Before Van Jones resigned his position as Obama’s "green jobs czar" in the middle of Labor Day weekend for his overwrought radical statements, network news assignment editors may have explained that Jones was too obscure to be newsworthy. But that’s not exactly true. In the April 13, 2008 edition of Time
magazine, they asked who should make their Top 100 (most influential) people issue. The magazine quoted the actor Leonardo di Caprio: "By fusing economic opportunity and social justice with climate change, Van Jones is working to build pathways out of poverty through the creation of green jobs. He is the perfect person to help redefine our country’s perception of what it means to be green."
A month before the election, Time
’s Michael Elliott placed Jones in the magazine’s "Environmental Heroes" pantheon: "The symbol of environmental concern, says Jones, can't be a polar bear fighting for its habitat; it has to be a Rosie the Riveter making wind turbines in Detroit. Jones sees his fight for green jobs as coming from the great tradition of the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s – updated."
On December 5, 2008, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough warmly welcomed Jones to his Morning Joe
show: "You’re singing our song. Doesn’t this give us an opportunity to retool Detroit?...The green economy’s a win-win." On June 2, 2009, ABC’s Good Morning America
ran a soundbite of Jones looking into a crystal ball for our green future for their "Earth 2100" project: "You’re gonna see greenhouses, multi-story greenhouses. And each floor will be growing carrots and potatoes, et cetera. And that will be just considered normal."
Not everyone considered Jones to be the arbiter of what would be normal. Fox News host Glenn Beck asked "Who is Van Jones?" on his August 24 program, noting his membership in a group called STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement) in 1994. Beck noted the alternative newspaper The East Bay Express
, which reported Jones said "If I’d been in another country, I probably would have joined some underground guerrilla sect. But as it was, I went on to an Ivy League law school." The verdicts in the Rodney King police-brutality case in 1992 sent him further over the edge: "I was a rowdy nationalist on April 28th, and then the verdicts came down on April 29th," he said. "By August, I was a communist."
On Thursday, September 3, "Gateway Pundit" blogger Jim Hoft posted a bombshell found in Google searching: in 2004, Jones signed a petition at 911truth.org calling for an "immediate inquiry into evidence that suggests high-level government officials may have deliberately allowed the September 11th attacks to occur," a paranoid, Bush-hating conspiracy theory. Talk radio erupted. Fox News updated their Jones storyline.
Later that day, ABC’s Jake Tapper posted on his blog that Jones had recanted the signature, saying "the petition that was circulated today, I do not agree with this statement and it certainly does not reflect my views now or ever." Tapper noted Jones could not explain how his signature ended up there, then. But ABC and NBC stayed silent on the air.
CBS filed the first network story (pitched as a story about "conservative outrage") on the September 4 Evening News
, and never did another full story. Jeff Glor began, "Chances are that until this week, you’ve never heard of Van Jones." Bill Plante’s story noted a pile of statements the networks had ignored: Jones calling the Republican a profane word starting with A, and Jones suggesting when George W. Bush said the country was addicted to oil, he was "just like a crackhead trying to lick the crack pipe for a fix." There was Jones saying prosecution was persecution of blacks: "You don’t have to call someone the N word if you can call them a felon."
It took Van Jones’ resignation, around midnight Saturday night on a holiday weekend, for ABC and NBC to mention him for the first time during Sunday morning news shows which broached, but failed to quote, the inflammatory "911 truth" petition he signed. (CBS also failed to quote the offending sentence.) None had anything to say about STORM or his self-avowed communism.
ABC aired five stories, although only one on World News
. They weren’t totally soft on Jones. Several quoted Jones saying "You’ve never seen a Columbine done by a black child. Never." NBC never devoted a single full story to Jones. Word of his resignation was sprinkled sparingly in eight pieces. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, seemingly trying to rationalize ABC’s spiking of the subject, came aboard Sunday’s Good Morning America
to dismiss the matter as a "summer squall." Stephanopoulos was impressed by how the White House handled it: "The fact they got it out of the way before the end of the Labor Day weekend, before his spokespeople like Robert Gibbs, who’s appearing on This Week
come on this morning, I think will contain any kind of damage."
