Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Media Matters Fails To Pluck Press Over Chick Fil-A

Press criticism is pretty important these days. Owing to the very poor quality of contemporary journalism, it has become just as important as journalism itself. We need competent, intelligent, thoughtful press criticism now as much as ever.

One of the most prominent press watchdogs in the U.S. is the liberal Media Matters For America (MMFA). Unfortunately, they have, in my view, been falling down on the job lately. Usually rather badly.

A recent example that will help illustrate what I think is becoming a real problem with MMFA's work is a 1 Aug. article by Justin Berrier, "Fox's Campaign To Defend Chick-Fil-A From Its Anti-Gay Record."

Hold that thought; there's quite a bit of backstory here:

In July, Dan Cathy, the CEO of the fast-food chicken chain, had, in a radio appearance, gone on a tirade against gay marriage:

"As it relates to society in general, I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say 'we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage' and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."

For nearly a year, various liberal groups, including Media Matters' own Equality Matters project, had been trying to bring to public attention the fact that Chick Fil-A was funding, to the tune of millions of dollars, some of the worst anti-gay groups in the U.S. The information got to activists. It hasn't made a dent in the mainstream corporate press. Cathy's public comments served to bring the matter to a head. The Jim Henson Company, which had created toys for Chick Fil-A, announced it would no longer be doing business with the chain. A New York activist began urging gays and lesbians to trek to Chick Fil-As around the U.S. and stage a same-sex kiss-in. There were immediate rumblings of a boycott.

Enter Mike Huckabee, the reactionary Fox News host and former Arkansas governor. He declared that Chick Fil-A was "being smeared by vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left" and began a campaign for a "Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day":

"Let's affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick Fil-A on Wednesday, August 1. Too often, those on the left make corporate statements to show support for same sex marriage, abortion, or profanity, but if Christians affirm traditional values, we're considered homophobic, fundamentalists, hate-mongers, and intolerant."

And, of course, huge crowds then turned up to eat the chain's overpriced chicken, producing record profits.

When it comes to critiquing the work of the press, the most important angle here is the virtual press blackout of Chick Fil-A's funding of anti-gay groups. Instead of covering this, the reason why activists were so strenuously objecting to the company, most press outlets explained the protests as merely a reaction against Cathy's comments,[1] the very framing being offered by reactionaries like Huckabee. Largely without rebuttal, Huckabee and many of the conservative and far-right press outlets in the U.S. (which ran with his narrative) were allowed, absent any real rebuttal, to accuse liberals of aiming "hate speech and intolerant bigotry" at Chick Fil-A and whine about being tagged as bigots while pleading for people to support a company that was pouring millions of dollars a year into orgs like the Family Research Council, Exodus International, etc.--hate-groups that portray homosexuals as subhuman, as predatory pedophiles, as mentally deranged people who can be "cured," as people who have no place in society and should be should be made illegal.

The public comments of many Chick Fil-A supporters bear out their lack of knowledge of the relevant info. From the Washington Post:

"Brandon Small, 29, a sales manager for a Largo firm, said, 'This protest [against Cathy's comments] just seems like another form a religious persecution. The owner of Chick-Fil-A wasn’t talking against gay people he was expressing his own views.'"

From the Chattanooga Times-Free Press:

"Because I support traditional marriage does not mean I'm against you," he [customer Bill Baker] said. "For them to take it out of context and say, 'I'm not going to support you because you believe in that' -- there's not a reason to boycott."

A letter to the editor of the Holland Sentinel of Michigan by a Mr. Bob Bruns:

"I don’t read bigotry in his [Dan Cathy's] words. Is this 'hate speech'?"

Do you get the idea that Brandon Small and Bill Baker and Bob Bruns have never heard about Chick Fil-A funding those anti-gay groups? Those sorts of comments from Chick Fil-A supporters were all over the press and internet on "Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day," and in the days that have followed.

Now, it's certainly the case that a lot of the people who turned out at Chick Fil-A just hate homosexuals, and there's no help for them. A lot of them misguidedly thought they were making some sort of religious point. But a lot of them were genuinely unaware of what's really at issue here and it's because the press hasn't told them.

That's something worthy of the attention of any media watchdog. It has, unfortunately, received very little from MMFA. Instead, MMFA's only article on the subject from "Appreciation Day," that Berrier piece I mentioned earlier, focused merely on Fox News covering up the chain's anti-gay giving. MMFA completely ignored the fact that most of the rest of the press was covering up or downplaying this information too. MMFA states, as its mission, correcting right-wing misinformation in the press. The major vehicle by which right-wing misinformation is delivered to the public, though, isn't the relatively sparsely viewed Fox News; it's the mainstream corporate press, the press MMFA has ignored here, the press MMFA has increasingly began to ignore in general in favor of a lopsided focus on Fox. If one wants a grunt, a pig will offer many; going after the Fox gang on such matters is shooting arthritic old fish in a very small barrel. Spending too much time gathered around that barrel is allowing the really big fish--the important ones--to get away. Those at MMFA have, unfortunately, become obsessed with Fox and a handful of other far-right outlets like Rush Limbaugh, to the detriment of their role as a press watchdog.

This needs to change.

--j.

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[1] A few examples: the Associated Press, ABC News, the New York Post. As it served their purpose to do so, a number of the far right's more prominent pundits did everything they could to foster that false notion that the controversy was over Cathy's comments, and turn the whole thing into a matter of "hateful" gays vs. devout conservative Christians. This usually led to defenses of Chick Fil-A that, like Huckabee's, became positively surreal.

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