Last week, a Washington Times blogger posted a call to arms, beseeching readers to help the newspaper dig up more information regarding a long list of arts organization representatives who took part in a conference call with the White House on August 10. The call was part of a National Endowment for the Arts initiative, and it's a conference call that was secretly taped and has been wildly overhyped in conservative media circles as some sort of linchpin in a larger criminal enterprise being run out of the White House to politicize the arts. (There's no evidence the August 10 conference call broke any laws.)
Still, the Times was asking for help. It wanted readers to search through a spreadsheet it posted that included names of the arts representatives who participated in the NEA conference call. The Times wanted readers to snoop around online -- doing some crowdsourcing -- and find out everything they could about the arts reps.
In theory, of course, online dirt-digging and sleuthing makes perfect sense and represents a new era of participatory journalism embraced by the Internet. Josh Marshall and his reporting team at Talking Points Memo, for instance, famously used crowdsourcing to track policy positions of members of Congress during the debate over Social Security in 2005. Readers also chipped in and helped rifle through thousands of pages of memos that the Bush White House dumped at a time when the U.S. attorney scandal was widening. Thanks to Marshall's readers, TPM was able to tease out all sorts of interesting news leads.
Note, however, who the targets of TPM's crowdsourcing were: members of Congress and other major players in the federal government. Marshall urged his readers to monitor politicians and to read through government documents while focusing on people in power who are expected to be held publicly accountable.
But The Washington Times' disturbing call to arms? The paper wanted its readers to find out all they could about private citizens who work at little-known arts organizations and whose only connection to the spotlight was that they were invited to dial in to a conference call.
Times blogger Kerry Picket assured readers, "The people on the call didn't necessarily do anything controversial or wrong." Yet look at the kind of dirt Times readers were urged to dig up about the arts reps. Had they:
- Been active in Democratic politics?
- Made any campaign donations recently?
- Blogged for The Huffington Post?
- Believed in the 9-11 "Truther" conspiracy theory?
The obvious odor of Red Scare-era snitching that hung over the Times' wrongheaded project was too much to take even for some loyal conservative readers. Wrote one Times reader in the comments section:
As a Republican, this story makes me sick to my stomach. What is this? A witch hunt? McCarthy is back? As someone who lived through that, I am saddened to see the Washington Times engage in this type of behavior. STOP ACTING LIKE THIS. They are private citizens. I am a VERY proud Republican, but this is not who we are.
But increasingly, this is who conservatives have become. They've become a mindless mob, and the right-wing media, more and more often, are sending their overeager foot soldiers out on seek-and-destroy missions involving private citizens. They're even targeting innocent schoolchildren, like the group of second-graders in New Jersey that became a right-wing (mob) object of disgust last week after an old YouTube clip surfaced that showed the students singing a song in honor of the president of the United States. (You're supposed to recoil in horror at the mere suggestion of such a thing happening in America.)
The reason the Times' crowdsourcing bulletin was so misguided, and possibly even dangerous, was that the people the newspaper was urging to go digging for dirt were, by and large, the same type of people who are packing pistols at anti-Obama rallies, parading around with Hitler posters, and claiming the POTUS wasn't born in America. Meaning the right-wing mob, which suddenly decided last week that the NEA represented all that is evil in the world, is not all that stable and should not be setting its crooked sights on private citizens.
Again, original research and citizen journalism are both laudable pursuits. But in the hands of right-wing radicals who exhibit very little common sense and even less common decency, the witch hunts of peripheral players, including now-regular attempts to target children, no longer represent journalism in any recognizable sense. Instead, they're just unsettling -- and dangerous -- attempts at mob rule. They're a way to send a signal that anybody who is even marginally involved in public discourse can suddenly become a target of the mob. And then, all bets are off.
This trend of targeting private citizens is not new. But it has become more pronounced in recent weeks and months, as collective Obama hatred has pushed the GOP Noise Machine to ignore the boundaries of fair play. (Like posting the possibly stolen contents of somebody's Rolodex.)
The growing obsession with singling out children for mob ridicule is especially troubling. Recall in early August, it was an 11-year-old girl who became the object of right-wing taunts after she had the audacity to stand up at an Obama town hall and ask the president a question. Busted! The kid wasn't participating in public democracy. Instead, the mob called her out as a shifty, "in-the-tank questioner."
