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Like Arguing With a Table

Joyce Marcel

Curioser and curiouser.

Gold star mom antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan wears a t-shirt that says "2,245 Dead. How many more?" to President Bush's State of the Union address in 2006 and gets arrested. If the media pays any more attention, it's to label her a "far-left" whack job.

William Kostric, however, openly totes a gun to President Obama's town hall meeting in New Hampshire. And he carries a sign saying "It's time to water the tree of liberty." (A reference to Thomas Jefferson's "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.") He gets interviewed on Chris Matthews.

Back during the run-up to the Iraq war, more than 10 million people worldwide protested the Bush administration's incomprehensible strategy of going after Saddam Hussein while ignoring Osama bin Laden. The protests made a small corner of the front page of The New York Times. Then protests about minimal coverage forced the paper, which was beating the drums of war so loudly that you had to wonder if reporter Judith Miller was being paid by former Vice President Dick Cheney or just sleeping with him, to write one more story before turning its back for good on the antiwar movement.

Yet Sarah Palin, already a national joke, describes end-of-life counseling as "death panels" -- clearly an insane charge -- and her statement is covered so widely that it gets 2,350,000 hits on Google.

If, like me, you have been dismayed by the incessant coverage given to rage-filled lunatics protesting the possibility of getting something that most of them badly need -- health insurance -- then you have to scratch your head and wonder when, exactly, the national media went brain-dead.

To take just one example, in a recent issue of Vanity Fair Michael Wolff reported that Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, deals with the White House press corps with "cockiness and condescension... He clearly doesn't take the press very seriously."

Well, that's outrageous, isn't it? Doesn't the press represent us at White House briefings? Don't we, the people, have a right to ask questions of our leaders? What is this, a dictatorship?

At least I felt like that when I read the article. Then I read a transcript of a White House press briefing on Aug. 12, just after the president's first town hall meeting in New Hampshire. (The White House posts all press briefing transcripts at

After reasonable questions about money for Afghanistan and executive pay, the session quickly deteriorated.

ABC News' Jake Tapper asked, "It occurs to me that if the President finds himself at a town hall meeting telling the American people that he does not want to set up a panel to kill their grandparents, that perhaps there, at some point, the President has lost control of the message."

Gibbs pointed out the "tremendous amount of disinformation that's out there. We've seen it -- and look, let's be honest, you all, the media, tend to cover 'X said this, Y said this'... Look, do I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the President didn't get yelled at? Sure. I don't think there's any doubt about that."

And the floodgates opened wide. "Was (the president) disappointed?" "Were you disappointed the President didn't get yelled at?" "It looked like the President wanted to get yelled at." "But was the President disappointed... that he was hoping to get that kind of confrontation?" The rest of the session was devoted to a discussion about "the temperature of the debate."

Gibbs is somewhat "condescending" to the press corps? In my humble opinion, they're lucky he doesn't spit on them. But that would be counter to the spirit of the First Amendment.

Clearly, something is very wrong with American journalism. How do you treat people showing up with guns to presidential meetings as OK when people were getting arrested at Bush rallies for t-shirts and bumper stickers? How do you talk about people comparing Obama to Hitler without mentioning Timothy McVeigh and the militias? How do you talk about angry people showing up at meetings without talking about the lobbyists who are stacking these meetings to make sure rational debate is impossible? How do you do "he said/she said" journalism in a country that's having a nervous breakdown?

Truth is more important than objectivity. It's also more important than a career in the mainstream media. The way you deal with hate speech is to call people on it. Counter hate speech with better speech, with honest speech, with truthful speech.

Or you could just quote Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who at a town hall meeting on Tuesday responded to a woman heckler with this: "As you stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler, and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. Trying to have a conversation with you would be as interesting as trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it."

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 Joyce Marcel ( is a Vermont journalist and columnist. Reach her at

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