Magazine | October 1, 2012, Issue

The Dumbest Anchormen

Or do they willfully slander Republicans?

‘It’s anchorman, not anchorlady — and that is a scientific fact!”

That’s Champ Kind talking, a prominent member of the award-winning Channel 4 news team in the film Anchorman. While I might “earn” a “partly true” from the fact-checkers if I were to say the film was based on a true story, the reality is it’s an absolutely ridiculous comedy that always makes me laugh. Set around a San Diego local-news show in the 1970s, Anchorman follows a male-chauvinist news team as it grapples with the turmoil that comes with admitting a female broadcaster into their midst.

But the plot’s not really relevant for our purposes here. What brings the film to mind is one of the comic devices deployed from beginning to end: Everyone takes himself completely seriously even as he says the most ludicrously unserious things. All of the characters, led by Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy (the anchorman referenced in the title), have no idea they’re idiots and blowhards even as they boldly assert nakedly untrue or ridiculous things.

For instance, when the station manager explains that many of the affiliates have been “complaining about a lack of diversity on the news team,” the staff is flummoxed.

“What in the hell’s diversity?” Kind asks.

Ron Burgundy helpfully chimes in. “Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.” His colleagues nod like professors in the faculty lounge informed of the latest findings.

Later, when the team is coming unglued at the prospect that their boys’ club will admit women, and Champ Kind is quoting the “scientific fact” that it is “anchorman, not anchorlady,” another colleague helpfully notes that bears have been known to be attracted to women at certain times of the month. “Bears can smell the menstruation.”

“Well, that’s just great,” Brian Fantana, the news team’s crack reporter, says to the station manager. “You hear that, Ed? Bears. Now you’re putting the whole station in jeopardy.”

Later in the film, when Burgundy is squiring Veronica Corningstone, his new female co-anchor, around San Diego, he drives her to the cliffs above town to show her the view. “Mmm. San Diego. Drink it in, it always goes down smooth. Discovered by the Germans in 1904. They named it ‘San Diego,’ which of course in German means ‘a whale’s vagina.’”

Corningstone responds, “No, there’s no way that’s correct.”

This time, Burgundy comes clean. “I’m sorry, I was trying to impress you. I don’t know what it means. I’ll be honest, I don’t think anyone knows what it means anymore. Scholars maintain that the translation was lost hundreds of years ago.”

“Doesn’t it mean ‘Saint Diego’?” asks Corningstone.

“No. No,” Burgundy confidently responds.

“No, that’s — that’s what it means. Really.”

“Well. Agree to disagree,” Burgundy replies in a rare moment of conciliation.

Why am I bringing all of this up?

Let me answer that question with a question: What’s the difference between Chris Matthews and Ron Burgundy? Answer: One is a pompous, self-absorbed, often-in-error-but-never-in-doubt blowhard impervious to facts and logic. The other has a really bushy mustache.

Ron Burgundy believed that “San Diego” was German for a whale’s lady parts; meanwhile, Matthews seems to believe that “Chicago” is English — or at least Republican English — for “den of panhandling negroes.” By now you’ve probably heard about the exchange on MSNBC between New York magazine’s John Heilemann and Matthews in which the two worked out the hidden code in Republican politics. “They keep saying ‘Chicago,’” Matthews said. “That’s another thing that sends that message — this guy’s helping the poor people in the bad neighborhoods, screwing us in the ’burbs.”

#page#Heilemann nodded, adding, “There’s a lot of black people in Chicago.”

Indeed there are. Though it’s worth noting that the Windy City is still more white than black. Its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who just happens to have been Obama’s chief of staff, isn’t particularly dark-skinned. Oh, and Barack Obama, the incumbent president, launched and built his entire political career in Chicago, a city synonymous with cutthroat machine politics for more than a century. And it’s where the Obama reelection headquarters are. Countless white reporters at the New York Times, NBC, NPR, the Washington Post, and elsewhere use the term “Chicago” as a shorthand for the Obama campaign. But when Republicans say “Chicago” (which few did at the Republican convention, by the way), there can be no doubt: It’s a stand-in for the N-word.

