New Media, Old Media, Race and the Internet

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In May 2004 when writer David Brock launched Media Matters For America, the Web site that specializes in documenting the lies and other distasteful discourse that permeates talk radio and TV, I paid immediate attention. 

Mediamatters.org went up near the top of my favorites list for a couple of reasons. The reporting was entirely new and airtight — the Web site made very good use of on-air clips and transcripts. The frame was values driven and righteous. Brock and his staff served to answer the question a lot of us had been asking of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and the boneheads at CNN talk shows for years. Did you hear that? Can he really say that?

Just as significantly, MediaMatters represented the blossoming of the new Internet-based media that was asking different questions, reporting angles never considered by the mainstream media, and doing it on a new global medium accessible to thousands of readers. Rush Limbaugh’s career has been slipping ever since MediaMatters began keeping a daily log of his hateful, error-filled enabling of the radical right.  And with the development of broadband and video file sharing sites, Media Matters has become the central watchdog of the cable news and television talk show discourse, too. 

This week MediaMatters displayed, more emphatically than ever before, just how significant a force it and the Internet media have become. And conversely, why the mainstream media’s role is gradually waning as a source of original reporting and taking on the role as amalgamator and synthesizer.

MediaMatters, which attracts about 120,000 visitors a day, was the first to report Don Imus’ racist attack on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which reached and lost the national championship game last week. Had there been no MediaMatters it’s almost certain Imus’ act of career suicide — he called the team of mostly African American players “nappy headed hos” — would have gone unaddressed. Imus’ many friends include a host of white bigfoot magazine, newspaper, radio, and television journalists and broadcasters who regularly appear on his nationally broadcast show. They  didn’t think the attack was a big deal. Some of them — Howard Fineman, Tom Oliphant, Mike Lupica  — raced to Imus’ defense in the days after MediaMatters’ reporting began to generate the national storm that is ending his career. Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, displaying more evidence that he’s lost his political pitch, said Imus deserved a second chance. 

After all, several of the major figures in the story had issues of their own. Brock himself was once a media hitman for the radical right, writing vile pieces for the American Spectator about Anita Hill and Bill Clinton before recanting and veering left. Al Sharpton, who called for Imus’ removal, once championed a young black girl, Tawana Brawley, who made up from whole cloth a story of how she’d been attacked by whites and smeared with feces. Jesse Jackson, who’s been calling for more civil discourse on rap records and the like, referred to New York during his 1984 presidential campaign as “Hymietown.”

The authenticity of MediaMatters’ reporting on the Imus remark and its aftermath kept the story in a firm path. MediaMatters compiled the clips, transcripts, video files, and commentary — all available with a mouse click — that gave the running story new content, pace and context. That made it much simpler for readers to draw conclusions, bloggers to make assessment, and for mainstream journalists to stay abreast of events. Rarely has a single news desk so completely owned a major national political and cultural news event.

The real value of what MediaMatters did, of course, is open new ground in the ongoing epic of race, class, and equity in America. The saga had a main character — a media humpty — who made a hateful remark that is causing him to publicly break into a dozen pieces. Last night MSNBC removed him permanently from its airwave. CBS Radio, which broadcasts the radio show, is sure to follow. Imus’ brand is so grievously injured that the car, soap, food, media, and travel companies that supported his show aren’t going to threaten their brands.    

This blog, Mode Shift, is intently interested because race touches everything, particularly where we choose to live. Anything that can lead to understanding helps. In Michigan, the most segregated state in the country, we are especially mindful. The sprawling patterns of development that emptied Michigan’s cities and prompted suburbs to consume land at a pace four to eight times faster than population growth, were largely caused and are still the result of racial distrust. 

The inability of southeast Michigan to develop a regional rapid transit system is defined by public officials as solely a matter of money. But those of us who’ve worked hard to dig out the facts and talk about the problem know that at the very core, the lack of a rapid transit system is because of discomfort – I use the word carefully — the mostly white suburbs and the mostly black cities have about linking to each other. 

Michigan residents last year approved a measure making affirmative action illegal. For decades our legislature has systematically skewed its public investments for roads, sewers and other infrastructure toward the suburbs, and away from the cities. Michigan’s many barriers to achieving a more competitive economy and ending its obsolete political and business operating systems is tied to the state’s commitment to division instead of collaboration and cooperation.

MediaMatters played a role in the Imus affair that not nearly enough mainstream media are pursuing.  It broke a big cultural and economic story, served as a forum for discussion, fed the conversation with new facts, context, and Internet links. By the strength of its original reporting, MediaMatters also pushed the conversation about race a few steps forward and served the public interest. Nice job. 

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