Oct 1 2002

When Conservatives Smear, Pundits Duck

Why the Washington Times got away with an NEA hoax

A smear campaign against the National Education Association reveals the state of modern-day agit-prop, in which conservative groups feel free to spread ugly slanders, and an increasingly indolent mainstream press corps barely raise a finger to challenge ugly attacks.

The smear began on August 19, with a front-page article in the Washington Times by that paper’s Ellen Sorokin. According to Sorokin, the NEA would soon post a website containing lesson plans about September 11 that would advise teachers to “take a decidedly blame-America approach;” she singled out a quote advising teachers to avoid “suggesting that any group was responsible” for the September 11 attacks. She quoted critics who charged that the NEA lessons “can be seen as an affront to Western civilization,” and that they “defend all other cultures except Western civilization.”

When the NEA site went on-line the next day, it became clear that all of the specific quotations Sorokin cited to make her case had been drawn from a single essay, to which the NEA website provided a single obscure link. (Unmentioned by the Times were far more prominent links to speeches by George W. Bush, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, etc.) The essay cited in the article had originally come from the National Association of School Psychologists, and it made its message perfectly clear: “Explain that all Arab-Americans are not guilty by association or racial membership.” Few would disagree with that notion, but conservative were already claiming that the NEA was telling teachers not to blame Al Qaeda for last year’s attacks.

“The liberal hold on our education system amounts to a kind of moral disarmament of the nation,” asserted Mona Charen (Baltimore Sun, 9/2/02). George Will (Washington Post, 8/25/02) declared the NEA and its ilk “a national menace.” “The folly of the NEA is staggering,” pronounced U.S. News & World Report‘s John Leo (9/9/02).

In a rational world, Sorokin’s charges would have been quickly shot down–but we live in a world increasingly driven by conservative propaganda. Instantly, her distortions spread through the world of talk radio and cable “news” networks. And the Washington Times kept the pressure on; as the week progressed, Sorokin wrote two follow-up, page-one articles (8/20/02, 8/24/02). Each promoted the absurd idea that the NEA was a shill for Al Qaeda.

These ugly attacks on the NEA have continued to the present day, even in a series of brainless cartoons in the comic strip “Mallard Fillmore.” But what was most striking about this campaign? The craven refusal of mainstream pundits to challenge these foolish attacks.

It certainly wasn’t hard to see through Sorokin’s charges. Indeed, on the evening of her first attack, Robert Kuttner of American Prospect guested on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor. Kuttner laid it right on the line. “I would say the column in the Times is about the most dishonest piece of journalism I’ve read in years,” he said. Kuttner described in detail what was wrong with Sorokin’s charges. “This is just a completely trumped-up hoax of a charge,” he said.

But Kuttner was one of the few major pundits to challenge the burgeoning smear job. (Libertarian Cathy Young, writing in the Boston Globe–9/2/02–was another exception, as was New York Times education reporter Richard Rothstein–9/4/02.) Although the attacks on the NEA were widely repeated in conservative channels, few mainstream pundits made any attempt to clear up the obvious facts.

Increasingly, citizens of the center and left live in a world of conservative agit-prop. It’s easy to blame the familiar targets for the smear jobs which come from the right. In this case, for example, the Washington Times presented charges that are simply impossible to square with the facts.

But moderates and progressive need to be clear about why these campaigns are so successful. In this case–as in many others–the silence of our mainstream lambs allowed the Times’ slanders to spread. E. J. Dionne? Al Hunt? Michael Kinsley? All of them took a pass on this sliming. Nor did media reporter Howard Kurtz discuss the smear campaign–either in his Washington Post column or on CNN‘s Reliable Sources.

Increasingly, the men and women of our mainstream press corps refuse to take part in our actual discourse. An ugly campaign slimed the NEA. Mainstream pundits? Mark them “absent.”