It's time once again to relish the worst mainstream journalism of the past 12 months. For the 24th year in a row I'm a judge for the Media Research Center awards, and this year the 98 finalists taught me a lot.
I thought President Barack Obama's popularity was evaporating, but ABC's Christiane Amanpour called him "full of sunny optimism, very Reaganesque," and Lara Spencer on the same network asked, "Is President Obama a baby whisperer? She then hands the bawling baby to the big man and, presto, the tot is simply transfixed."
I thought Middle Eastern demonstrators want basic human rights and Midwest state workers hope to retain above-average paychecks, but New York Time reporters Michael Cooper and Katharine Seelye equated Wisconsin with Tunisia, ABC's Diane Sawyer saw "Cairo moved to Madison," and ABC's Amanpour saw both efforts as "people power making history. A revolt in the Midwest and a revolution sweeping across the Middle East."
I didn't realize that Tea Party folks were terrorists, but New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman equated them to Hezbollah, and within a week fellow Times columnist Joe Nocera was writing that "Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people" and wear "suicide vests." MSNBC's Chris Matthews similarly observed that "the GOP has become the Wahhabis of American government."
Matthews didn't stop there. Last month he commented on Republican voters: "They hate. Their brains, racked as they are by hatred, they lack the 'like' mode." He could have been describing himself when he complained about talk show hosts who "see the other end of the field as evil, as awful. Not just disagreeable but evil."
At least television pundits, unlike their print equivalents, sometimes have guests who talk back. Matthews fell into a rant when questioning Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele: "You go to a Democratic convention and black folk are hanging together and having a good time. You go to a Republican event, you get a feeling that you are all told 'Don't get together, don't crowd, you'll scare these people.' Did you fear that if you got together with some other African-Americans, these white guys might get scared of you?" Steele replied, "No! What are you talking about?"
On the other hand, some guests (and listeners) don't talk back. In February another MSNBC host, Lawrence O'Donnell, was interviewing Michigan ex-Governor Jennifer Granholm. He stated, "The Republican Party is saying that the president of the United States has bosses, that the union bosses this president around. Does that sound to you like they are trying to consciously or subconsciously deliver the racist message that, of course, a black man can't be the real boss?" Granholm replied, "Wow, I hadn't thought about the racial overtones."
And I hadn't thought, until New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd educated me, that GOP budget-cutters were "cannibals… vampires... zombies...the metallic beasts in Alien." (She mixed all of those metaphors into one memorable paragraph.) I also learned from Katie Couric that Americans will realize Islam is not a problem when we watch "a Muslim version of The Cosby Show."
But maybe the tilt of these mainstream opinion merchants isn't so important anymore. When Jill Abramson in June became editor of The New York Times, she said her rise was like "ascending to Valhalla. In my house growing up, the Times substituted for religion. If the Times said it, it was the absolute truth." Happily, almost no one has that kind of faith anymore.
And yet, people sometimes think they're getting facts in news reports. That's why a report by correspondent Ray Suarez on PBS' NewsHour astounded me. Suarez spoke of communist Cuba's "impressive health outcomes… no doctor shortage… care that's both personal and persistent." Right. In reporting from Havana in 2004 I talked with doctors serving as cab drivers and bellhops to get money for their families. Some churches hosted illegal clinics because parishioners couldn't get help through official channels. A pharmacy's shelves were mostly naked. A hospital had a BYOX policy: Bring your own X-ray film.
Happy new year, in a land that's still mostly free.