‘Media’s First Instinct Is to Strip Ideology From the Conversation’

29 August 2017 — FAIR

Janine Jackson interviewed Adam Johnson about Charlottesville for the August 18, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

MP3 Link

Fascists march in Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally (cc photo: Tony Crider)

(cc photo: Tony Crider)

Janine Jackson: The spectre of white supremacists marching with guns and torches, throwing KKK salutes, and screaming about Jews and Commies is a test for Americans, individually and institutionally, and we’re still seeing how various folks are responding. One of the primary institutions that should be asking themselves some questions right now are corporate media. Trouble is, the press being among the most sacred of cows for the press, how likely are we to see serious consideration of their own role? Not just Fox News, which aired a video of cars driving into protestors in January, with instructions to viewers to “study the technique,” but, say, CBS, whose CEO Les Moonves joked that Donald Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” a line that has yet to be seriously interrogated by media elites.

Joining us now to talk about corporate media’s coverage of the white supremacist rally and its aftermath is Adam Johnson. He is analyst for FAIR and host, with Nima Shirazi, of the podcast Citations Needed. He joins us now from a taxi. Welcome to CounterSpin, Adam Johnson.

Adam Johnson: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JJ: People are bristling over Trump’s “blame on all sides” line, but it’s hard not to notice how that kind of echoes corporate media’s own forced evenhandedness. And in this case, that started from the very beginning, with the language that was used to describe the act of James Fields ramming his car into other cars and into human beings.

FAIR.org: For Media, Driving Into a Crowd of Protesters Is a ‘Clash’

FAIR.org (8/12/17)

AJ: Very early on, you saw a very suspicious, agency-less language about how “one died, 20 injured after clashes in Charlottesville.” It’s a way that you launder responsibility. It’s a very odd and awkward form of grammatical formation, so it’s stark when you read it. A guy ran a car into a crowd of people and killed one person. And to say that “one person died after clashes” is a way of, again, removing agency and removing who did what to whom. It’s a very curious way of phrasing it.

In a similar vein, you also saw the repeated use of the car as some kind of autonomous, or kind of Knight Rider entity. So, for example, in the editorial in the Washington Post, they said, “that car did not just ram into 20 people,” so. And of course the car didn’t ram into people, Fields ran into people, a person ran into people, and, you know, a Nazi sympathizer, a Nazi terrorist. Whatever more loaded term you want to use would probably be far more accurate than the idea that the car, again, was somehow autonomous or itself racist.

Some people would say, OK, well, it’s a legal issue, or they don’t want to, you know—that what the word “allegedly”’s there for, and the term is used all the time when it comes to African-Americans suspects, as we’ve written before.

JJ: Right. Well, so then Trump has this press conference about how, you know, you can’t just assume that a person carrying a torch and screaming “Jews will not replace us” is some sort of supremacist. But then, also, “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, alt-right, do they have any semblance of guilt?” Isn’t that line, in maybe just a more edumacated version, also something that we’re seeing in the media? What’s the alt-left?

AJ: The alt-left is something that was originally used by Sean Hannity, but it was quickly adopted, either indirectly or directly, from centrist and liberal pundits to smear, typically, Sanders supporters, or people that were not—it was kind of three categories: It was the Sanders constituents who were, you know, kind of mean online. It was also used for people who opposed intervention, in the narrative in Syria; you actually saw a lot of it used from the likes of Michael Weiss, Nick Cohen, would use it to smear people who didn’t fall in line in the “Assad must go” camp. And then the third thing was, it’s used for Antifa and a lot of the anarchists and leftists who were out protesting or directly combatting, if you will, white supremacists. And so it kind of just became this catch-all for “anyone to the left of Hillary Clinton I don’t like.”

JJ: And language is so important. I mean, the opposite of Nazi is not-Nazi, you know. But if you use “alt-left” and “alt-right,” there’s a definite implication that you’re talking about people whose views are equivalent or a counterbalance, right?

Adam Johnson of FAIR

Adam Johnson: “You were drawing moral equivalence between people who wanted free healthcare and people who wanted to eliminate the Jewish race.”

AJ: “Alt” effectively became a fascist or a Nazi qualifier, but to use “alt-left,” you were basically saying that they were morally equivalent. There’s really no other excuse to use that that way. It was done in a kind of reactionary, lazy way, right? Because they needed a shorthand to replace “Bernie bro.” I mean, once the primaries started blowing out at around July to August of last year, they had to have a replacement, because you couldn’t just call anyone “Bernie bro” anymore. So there needed to be a new pejorative for people who were to the left of Hillary Clinton, and “the alt-left,” because it was so charged and so lazy and so convenient, was just mindlessly adopted, without appreciating that what they were in fact doing was creating this “both sides” thing. You were drawing moral equivalence between people who wanted free healthcare and people who wanted to eliminate the Jewish race.

