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January 13, 2005

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, THE ROLL-OVER MEDIA---AND A BOLD NEW WEBSITE

Frank Rich has a sharp-eyed New York Times column this morning, headed "All the President's Newsmen," on the case of fired syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams, flaying the all-news cable nets--and especially CNN--for their repeated use of Williams. Rich rightly lambastes "Crossfire" co-hosts Begala and Novak for the Nerf-ball questions and lavish praise they offered up on a platter to Williams when he came on their dreadful show to defend his reputation after Williams was caught taking nearly a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer monies from the Bush administration to spew propaganda on behalf of its failed "No Child Left Behind" program.

Rich noted a prime example of media complicity with those in power:

"Perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all 'journalists,' was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced 'cheap shot journalism' in which 'the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective.'

"This is a scenario out of 'The Manchurian Candidate.' Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's 'Nightline' recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, 'Stolen Honor,' under the rubric of 'news' in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of 'objective' news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry."

It says a lot about the lazy and supine national press corps that Rich is the first media Big Foot to shine a spotlight on this odoriferous episode of media-government complicity at long last, a full year after it happened. Bravo, Frank!--make sure you read his entire column.

Frank could have had even more fun at Williams' expense if he'd get into the habit of reading Raw Story, the hot new liberal newsblog, whose energetic young editor, John Byrne, has been getting more than his fair share of scoops. Raw Story had a pip this week--it disinterred a 1998 story about  how Williams--who'd written a column flaying the NAACP for shelling out money to settle a sexual harassment suit against its then-executive director--had done exactly the same thing himself.

What gives a delicious twist to the story is that it exposes Williams, a black conservative, as a homophobic sexual hypocrite and closet case who didn't practice what he was preaching. Williams was trotted out on CNN and other cable nets repeatedly last year during the gay marriage controversy to trash those who argued that marriage equality for same-sex lovers was a "civil right," an argument which Williams' pigmentation--in the eyes of TV news producers--gave him standing to make. As originally reported by New York magazine back in 1998:

"Armstrong Williams, the conservative talk-show host who instigated a firestorm last week by asking the senator from Mississippi whether homosexuality is a sin, is being sued for sexual harassment by a former employee who happens to be male. Last year, Stephen Gregory -- the former YMCA personal trainer whom Williams promoted to executive producer of his show -- alleged in his suit that the boss grabbed his buttocks and penis, tried to kiss him, and climbed into his hotel-room bed asking for "affection" while they were traveling together. Williams immediately held a press conference to denounce Gregory's allegations as "false, baseless, and completely completely without merit."

After the man who was suing him produced affidavits from other men on whom Williams had pressed his unwanted attentions, Williams was forced to admit his denial was a lie, and settled the lawsuit--which alleged 50 seperate incidents of rejected physical advances--for $200,000. You can read the entire Raw Story account by clicking here.

This is just the latest incidence of the mainstream media's refusing to cover outing stories targeting major conservative figures--as if their demagogic hypocrisy didn't have serious policy and political implications. Let me reiterate for the umpteenth time that I embrace the careful standards of the Barney Frank Rule: as enunciated by my old friend the openly gay Massachusetts congressman, the Frank Rule insists that outing is a weapon to be deployed only in specific and very limited circumstances -- to wit, when a closeted queer uses his (or her) position of power and/or notoriety to harm gay people. Clearly, Armstrong Williams meets the stringent standards of the Frank Rule--as do powerful conservative Rep. David Dreier, new Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, and most of the other targets of the D.C. outing campaign being waged by Mike Rogers' blogactive.com website. Mike may not be a journalist, doesn't write as well as one would like, and is occasionally too vulgar for my personal taste--but his site has been offering plenty of leads that the mainstream media could follow up on if they had the inclination to do so, and its revelations have already forced one notorious anti-gay political demagogue, closet-case conservative Virginia Congressman Ed Schrock, to end his political career. But, in the major media, only Rich of the Times has had the nerve to insist that these are proper matters of public debate and mention them from time to time in his column.

That's why I welcome a new Raw Story spin-off site, Raw Story Q. It's a site that carries a lot of gay news you might not see elsewhere (given the parlous state of most of our much too entertainment-oriented gay press) and will give major attention, when appropriate, to outing stories targeting political homophobes. The site doesn't have all its bugs worked out yet and is still under construction (it's official launch is this coming Monday), but you should bookmark it now and keep an eye on it in the future. Check out Raw Story Q by clicking here.

AND, IN THE READING ROOM: The Black Commentator has posted a long expose on Armstrong Williams, calling him "the biggest whore of all"....

I've recently finished a scintillating read, Mark Crispin Miller's Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order (Norton), which chops up the Fourth Estate's lack of independence from and complicity with Bush-era conservatism (Armstrong Williams, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Bennett, Matt Drudge and many others come under Miller's scalpel); dissects the theocratic imperatives of the Rove-Bush Republicans; and catalogues how this reactionary crowd's values run counter to those on which our libertarian Republic was founded.  As Miller writes, "Most of us have been completely depoliticized in ways that would have horrified Samuel Adams and and James Madison, although it's fine with, say, John Ashcroft and Ralph Reed. To bring this up, to make this clear, would ask a lot of any good American, who naturally prefers to be amused, encouraged, awed, or otherwise distracted from the sense of helplessness and boredom that afflict so many of us in this in this once promising, now nominal democracy..." Miller is more of an optimist than I am, but that doesn't make this any less useful a portrait of the era in which we live. I've long been a fan of Miller's tonic prose, and his dissections of the ills of our means of mass communications (he's a professor of media studies at New York University) are on target, as in this book......You should also get yourself a copy of Miller's DVD, "A Patriot Act," a video of Miller's one-man rant against the Bushies and their betrayal of our democracy. It's a delight and a morale-builder for those trying to keep alive a genuine opposition politics in this leveling era of right-wing consensus....

William Rivers Pitt has just announced on his lively new blog, F.Y.I. , that he'll be blogging the Bush inauguration: "Unless something rather profound happens to snarl the plans," writes Will, "I will be traveling to DC next week to blog the Inauguration, as well as any action that arises on the street. There is an expectation that many protesters will show up to say howdy, which is probably the reason George is deploying 4,000 troops on the DC streets. Safety and security, baby." You'll want to keep an eye on Will's blog during the re-coronation of Emperor Bush.

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