your own opinions…but not your own facts.” Good, strong language there. Smacks of hard-hitting journalism of the kind we wish we saw on shows like Meet The Press. But the problem we in the reality-based community haven’t really figured out a good way to deal with so far is that as long as there’s money enough from whatever source to fund the widespread dissemination of ideas like Hoft’s and Breitbart’s through a densely-interconnected labyrinth of right-wing media, there’s a decreasing need for either right-wing consumers of their work or the authors themselves to be subjected to the doctrine of “you’re not entitled to your own facts.” The depressing reality is that, on their own domains and channels and shows, they ARE entitled to their own facts. Liberals may strive mightily to catalogue and refute the expanding-by-the-day compendium of right-wing fiction which passes for knowledge and understanding for far too many on the conservative end of the spectrum…but the more widespread and self-contained it becomes, the more impervious to any outside debunking it becomes at the same time. That’s a real and growing problem, because as more young and unschooled minds begin to consume media, the chances that they will find themselves falling into this self-contained, self-referential universe of alternate facts grows in direct proportion to the growth of such outlets.