If you were in the presence of a man having a heart attack, how would you respond? As he clutched his chest in desperation and pain, would you call 911? Would you try to save him from dying? Of course you would.
But if that man was Rush Limbaugh, and you were Sarah Spitz, a producer for National Public Radio (update: Spitz was a producer for NPR affiliate KCRW for the show Left, Right & Center), that isn’t what you’d do at all.
In a post to the list-serv Journolist, an online meeting place for liberal journalists, Spitz wrote that she would “Laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out” as Limbaugh writhed in torment.
In boasting that she would gleefully watch a man die in front of her eyes, Spitz seemed to shock even herself. “I never knew I had this much hate in me,” she wrote. “But he deserves it.”
Spitz’s hatred for Limbaugh seems intemperate, even imbalanced. On Journolist, where conservatives are regarded not as opponents but as enemies, it barely raised an eyebrow.
In the summer of 2009, agitated citizens from across the country flocked to town hall meetings to berate lawmakers who had declared support for President Obama’s health care bill. For most people, the protests seemed like an exercise in participatory democracy, rowdy as some of them became.
On Journolist, the question was whether the protestors were garden-variety fascists or actual Nazis.
“You know, at the risk of violating Godwin’s law, is anyone starting to see parallels here between the teabaggers and their tactics and the rise of the Brownshirts?” asked Bloomberg’s Ryan Donmoyer. “Esp. Now that it’s getting violent? Reminds me of the Beer Hall fracases of the 1920s.”
Richard Yeselson, a researcher for an organized labor group who also writes for liberal magazines, agreed. “They want a deficit driven militarist/heterosexist/herrenvolk state,” Yeselson wrote. “This is core of the Bush/Cheney base transmorgrified into an even more explicitly racialized/anti-cosmopolitan constituency. Why? Um, because the president is a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama. But it’s all the same old nuts in the same old bins with some new labels: the gun nuts, the anti tax nuts, the religious nuts, the homophobes, the anti-feminists, the anti-abortion lunatics, the racist/confederate crackpots, the anti-immigration whackos (who feel Bush betrayed them) the pathological government haters (which subsumes some of the othercategories, like the gun nuts and the anti-tax nuts).”
“I’m not saying these guys are capital F-fascists,” added blogger Lindsay Beyerstein, “but they don’t want limited government. Their desired end looks more like a corporate state than a rugged individualist paradise. The rank and file wants a state that will reach into the intimate of citizens when it comes to sex, reproductive freedom, censorship, and rampant incarceration in the name of law and order.”
On Journolist, there was rarely such thing as an honorable political disagreement between the left and right, though there were many disagreements on the left. In the view of many who’ve posted to the list-serv, conservatives aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. And while journalists are trained never to presume motive, Journolist members tend to assume that the other side is acting out of the darkest and most dishonorable motives.
When the writer Victor Davis Hanson wrote an article about immigration for National Review, for example, blogger Ed Kilgore didn’t even bother to grapple with Hanson’s arguments. Instead Kilgore dismissed Hanson’s piece out of hand as “the kind of Old White Guy cultural reaction that is at the heart of the Tea Party Movement. It’s very close in spirit to the classic 1970s racist tome, The Camp of the Saints, where White Guys struggle to make up their minds whether to go out and murder brown people or just give up.”
The very existence of Fox News, meanwhile, sends Journolisters into paroxysms of rage. When Howell Raines charged that the network had a conservative bias, the members of Journolist discussed whether the federal government should shut the channel down.
“I am genuinely scared” of Fox, wrote Guardian columnist Daniel Davies, because it “shows you that a genuinely shameless and unethical media organisation *cannot* be controlled by any form of peer pressure or self-regulation, and nor can it be successfully cold-shouldered or ostracised. In order to have even a semblance of control, you need a tough legal framework.” Davies, a Brit, frequently argued the United States needed stricter libel laws.
“I agree,” said Michael Scherer of Time Magazine. Roger “Ailes understands that his job is to build a tribal identity, not a news organization. You can’t hurt Fox by saying it gets it wrong, if Ailes just uses the criticism to deepen the tribal identity.”
Jonathan Zasloff, a law professor at UCLA, suggested that the federal government simply yank Fox off the air. “I hate to open this can of worms,” he wrote, “but is there any reason why the FCC couldn’t simply pull their broadcasting permit once it expires?”
And so a debate ensued. Time’s Scherer, who had seemed to express support for increased regulation of Fox, suddenly appeared to have qualms: “Do you really want the political parties/white house picking which media operations are news operations and which are a less respectable hybrid of news and political advocacy?”
But Zasloff stuck to his position. “I think that they are doing that anyway; they leak to whom they want to for political purposes,” he wrote. “If this means that some White House reporters don’t get a press pass for the press secretary’s daily briefing and that this means that they actually have to, you know, do some reporting and analysis instead of repeating press releases, then I’ll take that risk.”
Scherer seemed alarmed. “So we would have press briefings in which only media organizations that are deemed by the briefer to be acceptable are invited to attend?”
John Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic, came down on Zasloff’s side, the side of censorship. “Pre-Fox,” he wrote, “I’d say Scherer’s questions made sense as a question of principle. Now it is only tactical.”