Thursday, April 28, 2011

Where Have You Gone, Glendolyn Beck? Joe Farah Turns His Lonely Eyes to You

Right-wing publisher Joseph Farah made headlines again for making things up. It's not much of a surprise, falling on the predictability axis somewhere around finding out that Lindsay Lohan was arrested behind a Tony Montana-sized pyramid of blow, or that Ben Roethlisberger forced entry to her house and then her pants. Friends of the site might remember Farah as the man behind both the ultra-conservative website World Net Daily and the idea that the birther rappers Wolverines weren't a total embarrassment.

What makes the current revelation about Farah's willingness to make shit up singular is that he boasted about it to a mainstream blogger who was in the process of trying to establish the parameters of World Net Daily's dishonesty in a published piece. Salon reporter Justin Elliott had already written about how Donald Trump's claims that Barack Obama had spent over $2 million to fight lawsuits from birthers weren't true, then turned his attention to the source of those claims, to further debunk Trump and whomever was spreading them.
Trump's claim was based on a series of stories on the right-wing and Birther news outlet, WorldNetDaily. I emailed WND editor and CEO Joseph Farah 90 minutes before my story was published to ask if he thought Trump's comments were accurate, and whether WND had evidence to back it up. After my piece came out, Farah angrily emailed me to take issue with my characterization of WND as "a discredited birther website." Our subsequent email exchange — in which Farah acknowledged that WND publishes "some misinformation by columnists," which he claimed all opinion journals do — is telling for what it says about the standards of one of the most influential news websites on the right.
I really recommend you go read the article, if only for the ample sources of previous made-up-hilarity from WND (including links to a Photoshopped picture that allegedly proves Obama wasn't somewhere, despite the fact that the person manipulating it forgot to matte out Obama's knee).

Farah's crowing about the standards of his own online newspaper damn himself and it for three reasons: contempt, his essential admission that even he acknowledges his own paper's regular illegitimacy, and bad, bad timing. The last is harder to explain, but the first two are fairly easy. In fact, the contempt part is glaring.

During their exchange, Farah admits to Elliott that WND publishes errors and then simply "disappears" them without correction or notification — even, indeed, without re-editing the scrubbed articles to remove contextual clues pointing to excised content — attempting to have their cake of provocative lies that seep into the discourse, while eating it, too, thus removing all accountability for falsifying whatever occurs to them. Elliott continues:
I asked Farah if it is standard practice at WND to remove major sections of stories without any correction. To which he responded:
How long have you been in this business, punk? My guess is you were in diapers when I was running major metropolitan newspapers. You call what you wrote a news story? You aren’t fit to carry Chelsea Schilling’s laptop.

(Chelsea Schilling is the WND staffer who wrote the stories on which Trump's "$2 million" falsehood is based.)
A dedicated person could write an entire essay on how this reply neatly encapsulates the GOP media machine's usually unspoken violent disdain for anyone who challenges its veracity.

Lies aren't bad things of themselves but rather the levers that pinheaded little journalistic shits use to hoist themselves out of the ground and spoil the sunlight with their presence. Lies are things decent people feel that it's sometimes necessary to tell, to effect positive change that will save America, because it's the only way heartland morons will learn better. Leo Strauss said so, and he was a conservative who taught at a liberal university anyway, so you know it has to be true. The real vermin are the people who notice lies, who ruin good things with their flashcard minds and dictionary-fondling fingers. Try this approach on your own sometime. Screw a cocktail waitress, come home stinking of her perfume and confront your wife. When she asks you what you've done and you say, "I played racquetball with disadvantaged children," smile broadly. When she points out that you have a hickey on your neck, and that your upper lip and chin stink of a woman's crotch, level a damning finger at her and say, evenly, "TATTLETALE," then lock her out of the house. No judge would dare rule against you, because everyone knows that correcting others is a nosypants dick move.

This hostile attitude only compounds Farah's legitimacy problems. You have to be a serious student of journalism history to find publishers and managing editors willing to commit this level of epistolary abuse on the record, and most of them have been dead for nearly a century. Serious journalists don't call other people "worms" for the simple reason that it makes them look bad and calls into question the probity and wisdom of the organs they manage. These last factors don't matter only when they're none of your concern as a contributor to the discourse. What Farah tacitly admits via comments like these is that WND has no interest in appealing to a general audience as a legitimate news source: this is the sort of bullying "fuck you" that rallies a base unconcerned with facts and whomever might be asking questions about them. It tells anyone who doesn't already subscribe to WND that it's basically Huffington Post for people whose hatred of the opposition's enthusiasms extends even to reading.

That's all fine, really, because Farah isn't a serious journalist anyway. Sure, he might have looked like one at one point — he could have had the right kind of fedora and notepad, decades ago, when his mustache was culturally acceptable — but his connection to the practice of legitimate news now comes only from the empty signifier of resumé and nothing of actual practice. He can attempt to browbeat Elliott with lines like, "My guess is you were in diapers when I was running major metropolitan newspapers," but even a cursory check of Wikipedia deflates the claim and produces an ugly farting noise.

