Friday, October 19, 2012

False Equivalency ...

I had little inclination to listen to The Sunday Papers with Rick Kogan, Sunday mornings on WGN. Not because I dislike Rick – quite the contrary – but because I don't like Sunday-morning noise. I need quiet on Sunday mornings. Quiet and coffee. And no guest, however interesting, and no amount of Rick's radio-perfect rasp could entice me to tune in. Sometimes, though, I would listen later online.

But now Rick is the host of The Afternoon Shift on WBEZ-FM 91.5 and so, when I'm at my computer between the hours of 2 and 4 – which is often – and when I remember to listen – which is less – I click the link that I've saved.

This afternoon, when I tuned in, Rick was talking to Walter Jacobson, famed Chicago newsman and author of a new book.

Let's pause for a moment of full disclosure: I know Rick from my days at the Chicago Tribune and it would not be inaccurate to call him a friend, though we haven't had a drink together in years.

I do not know Walter personally though I know Walter as many Chicagoans know Walter, given that he was and is a fixture in living rooms as half of the iconic anchor duo that reported and reports the day's news. Bill Kurtis, Walter's better half, as it were, has been known to me for decades, too. My parents watched them both religiously. (Bill, I should also disclose, is also a friend. He likes my oatmeal-raisin cookies.) My parents still watch them, actually, and are glad to have them back, at least until their contracts run out.

So I was listening today as Rick asked Walter questions about his memoir and of course the conversation found its way to the state of news today, and Walter made an earnest point about cable news not being news but rather entertainment, which I understand but would disagree with on several points.

But then he compared Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow and that's when I yelled at my screen.

I don't tend to blog about Rachel but I tweet about her often, and post links to segments of her show to both Facebook and Twitter.

Am I biased? Absolutely.

But I can also articulate, clearly and at length, the vast, vast difference between her and her show and Rush Limbaugh and his.

Yes, I surely can. Grab a beverage. Settle in.

I do not listen to Rush's show directly. I can't bear it. But I am a consumer of news – actually, "gorge" might not be too strong a word – and so I am well acquainted with Rush's diatribes.

His most famous this year, of course, was his three-day tear on Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law school student who appeared before an all-male panel in Congress to discuss birth control.

Her testimony was about the importance of access to birth control, including its medical indications. It is a serious issue that affects, potentially, more than half of the population of this country.

On his show, Limbaugh called Sandra a slut. And a prostitute. And he didn't let up. For three days.

Never mind that his comments revealed his lack of knowledge about how birth control even works, he spent three days intermittently maligning a woman for testifying before Congress about its importance.

He lost a lot of advertisers. I was happy to be a part of the Twitter effort that encouraged advertisers to cease advertising on his show.

And no, it wasn't a First Amendment issue. Rush is still on the air. The government did not shut him down. He is free to spew all the vitriol he pleases and I am free to encourage his advertisers to sever their ties. His advertisers, likewise, are free to continue to advertise with him or not.

Here's a clip from yesterday's show in which Rush tells women what the Obama campaign thinks of them. "Biden ... Obama ... every one of their surrogates is doing nothing but insulting you. I'd be tired of it. If it's not binders, all you care about's free contraception. All you care about's getting an abortion and having the government pay for it. The way they look at women, the way they see you [long pause] all they think you do is have sex, want birth-control pills, and then want an abortion afterwards and they're gonna make sure that whatever you want in that regard, you get."

Never mind that it makes no sense that a woman would want birth-control pills and "an abortion afterwards." The former is meant to prevent the need for the latter, Rush.

Also, he doesn't seem to have covered much ground from his Sandra Fluke days, does he?

Meanwhile, thinking about Rachel, a few things spring to mind.

Most immediately, her guest tonight for The Interview will be Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. Update: Here is Rachel's interview with Kofi Annan. This is one of her questions: "Do you feel like the United States' turn with the election of Barack Obama toward a more respectfully multi-lateralist approach to international affairs is a substantive change and has it had any unintended consequences?"

I just tried accessing Rush's site to verify that no, in fact, he does not have guests on his show, and my browser freaked out. Duly noted, browser. I won't do that to you again. But I think it's safe to say that Kofi Annan did not do an interview with Rush Limbaugh today.

Recently, Rachel has been covering the voter-suppression efforts nationally but with a consistent focus on the goings on in Ohio. Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has undertaken many efforts to curtail voting hours leading up to the November 6 election. This week, in fact, the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal of a ruling from a lower court. Husted wanted to eliminate early voting for the three days preceding the presidential election. Though the Supreme Court refused to intervene and let the lower court's ruling stand, Husted has truncated the hours that the polls will be open on those three days.

But I first learned of the story in Ohio because Rachel brought it to national attention with her reporting that elections officials in each Ohio county were voting on whether to expand early voting. Each county has two Republican officials and two Democratic officials. In the Republican-leaning counties, all were voting to extend early voting, Republicans and Democrats alike. In the Democratic-leaning counties, Republicans were voting against early voting, leading to 2-2 splits. And in the event of ties, who casts the tie-breaking vote? Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted.

And so, for a time, the reality in Ohio was that Republican-leaning counties would have extended early voting and Democratic-leaning counties would not.

That is an important story.

And earlier this year, Rachel did an amazing special report on nuclear containment. Click here and navigate to March 19, 2012 to watch the show which is accessible as links to each segment from that evening but not as a full hour. (The transcript of the show is here.)

That is a very important story.

Has Rush Limbaugh ever done anything even close to such a story?

No.

Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh are not the same.

Does Rachel sometimes deliver her stories with humor or anger or snark? Yes, she does. And so, in that way, is her show entertaining to watch? Yes, it is.

But the substance of what she presents every night is important. It is news. I see stories on her show that I do not see reported in the "mainstream media."

Her book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (click here to read an excerpt), is a compelling read on a topic of global significance.

In what world should I be interested in reading a book about the unmooring of American military power?

In Rachel's world, that's where. And I wasn't alone. It was on the New York Times' best-seller list. Hell, even FOX News's Roger Ailes wrote a blurb.

(I should also disclose that I have a relative who works for Crown Publishing, but that has nothing to do with my endorsement of the book.)

Rush, by comparison, hasn't published anything in 20 years, and his books were titled The Way Things Ought To Be and See, I Told You So.

So, no, Walter Jacobson, Rush and Rachel are not the same. And attempting to draw that parallel is a big part of what is wrong with the media today.

Objectivity is necessary, indeed, the objective reporting of facts. But the facts of a story don't always result in balance. And attempting to create or inflate one side of a story to counterbalance the other side is a dangerous pursuit.

The "both sides do it" meme is laziness. Rarely do "both sides do it," in equal amounts, every time. And sometimes, not at all.

A newsman should choose his words more carefully.

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