Brit Hume is a "journalist"; Keith Olbermann is "partisan"

"Journalists" become "ideologues" when they start to criticize the Beltway power factions too aggressively.

Published May 7, 2007 11:41AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

On Friday, the Associated Press -- in the course of reporting that the Giuliani campaign complained to NBC News that Keith Olbermann was assigned to cover the GOP presidential debate -- made certain statements which brightly reveal the current state of our political press. Think Progress has highlighted several misleading aspects of the AP story, and Joan Walsh today dissects several other glaring flaws with the story. I want to focus on what this episode so potently demonstrates about modern "journalism."

The AP article said this:

Olbermann's popularity and evolving image as an idealogue (sic) has led NBC News to stretch traditional notions of journalistic objectivity. . . .

Having Olbermann anchor -- as he will continue, with Matthews, for big political nights throughout the campaign -- is the MSNBC equivalent of Fox News Channel assigning the same duties to O'Reilly.

Fox has never done that, perhaps mindful of the immediate controversy that would result. Fox has tried to differentiate between its news operation and its prime-time opinion shows, even as its critics believe strongly that's bunk.

In this case, MSNBC doesn't try to separate news and opinion people, even as it tries to separate news and opinion.

No, Fox has "never" put an ideological figure like Keith Olbermann -- or his supposed equivalent, Bill O'Reilly -- in a position of news anchor. Instead, Fox diligently and impressively ensures that such important news positions are filled by objective, non-partisan, Real Reporters . . . like "news anchor" Brit Hume.

A couple of months ago, in the midst of the debate over troop withdrawal from Iraq, the objective, ideology-free, pure-news-guy Brit Hume launched a bitter and deeply personal attack on Jack Murtha -- all but calling him senile -- and then said this about "Democrats":

HUME: And think of the Democrats in the middle of this. They know these facts. They can see them. They know that Iran is up to no good. And what are they worried about? Are they worried about Iran? Not so as you'd notice. What they're worried about is that the president might do something to Iran without clearing it with them.

Wonderful. I mean, think -- I mean, this is why the Democratic Party has had this reputation, going back decades, of really not being very serious about national defense. It's because they aren't.

Brit Hume -- "news anchor" -- just comes right out and proclaims that Jack Murtha is senile and the Democratic Party is not "serious about national defense." That rant was as bitterly partisan as it was factually false. And he just candidly revealed that he believes the entire Democratic Party cannot be trusted on national security -- a view shared by a minority of Americans but one which is the old reliable propaganda slogan wielded by the hardest-core Republican operatives.

In fact, Hume unleashed his attack on Murtha and the "unserious" Democrats as part of a coordinated GOP assault on Murtha for having advocated troop withdrawal from Iraq. That weekend, the GOP sent its most aggressive smear artists -- such as Newt Gingrich -- onto every talk show to insinuate that Murtha was purposely trying to bring about the defeat of America. But nobody was as vicious and unrestrained in prosecuting the GOP's political attack as Brit Hume was. As The Weekly Standard admired: "Brit Hume was even less kind to Murtha than Gingrich."

But Brit Hume is widely considered by his "peers" to be a fine, upstanding "journalist." There were no AP articles questioning the propriety of holding him out as a news anchor. Quite the contrary, this weekend's AP article insists that the Olbermann case is unprecedented, as it "stretch[es] traditional notions of journalistic objectivity," and it specifically assures us that "Fox has never done that."

Every single weekend, Brit Hume goes on Fox and sits at the end of the little panel table and invokes the snidest tone possible to spit out the bitterest, most partisan attacks on Democrats. And for years now, Hume defends the Bush administration with a blind loyalty unseen this side of Hugh Hewitt. But our journalistic elite have decreed that Hume is a fine and objective journalist.

Howard Kurtz, the "media critic" for both CNN and The Washington Post, wrote a worshippful tribute to Hume in the middle of last year, where he proclaimed:

Hume is no partisan brawler in the mold of some of Fox's high-decibel hosts. By virtue of his investigative background, his understated style and his management role, he represents a hybrid strain: conservatives who believe in news, not bloviation, but news that passes through a different lens, filtered through a different set of assumptions. . . .

