Thursday, June 11, 2009

A letter to the New York Pest

Better late than never, we suppose: On Wednesday the New York Post, conservative mouthpiece of media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch announced plans for something unprecedented in The Post’s history, and (given its history for journalism and editorializing that’s biased and ethnically insensitive) totally unexpected.

The Post, part of the global vertically integrated media octopus known as News Corporation, has agreed to form a diversity council in response to the public outcry about a Post cartoon that critics said likened President Obama to a dead chimpanzee shot to death by police.

Predictably enough, the Post took a roundabout way of making the announcement: by not making it directly. The plans for the diversity council aren’t included on the News Corporation Web site’s current press release listings. It fell to Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president and CEO of the NAACP, to state what was going on. Jealous said Wednesday that News Corp. had agreed to form the “diversity community council” that will meet twice a year with company executives.
News Corp is also expected to include a statement of commitment to diversity in its annual report.

News Corp. spokesman Jack Horner separately told the Associated Press that the council would include members from a range of organizations including the NAACP, 100 Black Men of America, Hispanic Federation, Alianza Dominicana, the National Urban League and the National Action Network, run by Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime stone-in-the-shoe of the New York Post.

Leaders of many of those groups met with News Corp. brass on May 19.

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The lifting of the scales from the eyes of the Post brain trust isn’t so sudden, of course. This sea change comes in the wake of the controversy that started on Feb. 18 when the Post printed a cartoon by Post staff cartoonist Sean Delonas. The cartoon, which isn’t even remotely funny in the first place, was published as Obama's stimulus bill was moving through Congress and after a violent pet chimp was shot to death by police in Connecticut.

The cartoon showed the corpse of a bullet-riddled chimp with two police officers standing nearby. One of the officers says: “They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

The Post later apologized, of course, but the newspaper has a long reputation of trashing minorities and others outside its narrow ideological orbit. Chuck D of Public Enemy once called the Post “America’s oldest continually published daily piece of bullshit.” Back in early 1980, the Columbia Journalism Review went so far as to say that "the New York Post is no longer merely a journalistic problem. It is a social problem — a force for evil." Its columns and especially its front page (with its lurid compression of events into screaming 100-point type) are rife with crass sensationalism, a hallmark of its style for years.

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Now, though, the Post is making the right noises. “The key is we're always responding and learning from our communities.” Horner told The AP. And if that’s true, we have a lot to look forward to in terms of other actions that News Corp. takes in response to community concerns about sensitivity.

If Murdoch and News Corp. are serious about “responding [to] and learning” from the communities that comprise their audience, we can expect to hear about a formal apology from Bill O’Reilly, the tirelessly sanctimonious conservative apologist pit-bull host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” on the Fox News Channel, a News Corp. tentacle.

It was O’Reilly who since 2005 constantly characterized Dr. George Tiller (a late-term abortion provider operating legally in Wichita, Kansas) on the air as a man “operating a death mill” with “blood on his hands,” as someone on a par with al-Qaida, and as “Tiller the Baby Killer.”

Tiller was shot to death — some have used the word “assassinated” — in the lobby of his church by a pro-life extremist on May 31.

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Let’s go further: If Murdoch/News Corp. are for real about “responding” to Americans’ better sensibilities, we can expect to hear that O’Reilly’s received his walking papers from Fox News — fired for his contribution to the coarsening of the public discourse, and for stoking an atmosphere of violence and intolerance that the chimp cartoon only hinted at.

The New York Post diversity council is a good beginning; the principles such a council would presumably stand for are just as necessary applied to Fox News — in fact, they’re more necessary at Fox News, which boasts an audience larger than the New York Post by orders of magnitude.

Words and images aren’t meaningless, empty things. They can damage and kill; they can cultivate a climate of permission that makes anything possible, from the character assassination of a president to the actual assassination of a doctor performing his constitutionally-protected job. The diversity council is a first baby step the Post has needed to take for a long time; we’ll see if the editors there have the courage to take any more.
Image credit: Page one, chimp cartoon: The New York Post. O'Reilly: Chris McCann, U.S. Army (public domain).

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