Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Medium or the Message? Which Wins Out?

Shepard Smith and Ralph Nader going at it on FOX News

On election night, everyone was talking about Barack Obama. Even Ralph Nader popped by FOX News to respond to comments he had made earlier, asking whether Obama would be “Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations,” calling into question Obama’s supposed abandonment of thousands of working people in America. After playing the audio clip of Nader’s statements, Shephard Smith stared into the camera and dramatically uttered the challenge, “Really?” Nader defended his claims vigilantly and calmly, and started to get angry only when Smith claimed that he had been “reduced to irrelevant” and insignificant in his most recent presidential campaign. Nader called Smith a bully, explaining that he couldn’t see Smith and the plug could be pulled on him at any moment. Asked point-blank whether he regretted using the phrase “Uncle Tom,” Nader raised his eyebrow and definitively said “not at all.” He started to attempt to explain the historical significance of the term to Smith, who promptly cut him off and thanked him for his time. Liberal Values’ Ron Chusid has a comprehensive collection of reactions to the FOX News interview, but there are no dissenting voices painting FOX News as having viciously attacked Nader. Some comments posted on Chusid’s piece defend Nader and claim that he was right in what he was saying. I find that the most glaring omission here is the treatment of Nader by Smith – regardless of what he said, the interview seems to have been poised as a takedown and a move to discredit Nader completely (FOX even put up vote percentages during Nader’s speech, underlining Nader’s low tally). Nader did make some good points about being the way he was being interviewed, which seem especially relevant considering our examination of FOX News. It’s a shame that his incendiary attitude will stand in the way of a legitimate argument.


Cindy Yeung said...

My mouth dropped when this whole fiasco happened! I was innocently channel-flipping when both Fox 5 and channel 9 was airing Nader(evidentally channel 9 aired Fox during Election night, which says a lot about monopolization, doesn't it?)

While every one else was reporting on Obama's big win, Fox decided to do some bashing on the independent candidate. For no apparent reason, it seems that they brought him on to play him a recording of his "Uncle Tom" quote and ask, "What was THAT?"

Nader defended his statements and outright called Smith a bully, for hiding behind a black screen (the commentator's face was not shown on the screen?) and for not allowing him to fairly speak his side.

Moments later, when Smith asked his other "analysts" whether or not Smith was justified in his argument, a female commentator (dont know her name) basically said, absolutely, and that Nader's career is over after his comments.

1) Perhaps - when Fox News angrily smeared nader for being racist and criticizing Obama, they seem less right-winged biased.

2) My biggest concern is the overbearing arrogance and assumption of power that commentators/talking heads have in the airwaves and on the air.

So yes, there is evident bias. But is it bias in the news media itself? I feel sometimes we blur the lines between LEGIT journalists and commentators like Olbermann and Smith.

As Tom Rosenstiel said in a National Journal interivew, a big problem in the media is, "the fact the press has given over too much of its air time to campaign operatives who they label as analysts, media people. It's the naming of Paul Begala, and Karl Rove, and Dick Morris, and a countless litany of other people who are essentially not journalists but who play them on TV, and who really are doing talking points.
for more visit:

3) This week, I caught a glimpse of good old Bill O'Reilly in [Fear] Factor, reading fan emails about the ban on gay marriage, post-election and the economy. When one approached the subject on how Shepard Smith bullied Nader and asked whether or not Fox is going to do anything, O'Reilly completely ignored the email, as if he didn't read it!

Will Marshall said...

Thanks for this post. While I had heard of Nader’s comments, I wasn’t aware of this Fox interview, crazy stuff.

While I agree that Nader got some harsh treatment by Smith (who disrespectfully referred to Nader as “utterly irrelevant), let’s be real, Ralph dug his own grave. Did he really think he was going to get a chance to explain what he “really” meant by calling Obama an “Uncle Tom”? Fox News and Smith only cared about those two words and Nader doesn’t address that until the end?! You have got to be kidding. Smith gave Nader plenty of time to talk and he succeeds in coming across as utterly oblivious to having said something outrageous and racist to many. Nader acted a fool, he deserved it.

Some meta-comments: While the play-by-play narration of the interview is remarkably comprehensive, it’s a waste of words. You linked to the YouTube clip, so you no need to describe it scene by scene, you film student, you. I wish you had gone into your beef with Fox’s treatment of Nader in more detail. Is there such thing as being too hard-hitting? If journalists should speak truth to power, is there a point when you cross the line and it becomes gratuitous? Personally, I don’t think Fox has any responsibility to help Nader avoid ridiculing himself.

