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White Sheets and Red Herrings

NewsMax plays the race card by repeatedly dredging up Robert Byrd's long-past association with the Ku Klux Klan.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 1/28/2005

Want to know just how intellectually and journalistically bankrupt NewsMax is? Here's a couple for numbers for you.

Type in "Byrd and Klan" into the NewsMax story archive, and it returns 116 items. And a search for "Robert 'KKK' Byrd" brings up 201 results.

Rather than debating anything Sen. Robert Byrd has to say on its merits -- you know, like normal, thinking people do -- NewsMax would rather bring up his long-ago association with the Ku Klux Klan for the umpteenth time. "Robert 'KKK' Byrd" is NewsMax's favorite reference to him.

NewsMax has been resorting to this kind of non-argument for years -- anything to avoid mounting a logic-based defense of bad behavior by Republicans. It didn't start, however, when you'd think it would have -- after a March 2001 interview in which he referred to "white niggers." A March 4, 2001, NewsMax article seems to accept Byrd's apology for making the remark, if only because he used part of that same interview to criticize Bill Clinton. In NewsMax's eyes, Clinton-bashing makes up for a multitude of sins.

In August 2002, trying to whitewash the failing campaign of Bill Simon for California governor against the hated Gray Davis, NewsMax cited "Byrd's Ku Klux Klan past" as one item on a laundry list of alleged Democrat scandals to distract the conservative faithful from the $78 million jury verdict handed down against Simon's investment firm. And NewsMax noted radio host Sean Hannity's hammering away at it in September 2002.

When Trent Lott got into trouble in late 2002 for saying America would have been better off if then-segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected in 1948, One equivocating measure NewsMax undertook (besides deliberately misinterpreting Washington Sen. Patty Murray's comments about Osama bin Laden) was reviving Byrd's past. NewsMax insisted he never apologized for his Klan membership in one article, and called him "America's most famous former Ku Klux Klansman" in a another, adding: "If he were a Republican he would have been forced out long ago - by Republicans and Democrats." Well, no -- NewsMax is confusing (deliberately, it can be assumed) long-ago actions for current events. A Dec. 21, 2002, story credited to " Wires and" (read: NewsMax doctored a UPI wire story) about the Lott case states: "Democrats with similar or worse records on race – such as former Senate Democrat leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a former Ku Klux Klansman ... escaped the frenzied media and bipartisan onslaught that ensued."

Thereafter, if the Klan could be worked into any action Byrd took (and even if it couldn't, as evidenced by the 201 references to "Robert 'KKK' Byrd), NewsMax did just that. Thus, we have a May 2003 story in which Lott's replacement as Republican leader in the Senate, Sen. Bill Frist, "suggested that Byrd's criticism ... of President Bush's decision to visit the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln last week [scene of the infamous "Mission Accomplished" sign] was tainted by his former membership in the anti-black hate group." What does Byrd's long-ago Klan affiliation have to do with commenting on the conduct of the Iraq war? The story never elaborates on the connection. Perhaps they were bored and just got tired of slapping around Clintons.

Another May 2003 article by resident Catholic priest Michael Reilly made the following plea for the politics of personal destruction: "Republican leaders need to make ferreting out the details of Byrd's Klan past a top priority." Even disgraced pundit Armstrong Williams -- another beneficiary of NewsMax's liberal-equivocation-for-conservative-misbehavor service -- joined the fun in an April 2004 column, offended that a fellow senator dared to praise "a former Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan" for the racially insensitive act of casting his 17,000th vote in the Senate. "Some things should not be explained away," Williams thundered.

An April 2004 Associated Press article reprinted at NewsMax contradicts that December 2002 article claiming Byrd never apologized by stating that "Byrd has repeatedly apologized for his brief KKK membership."

The Senate confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state, however, reignited NewsMax's Byrd-bashing passion. NewsMax's original articles never address what Byrd has to say about Rice but immediately accuses him of racism anyway and, of course, interjects the Klan into it.

The fun for NewsMax starts on Jan. 20 with an article headlined "Ex-Klansman Blocks Condi's Confirmation" that recounts Byrd's Klan history as well as the "white nigger" remark (in a much less forgiving tone than back in 2001; perhaps it forgot about the Clinton-bashing that made Byrd more palatable then). Another article the same day by Steve Malzberg claimed that Byrd's decision to delay Rice's confirmation "was seen by many as an insult to the first black woman ever appointed secretary of state" (Malzberg never says who these "many" are) and cited Byrd's "long history of public racism." Another Jan. 20 article quotes conservative Niger Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality calling Byrd "a non-reformed Dixiecrat today."

A Jan. 26 story gets a juvenile charge out of spreading copious Klan references among Byrd's comments that he was "dismayed" that his motives in opposing Rice have been questioned, noting: "The one-time night rider didn't specifically address concerns that his opposition to Rice was based on racism." You can almost hear the snickering among the boys at NewsMax from here.

The piece de resistance, though, is a Jan. 25 story gives Jesse Lee Peterson a few more seconds of fame. Showing off what he learned at the Mychal Massie School of Inflammatory Yet Irrelevant Punditry, Peterson is quoted thusly:

"Though he claims to have dropped his Klan robe and now sports a suit, his actions prove that he's still the same old racist Byrd," the Rev. Peterson told NewsMax. "We're calling on all Americans to repudiate this modern-day Bull Connor."

How intellectually bereft are NewsMax conservatives that they must dig up the musty corpse of a violent segregationist rather debate the merits of the issue at hand -- namely, whether Rice lied to Congress and the public about the rationale for the Iraq war, as some Democrats have claimed? The answer is: quite.

Interestingly (well, maybe "unsurprisingly" would be more appropriate), we saw no similar attacks by NewsMax on that other former segregationist senator, Strom Thurmond. Paul Weyrich, in a December 2002 column defending Lott, referred to Thurmond as merely "an aged, retiring senator who has always been a consistent anti-Communist." Anti-communism, like anti-Clintonism, trumps racism. The harshest word columnist and radio host Mike Gallagher had for Thurmond's "Dixiecrat past" was "regrettable." Another December 2002 column, by Paul Craig Roberts, tried to make the case that Thurmond's 1948 ticket was more about "state's rights" than segregation, adding that "Sen. Lott's tribute to Sen. Thurmond is easily defended on principled constitutional grounds." And a Byrd-bashing 2002 NewsMax article details Sean Hannity going to great lengths to make the point that Thurmond wasn't in the Klan.

Alas, such is life at NewsMax. Logic and consistency and fairness and good journalism matter naught; red meat for the faithful is all, even if it means dissecting dead horses in order to serve it.

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