Never mind that the charge that Obama is a big-city liberal who wants to redistribute more wealth from the haves to the have-nots is actually true. I could recycle all of Obama’s quotes about fairness and spreading the wealth around. I could walk you through the food-stamp numbers under Obama and the increased progressivity he wants in the tax code. I could even present selections from The Audacity of Hope. But that’s the problem. That would be racist, too. Because the key factor in determining whether something is racist is whether it is inconvenient to Barack Obama.

When MSNBC got an advance copy of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s convention speech, the network landed another scoop. “For four years,” McConnell planned to say, “Barack Obama has been running from the nation’s problems. He hasn’t been working to earn reelection. He has been working to earn a spot on the PGA Tour.” A fool might think this a not-exactly-veiled reference to the fact that Barack Obama plays a lot of golf, more than 100 rounds since he was elected. But MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell is no fool.

Asked what he made of the line, O’Donnell confidently replied, “Well, we know exactly what he’s trying to do there. He’s trying to align . . . the lifestyle of Tiger Woods with Barack Obama.”

Martin Bashir asked O’Donnell whether he really believed that. Couldn’t McConnell just mean what he said?

O’Donnell went into full eye-roll mode. “Martin, there are many, many, many rhetorical choices you can make at any point in any speech to make whatever point you want to make.” According to O’Donnell, McConnell’s speechwriters chose the golf reference because “these people reach for every single possible racial double entendre they can find in every one of these speeches.”

Bashir, who for a moment gave the impression of neural activity, was convinced. “Wow,” he exclaimed. “Things are getting lower and lower by the day.”

When Robert Welch of the John Birch Society insisted that Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist, Russell Kirk famously retorted, “He’s not a Communist, he’s a golfer.” Thank goodness no one knew back then that Kirk was calling Ike a sexually promiscuous half-black man.

What O’Donnell says about Republican speechwriters strikes me as a near-perfect example of projection. It’s not that McConnell’s speechwriters are reaching for “every racial double entendre they can.” But O’Donnell, Matthews, et al. are. It’s a hallmark of the paranoid style. The Birchers, for instance, acted as though all it took to prove a Communist conspiracy was to mention one. Something analogous goes for the “dog whistlers” who hear coded messages in everything, even when the intended recipients don’t. (Indeed, it seems lost on so many of the experts that the Romney campaign’s whole strategy of trying to woo former Obama voters to their side is at odds with the racism thesis. After all, people who’ve already voted for a black guy probably aren’t all that racist in the first place.)

#page#Not everyone in the press is so Ron Burgundyesque. Tom Edsall, one of the more esteemed members of the fourth estate, a former Washington Post reporter and now a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, penned a long analysis for the New York Times blowing the lid off Romney’s race-baiting campaign. “The racial overtones of Romney’s welfare ads are relatively explicit,” he writes. The dictionary on my computer says “explicit” means “stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt.” Oddly, if you watch Romney’s welfare ads, there’s no mention of race in any way. Edsall must have a different dictionary. He then writes that the racial messaging in Romney’s Medicare ads is “a bit more subtle.” In those ads, Romney charges — accurately — that Obama raided Medicare to pay for Obamacare.

Aha! But Medicare recipients, Edsall notes, are “overwhelmingly white.” Which is true! The health-care entitlement for the elderly goes mostly to white people. You know why? Because the over-65 demographic is overwhelmingly white. And therefore what? Democrats have been demagoguing Medicare — “Mediscaring” — for nearly half a century. It’s only when Republicans turn the tables on them that the press suddenly discovers that defending Medicare is really a sop to geriatric white nationalists. Or something.

