By Karl Frisch
For the better part of a week, conservatives in the media have been on a witch hunt for Kevin Jennings, the director of the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Led by Fox News, the right-wing media have claimed that 21 years ago, when Jennings was a 24-year-old teacher at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, he "cover[ed] up statutory rape" by not reporting to authorities a conversation he had with a student who told him about being involved with an "older man."
The attacks on Jennings, the latest Obama administration official in the right’s crosshairs, have been disgusting, misleading, baseless, and at times pointedly anti-gay.
WorldNetDaily’s Erik Rush called Jennings a "radical homosexual druggie." The conservative Washington Times contended in an editorial that "Jennings has made extremely radical statements promoting homosexuality in schools." Right-wing radio’s big kahuna, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News’ Sean Hannity both claimed that Jennings supported promoting homosexuality in the schools, while conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote that Jennings was a "controversial homosexual rights’ advocate" who founded a "controversial" organization that "aggressively pushes sexually explicit" books.
The controversial organization of which Malkin speaks? GLSEN — the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network — which, according to the organization’s website, is "the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. … GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression."
In addition to the right’s attacks aimed at Jennings’ sexual orientation, conservative media outlets sought to paint Jennings as complicit in covering up a crime — specifically "statutory rape." A Washington Times editorial accused Jennings of "encourag[ing]" a relationship that amounted to "statutory rape." Led by Hannity, Fox News also baselessly claimed that Jennings "cover[ed] up statutory rape" and violated Massachusetts law by not reporting to authorities his 1988 conversation with the student. Limbaugh took things a step further, claiming that Jennings had "encouraged" and "facilitated" a sexual relationship between the student and an adult. Fox News’ Bill Hemmer continued the conservative network’s attacks on Jennings by claiming that Jennings knew of a "statutory rape" case involving a student but "never reported it." MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan went even further, asking if Jennings had "a sense of solidarity with the man, rather than with the kid." Seriously.
The conservative media made it abundantly clear that facts wouldn’t get in the way of their latest line of attack on the Obama administration. In a 2004 letter, Jennings’ attorney wrote that the student was 16 years old at the time of the incident, which is, and was at the time, the legal age of consent in Massachusetts.
Additionally, Media Matters exclusively confirmed the former student’s age was 16 at the time of his conversation with Jennings, posting a redacted copy of his current driver’s license, his Facebook message exchange with a FoxNews.com writer in which he said as much, and his statement on the matter.
If you’ve ever wondered what kind of folks regularly participate in polls sponsored by FoxNews.com, the answer is here. It’s two kinds of people: those who are comfortable forming a strong opinion on a subject before the facts are in, and people who get all of their news from Fox News. Ninety-eight percent of respondents to a FoxNews.com poll this week said that Jennings should resign due to his "actions" and "questionable past and experience." I wonder where they could have gotten that idea. (After all, self-righteous indignation is what Sean Hannity does best.)
But don’t hold your breath hoping for any consistency from Hannity. After The Washington Times established a completely false equivalency between Jennings and former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) (who, if you’ll recall, personally pursued young congressional pages), Media Matters went back and checked the record. It turns out that in 2006, while Dennis Hastert was on his way to being criticized by the House Ethics Committee for his failure to stop Foley’s actions, Hannity and his Fox News cohorts were among the then-speaker’s staunchest defenders. "The only thing that Hastert knew about was that there was an e-mail," Hannity said at the time. "[I]’s always easy to say what [Hastert] should’ve done," Brit Hume said, "but when you start thinking about the things he could’ve done, there’s not much there." "I think there’s no evidence that Hastert did anything wrong, in my view," said Bill Kristol. "Hastert’s position is completely defensible," said Mort Kondracke. "Hastert’s you know, being witch hunted down," stated Bill O’Reilly.
When it comes to media conservatives, integrity may be dead, but irony certainly is not.
Lost in these right-wing caricatures of Jennings is the simple fact that education officials and others have spoken highly of the Obama administration official, who has received numerous awards and was an appointee of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican.
