Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Media Matters Fails To Pluck Press Over Chick Fil-A

Press criticism is very important these days. In many ways, owing to the very poor quality of contemporary journalism, it has become more important than journalism itself. We need competent, intelligent, thoughtful press criticism now as much as ever.

One of the most prominent press watchdogs in the U.S. is the liberal Media Matters For America (MMFA). Unfortunately, they have, in my view, been falling down on the job lately. Usually rather badly.

A recent example that will help illustrate what I think is becoming a central failing of MMFA's work is an Aug. 1 article by Justin Berrier, "Fox's Campaign To Defend Chick-Fil-A From Its Anti-Gay Record," the debunking of which is a noble enough subject.

The backstory: In July, Dan Cathy, the CEO of the fast-food chicken chain, had, in a radio appearance, gone on a tirade against gay marriage:

"As it relates to society in general, I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say 'we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage' and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."

For nearly a year, various liberal groups, including Media Matters' own Equality Matters project had been (mostly fruitlessly) trying to bring to public attention the fact that Chick Fil-A was funding, to the tune of millions of dollars, some of the worst anti-gay groups in the U.S. Cathy's comments served to bring the matter to a head. The Jim Henson Company, which had created toys for Chick Fil-A, announced it would no longer be doing business with the chain. A New York activist began urging gays and lesbians to trek to Chick Fil-As around the U.S. and stage a same-sex kiss-in on 3 Aug. There were immediate rumblings of a boycott.

Enter Mike Huckabee, the rather brainless Fox News host and former Arkansas governor. He declared that Chick Fil-A was "being smeared by vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left," and began a campaign for a "Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day":

"Let's affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick Fil-A on Wednesday, August 1. Too often, those on the left make corporate statements to show support for same sex marriage, abortion, or profanity, but if Christians affirm traditional values, we're considered homophobic, fundamentalists, hate-mongers, and intolerant."

And, of course, huge crowds then turned up to eat the chain's overpriced chicken, producing record profits.

The most important angle on this story, insofar as press criticism is concerned, is the virtual press blackout of Chick Fil-A's funding of anti-gay groups. Chick Fil-A was pouring millions of dollars a year into orgs like the Family Research Council, Exodus International, etc.; groups that portray homosexuals as subhuman, as predatory pedophiles, as mentally deranged people who can be "cured," as people who should be made illegal. Those trying to bring this to public attention had beaten the drums about it for nearly a year, but, being liberal groups, they couldn't even pay for coverage from most of the corporate press. That's something worthy of the attention of any media watchdog. It has, unfortunately, received very little from MMFA.

Even after the Henson Company and Huckabee became involved in the matter and blew it into a significant story, Chick Fil-A's critics still couldn't get the time of day from most of the press. Some press attention to the chain's funding activities would, among so many other things, have put Huckabee's comments regarding Chick Fil-A's critics into perspective--he accused liberals of aiming "hate speech and intolerant bigotry" at Chick Fil-A, and whined about being tagged a bigot, in the middle of a plea for people to support a company that funds hate-groups that are essentially fascist in nature. Rather than explain the matter to the public, much of the corporate press either allowed to stand the inference that everyone was making such a fuss only over Dan Cathy's comments, or directly proferred that as the source of the controversy.[1] This virtual blackout of any detailed coverage of Chick Fil-A's activities meant practically no one outside of activist circles even knew why various groups were really objecting to Chick Fil-A in the first place.

The public comments of many Chick Fil-A supporters bear out their lack of knowledge of the relevant info. From the Washington Post:

"Brandon Small, 29, a sales manager for a Largo firm, said, 'This protest [against Cathy's comments] just seems like another form a religious persecution. The owner of Chick-Fil-A wasn’t talking against gay people he was expressing his own views.'"

From the Chattanooga Times-Free Press:

"Because I support traditional marriage does not mean I'm against you," he [customer Bill Baker] said. "For them to take it out of context and say, 'I'm not going to support you because you believe in that' -- there's not a reason to boycott."

A letter to the editor of the Holland Sentinel of Michigan by a Mr. Bob Bruns:

"I don’t read bigotry in his [Dan Cathy's] words. Is this 'hate speech'?"

Do you get the idea that Brandon Small and Bill Baker and Bob Bruns have never heard about Chick Fil-A funding those anti-gay groups? Those sorts of comments from Chick Fil-A supporters were all over the press and internet on "Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day," and in the days that have followed.

Now, it's certainly the case that a lot of the people who turned out at Chick Fil-A just hate homosexuals, and there's no help for them. A lot of them misguidedly thought they were making some sort of religious point. But a lot of them were genuinely unaware of what's really at issue, here, and it's because the press hasn't told them.

Media watchdogs like MMFA should highlight this. Instead, MMFA's only article on the subject from "Appreciation Day" focused merely on Fox News covering up the chain's anti-gay giving. MMFA completely ignored the fact that most of the rest of the press was covering up or downplaying this information, too. MMFA states, as its mission, correcting right-wing misinformation in the press. The major vehicle by which right-wing misinformation is delivered to the public, though, isn't the relatively sparsely viewed Fox News; it's the mainstream corporate press--the press MMFA has ignored, here, as it has largely come to do in general lately. If one wants a grunt, a pig will offer many; going after the Fox gang on such matters is the ultimate in laziness. Shooting arthritic fish in a very small barrel. Those at MMFA have, unfortunately, become obsessed with Fox and a handful of other far-right outlets (like Rush Limbaugh), to the detriment of their role as a press watchdog.

This needs to change.



[1] A few examples: the Associated Press, ABC News, the New York Post.

As it served their purpose to do so, a number of the far right's more prominent pundits did everything they could to foster that false notion that the controversy was over Cathy's comments, and turn the whole thing into a matter of "hateful" gays vs. devout conservative Christians. This usually led to defenses of Chick Fil-A that, like Huckabee's, became positively surreal.


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