Fox News quickly channeled the blog attacks and posted this headline [emphasis added]:
White House Says Girl with Campaign Ties Chosen at 'Random' to Speak at Obama Town Hall
Campaign ties? The girl was in elementary school! How could she have had "campaign ties"? The only "tie" was that her mom was an Obama donor and supporter in 2008, a fact quickly discovered when right-wing bloggers began scouring Facebook photos and friends lists, as well as FEC filings, in search of info about the girl's mother, a "political hack." Why? To unmask the girl's "campaign ties," of course.
In other words, her mom did what a few million other Americans did last fall, yet in the eyes of Fox News, Michelle Malkin, and the mob leaders, that suddenly meant the woman's daughter had "campaign ties"? And for right-wing bloggers, that meant the kid was fair game for ridicule? That meant that, of course, she deserved to be mocked as a "leftist plant." (The caped crusaders online never unearthed a single fact suggesting that the young girl was coached on her question or that Obama knew what it would be before he called on her. By "plant," the mob simply meant the schoolgirl was the daughter of a Democrat, as if that were news or even relevant.)
The right wing's latest attack on children was even more astonishing. Fresh off her humiliating claim that 2 million people showed up at the September 12 anti-Obama rally in Washington, D.C., (she was only off by 1.9 million), Malkin urged readers to wallow in disgust over the fact that 18 New Jersey 7-year-olds sang a song in honor of the new president.
Directly and indirectly, the second-graders were attacked as being "creepy," "Obama-worshipping drones" and cultish members of the "Hitler Youth." Why? Because they sang a song during Black History Month that honored the accomplishments of America's first black president. The whole thing was "sick," the hate mob announced.
Why so sick? Because it was just like what Hitler did! (Again with the Hitler fetish from the far-right fever swamp?)
[W]hen those of us who study history see videos like the one below, it chills us to the bone. It is decidedly reminiscent of the indoctrination techniques that took place in 1930s Germany.
That's right: A massive, mandatory, state-run indoctrination initiative implemented by a fascist German dictator was just like when a single school teacher in New Jersey independently, without the slightest involvement from the government, decided to teach second-graders a song about Obama. The comparison is almost too dumb for words. And am I the only one who thought the story would have worked as a pseudo-scandal only if the kids were videotaped singing the praise of another country's president? But in the loopy world of right-wing media, it's disgusting and disgraceful and cultish when kids today sing the praises of the president of the United States.
Welcome to Bizarro World, where patriotic schoolkids are now the enemy.
The whole senseless attack was painfully dumb and misdirected and represented a shocking invasion of the schoolchildren's privacy. But the mob had selected its target, which meant that the conservative media had to play along and hype the tale as incredibly important and potentially dangerous. In a desperate attempt to attach some drama to the story about kids who sang nice things about the president, FoxNews.com posted this ominous headline and subhead:
Elementary School Students Reportedly Taught Songs Praising President Obama: Nearly 20 young children are captured in an online video as they sing songs that overflow with campaign slogans and praise for "Barack Hussein Obama," as they repeatedly chant the president's name and celebrate his accomplishments. [The original headline can be seen in the page's URL.]
"Captured." Like, the little elementary schoolkids were trying to pull a fast one, but the news hounds at Fox busted them good! The comedy was that by "captured," Fox meant some parent or teacher taped the kids and put it on YouTube, like four months ago. But in the hands of Fox, the kids had been captured.
Mob rules, indeed.
But whenever the right wing ignites the crazies, it's no laughing matter. And in the case of the "sick," "creepy" second-graders signing up for duty in the "Hitler Youth," predictably, after much breathless snooping, the name of the offending elementary school was indentified and its phone number was posted online. And just as predictably, threats of violence began to pour in.
According to a Fox News online report:
The tension at B. Bernice Young Elementary School escalated to such a degree Thursday that the school was placed temporarily on lockdown after its principal received death threats over a YouTube video that showed nearly 20 children being taught songs lauding the president, though back-to-school night events continuing as planned Thursday night at the school.
Ironically, the Fox report was quickly scrubbed, and any mention of looming right-wing mob violence was edited out of the news story. Editors at Fox News can erase all the unseemly mentions of death threats they want, but when right-wing mobs online are whipped into a frenzy and sent out to attack private citizens, they always leave a mark.
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