My Apologies, Jackass

Dems bear brunt of “misspeaking” by TV news outlets

Kudos to The Wall Street Journal for being among the first to identify an interesting new development in the TV news media’s coverage of the campaign this year.

As the Journal notes:

Television news organizations, facing unprecedented scrutiny, have often expressed contrition for poorly chosen words during this election season.

Just this week, the paper reports, Fox News has twice had to respond to critics who were offended by on-air statements about Barack Obama and his wife. First, anchor E.D. Hill offered a “clarification” after labeling a celebratory greeting between the Obamas a “terrorist fist jab.” Then, a Fox executive admitted in a statement that the producer who approved on-screen text that called the candidate’s wife “Obama’s Baby Mama” had used “poor judgment.”

The Journal adds that people appearing on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC have all apologized for confusing “Obama” and “Osama” this year, and that NBC’s Andrea Mitchell this week apologized for calling southwest Virginia “redneck country.”

I might add a few more examples that the Journal omitted: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews apologized (sort of) after saying Hillary Clinton was only a contender because “her husband messed around.” David Shuster, of the same network, was suspended after saying Chelsea Clinton was “being pimped out” by the Clinton campaign. And Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (you knew I’d get to him) apologized after declaring “I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence.”

It’s hard to know just what to make of this new phenomenon—though perhaps I’ll try in a future post. For now, it seems worth noting something that the Journal pointedly doesn’t: with the exception of Mitchell’s nonpartisan slur, all of the other examples take Democrats as their victims. I can’t think of a single example from this election season of a network admitting to making offensive comments about a Republican.

Why exactly that’s the case is, again, a question for another day. But the point is, this isn’t simply an issue of the TV news media airing an increasing number of offensive comments, and/or being under increased scrutiny. Hard as it may be for mainstream news outlets to acknowledge this, it’s an issue of the news media airing an increasing number of offensive comments aimed at Democrats. It’s hard to have a useful conversation about this development if we can’t identify it clearly.

The Journal deserves credit for putting its finger on an interesting trend. But this looks like yet another case where the constraints of “objective” journalism prevent reporters from getting all the way to truth.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.