Hume has come to dominate his time slot, with "Special Report" averaging nearly 1.2 million viewers. One of them is Charlie Gibson.

"He has a wonderful style which makes you want to hear what Brit has to say, in an age when so many people are in your face," Gibson says.

And just this weekend, Kurtz, as he often does, had John Aravosis on his CNN show as a guest. Kurtz was criticizing Democrats for refusing to have Fox host their debate, and this exchange occurred:

KURTZ: Well, I would just say, if you can't handle questions from Brit Hume, how can you...

ARAVOSIS: Why give Brit Hume the opportunity, is the point, Howie. You're -- some people -- some people say are you left, some people say are you right. I think are you fair. I do not think Brit Hume is fair. There's a difference.

KURTZ: I would disagree with that.

Leave aside Aravosis' praise of the Malkin-loving Kurtz as being so "fair." Frequent guests on someone's television show tend to lavish the host with praise; it's just human nature, I suppose. What is notable here is Kurtz's categorical rejection of the idea that Hume is something other than a "fair" and objective journalist.

That is the consensus view of Beltway journalists. No matter how many nakedly partisan attacks Brit Hume launches -- and he's been doing that for years -- he is still to be considered a perfectly objective and respective journalist, a "news anchor."

And then there is Chris Matthews, whom the AP article holds out as a member in good standing of the club of "real journalists," telling us: "there is still a little mystery about what they'll do inside a voting booth." To the extent his objectivity is ever questioned, Matthews is typically criticized as a "liberal" by virtue of his work for Tip O'Neill decades ago.

Yet, in November of 2005, Matthews made one of the most extraordinary -- and journalistically outrageous -- statements by a journalist during the entire Bush presidency, which is really saying something:

MATTHEWS: I like him. Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left -- I mean -- like him personally.

Chris Matthews came right out and said that he cannot fathom how anyone could dislike George Bush and regards anyone who does as a "real whack-job on the left." Just imagine the uproar among our journalist class, the screeches of protest in Howard Kurtz's column, if a "news anchor" had said: "Everybody dislikes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the right." Would anyone think that a "news anchor" could make a statement like that and retain a claim of credibility as an anchor?

But Matthews makes the identical claim -- in defense of George Bush -- and he is held up as the example of an objective and real journalist, and to the extent he is criticized, it is on the ground that he has a "liberal" bias (and the objective/"liberal" news anchor Matthews, in the midst of tongue-wagging and truly embarrassing worship for the Leader on Mission Accomplished Day, angrily complained: "Why don't the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today"). There is no problem with any of that.

Merely to describe these events is to demonstrate the glaring double standard being applied. What is going on here is manifestly clear. As Atrios noted the other day, it is actually far from clear that Keith Olbermann is a "liberal" at all; what "liberal" policies specifically does Olbermann advocate?

What Olbermann actually is, first and foremost, is a critic of the government who adopts an aggressively adversarial posture towards the President and those in power. That actually is -- or at least used to be -- called "journalism." What ought to define the function of political "journalists" is that they exercise adversarial oversight over government officials. That is the only thing that makes a political press worthwhile.

Even if one concedes for the sake of argument that Olbermann is a "liberal," what clearly emerges from all of this is that it is not inappropriate in any way for a "journalist" to express political and ideological views, even the most extreme, offensive and partisan views. The behavior of Brit Hume and Chris Matthews leave no doubt about that.

What is "inappropriate" -- really, prohibited -- is for a journalist to express certain types of political views, in particular the views expressed by Olbermann. That is why his status as a "news anchor" supposedly "stretch(es) traditional notions of journalistic objectivity."

Olbermann's real journalistic crime is that he is too critical of powerful government officials. That is the real crux of Olbermann's commentary -- criticizing Bush officials for their abuses of power, exploitation of fear and terrorism threats for political gain, and blatant corruption. Whereas in the past, exposing abuses of power by our most powerful officials and criticizing corruption was the hallmark of a real journalist, that behavior is now considered out of bounds, the mark of an unacceptable ideologue, not a journalist.

