Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PACK JOURNALISM....After reading yet another article about University of Colorado nutjob Ward Churchill in the LA Times this morning, I began to wonder. How did this story get so much play? I mean, the guy's an obscure academic in Boulder, and the "Roosting Chickens" paper that created all the flurry was written three years ago. What gives?

The short answer is twofold: it's the result of both the agenda-setting power of the right wing outrage machine and the agenda-setting power of the New York Times. According to Nexis, here's how the story developed.

On January 26, a local newspaper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, wrote about Churchill's upcoming visit to nearby Hamilton College. The paper quoted Hamilton art history professor Steven Goldberg saying that it was "morally outrageous" to bring Churchill to campus. On the same day, AP distributed a short dispatch about the controversy.

On January 27, the conservative New York Post picked up the story and Joe Scarborough mentioned it on his cable talk show.

On January 28 it led Bill O'Reilly's program. After telling his audience that free speech has its limits "I can't subject my audience to irresponsible ravings," he said, apparently without a trace of irony O'Reilly declared that Churchill didn't deserve to be an American citizen and then suggested that he should be arrested for sedition.

On January 29 the right-wing Washington Times called Churchill a fascist.

On January 30 the Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune Review weighed in.

Then, on January 31, the New York Times devoted a thousand words to the controversy. At that point, a story that had been mostly confined to wire services, local media outlets in Syracuse and Colorado, and right wing provocateurs, went mainstream.

Within the next three days stories appeared in the Seattle Times, Philadelphia Daily News, New York Sun, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Deseret Morning News, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Kansas City Star, Detroit Free Press, CNN, NPR, and the CBS Evening News. Richard Cohen reported that O'Reilly's segment had resulted in over 6,000 letters and emails, including death threats, to the president of Hamilton College.

It's fascinating how a trivial story like this managed to spread so far, isn't it? The right wing machine pushed, the New York Times responded, and then the rest of the press followed. Within days, the previously insignificant Ward Churchill had become a household name and a virtual poster boy for lefty nihilism based on something that no one on either the left or right had cared a whit about in the three years since he wrote it. Truly an object lesson for us all.

UPDATE: In case you're curious (and who wouldn't be?), I did a Nexis search on Ward Churchill all the way back to 9/11/2001. Sure enough, there's only one mention of his "Roosting Chickens" paper in the entire time between then and now: it was in the Burlington Free Press in December 2001, reporting on a small rally of peace activists at which Churchill spoke.

And guess what? It turns out that even Vermont peaceniks didn't sympathize with his views. "It's clearly not our position at all, and it's unfortunate it came out now," said one organizer after learning about Churchill's essay. "What he said is so completely at variance with what we believe," said another. "We do not want to see a growing movement for peace derailed by the views attributed to a speaker," said yet another. As Free Press columnist Sam Hemingway put it, "One thing's sure: UVM and the people responsible for sponsoring his visit to Burlington don't support what he wrote about the victims."

Churchill's a real lefty icon, isn't he?

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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