Dirty Air


Presidential politics brings out the worst in both liberal and conservative media, each sometimes willing to trample the truth while self-righteously accusing the other side of doing the very same thing.

Examples are numerous, but two within a recent 24-hour period are particularly illuminating.

The syndicated right-wing radio host Bill Cunningham devoted a lengthy interview to a writer who claims that Barack Obama's successful memoir, "Dreams From My Father," was secretly written by the notorious Chicagoan William Ayers. Meanwhile, on MSNBC, left-leaning Keith Olbermann interviewed a writer who claims that Sarah Palin's private residence in Alaska was built as a favor by contractors who worked on Palin's pet project, the Wasilla sports complex.

If there's any truth to either story, it wasn't apparent in the on-air ranting. Both media camps have turned their broadcasts into crusades - and sometimes, it seems, facts only get in the way.

Cunningham, you may recall, caused a flap last February when he introduced John McCain at an Ohio rally by repeatedly referring to his opponent as "Barack Hussein Obama" while also railing against alleged media bias.

"I absolutely repudiate such comments," McCain said later. "It will never happen again." Of course it has continued at McCain rallies, and with great frequency on Cunningham's national radio program.

On last week's show, a writer named Jack Cashill advanced this view: "The public is asked to believe Obama wrote 'Dreams From My Father' on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant. I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all." Cashill first unveiled his theory on the "American Thinker" Web site, where he concluded: Obama's best-seller was secretly ghost written by Sixties radical Willaim Ayers.

With Cunningham egging him on, Cashill detailed how Ayers' own book, "Fugitive Days," compares to "Dreams From My Father" on the Flesch Reading Ease Score. According to Cashill, the books "tabulate nearly identically"; also, "the average sentence length" is 23.4 words for Obama's book and 23.6 words for Ayers' book.

That, Cunningham told listeners on over 300 radio stations, is "objective evidence" that Obama's book was written by "the unrepentant terrorist, William Ayers."

It was hardly "evidence" and certainly not "objective," but it was better than what was offered the following night when another writer, Wayne Barrett, was the guest on MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann." In his opening tease, Olbermann told viewers: "Investigative journalist, Wayne Barrett now asks, 'Did the contractors who built Wasilla's sports complex help build Palin's house for free?'"

Later in the show Barrett talked about an article he wrote in "The Village Voice " - a lengthy piece, in which Palin's house is barely mentioned. Despite Olbermann's eager questioning, Barrett had absolutely no evidence of any impropriety concerning the construction of Gov. Palin's house, and certainly nothing to remotely support the notion that she received it "for free."

Barrett's only shred was that a construction firm called Spenard worked on both projects, and that Spenard, according to Barrett, "also is one of the sponsors of Todd Palin's snowmobile race team."

"Isn't it odd," said Barrett, "that (the Palins) decided to build their own first home in the year that she was running, for the first time, for statewide office?"

The vacuousness of Barrett's report was stunning - almost equal to Olbermann's enthusiasm for a would-be anti-Palin revelation.

For years, liberals have complained, justifiably, about the influence of powerful conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Cunningham. Gradually that influence has been countered by progressive radio offerings such as those on the Air America network. On cable, the conservative chorus of Fox hosts Hannity and Bill O'Reilly has been muted somewhat by MSNBC's liberal lineup featuring Olbermann and the spinoff program now hosted by rising star Rachel Maddow.

The problem with all these op-air broadcasters is that they don't seem to see in their own presentations the very shortcomings they so vehemently criticize in their opponents. Olbermann obsessively attacks O'Reilly each night - while promoting an agenda that is often just as skewed.

These broadcasters are practicing what has become ends-justify-the-means journalism. Sometimes the agendas are so contrived that it's hard to distinguish the commentators from the candidates and their campaigns.

As the election nears, the air war may be playing to a draw, with each side determined to drown the other out. Regrettably, it's producing more noise than news.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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