He was the editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Sacramento Union, two journalistic afterthoughts and also-rans of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He helmed the former after it already departed on its final calamitous voyage, converted into an afternoon newspaper long after they served little market purpose — as if the best way of taking on Airbus were by trying to corner the Zeppelin industry. But even the timing of his stewardship offers a sad commentary, like finding out he gained his Hindenburg acting-captaincy after the guy with the official hat and epaulettes noticed static electricity and zip-lined out of the doomed gas-wang on a mooring rope.

As for the latter newspaper, it was a rich-guy vanity project, an attempt to carve out a readership with a right-wing "alternative" rag with little understanding of their market. The Sacramento Bee is a quality newspaper, but it's a sober and mostly centrist organ. Needing a conservative alternative to it is like needing to create a GOP version of Harry Reid. That only makes sense to people who are illiterate, and in any case, they won't be buying your product. This last condition put them in good company with almost everyone else. Thus, while Justin Elliott lolled around some rec-room in diapers, it was Farah who was busy shitting the bed a second time, running into the ground the second of two metropolitan newspapers that nobody with the faintest familiarity with journalism would describe as "major."

Now, maybe it's unfair to rely on memory and Wikipedia to write the above two paragraphs, but the gesture wouldn't be lost on Farah. It was he, after all, who ardently defended a bureau chief who made unsourced birther edits to Wikipedia, then wrote a deranged article about a Wikipedia conspiracy to silence birther claims — including the oppression of one noble and completely unrelated birther who had an IP address identical to the chief's but, like, a totally different username.

Perhaps this seems like piling on, but Farah and World Net Daily's credibility problems are chronic instead of sporadic. Following the cratering of his "major" metropolitan newspapers, Farah co-founded the Western Journalism Center, which like all right-wing centers of its ilk provides less of an alternative political take on journalism than a political alternative to journalism itself. (Do not confuse this with the National Journalism Center, which serves the same purpose, and includes Cliff Kincaid amongst its luminaries.) The WJC went on to become a key player in Richard Mellon Scaife's "Arkansas Project," which produced murky literature and murkily filmed documentary reenactments that "proved" the Clintons:
a. murdered Vince Foster and faked his suicide; and
b. had a special branch of the Arkansas State Police that murdered Clinton mistresses and Whitewater investors, then left their bodies in cars parked on railroad tracks to fake their suicides.
By 1999, Farah and WND had moved on from Foster and Whitewater to claim that Clinton fabricated the Y2K virus to shut down the United States and leave it deactivated and defenseless in time for a United Nations invasion force that would install him as dictator for life and usher in one-world government. And here you thought all those articles from The Onion about Decision 2000 were fictional.

Because Farah spits contempt unlike any image of a respectable publisher, and because his claims of Charles Foster Kane-like news dominance are contradicted by a journalistic record of failure and a total want of credibility, the inevitable question is: "Is Joseph Farah crazy?" To anyone who's seen the Wolverines video, the answer would almost have to be yes, but that also seems too simple.

Remember late 2009, when the New York Times and Salon ran long profiles on Glenn Beck and the blogosphere reversed course? Prior to that, Beck was a raving lunatic, a sobbing madman best left to the remainders of the John Birch Society. Suddenly stories appeared of his incredible competitive drive to win the ratings battle for morning radio shows; he had four books on the bestseller list, a nationally touring stage act and the best ratings for a news-resembling television program. Either Beck was a clever media manipulator, or it was comforting to believe him so. The book on Beck needed revising; he had to be dealt with shrewdly. Then a year passed. He hemorrhaged advertisers; none of his foretold apocalypses came to pass, and his ratings plummeted so hard they took him off television. What, then to make of Farah, a man whose career for two decades can be summarized as the insane in pursuit of the imaginary, yet one that's somehow produced an influential and profitable website?

As much as it might seem crazy to spend part of the 1990s claiming that Bill Clinton murdered people, it makes a basic sense within the narrative of Democrats as Marxist-Leninist micromanagers of humanity unconcerned with the value of life. Moreover, such conspiratorial claims soothed the sudden conservative wounds inflicted by losing a presidential election for the first time in 12 years. The ugly undercurrent of far-right scurrility helped to feed a national conservative concept of the Clintons as usurpers (who won only via a three-way plurality) who dismissed the concerns of "Real America," even to the point of dismissing its living value. From using renegade police as a state death squad to using the UN as a national one is really only a matter of degree. If anything, Clinton's ascension to the presidency afforded him a step up in terms of the scope of murder and the clandestine armies he'd use for it.

The question about Farah is whether he's really a true believer, but in terms of the content he produces, it's probably immaterial. Shrewder people have believed dumber shit in American history, but few have marketed it as well across demographics. For decades now, Farah's successfully transmitted malicious and violent paranoia up the journalistic ladder, to gradually increasing degrees of profit. In an earlier and less integrated age, his message found less saturation outside ultraconservative fellow-travelers. But today the internet can disseminate any hoary bugaboo almost instantly.

