Accuracy in Media

General Electric’s slogan used to be that it “brings good things to life.” But under GE chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, that has changed. GE owns a low-rated cable network, MSNBC, which features a wise guy former sportscaster who has made a spectacle of himself by insulting people, acting like a clown, and imitating famous journalist Edward R. Murrow.

On Thursday night’s “Countdown” show, however, even host Keith Olbermann took a back seat to Anna Nicole Smith. “Hers was one of the most famous faces and figures in America,” he said, jumping on the media bandwagon to exploit the former Playboy model’s death. But he still made some time available to identify someone as “The Worst Person in the World.” That night it was Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online. Two nights earlier, it was me.

It is tempting to dismiss Keith Olbermann’s labeling of various people as “The Worst Person in the World” as a harmless and infantile prank. But I found out, after getting branded in this fashion, that some people watch his show because they think they are getting legitimate news and information on current events. When I looked into this matter further, I discovered that he has authored a book, cut-and-pasted from his show, on this topic. Most of his high-profile targets are conservatives.

From the point of view of the far-left, I suppose this clownish routine might somehow serve a purpose if there was some truth behind the charge. But his attack on me was based on a deliberate deception.

Before getting to that, however, it is worthwhile to note that honest liberals recoil at Olbermann’s program. One blogger notes that it largely consists of “leading questions and sympathetic talking heads,” making his show come across as “sophomoric.” Such a format is the sign of someone who lacks intellectual depth. Nevertheless, some of the suits at MSNBC and GE defend him on the ground that his bizarre style is attracting more and more viewers. This is not much of a defense, however, considering the nature of what generates big audiences on cable news these days.

According to that standard, Olbermann’s own troubled personal life, which has become the subject of embarrassing tabloid stories and blogs, should be a worthwhile topic of discussion. He has also generated headlines by shooting his mouth off concerning his MSNBC and GE bosses and co-workers, demeaning and ridiculing them. All of this from a Cornell University journalism graduate who told students in a 1998 Senior Convocation Speech that “Life is defined by how much you improve the lives of others.” His current purpose in life seems to be forcing network executives to cough up more money for him, on the ground that he generates better ratings than Chris Matthews and the other MSNBC hosts. Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC News, must cringe when he is reminded that he is Olbermann’s “colleague.”

I came in for attack because I had co-authored a column drawing attention to the media double standard on Senator Joseph Biden’s racist comments about Senator Barack Obama. Biden had said that “you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” My column said that “If a Republican had condescendingly referred to a black person as ‘clean,’ ‘bright’ and ‘articulate,’ he or she would have been branded as a racist and banished from public life.”

Olbermann claimed to have uncovered a double standard on my part, commenting that, “Same day as Biden’s comments came out, President Bush said about Senator Obama, ‘He’s an attractive guy. He’s articulate.’ So Mr. Kinkaid [sic], you’re saying the President should be branded as a racist and banished from public life? Yikes!”

Olbermann concluded, “Cliff Kinkaid [sic] of Accuracy in Media, it’s a brand name, not a description. Today’s Worst Person in the World.”

When that commentary was posted on MSNBC, my last name was spelled wrong. I understand the transcription may have been done by an outside company, but MSNBC let the error stand. That was symptomatic of the commentary as a whole.

Here’s the background to Olbermann’s false claim: On Fox News, Bush was asked by Neil Cavuto, “How do you think the troops would feel about a President Obama?” His response was, “Oh, I don’t know. He hasn’t gotten elected yet. He hasn’t even gotten the party’s nomination. He’s an attractive guy. He’s articulate. I’ve been impressed with him when I’ve seen him in person, but he’s got a long way to go to be president.”

Anybody familiar with the facts knew that Bush had not referred to Obama being the “first” mainstream black candidate to be articulate, attractive and “clean.” That is how Biden described him, and that is why Biden, not Bush, had to apologize. Bush had not made the comments in a condescending manner, drawing a contrast with other blacks.

Nevertheless, I discovered that several people had fallen for Olbermann’s misleading attack, thinking that I was somehow guilty of failing to hold Bush to the same standard that I had applied to Biden.

One blogger, insisting that Olbermann had made a profound observation, said that “Olbermann pointed out that George Bush made similar comments about Obama the same day as Biden and wondered if Kincaide [sic] meant Bush should be labeled a racist.” Another told me in an email that “I saw a clip online where Keith Olbermann names you ‘the worst person in the world.’ I think you do have to give the guy credit for promoting true accuracy in the media when he showed that Bush said the same thing as Biden.”

I then discovered that Olbermann was not the first to raise this phony comparison. New York Times blogger Kate Phillips had done a story about the Bush comments, saying that Bush “obviously had not been told about the controversy surrounding Senator Joseph R Biden Jr.‘s take on Mr. Obama?”

This was clearly an attempt to falsely suggest that Bush’s remarks about Obama were similar to those of Biden, and that Bush, therefore, should be subject to the same kind of criticism leveled at Biden.

Biden’s comments were significant not only because he singled out Obama, comparing him favorably to other black candidates, but because his comments were not the first racist remarks he had made. Last year he made a disparaging comment about Indian-Americans, saying, “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”

As we noted in our commentary that provoked Olbermann’s ire and false attack, Biden’s rhetoric suggests that he pays close attention to how members of minority groups look, smell or sound. That is the classic behavior of a racist. However, it is also important to note that Biden did not really suffer politically for what he said. He apologized for the remarks but retained his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

By contrast, as we noted in our column, when then-Republican Senator and candidate George Allen called an Indian-American a “macaca” during a campaign rally, he was hounded by the media to the point where the controversy contributed to his eventual defeat. Republican Senator Trent Lott’s joking comments that one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond would have been a good president were covered so extensively by the media that Lott was forced to step down from his post as Senate majority leader.

This was really the main point of our column?that Biden was NOT going to suffer the same fate as Allen or Lott because Biden was organizing opposition to the Bush Administration’s policy in Iraq and his position had to be protected and maintained. For our media, destroying the Bush policy in Iraq takes precedence over making an issue of Biden’s racism.

In attacking me for drawing attention to this double standard, Olbermann was practicing damage control for one of the leading lights of the national Democratic Party. Indeed, Olbermann’s attack is confirmation that we scored a direct bull’s eye. Rather than discuss the controversy in an honest manner, however, Olbermann resorted to a personal attack and misled viewers about the facts in the case. This is what passes for “journalism” these days at GE-owned MSNBC.

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