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Monday, February 12, 2007

McIlheran Watch: Why I do it

by folkbum

Warning: Verbose. But when am I not?

I have said it over and over and over: I don't want to silence the media. I don't want to force them to parrot a single (my) party line. I don't want them to roll over and play dead while the vastly superior intellects of the blogosphere do their jobs for them better, faster, and cheaper.

No. I recognize that the professional media have a vital and critical role to play in our democracy, and that I, as a blogger, could not exist without them. I don't have time to be a reporter, or to opine on every subject people who buy the newspaper or watch TV news may be interested in. (Any blogger who tells you blogs will someday replace traditional media has been eating too many Cheetos, or maybe not getting enough sunlight.)

What I do say, over and over and over, is that I want the media to be better. When I criticize the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, flagship of the state's largest media conglomerate, I do so not because they tell me uncomfortable facts or report stories I would rather keep under wraps. Instead, I do it because I feel that they are reporting with bias, manufacturing controversies, or applying double standards.

When I go after my favorite Journal Sentinel target, the reliably conservative Patrick McIlheran, it's not because I don't like him (he's probably a nice enough guy, but I've never met him) or that I merely disagree with him (there are many conservatives that I don't try to argue with) or that he's a bad blogger (he gets the medium far better than anyone else under the J-S's employ; sorry, Vikki!).

It's that, as a card-carrying, professionally trained, editorial decision-making member of the media, he has a responsibility to be truthful with the facts and aware of, if not avoidant of, double standards. When he's writing his op-eds and blogging, he has no obligation to keep his personal feelings in check (unlike, say, state capitol reporters who clearly personally despise those they report on). But he does still have an obligation not to distort the truth or judge some guilty while letting others skate for the same crime. When he does so, when he plays fast and loose with facts or repeats uncritically the GOP talking point of the day, he fails to live up to the responsibility that comes with a byline in the state's largest newspaper.

When that happens, someone needs to call him on it. That is one of the things that bloggers can do, so we (myself, the Brawler, Tim Rock, Mike Mathias, among others) do it. Not because we want to silence McIlheran, but rather because we expect better of him.

Which is why I'm disappointed in his continued response to the story about John Edwards's bloggers.


If you don't know the story by now, you can read McIlheran's original blog post, my two responses here, and, finally, his response to my criticisms.

Among the other disappointing things is how, within just a few dozen words, McIlerhan both acts breathlessly aghast that I would call Amanda Marcotte merely "coloful" or "outspoken" and refers to Catholic League president Bill Donohue as merely "mouthy." It reminds me of the time he described the often-violent anti-choice activist (I mean, people have written laws just for him) Matt Trewhella in the context of "putting daisies in gun barrels," saying, merely, that he "protests abortion."

While it's true that Amanda, on her personal blog, uses the kind of language that gets TV stations fined by the FCC and Catholics kicked out of heaven--language Bill Donohue won't use (though this pushes an envelope)--Donohue is anything but "mouthy." He is a naked partisan, forgiving Republican candidates and staffers for the same sins he will rail against in Democrats. See, for example, Think Progress, which points out how he defended a sex predator in the Bush administration. Check Media Matters for the story of how Donohue enabled Swiftboater Jerome Corsi's anti-Catholic attacks on John Kerry. Or read about plenty of religious and Catholic leaders who see Donohue as "a thug" and "marginal" and "bigoted." When confronted with his own statements, Donohue flips out--hardly the actions of a truly pious man, much more consistent with a partisan hack.

Donohue almost single-handedly created the Edwards-blogger story, and was certainly its most public face. Without Donohue, this story doesn't exist, isn't there for McIlheran to bite. Yet, rather than weigh whether there is a "there" there on this story, McIlheran is happy to smear the Edwards campaign at the behest of a vile, bigoted, "mouthy" partisan.

McIlheran also declines to comment on his apparent double standard. While Amanda Marcotte profaned (in several senses of the word) the Catholic church, she did so before working for John Edwards, on her personal blog, in a way that most people would agree was not designed to further the candidacy of any particular presidential hopeful. (It happened, usually, in defense of a pro-choice philosophy, or against examples misogyny.) On the other hand, blogger Patrick Hynes, after he was hired by John McCain, posted anti-Mormon smears clearly designed to dampen enthusiasm for McCain's adversary Mitt Romney, who is perhaps this country's most prominent Latter Day Saint. It may simply be because McIlheran is Catholic and not Mormon, but it does seem suspicious that he criticizes a Democratic candidate for hiring a blogger who has not written a single word about Catholics while under that candidate's employ, but won't criticize a Republican candidate who may well be directing his blogger to write anti-Mormon posts.

