Blaming the media is tried and true political strategy in Alabama
For the past week, as media from around the world swarmed the Roy Moore scandal, a question arose again and again.
How, wondered the shoe-leather scribes and studio celebrities, could Alabama’s conservative voters support Moore after a bombshell Washington Post story telling of allegations that the ex-judge pursued and accosted teen girls decades ago?
Sean Sullivan can supply an answer easily and quickly. He’s plugged in with those very voters as host of talk radio shows at 106.5FM in Mobile.
"They had a built-in distrust and they felt it validated and reinforced in the allegations against Roy Moore," Sullivan said, telling of listeners who find it fishy that a sensational story could sit quiet for years, only to be found just a month from election day by The Washington Post.
"They are questioning the timing of this. All these things are suspect," he said.
For journalism professors and former reporters familiar with Alabama, this kind of voter reaction is nothing new. They see parallels stretching back at least to the ’50s as the civil rights movement began to bud out, perhaps even earlier than that.
"It’s a well-established tradition for many Southerners, particularly more reactionary Southerners, to dismiss even the starkest truths when they are revealed by news organizations from outside the South," said Hank Kilbanoff, professor of practice in creative writing and English at Emory University in Atlanta. He is a co-author of the "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation," which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history.
The Washington Post story quoted four named accusers and involved interviews with more than 30 people who said they knew Moore from 1977-1982, when he was a lawyer and prosecutor in small-town Gadsden.
Moore and his U.S. Senate campaign have attacked the Washington Post in recent days, calling the initial story "the very definition of fake news," and have threatened legal action against news organizations including AL.com.
"Why am I being harassed by the media pushing these allegations in the last 30 days of this campaign?" Moore said Tuesday during a speech before a Baptist church conference in Jackson. "That’s all the press wants to talk about. But I want to talk about these issues and where this country is going."
— Howard Koplowitz (@HowardKoplowitz) November 16, 2017
For Quin Hillyer, a conservative writer and former columnist with the Mobile Press-Register, the response to the Moore story by his adherents causes a deeper concern.
"The liberal biases of the establishment media have been obvious for decades, and resented by conservatives and Southerners for decades," Hillyer said. ". Now, with Donald Trump stirring up conspiracy theories about ‘fake news,’ the distrust has turned into widespread, reflexive, unthinking refusal to believe unwanted stories merely and specifically because the stories are broken by establishment-media outlets."
He added, "For many people, it doesn’t matter how well sourced and tightly reported a story is: If it comes from an outlet they don’t like, they refuse to believe it. Completely apart from the Moore story, this is an unfortunate development, both intellectually indefensible and horrible for the health of our civic life."
The struggles between Alabama political leaders and the national press are the stuff of legend and lore. School textbooks throughout the U.S. tell of landmark First Amendment cases arising in Alabama, and offer tales of reporters scouring the state to expose injustices.
The biggest of the court rulings arrived in 1964: New York Times v. Sullivan. There, the U.S. Supreme Court established an "actual malice" standard must be met for public officials to pursue libel lawsuits against the media.
Ironically, New York Times v. Sullivan had nothing to do with a news story. Instead, it dealt with an advertisement paid for by a committee defending Martin Luther King Jr. and soliciting money to pay for his legal fight against an Alabama perjury indictment.
"It was monumentally important … freeing up the press to play the role as not just the chronicler of the events of the day, but as the investigator of the events of the day," Kilbanoff said.
In the early 1960s, New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury wrote a front-page story about police commissioner’s Eugene "Bull" Connor’s aggressive tactics in Birmingham. The Birmingham News, Alabama’s largest-circulation newspaper, shouted back with the headline, "N.Y. Times Slanders Our City – Can this Be Birmingham?"
Connor and other city officials filed libel suits against the Times, and an Alabama court ruled in their favor. But when the federal courts took over the case, a judge determined that Connor was not entitled to damages and declared that Salisbury and The Times had "exhibited a high standard of reporting practices."
By then, national journalists were wary of being seen in the open as they reported on the civil rights movement in Alabama. Karl Fleming with Newsweek and Claude Sitton with The New York Times cut their stenographer pads in half so that they’d be less conspicuous as they jotted notes.
