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Beyond the Valley of the Press Release

When it comes to fellow conservatives like Jesse Lee Peterson, WorldNetDaily just doesn't want to go there.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 8/13/2002

If a story is nothing more than a rewritten press release, is it really journalism?

That's the question indirectly posed by an Aug. 8 WorldNetDaily story on Jesse Lee Peterson, the heavily promoted conservative answer to Jesse Jackson. (Conservative talk show hosts Sean Hannity and Dennis Prager and conservative columnist Walter Williams serve on the advisory board for Peterson's group, Brotherhood Organization for a New Destiny, and Clinton scandal figure turned conservative darling Johnny Chung is the group's former director of finances.) Peterson claims he was "booed and jeered" at a conference of black journalists, where he served as a panelist in a discussion on the idea of slaveery reparations. (Peterson, as you might suspect, is opposed.) We know this because Peterson issued a press release saying he did.

WND's Jon Dougherty got a copy, though, and turned it into the aforementioned story. Another slanted lackluster effort, he demonstrates his rewrite skills but little journalistic initiative; every Peterson quote in the story comes straight from his press release. (This kind of enthusiastic embrace of the press release makes WND look more and more like NewsMax.) The only things that didn't come straight from Peterson's press release are a couple quick facts about the black journalists' group that sponsored the discussion and a note that "calls and e-mails seeking comment were not returned" when he tried to contact the group and the person who joined Peterson on the panel.

But WND is never going to go too hard on the guy; not only has it fawningly promoted Peterson's activities, such as his annual "National Day of Repudiation of Jesse Jackson," WND books his speeches and talk-show appearances through its speakers bureau. (Update: Peterson wrote an article on the incident Aug. 14 for WND, but it's essentially an extended version of his original press release. No mention is made of Peterson's Speakers Bureau relationship with WND.)

A story on the same subject in the Washington Times the same day, while it also accepts everything Peterson says without question, makes an effort to go beyond the press release by actually interviewing Peterson, but like Dougherty's piece, there's no corroboration of Peterson's charges and no opposing views to his allegations -- if anything, it manages to present Peterson's views in an even more favorable light than Dougherty does -- though it quotes some Baltimore talk-show host as saying the best way to deal with Peterson is to just let him talk because "he defeats himself" (a statement Peterson is allowed to rebut).

How hard did Dougherty really try to hunt down a view from the other side? Not very. We know this because two days earlier, author and professor Michael Eric Dyson, Peterson's debating partner on the panel, had an op-ed piece in the Chicago Sun-Times about Peterson. (The Times article did quote from the Dyson article, spinning it with the statement, "The attack on Mr. Peterson continued ...")

In that op-ed piece, Dyson engages in the type of harsh rhetoric conservatives believe is the only type of argument non-conservatives are capable of; he starts out by calling Peterson "a self-hating black man who despises black culture and worships at the altar of whiteness" -- and indeed, David Limbaugh adheres to the script perfectly in his Aug. 9 column (which WND runs) by citing that statement as a prime example of "the kind of vilification and scorn" black conservatives "routinely encounter." But Dyson also made the argument, which Limbaugh doesn't address, that Peterson apparently is incapable of an honest debate:

Peterson refused to engage in an intellectual or principled defense of his opposition to reparations. Instead, he relied on the heavy-handed emotional antipathy toward black people. His rambling tirades included ill-formulated assaults on such leaders as Minister Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson, against whom he hosts a ridiculous annual day of repudiation on the King Holiday. ... He was shockingly unfamiliar with many of the ideas, articles, books, arguments and the like that have poured out either for or against his beliefs. As I prodded him to address the issues at hand, he relentlessly and bitterly attacked black ethical failure. ... when I pressed Peterson about his insistence that we view the legitimacy of arguments about reparations through the lens of his twisted beliefs about black moral failure, he could only babble on about how utterly reprobate blacks are.

Dyson is backed up -- something Peterson's statements have yet to be -- by a letter writer to Jim Romenesko's MediaNews, who says that "Peterson wasn't treated like a stepchild, he simply didn't debate the subject."

Limbaugh also does a little twisting of Dyson's words, claiming that his statement that Peterson's brand of "painful self-hatred, and hence, his hatred of other blacks, plays well in certain white conservative audiences" really translates to "some (read: many) white conservatives hate blacks." Huh? Since when does "some" equal "many"?

Finally, Limbaugh claims that "Liberals, black and white alike, are unlikely to criticize or scrutinize – much less psychoanalyze – Jesse Jackson (or other liberal blacks) because he says the right (I mean "the left") things." Yet Peterson is lionized by Limbaugh and conservatives seemingly for little more than being a black guy named Jesse who says the right (we mean "the right") things.

We have no idea what actually happened at that debate before the black journalists' group. The ConWeb doesn't either, because of the unwillingness of writers like WND's Jon Dougherty to go beyond the press release and choosing to be satisified that a slanted, one-source story will serve an employer for whom balanced reporting on its subject might hurt the bottom line. All the ConWeb knows is what Jesse Lee Peterson told them, which isn't journalism at all.

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