Counterfeit Journalism and Journalists: the Wisconsin Case of Ian Murphy’s Call to Governor Scott Walker

–Richard E. Vatz

There is a major difference between journalists who are reasonably honest brokers and those who distort their opponents’ positions or who leave out major arguments of those with whom they disagree. I wrote recently on this blog regarding the intellectual dishonesty of the indisputably brilliant New York Times’ Paul Krugman regarding the Wisconsin public-employee union-Governor Walker dispute.

There are also those opinion-writers who ignore dishonesty not just in argument, but also in the pseudo-journalism utilized in acquiring information, including pseudo-journalism performed by non-journalists. Granted, though, ill-begotten information may include valid evidence despite its source.

The counterfeit interview by “Buffalo Beast” blogger Ian Murphy, who fraudulently claimed to be billionaire David Koch, a major contributor to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, is one in which Gov. Walker responds with mild tough talk about public unions and Wisconsin Democratic senators to his interlocutor, whom he assumes to be major donor Koch. “Koch” is profane and provides provocative, low-class sniggering, apparently trying to entice Gov. Walker to respond in kind.

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A Rorschach test for pundits, the dishonest call earned Murphy the admiring label on CNN of “The Most Intriguing Person of the Day,” an honor bravely criticized by Howard Kurtz of the same network and the blog “Daily Beast” (no relation to Murphy’s blog). In addition the interview was hailed repeatedly on MSNBC as revelatory of Gov. Walker’s under-the-veneer wolf’s clothing and worse.

On the other hand, Ezra Klein, The Washington Post’s liberal blogger, wrote honestly, “To Walker’s credit, he doesn’t say anything incriminating. When Murphy/Koch offers to plant demonstrators, Walker declines. The worst you can say is that when Murphy/Koch makes a lewd comment about Mika Brzezinski, Walker doesn’t challenge him on it. But that portion reads to me as Walker politely grunting in response to an odd provocation. I imagine politicians are pretty good at gently moving the conversation along when their contributors say crazy things.”

That is exactly right: when politicians beholden to contributors do not speak up to announce their own objection to consistently over-the-top rhetoric, it is because they think they are stylistically and sometimes morally superior to their tasteless supporters — and they are. They could be purer than thou, but that may well sacrifice the support.

Are there times when supporters go so far that such professed outrage is called for despite the consequences? Yes, but not when they swear or slightly exaggerate the evil of their common adversaries.

Mr. Klein provides one significant criticism of Gov. Walker, that “The state’s Democratic senators cannot get Walker on the phone…” but “David Koch” can. Sorry, but that is hardly political news; probably this is Mr. Klein’s concession to his Democratic supporters.

Is Gov. Walker heroic in his conversation with “David Koch?” No. Is he in the top ten percentile of politicians with integrity?

You bet. And Ezra Klein is not heroic in his honesty either, but he is in the top ten percentile of honest, if misguided, journalists (his JournoList misjudgment notwithstanding).

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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