With this, the latest conservative media witch hunt debunked and put to bed, the timer starts anew. When will the next witch hunt begin? Who’s next on the list?
Other major stories this week
A gold medal for Obamalympic-hating media conservatives
It isn’t every day that the conservative media — America’s self-appointed protectors of patriotism — illustrate their true priorities so clearly. But on Friday, they did just that. Here it is, in a nutshell: America lost, and the right-wing noise machine cheered.
The announcement that President Obama planned to fly to Copenhagen to support Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics was immediately denounced by the conservative media. After months of falsely accusing Obama of apologizing for America on the world stage — even blatantly cropping the president’s words to make the point — you would think that right-wing media figures would have applauded a voyage with the explicit goal of praising the United States. Think again — not when there are political points to score.
"Chicago is good at … organized Mafi– oops, did I say that out loud?" Fox News’ Glenn Beck quipped on Thursday. Malkin was even more vitriolic, stating Obama’s trip was nothing more than a taxpayer-funded junket designed to secure paybacks for Obama’s hometown "cronies."
And that was just the beginning. Hannity claimed that Obama was "more concerned about bringing the Olympics to Chicago than winning the war in Afghanistan." The Washington Examiner‘s Byron York and The Weekly Standard‘s Stephen Hayes attacked Obama’s priorities, with Hayes adding, "the optics of it at the very least are terrible." Fox News’ Bret Baier brought up the "carbon footprint" of the Air Force One trip, and the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell claimed that Obama’s venture was "evidence that [Obama] just cannot stay away from the klieg lights." Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson suggested the trip was inappropriate, and both she and her colleague Steve Doocy said that it was against U.S. tradition to "send our president out as a salesman like this." "Have you been to Rio?" asked columnist S.E. Cupp on Fox News, swelling with national pride. "I have. It’s awesome."
Even more abysmal was the right’s exploitation of a recently released video depicting the brutal murder of a teenage Chicagoan at the hands of gang members. "Is this a city where we want the Olympics taking place?" Hannity asked. "OLYMPIC SPIRIT: VIDEO SHOWS BRUTAL GANG MURDER IN CHICAGO" the Drudge Report blared. "Community organizing has not stopped Chicago’s teen violence epidemic," Malkin added.
Then on Friday, the International Olympic Committee eliminated Chicago from the running — and the rejoicing began.
"Oh, it’s so sweet," said Beck live on the radio. "Enjoy this — savor this moment." "[T]he IOC just says ‘no’ to Chicago!" cheered Lou Dobbs’ webpage, reprinting the latest headline topping Drudge: "The Ego Has Landed." "I don’t deny it," said Limbaugh, "I’m happy." Erick Erickson, managing editor of the conservative blog RedState.com, was perhaps the most mature of the conservative revelers, summing up his feelings by writing, "Hahahahaha."
No, it’s not every week that we get such a clear indication of just what "patriotism" really means to those in the conservative media — and it doesn’t have anything to do with putting country first.
Drama still besting substance in coverage of health care
This week, the Senate Finance Committee passed Sen. Max Baucus’ health care plan, voting down two amendments in the process that would have included a public option in the legislation. That was the week’s substantive development affecting health care reform. The rest was the conservative noise machine’s usual drone.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) made headlines by bluntly attacking conservatives for lacking a systematic health insurance reform plan. The following day, he returned to the House floor and called for an end to what he termed a "holocaust" caused by the failings of America’s health care system.
While his language was indeed blunt, his passion was understandable. A new study conducted by the Harvard Medical School estimates that 45,000 Americans die every year because of our system’s flaws. Despite such realities, RedState’s Erickson was incensed not by the death toll but by Grayson’s statement. "The holocaust was real with a real meaning," he wrote on Wednesday. "Roping it into the health care debate cheapens what it was all about." We’re still waiting for Erickson to denounce the numerous conservative media figures who have linked progressive politicians and health care plans to the Nazis.
Limbaugh was more blunt. "I don’t believe anybody in this country is dying because of a lack of health insurance," he said, adding, "If there is a holocaust in this country, it is abortion." He again reminded the nation that the Democratic Party is "obsessed with your death" as well as being the "party of abortion and euthanasia, slavery and not liberty." By the end of the week, more Nazi comparisons hardly came as a surprise.
