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Rivera Redux

The ConWeb unloads on Peter Arnett as it covers up (again) for Geraldo -- one of the many benefits of working for Fox News Channel.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 4/9/2003

Conservatives have always given Fox News Channel a wide berth. After all, they believe it's "their" news channel even as they try to convince people that it's really not biased at all but "fair and balanced."

Thus, when FNC does something biased or boneheaded, conservatives -- and their cohorts on the ConWeb -- have to invent ways to explain it away without admitting that FNC is indeed biased. For instance, when FNC hired partisan Bush cousin John Ellis as an election analyst in 2000, the ConWeb either explained it away as unfair criticism by the "liberal media" or ignored it completely. The Media Research Center beat up on CNN for trying to get an interview with Osama bin Laden, but was silent when FNC scored a jailhouse interview with Timothy McVeigh. The MRC also rushed to FNC's defense when "an ultra-left wing ideological organization" (that would be Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) documented the channel's conservative slant, declaring FNC "the most balanced network in television news" though it has never offered any evidence to back it up or even contradict anything FAIR had to say.

In fact, the only criticism one is likely to find of FNC on the ConWeb is that it isn't conservative enough, as MRC leader Brent Bozell did in one 2002 piece. "Conservatives have nowhere else to go and will just have to accept this broadening of the message," he wrote -- the "broadening of the message" he's referring to FNC's daring to hire non-conservatives like Greta Van Sustern and Geraldo Rivera.

Ah, yes, Geraldo. The man who rated three mentions in MRC's 2001 year-end review of "notable quotables" was being defended by these very same folks despite getting caught making an egregious factual error -- claiming to report from the site of a "friendly fire" incident in which Americans were killed when he was actually hundreds of miles away. Why? He switched networks ... to the Fox News Channel.

The double standard continues with Rivera's latest blunder, revealing troop movements during a FNC broadcast while traveling with a U.S. military unit in Iraq. Fortunately, fate has provided a benchmark on which to gauge ConWeb reaction -- the equally egregious blunder of Peter Arnett, working for NBC, giving an interview on Iraqi TV and offering critical observations of the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq, which occured at roughly the same time Rivera was compromising American military security. (Some U.S. troops were so put off by Rivera's behavior that they shook hands with him during one visit to a unit but "had put those hands in unmentionable places prior.")

Arnett got a full-scale beatdown from MRC. Not only was he the receipient of a "Media Reality Check" detailing his offenses ("At least Americans won’t have to suffer through Arnett’s sloppy and slanted reporting for the war’s duration," wrote the MRC"s Tim Graham) and a separate CyberAlert compendium of offenses compiled by Brent Baker (who also disapprovingly cites Newsweek's Eleanor Clift calling Arnett "a good reporter" in an April 8 CyberAlert), he also got a love letter from Bozell titled "Peter Arnett, Cretinous Liar."

The only mention of Rivera's offense on the MRC Web site, meanwhile, occurred in an April 2 CyberAlert, which Baker marvels that "FNC certainly isn't reticent about allowing its contributors trash Rivera." (Unlike MRC, apparently.) While Baker does also offer up the snippy comment, "Who isn't Geraldo a pain in the ass to?" there is no serious invective hurled Rivera's way, no denouncing of his behavior, no "Media Reality Check," no demand for FNC to fire him.

That hands-off tone continues at MRC's news division, It devoted two stories to Arnett, one of which is devoted to comments from three "media experts" on the Arnett situation. All of whom are decidedly conservative --the editorial page editor of the Washington Times, an editor for National Review Online and Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media -- though the article doesn't describe them as such. The only mention of Rivera's behavior at CNS to date came in an April 2 column by Rich Galen (not archived at CNS but available at Galen's personal site), who dismisses it as "an error of exuberance" while Arnett's actions are branded "treasonous."

Over at WorldNetDaily, Arnett got similar treatment. The Arnett case was played big, complete with a report on a congressman who wants him arrested for treason, e-mail excerpts from WND readers and columnist David Limbaugh denouncing "Arnett's despicable, inexcusable, egomaniacal tirade." Its coverage of rivera, though, focused mainly on the initial confusion over whether or not the Pentagon actually expelled him from Iraq. No conservative columnist at WND -- and there are about 30 of 'em -- has criticized Rivera; the only call for Rivera's firing comes from syndicated columnist Bill Press, one of the two or three token liberals WND uses to deflect charges that it's slavishly conservative. But even WND's other token liberal, Ellen Ratner, agrees with Galen that "Rivera's sin was probably over-enthusiasm -- what reporter doesn't want to spill all the beans all the time?"

NewsMax behaved as NewsMax normally does -- went off half-cocked, then settled into familiar conservative-correctness behavior. It initially called Rivera a "blabbermouth" and "Fox News Channel's unfortunate hire" when the reports of his misdeeds first surfaced, followed by a report on the confusion over his status. This was followed by an April 2 story relaying FNC's official line on Rivera and, then, an April 3 defense of Rivera as "nothing if not a patriotic cheerleader, his serious blunder with the 101st Airborne notwithstanding." The article also questioned the motivation of those calling for Rivera's firing: "Perhaps the reason some of Geraldo's former media buddies seem almost overjoyed at his predicament is because he has embarrassed the Fox News Channel, which is setting ratings records with its pro-American Iraq war coverage."

Finally, an April 9 story discusses the "dirty handshake" incident without mentioning the reason why a soldier would want to do that in the first place, then concludes: "But in fairness to Geraldo, it should be noted that after Rivera arrived back in Kuwait, he broadcast from an army unit getting ready to move into Iraq, explained his problem with the military authorities, and was surrounded by what appeared to be a crowd of admiring GIs who continued to cheer him. More army justice?" Wow -- from "unfortunate hire" to rock star in a mere 10 days, all because FNC for whatever reason didn't fire the guy.

Arnett, meanwhile, is a "useful idiot" who "gave aid and comfort to the enemy," according to NewsMax (apparently, detailing troop movements on live TV isn't giving "aid and comfort to the enemy"), which also wondered, "So when will CBS fire useful idiot Dan Rather for spreading propaganda for genocidal dictator Saddam Hussein?"

While the ConWeb seems to have enough smarts to know Rivera did wrong that it won't explicitly defend him, the fact that it also won't explicitly criticize him or hold him accountable for his behavior the way it has Arnett shows the paradox of the conservative media. It's afraid to criticize one of its own for fear of giving ammunition to what it perceives as its "enemies," even though the conservative media is much more conservative than the so-called "liberal media" is liberal.

If the conservative-journalism movement wants to truly be the "alternative media" it thinks it is, doesn't it have a duty to condemn bad journalism in its own ranks? Then again, that would but journalism above being conservative, which is not the point of conservative journalism.

All of which begs the question: Would the ConWeb be treating Rivera like Arnett if Rivera didn't work for Fox News Channel? Given the disparity of treatment for similar offenses, the answer appears to be yes.

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