On Meet the Press
, host David Gregory pressed White House adviser David Axelrod to decry the Jones quotes. He asked "Was the president offended by what he said?" and asked if Axelrod himself found the quotes objectionable, but Axelrod avoided answering. But later in the same show, New York Times
columnist Thomas Friedman typified the Old Media lecturing the New Media to stop making life so difficult for public figures:
"David, when everyone has a cell phone, everyone’s a photographer. When everyone has access to YouTube, everyone’s a filmmaker. And when everyone’s a blogger, everyone's in newspaper. When everyone’s a photographer, a newspaper and a filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. Tell your kids, OK, tell your kids, OK, be careful. Every move they make is now a digital footprint. You are on Candid Camera. And unfortunately, the real message to young people, from all of these incidents, OK, and I’m not here defending anything anyone said, but from all of these incidents, is you know, really keep yourself tight, don’t say anything controversial, don’t think anything – don’t put anything in print. You know, whatever you do, just kind of smooth out all the edges, and maybe...you know, when you get nominated to be ambassador to Burkina Faso, you’ll be able to get through the hearing."
The other view of the battle between the Old Media and New Media was declared by Bill Kristol on Fox News Sunday
, a narrative of how the so-called right-to-know lobby in the media was silent, while humble bloggers outside the Beltway break the real news stories:
"The mainstream media did not cover this story. The New York Times readers tomorrow morning will pick up the print New York Times and for the first discover that there was a huge controversy about this radical who was at quite a high level of the White House. So it’s an interesting case study, I think, where some of the blogs, a guy named Jim Hoft in St. Louis, Missouri, who runs a blog called Gateway Pundit, did much more reporting on this than the entire mainstream media."
As Kristol noted, even the newspapers were stubborn on the Jones story. The Washington Post
failed to write a story until the day Jones resigned, and the New York Times
failed to write a story until after he resigned. The Post
glorified Jones as a "towering" and "legendary" figure of the environmental movement even as he stepped down. (They briefly mentioned the "issue" of the group STORM, which had "Marxist roots.") The sympathetic Times
story didn’t note that their own Thomas Friedman had lauded Jones in a 2007 column: "I would not underestimate him. Mr. Jones, age 39 and a Yale Law School grad, exudes enough energy to light a few buildings on his own."
On Sunday’s NBC Nightly News
that evening, anchor Lester Holt asked "Can the Republican Right claim its first scalp in this administration?" CNBC pundit John Harwood replied that "yes, it is a victory for the Republican Right," though he insisted "Jones was not an especially important figure within the administration. His job wasn’t that big."
On ABC’s World News
that evening, reporter Stephanie Sy suggested Jones only spurred outrage by conservatives, not the general public: "The remarks were all made before he joined the Obama administration, but made him an easy target for conservatives." Sy featured Howard Dean lamenting Jones will no longer be able "to help this country," before she concluded: "Democrats worry that Van Jones is only the first of Mr. Obama’s so-called policy czars...that will be targeted by Republicans."
CBS’s Bill Plante and NBC’s Chuck Todd each raised eyebrows on Monday morning by openly declaring that the Jones story was a "distraction" the Obama team was putting aside. When she interviewed President Obama on September 9, Good Morning America
co-host Robin Roberts cited Jones only to underline her sympathy: "Glenn Beck, for instance, really going after Van Jones, forced to resign, controversial things that he said about 9/11 and Columbine. How difficult is it to stay on message?"
In the Bush years, the networks took pride in knocking the Republicans off message. In the Obama years, they lament the "distractions" being created by conservatives, as if helping the president sell his message was their life’s work.Previous: Introduction