Like Oskar Schindler's blundering into the capitalist joys of war labor, Farah started late enough and hung around long enough to profit from the cost-free luxuries of internet scaremongering. His newspapers went belly up because, amongst other things, newspapers have pay subscribers who can get offended and leave, who make newspapers lose money because checks stop coming. Worse, even partisan newspapers get delivered to people who care enough about content to pay to have it written down and flung at them from kids on bicycles — people whose monetary investment means they still care about the presence of authentic things on the page. None of that matters with the internet. The dumbest possible conceit still generates ad revenue whether it's linked on a condemnatory liberal blog or in an idiot email forward from a grandmother who still calls Obama "The Nigrah." (Assuming Farah's race-bating articles and columns even elicit a term this mildly racist.)

Farah spent a decade sounding the most hysterical right-wing alarms in the hopes of reaching people like Limbaugh, who might nationalize them. Now he knows that even the spastically terrified and moronic is fungible. Someone will retweet it, reblog it, forward it, then link back to condemn, analyze or celebrate it. He has little accountability to real subscribers and none to a corporeal document. The same ethereal factor that allows him to publish incredible falsehoods and, when challenged, disappear them like an Allende supporter out one of Pinochet's choppers sent out over the Pacific, is the same factor that preserves him from any reckoning. In internet terms, we've figured out how to profit from a tincture of false nothingness; we still don't know how to make the punishment for a false nothing real.

If anything, these conditions make the "true believer" question the wrong one. Farah believes in the intent of the message, if not its delivery. He represents the most efficacious means of upwardly transmitting vile conspiracist trash to the "mainstream" conservative media. If it provides nothing else, World Net Daily is FOXNews in pre-transcript form, the inchoate blogged idea that hasn't yet been haphazardly ummed- and uhhhed-through by a stupid blonde surrounded by crawls and chyrons. That's when and where you can understand Joseph Farah. That's his job.

Last week, Farah crossed three lines simultaneously. He acted with — even by GOP standards — embarrassingly unprofessional contempt toward a member of the media, admitted his site's institutional disregard for accuracy or credibility, then he fucked up even worse. He compounded problems for FOXNews with terrible timing. It already hadn't been a good month or so for the network. There was the confession from a former employee that the channel actively propagandizes for Republicans, works to distort or minimize anything about Democrats and fires those who deviate from the program. Then Farah tried to bully Elliott and essentially acknowledged that the fundamental structure of conservative news media is an ourobouros of horseshit. Not only does the major network rely systemically on falsehood when it comes to refining and presenting the information, but the well from which they draw their news bucket is already intentionally poisoned with sewage. It's a cycle of turd manufacture and polishing.

Now, for poor Farah, the worst has happened: just after openly crowing about programmatical journalistic deceit, Obama called his bluff. He released his long-form birth certificate and torpedoed a talking point, forcing people like Farah to either apologize and openly acknowledge making unsubstantiated claims for three years or double down on madness to maintain the program of demonizing Obama as the lurking, dark "Other." In a Clintonesque gesture that he'd surely loathe if he possessed more self-awareness, Farah already re-triangulated his position, seeking a third way out of the nastily just options Obama offered him.

Like any terminally awful message board debate, the goalposts have been moved. Now he and other birther types have moved to question the legitimacy of Obama's first few years on planet earth, as if he possessed some infant mens rea to conduct an international web of deceit. Meanwhile, WND mouthpiece Donald Trump demands the release of Obama's educational records based on the fact that he "got terrible grades" and got into Columbia anyway — another claim based on no evidence, with no deterministic value about the rest of Obama's life and involving a conspiracy of misinformation they want Obama to disavow. Once again: damning evidence is conclusively proved by its absence, and all Obama must do to dispel accusations of a cover-up is prove a negative.

Of course, none of these people were particularly concerned about George W. Bush's college grades, but that's because his case was completely different. For one thing, hardly anyone in America could keep a straight face if you told them he got straight As. For another, nobody had to game the system with politics to get him to the Ivy League. When an academic mediocrity gets into Yale because he's the scion of a multi-millionaire Connecticut family, that's called a legacy. It's family values. But when a goddamned negro gets into Columbia, then someone's hand must have been hovering over a transcript with a Wite-Out bottle, because that's called Affirmative Action. And that's reverse-racism.

So it may be a bit of a copout, but it's tough to dismiss Farah as crazy, because he's so nimbly repositioned himself, changed all the nouns except "Obama" and kept the message and the onslaught the same. You don't look at empirical data and decide that the absence of any supporting your conclusion constitutes proof of an elaborate conspiracy to suppress its truth without being a little nuts. But you also don't successfully confront a massive setback with rhetorical judo disingenuousness and still mainstream your ideas without some kind of savvy. Joseph Farah might be a parasite sucking decency out of the public sphere, but he is kind of impressive.

If he has a kryptonite, it's surely not facts. If anything, it's arrogance. The case was the same for the late Teflon Idiot, Beck. Unimpeded by anything other than stacks of cash, he spun ever more labyrinthine conspiracies and never thought to ask whether interrelating dozens of different hysterical short-term assertions was bound to invite history to shatter the entire edifice and bring it to the ground. But Farah seems to pursue only one truly Big Lie at a time, patiently thinking of ever-expanding penumbras of related Big Lies to bring in, in reserve, in case the existing one fails. He just has to learn to stop bragging about it.