The Irresponsible Journalism of Hannity & Colmes

BlogHer Original Post

In its 2005 report on The State of the News Media, the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported on the prevalence of a "journalism of affirmation" -- where "the news is gathered with a point of view, whether acknowledged or not, and audiences come to have their preconceptions reinforced." The report reassured readers that this was not as serious a problem as it's been made out to be by some observers:

"Not only do Republicans and Democrats consume most news media outlets in similar levels, but those in both parties who distrust the news media are often heavier consumers of news outlets than those who are more trusting. The only exceptions to this are talk radio and cable news. In the latter, Republicans have tended to congregate in one place, Fox."

This past week, I had my own close encounter with Fox's journalism of affirmation when I was invited to appear on the Hannity & Colmes show to discuss one-year-old race-baiting comments by an obscure North Carolina bookstore owner and former adjunct college professor named Kamau Kambon. Hannity & Colmes devoted three consecutive nights of airtime on what Ellen of the blog News Hounds correctly called this "year old non-story." The saturation coverage led Ellen to ask, "Is Hannity & Colmes" trying to start a race war?"

Along with current events such as the Supreme Court's current consideration of a case that could end school desegregation, the shooting of Sean Bell and the news that Michael Richards' racist rant has earned him new fans leaves me understand what Chris Rabb means when he says that these days, it feels like a crime to be caught "breathing while black." But I digress.

Let's go back a year. At an October, 2005 forum on the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina that was picked up by C-SPAN, Kambon made the outrageously offensive statement that the best way to prevent a recurrence of the humanitarian disaster that took place in the Gulf region was to "exterminate" white people. The organizer of the panel denounced him, as did Howard University Law School and his former employer, North Carolina State University. The were a few national and regional stories, and then the news agenda moved on, leaving some conservative bloggers to complain about the "liberal" news media's unwillingness to confront racism when it wears a black face. In a blog post written at the time, I explained why I thought the news coverage of the story was appropriate. I noted that Kambon is not the leader of any organization or movement; there is no evidence that he condoned violence before or after his television appearance, and his comments were rejected by the people responsible for his appearance on the panel.

I got some comments at the time, including a responses that were reportedly from panel organizer Opio Sokoni and Kambon himself. Sokoni's statement explained that he invited Kambon to be on the panel on the recommendation of a mutual friend -- "bad judgment on my part for taking that advice" he said, adding that he was "still receiving 3 am death threats" because of Kambon's remarks. Kambon's statement rambled about the injustices visited upon black people throughout history, the failure to implement solutions recommended by the National Urban League and others, and the virtues of his personal lifestyle. Then the comments died down, and life went on -- until about three weeks ago.

All of a sudden, I started getting comments about Kambon again -- several a day for a few days. I wondered why. I published some of the comments, but blocked others, such as the brief I received, from someone claiming to be white, arguing that black people should support Nazism -- and others that were equally frightening and bizarre.

Then came emails on December 4th and 5th from a H&C staffer asking whether I'd be interested in being on the show to talk about Kambon's 2005 remarks. At one point in the e-mail exchange, I asked why they thought Kambon was worth reporting on, all these months later. The staffer said she didn't know, but audiences were so interested that they were going to do what turned out to be three segments on Kambon, on consecutive nights.

When I saw the results, I was glad that I had not gone on the show, but I was also alarmed by the way those segments, along with others, gave the impression that white Americans are the victims of some widespread racial conspiracy. According to another of Ellen's reports, one segment included black conservative activist, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, claiming, without evidence, that “(Kambon’s) representative of most racist blacks like the so-called civil rights leaders, the NAACP. They may not want to exterminate, but they definitely want to divide and conquer.” Peterson went on to claim that the news media ignores hate crimes that black people commit against white people, but thoroughly cover hate crimes committed by white people against black people. Once again, Peterson lacked evidence, and no one pointed to the annual FBI reports documenting the fact that anti-black hate crimes are far more common than anti-white hate crimes.

On December 6, Hannity & Colmes did have one guest -- Robert Redding -- who tried to point out that Kambon was not a legitimate news story in 2006. Here is an excerpt from the Fox News transcript:

"REDDING: This was a story — and I see it still is on your show, Sean. -- I'm not understanding why, because we put it on the Web site at Redding News Review, and it was gone within a day. It was worth noting then and it really hasn't been worth noting again.

"HANNITY: Isn't it time that we confront racism? You know, we had a lot of coverage, for example, of this racist rant that went on with this comedian and I just think, you know, it seems that the fact that they're people that have positions of power, that hold these kinds of views, they teach in universities, it seems that they go unchallenged too often. Isn't that the case?

"REDDING: Well, he's a former professor. He's no longer teaching there.

"HANNITY: But that not the point. He was a professor. He did have a captive audience. He did hold these views. And there are currently professors that have really, really extremist views that are teaching students currently, right?

"REDDING: Right, there are. And he's not one of them right now. Look, if you think this is a story still, then God bless you. But I mean, there are so many stories out there."

Earlier in the show, H&C showed a clip of a Fox crew confronting Kambon at his North Carolina bookstore, asking him to explain his year-old comments, As he did a year ago, Kambon refused to speak on camera. Hannity claimed that the show was performing a public service by questioning Kambon directly,

"Because I've never seen this man confronted before. And I think it just serves as sort of a notice here that students when they do hear outrageous professors, that he was once one, maybe it's time to confront these guys like this."

Apparently Redding did not know that journalists had tried to get Kambon to comment before, because he agreed with Hannity that there was something newsworthy in this staged confrontation. Further, neither Redding nor Hannity offered evidence that there are professors teaching who support racial violence. And even Hannity's cohost, Alan Colmes, admitted that there was no evidence that Kambon espoused racial violence when he was teaching.

One can only conclude that Hannity & Colmes focused their attention on divisive marginal figures such as Kambon because they fit the ideological preconceptions of the show's hosts.

In practicing this journalism of affirmation, Hannity & Colmes have violated principles of journalism that desperately need shoring up during these fractious times -- the mandate that journalists "provide a forum for public criticism and compromise" that "is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition." And those facts must not be presented out of context, but as part of a news presentation that is "comprehensive and proportional." Hannity & Colmes have failed their audiences on both counts. One can only hope that their viewers will demand more responsible reporting in the future.
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