When Stephen Colbert makes some wacko or pompous extremist look silly in one of his expert tongue-in-cheek -interviews on “The Colbert Report,” I can’t call that a journalistic ethics breach. It may be cruel, as with the humiliation of clueless boobs in “Borat…”, but Colbert hardly hides his shtick, and anyone who submits to it is either a consenting participant or inexcusably careless. If David Gregory dumped green slime on the heads of unsuspecting guests on “Meet the Press,” that would be unethical. Guests on Nickelodeon, however, routinely get such treatment: it is part of the culture there, and completely acceptable.
One has to presume, since O’Donnell still has his program (MSNBC’s best rated), that the channel’s honchos see nothing wrong with his treatment of Cain, a relentless attack consisting of spurious accusations, insults and hostility. One also has to presume that MSNBC fans watch such fare to applaud free-form hatred of all things conservative, Tea Party or Republican, and not to be enlightened or to be exposed to contrasting opinions so they can examine their own. Journalism involves reporting important events and helping the public understand them by applying objective analysis. I think responsible and probing journalism is greatly needed in the case of Herman Cain, who is the 2011 edition of Ross Perot… a smart, quick-witted, creative outsider with a lot of good ideas, some terrible ones, and a guaranteed political disaster if he ever became President. But O’Donnell and MSNBC are happy to let someone else do that important job, so it is unfair, I believe, to hold them to journalistic standards.
Fox News defined its own standards, and has been pretty good about meeting them. It approaches all stories and issues with a rightward bias, which allows it to focus on some important stories that ABC, NBC, CNN, and CBS, which do not meet their stated standards (they claim to be objective, and are not), fail to report. All of these, including Fox, still aspire to some kind of broadcast journalism, however. MSNBC, as the Cain dialogue shows, no longer does.
Much of the coverage of O’Donnell’s mugging of Cain has focused on the segment where O’Donnell accused Cain of failing his duty to his race by not participating in civil rights protests when he was in college. It was the one part of the attack where O’Donnell drew blood, because Cain, understandably but unnecessarily, became defensive. O’Donnell began by reading a passage from Cain’s book in which he recalls his father advising him, at the height of segregation, to avoid trouble by quietly taking a seat in the rear of the bus. Cain wrote that he followed his father’s advice.
O’Donnell asked Cain, “Where do you think black people would be sitting on the bus today if Rosa Parks had followed your father’s advice?” This is a despicable and unfair question. Those who risk their lives, freedom and health to battle oppression are heroes, but those who don’t find the courage, inspiration or opportunity to be heroes should not be denigrated or criticized. O’Donnell, a white Irish-American who never had to fight for his civil rights in his lifetime, is recklessly impugning the character of not only Cain but millions of other blacks from Cain’s era and before, who also chose to sit in the back of the bus. More significantly, Cain’s decision not to actively protest in the Sixties was made by a young college student in his early 20’s. That is not the 65-year-old man now running for President, and Cain should not have to defend the views, choices and values of that young man now.
O’Donnell’s civil rights smear was fairness personified, however, compared to this exchange:
O’DONNELL: Can you explain how you avoided military service during the Vietnam War and during the draft and why you should be Commander-in-Chief if you did successfully avoid military service during the war that came during what would have been your war years, how you, after avoiding the Vietnam War, why should you be Commander-in-Chief?
CAIN: Lawrence, first of all, I wanted to clarify the record because I didn’t want to be accused later of saying that I served in the Navy. And if you read the book closely, it says I worked for the Department of the Navy. Now, your choice of words to say, “How did I avoid the Vietnam War?” I wasn’t trying to avoid the Vietnam War. Here’s what happened, Lawrence. I was working in a critical area called exterior ballistics. I worked on something called the rocket-assisted projectile for the Department of the Navy. It was my local board in Atlanta, Georgia, that told me, we would rather for you to continue to do that analytical work to help the Navy rather than us drafting you. Secondly, when they had the lottery, I made myself available. The year that they had the lottery for the draft they did not draft me because they didn’t get to my number. So I think that’s a poor choice of words on your part, to say that I avoided the Vietnam War. I made myself available to my country, and they did not draft me. The rest of the time I was serving my country in a critical role called exterior ballistics analysis. So I am offended with your choice of words in terms of what I was doing during the Vietnam War.
O’DONNELL: I am offended on behalf of all the veterans of the Vietnam War who joined, Mr. Cain. The veterans who did not wait to be drafted like John Kerry who joined. They didn’t sit there and wait to find out what their draft board was going to do. They had the courage to join and to go and fight that war. What prevented you from joining, and what gives you the feeling that after having made that choice you should be the Commander-in-Chief?
If you can find anything appropriate in O’Donnell’s accusations, please go watch MSNBC: they’re waiting for you:
- Neither of the last two Democratic presidents served in the military. President Clinton, famously, went through every maneuver possible to avoid the draft. Vice President Biden got five deferments. O’Donnell is making up an absurd qualification requirement for the presidency that has never been discussed or advocated since the nation was founded, and that he would never require of candidates from his own party.
- Cain’s explanation that he was already working for the military and thus was deemed more valuable where he was is reasonable and credible: the military would have been in dire straits if all its civilian workers quit to join up.
- When has waiting to be drafted rather than enlisting been regarded as some kind of failure of character? The military drafts the soldiers it needs, when it needs them. Cain is correct: he made himself available, that fulfills his duty as a citizen, and there was nothing shameful or cowardly about it.
- O’Donnell’s argument that it is offensive not to enlist in a war effort is reminiscent of the conservatives who ask advocates of higher taxes why they don’t pay extra taxes whether they are required to or not. It is also absurd for O’Donnell—who himself avoided the draft on a college deferment!— to pronounce himself “offended on behalf” of Vietnam veterans. I know a lot of Vietnam veterans, and not one of them has ever expressed any bitterness toward those who were ready to be drafted and never were. I would be very surprised if Sen. Kerry held the view that O’Donnell attributes to him.
- How dare the uber-liberal O’Donnell, who undoubtedly believes that the Vietnam War was a fiasco, a waste of lives and resources, and national tragedy, and whose closest associates were probably causing campus riots to shut down ROTC, insist that someone else should have risked his life in that war and isn’t qualified to be President because he didn’t?
O’Donnell embarrassed himself, but his questions were not that far removed from the daily rants and distortions of his colleagues like Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, and Martin Bashir. Never mind, though: it’s not unethical, because what O’Donnell is doing isn’t journalism, and no longer pretends to be. MSNBC has abandoned journalism, and is now a full-time progressive/liberal agitprop channel.
By agitprop and street theater standards, O’Donnell’s act was good entertainment for the audience it was aimed at, and thus completely ethical.
Just so long as he doesn’t pretend it was anything else.