Joseph Coscarelli said...

There is simply no excuse for throwing around racial charged terms. If it's not for shock value, then Nader is even more senile than I imagined. While his past as a consumer advocate may be honorable, these are, as Shep boldly put it, please from an irrelevant man. To say he was cut off before being allowed to explain the historical significance is an example of the faulty "equal time for all sides" logic. Whatever nuance you want to give it, the term has a loaded racist connotation and is shameful in this context, completely undermining Nader's otherwise possibly valid points about corporate interest. You say "viciously attacked," but I see someone being held to task with a vigilance and fearlessness I'd like to see more often from our endless army of talking heads.

Joseph Coscarelli said...

And by "please" I mean "pleas."

Keith Olsen said...


I'm not sure I buy what you're talking about. I saw the video live and thought that it was the kind of journalism I'd like to see more often.

I agree with Joe. What Nader said was disgusting.

The bottom line is that Ralph Nader proved to be irrelevant during this election by gaining so little percentage points. And he drove himself to hopefully a permanent irrelevance when he hurled a disgusting racial slur around when talking about our new president. It's shameful and I'm glad that Smith kept him to task.

I feel like through this past election, a lot more of the traditional types of newsanchors like Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper, Shep Smith and even Katie Couric have offered up a little editorial every now and then. I don't mind it at all. Though I'm not sure I even think Smith was editorializing.

Rhea Anklesaria said...

I had heard the Nader comment, but this interview is new to me.
"It’s a shame that his incendiary attitude will stand in the way of a legitimate argument." I couldn't agree more.
The impression I got from that video was that Nader was trying to make a political point, and trying as far as possible to avoid justifying his earlier choice of words. The interview was clearly intended to embarrass him for his "Uncle Tom" comment and his views on Obama's politics were irrelevant.
Was it racially offensive? Absolutely. I also found it offensive that rather than apologize for what may have been unintentional, racist connotations Nader flat out defended himself.
But Smith did more than call him out on his racial slur. Telling him he was reduced to irrelevance was obviously meant to be provocative and was, in my opinion, unnecessary. Belittling his political position was not relevant.
Interesting that it was Fox News though. I was browsing through the comments on YouTube and found this slightly extreme one:
"So now fox news is sensitive after calling Barak a "Half'rican" and a marxists (socialist?) and everything else, now they're sensitive give me a break. If Rush Limbaugh said it they would be praising rush and defending him."
The point being, the whole purpose of that interview was not to talk politics or defend Obama, but to disgrace Nader.

Zara Golden said...

Fox may have cut him off before he was able to explain the historical significance, but he destroyed our chances of understanding long before the "vicious attack." It seems like the premise of the interview was to unpack his use of the term "Uncle Tom." Any larger points Nader was trying to make or would have made were reduced to irrelevant when he resorted to inappropriate and racially charged terms. In 2008 there is no amount of time nor an explanation extensive enough to make sense of his comment.

It is a shame to those who thought more highly of Nader that his incendiary choice of words undermined any valid points he was making, but he showed no remorse. Smith was not looking to understand his larger, more legitimate points but rather for an explanation of his use of a historically derogatory term. He gave Nader fair chance to do so, but in this day the only explanation is remorse, and that seemed out of the question.

M. Dery said...

Provocative post, which stirred up some equally thought-provoking responses. Well done, all. Abe, would have liked to have heard your thoughts on the power disparity inherent in the TV set-up where guests can't see the host but s/he can see them. Reminiscent of the panopticon, it's disorienting and, arguably, disempowering. Also found myself wishing you had raised the issue of whether Shep Smith is more "fair and balanced" than the rest of the Fox team, as he has claimed and as some media critics have conceded. Should we read his putative attempt to kneecap Nader as typical Fox liberal-bashing, or as a tenacious reporter calling a politician to account for his racist crack, as some of your commenters have suggested? Also, interesting how Nader attempted to dodge Smith's bullet by turning the conversation into a debate about the "bullying" nature of TV interviews rather than a discussion of the fraught racial politics of the highly charged term "Uncle Tom." He sought to re-frame the debate, as so many media figures do, yet obviously failed, if the reaction in this thread is any indicator.