What turns a "journalist" into an ideologue these days is excess criticism of the prevailing Beltway power structure and its most revered and important figures. That -- and only that -- is what distinguishes Olbermann from those considered to be "real journalists." The function of modern "journalists" is to serve as spokespeople for the Beltway system, to defend it, to adhere strictly to its rules of conduct.

The only thing one can do to lose one's status as a "journalist" is to cease acting in defense of that system and, instead, to criticize it too severely, too stridently, too disrespectfully. That is why Ashleigh Banfield was fired by NBC News for giving a speech highlighting how uncritically news organizations were covering the government and the war. That's why Phil Donahue was fired by MSNBC despite healthy ratings. And it is why Keith Olbermann is singled out as something other than a "journalist."

The real function of the modern "journalist" is embodied by the Most Revered and Praised "Journalist" we have -- Tim Russert, who serves as Father-Confessor and Protector for our political elite, offering them blanket confidentiality to come and speak with him, revealing only what they authorize him to reveal, and offering a platform that casts the illusion of hard-hitting journalism but which they all know is a comfortable venue for conveying their talking points and, as Dick Cheney's Communincations Director put it, to "control [the] message." "Journalists" can play-act as adversarial figures but not ever really be adversarial, lest they become "ideologues."

The defining role of a "journalist" -- especially national journalists -- is to serve as a status-quo-perpetuating spokesperson for Beltway power circles. As long as one fulfills that role, one is free to spout any pro-government ideological or political opinions one wants. Anyone who doubts that -- or thinks that is hyperbole -- should simply review the above-quoted statements from Brit Hume, or Chris Matthews, or the behavior of Tim Russert, or the endless Bush-worshipping behavior from the likes of Norah O'Donnell and Andrea Mitchell, all of whom are deemed to be "real journalists" (except when they are deemed to be too "liberal").

National journalists are as integrated into the Beltway elite culture as much as the political figures they are supposed to investigate and scrutinize. They love the Beltway system because it is that system that lavishes them with rewards and status, and their job is to defend it, a job they perform eagerly and with glee. What distinguishes Keith Olbermann is not that he expresses partisan views; he does that far less than all sorts of other "journalists" and anchors.

What Olbermann does is subjects the statements and behavior of our most powerful government officials to critical scrutiny. That used to be the defining attribute of a "journalist." Now, it is disqualifying behavior.

UPDATE: Several commenters have questioned whether Aravosis was saying that he thought Kurtz was "fair." I didn't see the show, only read the transcript after several people e-mailed me to say that's how they understood the exchange. And it's how I understood it when I first read it, but the commenters -- especially this one -- are making persuasive arguments that that may not be a fair reading.

It's obviously a secondary point to the post, but it's important to be accurate about it. I suppose the only conclusive way to clarify it would be for Aravosis to say whether he thinks Kurtz is fair, but there is clearly an ambiguity that calls into question my original description of what he said.

UPDATE II: In his column today, Kurtz quotes the paragraph of the AP article claiming that with Olbermann, NBC is "stretch(ing) traditional notions of journalistic objectivity," and calls it an "interesting tidbit." For Kurtz -- who vigorously defends Brit Hume as a fair and objective news anchor -- "interesting tidbit" is the sum total of his commentary on the Olbermann controversy.

Kurtz's weekly chat is today at 12 noon Eastern (in 40 minutes or so) -- here -- and you can ask him to elaborate on this matter, including his views as to whether there is a difference between Olbermann and Hume in terms of their credibility as a journalist. I have no doubt his response will be instructive (if not actually responsive).

UPDATE III: Just to resolve this issue, Aravosis yesterday posted the video of his appearance on Kurtz's show. Having reviewed it, there is absolutely no question that my original understanding of his comments is correct and the commenters are wrong. Aravosis is, without question, declaring Kurtz to be "fair," in contrast to the unfair Brit Hume.

In fact, the CNN transcript quoted above is just wrong, which is what created the confusion. This is what Aravosis said to Kurtz: "Some people say you're left. Some people say you're right. I think you're fair. I do not think Brit Hume is fair. That's the difference." I'm not trying to single anyone out here. I think the point is relevant for the reasons I explain here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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