Home > Uncategorized > Something New Under the Sun in the Media Blame Game

Something New Under the Sun in the Media Blame Game

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 16, 2010

By now I’ve gotten pretty used to the “blame the media” game from the politicians. It started years ago when one of them found himself in a hotspot.  He’d point to the media and say how they were on a witch hunt to get him.  The ploy worked well enough with sympathetic audience members that it stuck.  It eventually worked its way up to the very top, reaching the vice presidency and then the presidency.  Many used this approach, but let’s start with Spiro Agnew (just because he’s a figure not enough young people know about.  Oddly, his remarks sound almost flattering compared to today’s attacks.  He once called members of the media part of a “tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one.”  His eventual former boss, Richard Nixon, wasn’t so gentlemanly in his remarks.  In 1973, following reporting on the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre”—the name given to Nixon’s dismissal of the Watergate special prosecutor and the ensuing fallout in the justice department—Nixon let the reporters in the White House have it, calling them “frantic” and “hysterical.”  Take a look at this excerpt of Nixon’s news conference to get a feel for the animosity there—and be sure you stick around for the punch line at the end:


Nixon, Agnew, and countless politicians before them all reacted to what they perceived as attacks from the media with retaliation through name calling and belittlement.  It was tit for tat back then, with those in the crosshairs firing back once the media lobbed in their perceived shells.

But skip forward a generation and the game changed.  By the 1990s the strategy had shifted to having the politicians attack first—not reacting to stories but lashing out first to characterize the media as lazy, lowdown, and leftist.  Politicians quickly found if they could put doubt about the intentions and the abilities of the media in the minds of citizens sympathetic to their side, they could move the reporting of said media farther outside those citizens’ acceptable perceptual zone. This “us against them” approach was pretty successful.  Once reporters became the bad guys, then politicians could wear the mask of the persecuted, asking all to look on them with pity as if the media were nothing more than playground bullies picking on the one honest child there.

The interesting thing about this pre-emptive approach was that it all stayed pretty much about the reporting.  Even when calling reporters out before the story aired, there of course had been another story before that.  Politicians were able to use the track record of reporters—even if fictitious—to let their supporters know those reporters were not on the right side of the issue.  But as another generation begins to roll around, the target on journalists’ backs is being painted in whole new way—one you might find quite personal and downright dishonest.

The politician in this case is perhaps the most famous sheriff in America.  Seventy-seven year old Joe Arpaio calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”  He certainly patrols some of its toughest territory—massive Maricopa County, Arizona, home to 8,600 square miles of desert and about 600 square miles of Phoenix.  Arpaio is perhaps best known as the guy who dresses his inmates in pink underwear. He’s also the guy under investigation right now by the FBI and Department of Justice.  He likes us to talk about the underwear—not so much the investigations.

I should stop right here for a moment, in the interest of transparency, to say that my 79-year-old mother “works” for Arpaio—sort of.  She’s an unpaid volunteer for his “Posse” (yes, that’s what he calls it) in her retirement community of Sun City West.  It sounds like she chases down fugitives on horseback, but she really directs traffic and such.  That’s my connection to the story.  Read into it what you will.

So back to those investigations.  They have been, as you might guess, a pretty big story in Phoenix.  Everyone is working the story.  And just as it has always been in every newsroom, when the big story comes along you want to win it and you want to rub your competitors’ noses in it.  At least that’s what I figured was at play when RTDNA member and KNXV-TV news director Joe Hengemuehler wrote this e-mail to his investigative reporter Josh Bernstein:

Subject: Arpaio Coverage


This note is a follow-up to the meeting we had this morning.  Please take a look at the aggressive reporting that two of our competitors are doing on the Arpaio story. These stories were produced yesterday. And please note that both reporters who produced deep packages on Arpaio are out of their station’s investigative units.

As discussed this morning, I want you to own this story. I want you to be as aggressive about covering the Arpaio story as you are about covering any other story. You’ve told me that you’ve told the Sheriff that you are going to come after him when there’s a story. That time is now.

Most of all Josh, I don’t want to get beat by anyone, print, broadcast or online on this story. And I do not want our investigative brand to be diminished in any way.

We have some ground to make up on this one. Let’s start today — by advancing this story and let’s exhaust every angle going forward.

Now, you might wonder why I have this email to share with you.  It looks like Bernstein did one of those moves we all do from time to time and accidentally forwarded that message out with other he intended for county government.  So the e-mail ended up in the sheriff’s hands.  And what did Arpaio do with it?  He posted it on his official website under a section called “The Truth Behind the Headlines.”  Now, leaving aside for a moment that the e-mail wasn’t a “headline,” let’s look at it again.  I’m a news director and I want my reporters to be aggressive on the big story.  And to me, that’s all we have here.  This is no smoking gun that the reporter is out to get the sheriff.  This is a news manager telling his reporter he’s getting beaten on a story and that he’d better get back in the game.

Arpaio saw it differently. He prefaced the e-mail with this:

The following is a letter from Channel 15’s news director, Joe Hengemuehler, to a reporter at the station, Josh Bernstein, that was made public today. The letter shows that Channel 15’s news director now wants his investigative reporter, Bernstein, to “come after” the Sheriff. The letter did not admonish Bernstein to be fair and impartial in his coverage of Arpaio but rather to “COME AFTER” him.

Given the email correspondence printed below, Sheriff Arpaio and the Office as a whole fully expect that Channel 15 will soon line up behind KPHO 5 and KPNX 12 as well as the Arizona Republic in a collective effort to denigrate Arpaio and the Office at every given opportunity.

Clearly we expect our reporters to be fair and impartial every time they hit the streets for us.  I don’t need to put it in an e-mail.  But Arpaio’s twisting Hengemuehler’s words in hopes the friendly readers of his site will take his side.  And they probably do.  And they’re not the only ones.

The e-mail’s not the only critique of the media you’ll find in the “Truth” section of the MCSO’s site.  Arpaio has his employees doing what are basically truth squad reports on stories that air in the market—I’m talking full packages here.  Sheriff’s deputies and PR types voice stories and appear as soundbites in pieces that rebut what’s been reported negatively about the sheriff.  The reports usually attack a line or two of a story, though not always saying they are completely wrong.  You can view the “stories” here (http://www.mcso.org/index.php?a=GetModule&mn=Truth) to see what I mean.

I have to admit the sheriff might be onto something here.  I don’t know if he’s considering retirement any time soon, but he may want to start a business consulting with big corporations.  Imagine how different our view of the Toyota problems would be if we got to hear the “truth” from Toyota employees about how wrong the stories have been about the accelerator problems in their cars.  I know I’d feel a lot better about the boys at AIG if some of their folks could do a report for me on how the company had been wronged by all the media attention (and they sure could buy some nice HD gear with some of that bonus money).  And we could probably have this whole health care debate behind us by now if all the “truthful” reporting on that one could have been done by Obama administration spokespeople.

I know my mom will be angry with me for this one when she reads it (and I do hope my mom reads these blogs), but sheriff, you’re shooting blanks on this one.

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