A more subtle — and traditional — effort to racialize the GOP at convention time is to note “the sea of white faces” watching the speeches from the floor. And while it’s true that the GOP delegates are awfully pale compared with Democratic convention-goers, it’s difficult to find an example of a reporter’s referring to the rigid racial-, ethnic-, and gender-quota system that goes a long way toward producing Democratic audiences that “look like America.” And whenever the Republicans gave prominent speaker slots to minority or female Republicans, the reflex was to discount their participation as so much window-dressing (on the first night of the Republican convention, MSNBC cut away to its resident race-baiters whenever a non-white was speaking). Shouldn’t those who claim to be concerned about the GOP’s attitude toward minorities celebrate such outreach? Why is (alleged) tokenism among Republican speakers so contemptible but tokenism among Democratic attendees so unremarkable?

In one of the most memorable scenes in Anchorman, Brian Fantana explains that his cologne is so effective with the ladies that “60 percent of the time, it works every time.” This seems to be the standard adhered to by another branch of the press corps: the fact-checkers. These self-appointed arbiters of all truth have become an invaluable resource for reporters and liberal columnists too weary to do their own research or make their own arguments. Instead, they simply cite a fact-checker’s conclusion as if it were dispositive. It’s a strange practice. If I were to write a column that said “Joe Shmoe says Barack Obama killed a man in Reno just to watch him die” and then proceeded to act as if that were all the proof required, it wouldn’t pass muster with anyone. But if Joe Shmoe had deputized himself with a construction-paper badge that said “fact-checker,” all of a sudden his opinion would be metaphysical truth.

#page#Paul Ryan has been the most prominent victim of the fact-check schtick. A particularly odd form of madness overtook the so-called mainstream media the night Ryan gave his acceptance speech in Tampa. From the outside, it looked like the establishment political press was receiving Obama campaign tweets straight through their fillings: Ryan was a liar! “The verdict,” reported the Washington Post, “rendered by a slew of media fact checkers, was immediate and unequivocal: In his first major speech before the American people, the Republican vice presidential nominee repeatedly left out key facts, ignored context and was blind to his own hypocrisy.” Really? The fact-checkers diagnosed Ryan with blindness to his own hypocrisy? That’s a neat trick.

The only problem: Everything Ryan said was true. Nearly every charge of lying boiled down to Ryan’s not raising counterarguments favorable to Obama — a standard not normally applied to politicians, and certainly never considered the litmus test for truth-telling. Notoriously, Ryan noted that in 2008 Obama suggested that an auto plant in Ryan’s district that was scheduled for closure would stay open for 100 years if he was elected. The fact-checkers and Obama campaign surrogates immediately cried foul: The plant, they said, actually closed under Bush! But the AP ignored its own (accurate) reporting on the plant’s closing in 2009 in order to make its “fact check” as damning as possible. The second problem: Ryan’s point was not that Obama’s prediction was factually wrong, but that Obama over-promised. That’s what Obama does: Fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly, Obama needs to promise the moon. The fact-checkers opted to twist Ryan’s point into something he wasn’t saying, and then charged him with lying for saying it.

More recently, a Washington Post fact-checker waded into a debate over Barack Obama’s stance on abortion. After a long and convoluted discussion, the fact-checker conceded, reluctantly, that yes, Obama did oppose legislation that would protect babies who survived abortions. Obama has denied this and accused anyone who says otherwise of lying. But rather than give Obama a poor score, the fact-checker punted: “The evidence suggests we could have awarded Four Pinocchios [their worst score] to the former Illinois Senator for his comments . . . but that interview is several years old now, and it’s not the focus of this particular column.”

How convenient! The Post can’t even identify Obama by name as the politician deserving of the dreaded four scarlet “P”s. He’s merely the former Illinois senator who deserves to be called a liar about his support for infanticide — but we’re too sleepy to bother.

What makes media bias so infuriating is not its existence but the stubborn refusal of the guilty parties to admit it. It’s all part of the larger con of American liberalism, which sees itself as immune to ideology, on the side of facts and logic and all things “pragmatic.” The mainstream press simply won’t admit the obvious, reality-based truth: They are a de facto arm of American liberalism. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, it’s not “the media,” it’s the liberal media — and that is a scientific fact.

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