Falwell outs idiot media

By Steven Martinovich
web posted March 1999

Doubtless you've heard about the brouhaha over Rev. Jerry Falwell's recent remarks about creepy Teletubbies character Tinky Winky. The good reverend reportedly announced last month in the pages of his National Liberty Journal that Tinky Winky was a gay role model because his "voice was obviously that of a boy" and was "carrying a red purse."

"Now, further evidence that the creators of the series intend for Tinky Winky to be a gay role model have surfaced. He is purple -- the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle -- the gay-pride symbol," the item continued.

I came across a report on that NLJ tdibit and the accompanying reaction to it as I was scanning the wires for entertainment stories for the newspaper I work for and laughed at Falwell's gaffe. Do what you will, but I believe as soon as a cultural conservative attacks a television program they are simply courting trouble.

The story refused to die because Falwell kept getting whacked over the absurdity of ascribing a sexual orientation on a character from a children's television program, and during that whole time something kept bothering me. Then it hit me.

I had seen Tinky Winky outed before and on no less than CNN Interactive. In early January, while I was on Christmas vacation, I saw a report on the web site on one of those dreary and inevitable year-end "In/Out" lists. After going back and digging the story up, I found that the august Washington Post had declared lesbian comedian Ellen Degeneres "out" and "Tinky Winky, the gay teletubby" as "in."

A little more research -- something that Associated Press reporter David Reed apparently forgot how to do -- turned up within minutes the piece wasn't even written by Falwell, a fact that he later confirmed through a press release.

"Dr. Falwell has never seen the teletubbies' TV program. Dr. Falwell has never commented in any way on the teletubbies. He did not 'out' Tinky Winky," stated the release.

"NLJ Senior Editor J.M. Smith wrote a 'parents' alert' in the NLJ February issue. Editor Smith wrote an excellent warning to parents about monitoring what their children watch on TV. He did not attack the teletubbies or call for a boycott of the teletubbies. He simply documented information that had already been reported in Time, People, the Washington Post, CNN, E-Online and other national media over the past year."

So why did NLJ's 'revelation' on Tinky Winky's supposed sexuality got heavy press while The Washington Post got a pass? Steven Rice, a spokesman for Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Co., which licenses the show in the United States, may have hit on the reason without even knowing it. Responding to the NLJ piece, Rice opined that Falwell's apparent attack was nothing more than an attempt to further his own conservative agenda. A protein rich target that the media could hardly ignore.

And it makes sense right? Falwell had recently put his foot squarely in his mouth with the announcement that the Antichrist was likely already treading the Earth (my guess is somewhere in New Jersey) and was a Jewish male. After that public relations fiasco, who wouldn't believe that Falwell was attacking a children's television character over perceived homosexuality?

Personally, I found the story behind the story more interesting and it's summed up in two words: media credibility.

The media's coverage of the teletubbies turmoil in a teacup illustrated exactly why the public is so distrustful of the so-called gatekeepers of freedom. According to a three-year study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the decline in public trust over the past few years is marked, and for several good reasons.

The ASNE's Journalism Credibility Project found that, among other reasons, the public saw too many factual errors in stories and were suspicious of bias in media stories -- liberal bias to be specific.

A vast majority of the 3 000 polled in 1998, some 68 per cent, believe that newspapers run stories without checking them "just because other papers have published them" while 73 per cent of respondents were skeptical of news accuracy.

When it came to bias, 78 per cent said that it did exist, while 50 per cent agreed that some groups get a break when it comes to media coverage. Proving its validity, the study found that the 17 per cent who thought there was no bias in the media tended to be, and hold on for this: poor, ignorant, idle Democrats. Surprise, surprise!

"There were also odd, singular answers given to this open-ended survey question as well -- such as respondents who suggested that 'egg-sucking-dog liberals' and 'devotees of what's politically-correct' are beneficiaries of overly-favourable coverage...get advantageous coverage. While some journalists might find these sentiments amusing, there's a powerful colloquial voice in these kinds of phrases -- one that's particularly important given the high percentage of respondents that could volunteer an answer to this kind of question," said ANSE in their December 1998 report.

That bias, said the society, comes because the public believes that there is a lack of impartiality in reporting and an intent to persuade.

When these two beliefs are taken into account, how can ANSE find it hard to believe the public is exasperated of a media which has tried to sell us nerve gas use in Vietnam, stories questioning Chiquita Brands International's business practices written with stolen voice mail, the Boston Globe's Mike Barnacle and Patricia Smith for lying in their stories, the firing of New Republic associated editor Stephen Glass after his editors discovered that he had lied about material in his stories, and the countless examples of poor reporting during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal?

As St. Petersburg Times columnist Philip Gailey wrote recently, if the news were a consumer product, the public would have demanded a recall because of shoddy service.

"[W]hen we fabricate quotes and names, when we traffic in rumors and unsubstantiated charges, we risk losing the credibility that is an essential bond with our readers and viewers. We can live with our honest mistakes, but we can't fulfill our role as a vital check on abuses of government and other institutions if we compromise our credibility with irresponsible and dishonest journalism."

What Gailey means is that the public is tired of catching the media in lies, lies and more lies. The public is tired of playing the role of the student to the media's teacher. The public has had enough of shoddily researched stories. His fear of compromised credibility comes too late. If the media cannot be relied upon to get the minor facts correct in a story -- like the Falwell episode -- how can they expect any greater trust when it comes to the important issues of the day?

Related link:

Why Americans hate the media - Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings tell how they would watch American soliders die for a story

Steven Martinovich is a journalist and the editor of Enter Stage Right. He can be reached at editor@enterstageright.com

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