JJ: I got an email yesterday from Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally, in which he flat out declared that the protestors, the ones with the torches and the metal poles and the guns, held zero responsibility for violence: The violence is entirely due to the police failure to protect them from counterprotestors. That’s his line and he’s sticking to it. Now, I don’t know what’s in his head, or this guy Christopher Cantwell, releasing a video of himself weeping about what a peaceful guy he is, though he’s on tape saying, “I’m carrying a pistol, I go to the gym all the time, I’m trying to make myself more capable of violence.” It becomes, who do you believe, me or your lying eyes? But as long as corporate press can be relied on to say that the truth is in the middle, to triangulate, it’s going to be a strategy. It’s a winning strategy for the right to make as wild a claim as they can.

AJ: Yeah, because the media in general, and this is obviously a generalization, but their first instinct is to strip ideology from the conversation. Whereas one ideology is genocidal, one ideology is anti-genocide, well, let’s split the difference. And you see this a lot with the use of the word “fascist.” They’ll say, well, you know, some people say there’s fascists on the left. Well, fascist doesn’t mean people that are mean. Fascist doesn’t even mean people that are violent. Fascist is a specific ideology which traffics in eugenics and racial superiority. Again, “people who are mean to me on the internet” is not the same thing as a Nazi or a fascist.

And people who don’t really have a hard ideology, which a lot of people in media don’t—I mean, they do in the sense that they don’t think they do, but they don’t have one they can sort of pinpoint and locate—they view all kinds of aggression and all kinds of violence as the same, as morally the same. And what Trump was doing was simply an extension of the kind of narrative the media themselves have been engaging in. It was just jarring to hear someone say it who you assumed was saying it because they were soft-pedaling Nazism. But, again, the argument he was making was not really much different than the one that had been made by liberal centrists since the beginning of these large right-wing rallies that we’ve been seeing emerging in the Trump era.

Washington Post: An Honest Conversation About Race Is Not Allowed

Washington Post (8/14/17)

JJ: Let me ask you, finally, about what we’re expecting to see going forward. I know that one thing I kind of knew was coming, and then there it was right away, was a column in the Washington Post, “An Honest Conversation About Race Is Not Allowed,” and it’s by this guy who’s a publisher of the Times Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio. And he says, “Racism, the belief that an entire race of people is inherently inferior or superior to another race of people, is abhorrent.” And then he goes on to say, “By contrast, simply disagreeing with affirmative action programs or supporting a crackdown on crime or wanting to rein in government spending on domestic programs or opposing sanctuary cities is not racism.” And I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of that.

AJ: Yeah, this is the kind of literal-minded argument that Bill O’Reillys always make when they say, I’m not against Mexicans, I’m just against illegal immigration, which ends up, of course, not being true, because now Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump are going after legal immigration, so that whole facade is out there. Of course, things like sanctuary cities and clamping down on welfare are usually deeply racially charged, and he’s acting all Pollyanna-ish, like, you know, aw, shucks, I can’t believe it. This is the literal-minded bullshit that the kind of non-overt racist and the Republican Party was doing for years, of course, and I think everyone sees through it. It’s a shame that they’re giving these people voices.

But it’s the equivalent of, you come over to my house and you open the fridge and I say, have whatever you like, and you take the ice cube trays. Of course there’s subtext to language, of course there’s meaning to these things. The poll taxes in the Jim Crow South—that was the same argument they used, right? And it was the idea that, oh, we just want to make sure that they pass the citizenship test. OK.

And then the New York Times is rushing to give Erick Erickson his spot—he used the term “alt-left” the day before the president did.

JJ: I take hope in the fact that you think folks are seeing through this at this point. We’re going to be seeing people say, “Oh, the thing that I’ve been saying all along, my anti-poor, anti-immigrant, pro-incarceration—that’s very different, because you’ve never seen me carrying a torch.” But you think folks are smarter than that?

AJ: Not to use too Marxist of a term here, but I think the tensions are really highlighted here. Right? The cracks in the system are exposing themselves, and I feel like the people who’ve been dog whistling all these years are starting to become more overt. Now you still have the Mitt Romneys in the world, who want to make sure that we talk in the appropriate code. But I think people know or are seeing how the Republicans are responding to Trump, which is basically to kind of shrug and send subtweets, and I think their cowardice is being exposed. And, of course, by not saying anything, they’re a party to it. Hopefully that will galvanize more people on the left moving forward.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with FAIR analyst Adam Johnson. He’s also host of the podcast Citations Needed, and he’s on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC. Adam, thanks very much for talking with us this week on CounterSpin.

AJ: Thank you.

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