In fact, the title of McIlheran's post in response to me ("So, Folkbum, is 'mother...' how you want your religion referred to?") seems to make it sound exactly that personal: McIlheran is Catholic, and can't be bothered to complain when anyone criticizes some other religion. After all, the editorial board on which he sits green-lighted an op-ed just about a year ago that did, in fact, criticize what I believe in, in a remarkably offensive (if G-rated) manner. McIlheran didn't bother to comment. (And no comment on Tucker Carlson's wondering aloud whether Barack Obama is Christian enough.)

Moreover, McIlheran tries to turn this all back on me, demanding (taking a tip from the area's second-most widely read Catholic blogger, Dad29) to know if I agree with Marcotte. I never tried to defend her words beyond her right to write them. All I asked for--and feel free to re-read my post as often as you want--is fairness: Where is the critique of Donohue ("mouthy" doesn't cut it), or McCain and Hynes? If you are willing to forgive in Republicans what you rail against in Democrats, you are, in fact, being a hack.


That is not the half of it. The Brawler is tougher on McIlheran than I would be, but he raises valid points about McIlheran's willingness to defend religion (hint: it takes a back seat to partisanship). Tim Rock reminds us that McIlheran is not above slandering religions himself (a defense of "Islamic fascism," anyone?) and likes to cite Ann Coulter (1 2 3 4 5 6, for starters). Coulter, of course, recommends talking to liberals with baseball bats (if you have to talk to them at all) and poisoning Supreme Court Justices--and those are her tame ones. (Media Matters has her greatest hits.) The worst McIlheran is willing to say about her is that she's "mean," once again leading me to wonder why he is appalled that I'd call Amanda Marcotte "colorful."

More pertinent to this discussion, perhaps, is one Michelle Malkin, whom McIlheran also likes to link approvingly to (1 2 3 4 5 is enough for now). Malkin has actually called for the internment of American Muslims and helped popularize the term Islamofacist among the right, for example, but McIlheran, not being Muslim, may not care. (Again, see Media Matters for some greatest hits.) However, Malkin has done pretty much the exact same thing John Edwards is now so strongly criticized for doing: Edwards hired a profanity-using anti-Catholic blogger, and so did Malkin. A key team member of her un-ironically named "Hot Air" group blog is a guy who goes by the name (also un-ironically) Allahpundit. Allahpundit happens also to have a history of using profanity to defame Catholics (profanity at the link, obviously). Allahpundit also criticized Amanda Marcotte, as did Allahpundit's boss, Malkin, choosing the whole time to ignore what Allahpundit apparently believes about Catholics.

As with Hynes and McCain, Trewhella and Donohue, there is a goose-gander issue here; it's that McIlheran is more than willing to write about the goose when it serves his basest partisan itches, but he will never, ever write about the gander.


Look, I know it is not McIlheran's job to root out every example of anti-Catholic writing anywhere on the internet. (It's closer to being Bill Donohue's job, but he never seems to catch conservatives or Republicans when they do it.)

It is, however, McIlheran's job to be something beyond just a smug partisan hack who can't be bothered with double-standards or mis-statements of fact or writing something beyond what Rush Limbaugh or The Corner is talking about that day. If I wanted that, there are plenty of right-tilting bloggers who can turn a clever enough phrase while engaging in the basest hypocrisy. They are not members of the professional media. They have no obligation to their readers to avoid such sins. I may occasionally point out the error of their ways, but I don't expect them to wake up one day and realize they should, in fact, be following some minimum standards of conduct in their writing.

The same is not true for Patrick McIlheran. When he goes to work every day down at Third and State, he sits among people who, in their professional conduct, strive--even when they don't quite make it--to follow some ethical and journalistic standards. I've met many of them, and the ones I've talked to all seem to be quite serious about both getting the details right and providing the full context of the stories they cover. The exceptions are few and far between, and I write about them because they are exceptions. I keep the McIlheran Watch because he is an exception.


In the end, perhaps the best take on the Edwards-blogger story I have read comes from a local conserative, Sean Hackbarth:
In a few days many of us will forget this story. We’ll only be reminded if Marcotte or McEwan write something outrageous. [. . .] Even before any controversy their voices changed. Go to Marcotte’s pre-story post on the Edwards weblog. She’s a semi-policy wonk. Nothing to be afraid of.

Which brings me to my defense of Marcotte and McEwen. People are capable of adapting to their surroundings. I wouldn’t talk the same way on a first date as I would with my male friends watching the football game at the bar. Our behavior changes when we are in a professional environment versus the safer confines of friends and family. Just as Edwards isn’t that responsible for comments left by people on his weblog I don’t think he’s that responsible for what Marcotte and McEwan said prior to being hired.
McIlheran, on the other hand, is responsible for what he writes, all the time. That's why I do this.

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