Far more intriguing was the new light shed on serial health care misinformer Betsy McCaughey. A new Rolling Stone article revealed that her 1994 opposition to Bill Clinton’s reform legislation had been greased with money from Big Tobacco. CNN political analyst James Carville put the revelations in proper context, calling it "breathtaking proof" of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that has plagued progressives for decades — especially when it comes to health care reform.
Yet another example of principled conservative opposition was provided by Fox News’ Dick Morris, who is still using his time on the conservative network to fund-raise for an anti-reform group that is also employing him. Fox News has yet to see how this might be a conflict of interest.
It’s clear that when it comes to issues like health care, progressives have few honest brokers to deal with on the right. As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) on Tuesday, "If no Republicans will join, why should [Democrats] compromise with nobody?"
An intriguing question indeed.
Slavery, coups, and kids, oh my!
The problem with becoming obsessed with destroying your opponent is that you tend to lose touch with reality.
There were numerous examples of that outcome this week. The Drudge Report, Andrew Breitbart, and Fox News ran with yet another video showing schoolchildren singing Obama’s praises. The children, who were performing in front of the PTA (nobody objected) were also singing dangerous slogans like, "Can we make America better? Yes we can!" Scary stuff!
Immediately, numerous media figures, including Fox News’ Monica Crowley, O’Reilly, and Beck, as well as CNN’s Dobbs, claimed the video was evidence of "indoctrination." (Never mind the choir of Louisiana schoolchildren that sang to President Bush after Hurricane Katrina.) They should really wait a bit before reacting to these tapes. After all, Beck, Dobbs, and others were burned badly this week after they ran with a false lead from Breitbart, who claimed he had a video showing community organizers praying to Obama. It turns out that they were actually praying to God. Breitbart was forced to update his story, adding that "there is a debate over what is actually being said." Only in your mind, Andrew.
The real brainwashing was being attempted by syndicated conservative columnist George Will, who wrote yet another column claiming that "evidence" of climate change is "elusive." More troubling still was the work of Newsmax.com’s John Perry, who penned a column that even Newsmax soon felt compelled to remove. "There is a remote, although gaining, possibility," he wrote, "America’s military will intervene as a last resort to resolve the ‘Obama problem.’ Don’t dismiss it as unrealistic." How about it we dismiss it as paranoid and delusional?
It was, however, W. Cleon Skousen who won the week’s award for "Most Crazy" — and he’s been dead for years. It turns out that in one of his controversial books, Skousen, whose work still holds a powerful influence over Glenn Beck, presented as "the story of slavery in America" a passage from a book by historian Fred Albert Shannon that attacked abolitionists for delaying emancipation, cast slave owners as "the worst victims of the system," claimed white schoolchildren "were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates," and stated that "[s]lavery did not make white labor unrespectable, but merely inefficient," because "the slave had a deliberateness of motion which no amount of supervision could quicken." Why would Skousen think that comments like those told the "story of slavery in America"? It does make you wonder — especially after reading some of the things that Glenn has written.
When everything becomes just another political football, it makes the serious discussion of serious topics impossible. That’s what happened this week with Afghanistan policy, as Fox News tried to spin Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recently leaked memo into a story about how Obama was ignoring his military brass. Not surprisingly, the network largely ignored Gen. Eric Shinseki’s February 2003 recommendation that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed to successfully occupy Iraq.
Media Matters president Eric Burns summed things up clearly as a guest on MSNBC’s Countdown this week. Fox News, he said, "is no longer a news organization. This is a political organization, and their aim is to destroy a progressive policy agenda."
The American people are paying the price every day.
This week’s media columns
This week’s media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert shows how The Washington Times and Fox News are now unleashing mobs on private citizens (including kids), and Jamison Foser says big media have a chance to show their worth on health care.
Greg Lewis notes that you won’t find logic or a grasp of the issues on The Rush Limbaugh Show in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh’s radio shows over the past week.
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This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, or sign up to receive his columns by email.