TV news veteran Ted Koppel has done two pieces on NBC's Rock Center that attempt to critique the partisanship of today's media system. But what the reports really illustrate is that some people aren't very good at playing media critic–especially when they feel obligated to suggest that "both sides" are equally at fault.
Koppel's first report (9/13/12) looked at right and left watchdogs, "an industry out there on both sides monitoring and recording anything that could hurt the political opposition." That "industry" consists of the liberal Media Matters for America and the right-wing Media Research Center.
As Koppel explains, "You got people sitting there with headsets…waiting for someone to make a misstep." He goes on to wonder whether the groups on both sides are "feeding the sausage machine."
But his argument starts to fall apart right away, as he begins to tell the story of Georgetown law student and women's health advocate Sandra Fluke.
Koppel explains that radio host Rush Limbaugh's famous remarks about Fluke–in which he called Fluke, among other things, a "slut"–seemed to be inspired by a column published by the Media Research Center. (The piece in question ran under the subtle headline "Sex-Crazed Co-Eds Going Broke Buying Birth Control, Student Tells Pelosi Hearing Touting Freebie Mandate.")
Limbaugh's comments provoked an outcry, which Koppel explained this way:
Bingo. Limbaugh had committed the kind of gaffe that fuels an entire industry, and he gave the Obama White House a gift that keeps on giving.
Well, maybe. Or he's a sexist creep who said exactly what he wanted to convey to his audience–which isn't really a "gaffe" at all.
Koppel explains that a "counter-gaffe" came soon thereafter, when CNN pundit Hilary Rosen said that Mitt Romney's wife Ann "has actually never worked a day in her life."
"I mean, this is a two-sided fistfight," anchor Brian Williams explained as the segment closed. But it's hard to see how the two sides can be equated. One side published a nasty hit piece on an individual, which was echoed by the most powerful radio talk show host in the country. Apparently the offense on the liberal side was noticing Limbaugh's sexist drivel. The other example consisted of a dopey comment from a relatively obscure TV liberal mostly known for doing corporate PR.
The second installment (9/20/12) was no better, as Koppel attempted to explain how the media make all of this even worse by giving a platform to combatants on both sides.
Williams set up the show with the expected riff on how both sides do it. The secret tape of Mitt Romney at a fundraiser talking about the "47 percent" was the first strike, but then came "the counterattack from the right–the tape of Barack Obama from 14 years ago saying he believes in redistribution." Actually, the Obama tape was deceptively edited; the rest of that passage includes Obama talking about how to "decentralize delivery systems" in order to "foster competition" and "work in the marketplace."
Koppel starts his argument by suggesting the media have gone from the likes of Walter Cronkite to the Fox News Channel's shouting conservative Bill O'Reilly (ignoring the flourishing of far-right broadcasters well before O'Reilly). Actually, Koppel argues that "the bar for civility on cable television and talk radio has fallen so low that by comparison, O'Reilly seems almost reasonable."
Indeed, if the show was meant to be ironic, then it succeeded; much of it was Koppel allowing O'Reilly to hold forth on incivility and the coarsening of the political dialogue. O'Reilly, true to his character, turns the discussion back into a complaint about the forces arrayed against him: "I have been vilified to the extent that I have to have bodyguards almost everywhere I go."
The Koppel segment wanted badly to show that "both sides" are contributing to this destructive cycle: "The partisan ranting is more widespread than ever," he says. But for a supposedly two-sided problem, it seemed like they had trouble finding the left-leaning equivalent to far-right talk show hosts like Michael Savage and Mark Levin, save for a few fleeting clips from MSNBC.
The segment closed with a discussion that perfectly illustrated the problem with Koppel's approach: Far-right shock pundit Ann Coulter posing as a media critic, alongside comedian Bill Maher–presumably a stand-in for the left. ("Smart, stubborn, and ideological opposites," Koppel explained.)
Even though the pairing doesn't make a whole lot of sense, Maher wound up making the most coherent observation by challenging one of Koppel's statements:
KOPPEL: The bifurcation is really extreme. I mean, the left is further left and the right is further right.
MAHER: The left is not further left. The left is further right. See, this is the problem that the media makes. The left is not further left. The Republicans keep staking out this further and further ground to the right, and then demanding that the Democrats meet them in the center. Except it's not the center anymore. It's the center right. I mean, that's what Obama is. Obama–to call him a socialist? He is not even a liberal.
But the segment wound up more or less where it started, pondering the effect of the polarizers of the left and right. When Williams asked Koppel at the end of the show, "Do you think any of this has splashed up against what we do for a living?," Koppel agreed that it had.
But this notion of a media system newly corrupted by contact with ideologically driven pundits is a bit much. Especially from the likes of Koppel, who some viewers might recall that in 1992 Koppel's Nightline gave right-wing talker Rush Limbaugh a platform to spout nonsense about ozone depletion. Seven years earlier, far-right TV evangelist Jerry Falwell was on the same show to talk about HIV/AIDS. The most frequent guests on Koppel's Nightline, according to FAIR's landmark study of the show, were conservatives like Henry Kissinger, Falwell and Elliott Abrams.
In what Koppel seems to think were the good old days, the supposedly neutral media made plenty of room for these voices on the right. (Kissinger is, according to Koppel, "an extraordinary man. This country has lost a lot by not having him in a position of influence and authority.") Everyone was better behaved, and there wasn't a cable channel that tried to push back against the right.
Was that really better?