Taking the wrong marching orders

TAKING THE WRONG MARCHING ORDERS…. It’s a crowded news landscape right now, and running through the choices for “major stories of the day” produces quite a list. Obviously, health care reform, the recession, Afghanistan, energy policy, financial reform, missile defense, and counter-terrorism efforts are major stories.

That is, unless you’re a conservative activist. The Tea Party crowd believes what’s really important is ACORN (an obscure community group), Van Jones (a former official in an obscure government office), and assorted conspiracy theories.

Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander questioned whether enough attention is being paid to what the right considers important.

Conservative bloggers and commentators know how to turn up the heat on mainstream media. Glenn Beck did it one day last week on his Fox News program. Theatrically unhinged, he directed viewers to call their local newspaper and demand coverage of ACORN, the national community action group targeted in an embarrassing hidden video sting.

“Right now, get off the couch. While I’m talking, you pick up the phone. You call the newspaper,” he commanded. If ACORN hasn’t been on the front page, or if the paper isn’t investigating the group’s local activities, “then what the hell are they good for?”

Shortly, The Post and other papers were flooded with angry calls and e-mails. […]

With ACORN, The Post wrote about it two days after the first of several explosive hidden-camera videos were aired showing the group’s employees giving tax advice to young conservative activists posing as a prostitute and her pimp. Three days passed before The Post ran a short Associated Press story about the Senate halting Housing and Urban Development grants to ACORN, which operates in 110 cities. But by that time, the Census Bureau had severed ties with ACORN. State and city investigations had been launched. It wasn’t until late in the week that The Post weighed in with two solid pieces.

Why the tardiness?

Alexander’s report suggested right-wing complaints are slow to be picked up, and aren’t heard as often in newsrooms. The executive editor of the Post has “pressed the National desk this week to provide more ACORN coverage.”

All of this seems hopelessly backwards. Every right-wing complaint this year has generated considerable media interest, regardless of merit. Pressing the Post to do more ACORN stories, because paranoid activists believe it’s important, is foolish.

Part of responsible journalism is separating fact from fiction, identifying which stories have genuine value, and which don’t. Beck and his minions need not be assignment editors for major news outlets.

Media Matters’ response to Alexander’s piece was quite thorough, but like DougJ, I want to emphasize one related point. Last week, we learned that alleged Interior Department corruption, with financial consequences in the billions of dollars, has even led to a criminal investigation of a former Bush cabinet secretary.

The Washington Post published “two solid pieces” about ACORN. How many Post articles were written about the criminal probe of a former cabinet secretary? Zero.

Worse, Alexander’s report makes it clear political coverage will likely go even further to the right, with journalists pressured to care even more what right-wing activists find important.

As DougJ concluded, “Alexander and his ilk are so afraid of being labeled as liberal that they’re willing to push whatever story Glenn Beck feeds them. I guess that’s what 40 years of attacks from the right-wing does to people who weren’t very tough to begin with. You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much til you spend half your life just covering up.”