Friday, July 13, 2007

The kabuki correction

-- by Dave

Every time I watch Bill O'Reilly's lame "correction" of his insanely misbegotten reportage about pistol-packing gangs of lesbians, it feels like I'm like watching an art form taking birth.

It's a form of the non-correction correction, a direct descendant of the non-apology apology. But it has a certain high-art quality, a gambit so outrageous you can't help but kind of stand back and admire it in frustration.

I mean, there was O'Reilly mouthing platitudes about how there was never any intent to demonize gays and lesbians (really? then what was the intent?) and conceding that "maybe we went a little too far" in suggesting that what they had found constituted some kind of ominous national trend. At the same time, he was adamant that "this was a legitimate story."

Well, no, it wasn't. Even the greenest J-school student would have examined the basis for the story -- an assault on a man in New York in which dubious assertions were made on all sides, a garbage piece of reporting at a Memphis station for which the station itself later issued a correction and an apology, and a report about 8th-grade bullying in Philadelphia that had nothing to do with gangs -- and concluded there was no "there" there. Had the student proceeded, an "F" would have been the outcome.

But not in the insane Bizarro Universe that is Fox News and, for that matter, the larger Beltway pundit class. In a normal world in which the standards of integrity and accuracy reigned supreme in journalism, O'Reilly long ago would have been recognized as a buffoon and laughed out of the business.

At the very least, a significant correction acknowledging every facet of the false reportage would be both broadcast and posted on the Fox News website and given prominent display. This is especially important, ethically speaking, in cases in which a minority group is exposed to demonization and ridicule as a result of the bad reportage.

Instead, what we get are scenes like this: the godlike media pundit, rather than concede that nearly every facet of a report he broadcast as credible was in fact a grotesque fantasy built out of whole cloth, conceding minor points but claiming general accuracy in spite of these "flaws." O'Reilly also claimed that Fox posted a correction on its website, but if it did so, it is difficult or impossible to locate. (I've searched the site thoroughly as well as Googled for the "correction" and have come up dry; if any readers can find it, I'd appreciate it.)

Moreover, in watching all this, I get a little shudder of deja vu mixed with a dread sense of prescience: We've seen this before. And you know what? We're gonna see it again.

We most recently saw this with CNN Lou Dobbs in his bizarre non-correction for his misbegotten reportage on disease and immigrants, including his confrontation with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Richard Cohen and Mark Potok.

The similarities are striking -- indeed, in observing these two prominent instances, along with a number of similar incidents over the years, it's clear that they have a distinct form, as though cut from an identical mold. Because of that, it's possible to actually distinguish these kinds of non-corrections from the standard fare, which typically constitute simply ignoring one's critics.

They appear, in fact to be an elaborate kabuki ritual, with certain steps, costumes, and bows required along the way:

-- The feint. This is the "correction" itself, such as it is. Typically this requires the pundit to suggest that some minor transgressions, none of which even potentially affected the overall thrust of the reportage, occurred.

-- The assurance. This involves the pundit assuring both his interlocutor and his audience that he is well-intended and decent, and therefore any minor errors that occur along the way are perforce inconsequential. (Typically delivered with a smarmy, thoroughly insincere sincerity.]

-- The defense. Here, the pundit produces some kind of half-fact, mischaracterization, or non-sequitur that serves to stake the claim that the overall thrust of the reportage is perfectly accurate, no matter to what extent it was built upon the foundation of errors or falsehoods previously admitted. Indeed, the more the reportage was built on those errors, the more ferocious the defense. This partr of the ritual is almost always delivered in a bullying, petulant, intimidating tone, which makes the previous smarminess all the more clearly phony.

-- The attack: The interlocutor is at this point accused of engaging in the same kind of error and smear tactics, forcing him to defend a point that has nothing to do with the pundit's own rotten journalism.

So far, most of these dance rituals also seem to include false claims of having run a normative correction of the original error; both Dobbs and O'Reilly mentioned such corrections in their "corrective" broadcasts for which no evidence of their actual publication appears to exist.

It's possible, thus, to construct a definition:
The kabuki correction: A non-correction by a member of the pundit class in which the pundit engages in an elaborate dance around the facts of his false reportage and never actually touches on those facts or even admits their existence, and winds up accusing his critics of bad-faith behavior in turn. The dance involves an acknowledgement only of lesser wrongdoing, typically involving a distortion of the original offense, accompanied by assurances of moral superiority on the part of the pundit, and finishes with a bullying turnabout in which the accuser becomes the accused. It usually is performed by a major pundit whose power within the media framework is such that their peers, as well as lesser media figures, are inclined to overlook the offense and accept the "correction" at face value.

The genuinely poisonous aspect of this behavior is in its gradual spread among the rest of the media. Once someone like O'Reilly or Dobbs performs this dance successfully, it becomes a model for the rest of the pundit class, as well as a kind of permission for running even the most outrageous nonsense as credible news.

Mainstream journalists love to pontificate about the lack of credibility of the blogosphere, constituted as it is of a pack of dirty fucking hippies with no ethics. But within their own ranks, this kind of journalistic rot is not only ignored, but condoned.

But this is the very reason the political blogosphere exists: because of ordinary citizens' growing outrage over the behavior of our supposedly "fair and balanced" media. And as long as the powerful pundits who hold the media megaphones are allowed to just dance their ways around any kind of accountability, to lie and smear without consequence, its importance and power will continue to grow.

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

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