Talking Back to My TV

Talking Back to My TV—On December 14, Fox News Network’s Glenn Beck returned to a story that he and his colleague Sean Hannity had been working since July: that White House Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren is an advocate of forced sterilization and compulsory abortions.

Holdren was director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School Government when President Obama appointed him. As White House “science advisor” he has a broad mandate from the Congress to advise the president on science issues and work with federal agencies to implement science and technology programs.

It was remarkable news story. It was also a lie.

A Nexis search found that every TV story on Holdren’s support of forced sterilization and compulsory abortions was reported by Beck or Hannity on Fox News.

Fox’s John Holdren story is loosely connected to the truth. In 1977 Holdren was the third author of a textbook, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, in which the authors discuss extreme population-control measures.

In July, after Glenn Beck “broke” the story, the St. Petersburg Times‘s PolitiFact.com tracked down the textbook and quoted the material Fox excluded from its reports.

Regarding Beck’s claim that Holdren “proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in the drinking water to control population,” PolitiFact concluded that “the text of the book clearly does not support such a position. …In fact, the authors make clear that they did not support coercive means of population control. … Certainly, nowhere in the book do the authors advocate for forced abortions.” (PolitiFact has won a Pulitzer Prize; Hannity and Beck, not yet.)

A week later Beck was back at it, complaining of “scant mention of Holdren’s stomach-churning proposals during his confirmation hearings in February.” Beck described Holdren “musing about how to infect the nation’s water to make women infertile for the benefit of Mother Earth.”

In September, Hannity picked up the story: “Science advisor Eric [sic] Holdren, who spoke out in defense of compulsory abortion and sterilization of women, he is in the cabinet.” That’s two factual errors and one lie in 21 words. The science advisor is not a member of the cabinet. And if there is a record of John Holdren advocating abortion and sterilization, Hannity failed to produce it.

At times Hannity told the truth. “We have the science advisor Eric [sic] Holdren, talking about compulsory abortion, sterilization,” Hannity said on September 3.

For the most, he lied. Or was sloppy with his facts. “He’s [Obama] got, in the case of Eric [sic] Holdren, his science advisor, a guy that has talked in favor of compulsory abortion and sterilization,” Hannity said on September 9. On September 10: “Does Eric [sic] Holdren need—need to go—a guy that supports compulsory abortion and sterilization?”

“Do you see a pattern developing here?” Hannity asked.

Beyond Hannity’s inability to get his subject’s name right, there is a pattern. Stories migrate from ideological blogs to network news—or at least to the nation’s premier ideological news network. Fox talk-show hosts—whom many people consider a source of news—follow with drumbeat coverage of the story. They are literally making news. The Holdren story started with a blogger, then moved to Fox where it has been exploited for five months. Yet in a profession defined by competition, no other mainstream news outlet reported a story that Fox has returned to 32 times.

“I think that the power of Fox News, the Internet, the blogosphere, talk radio has proven that the American people will do the vetting that Washington will not do,” conservative columnist Michelle Malkin writes. Which would be fair enough if the truth were a constant in the vetting equation.

Beck and Hannity drove the news coverage that resulted in the resignation of two lower-level administration appointees: Van Jones and Yosi Sergant. Holdren is a bigger prize. And Hannity and Beck are engaged in a similar campaign against legal scholar Cass Sunstein, an Obama appointee to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Watchdogs such as PolitiFact and Media Matters for America perform a valuable service, examining these “news” reports. While the fact-checkers provide raw material, they can’t create counter-narratives that unpack the stories, examine their sources, explore the motives of their purveyors, and place the truth in a larger context. That function now becomes the responsibility of fact-based journalists.