But journalists couldn’t always get away from Gov. George Wallace. Phillip Rawls, a journalism professor at Auburn University and a former longtime reporter at The Associated Press, said Wallace would sometimes point out national political reporters in the crowd, taking them and their bosses to task.
"He did that to me one night at an outdoor rally in Opp," Rawls recalled. "After the rally, he came up to me and joked about his criticism as if he were a professional wrestler hyping his next match."
Rawls said Moore’s strategy is "straight out of Wallace’s playbook." He said, "Moore’s beliefs, particularly on race, are not the same as Wallace’s, but both know what motivates their base to turn out to vote."
Moore has called The Washington Post’s piece an "intentional act" to discredit him. At the University of Alabama, however, associate journalism professor Chris Roberts believes that the Post team did a "pretty solid reporting job."
"We talk in my reporting classes that if you are going to take on something big, you have to kill it," said Roberts. "You cannot wound it. People will complain about it. But I think they came close to killing the bear. They got it. They didn’t pay sources. They got people on the record."
He also noted that a host of national Republicans, in the days after the story surfaced, backed off in their support of Moore’s campaign.
Gene Roberts, a legendary New York Times reporter who covered the happenings in Alabama during the civil rights era and now lives in Maryland, expressed admiration for the carefulness of the Post’s reporting, and for the story’s thoroughness and tone.
"It seemed to be a pretty cautious story going into the background of the women and their family backgrounds," said Roberts, who co-authored "The Race Beat" with Kilbanoff.
As Roberts and others said, the editor at The Washington Post headed up one of the most celebrated investigative journalism teams in recent times: Spotlight.
"There aren’t many newspaper people who movies are made about who are still living," said Roberts, referring to Martin Barron, editor at The Post since 2012.
Barron was editor at The Boston Globe from 2001-2012, and oversaw the coverage of the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal by priests in Boston. The newspaper’s coverage of the scandal was portrayed in the 2015 movie, Spotlight, which won that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture.
Said Roberts, "It was one of the finest and most accurate examples of investigative reporting in modern American journalism."
The Washington Post did not make Barron available for comment. The Post also declined comment on reaction the Moore story has received in Alabama.
One key Moore supporter, Brietbart news chief executive Stephen Bannon, have suggested that The Washington Post story was the inspiration of its owner, Jeff Bezos, CEO of retail giant Amazon. Bezos has spent millions of dollars in support of same-sex marriage, for which Moore has been a strident national voice of resistance.
Bannon, a former White House strategist for President Donald Trump, has also called the national media the "opposition party." And, in fact, many Republicans may share that view, based on the findings of recent polling. The Pew Research Center, in preparing its annual report on media watchdog matters, discovered that Democrats are 47 percentage points more likely than Republicans to express support for the media’s watchdog role. That gap is the largest since Pew began asking the question in 1985.
"One of the sad things — and it’s been going on for 20 years — is that it seems people don’t want information as much as they want affirmation for the views they already hold," said Gary Nordlinger, a professor at the graduate school of political management at George Washington University.
In the Moore case, various conservative media personalities have lined up against the former judge, doubting his denials and explanations for the allegations.
Sean Hannity, the popular Fox News host, gave Moore "24 hours" on Tuesday to explain inconsistencies in his response to the alleged misconduct, or exit the race. Moore responded on Wednesday, and Hannity has since said that Alabama voters should settle the matter at the ballot box.
I lived in Alabama-love the people. THEY will sort through the issues before them and decide. Not DC, McConnell, or Commentators,THE PEOPLE! http://bit.ly/2hINIPF
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) November 16, 2017
Sullivan, the Mobile radio show host, said that Hannity and other conservative media types have had no real impact on the election.
"I don’t think it moves the needle at all," said Sullivan, referring outside-the-state commentators and their views on Alabama politics which includes endorsements. Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin all endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks before the Aug. 15 GOP primary. Brooks finished a distant third behind Moore and Senator Luther Strange.
Sullivan added, "Personally, I’m frustrated by this and these allegations, I take them seriously. No matter what the outcomes is on December 12, I want to know what happened. I think as citizens of Alabama, we want to know what happened."
via Real-Time News from AL.com http://bit.ly/2zzWl2c
November 17, 2017 at 04:32AM