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Giving Extremists Camera Time Is a Recent TV Phenomenon

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A fruitcake shows up with a gun strapped to his leg in New Hampshire wearing a T-shirt threatening the president, who's speaking nearby. Until recently, he'd be hustled off for psychiatric evaluation or jail. Today, this exile gets camera time on cable news.

Washington Post writer and historian Rick Perlstein recently wrote a thoughtful and illuminating piece called "In America, Crazy Is a Pre-Existing Condition." Once, Perlstein explains, crazy people who showed up in public were ignored by the media and were rightly branded "extremists." Now, they're put on national TV. A fine kettle of fish.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow talked the other night about the "moral dilemma" of putting crazy people or health-industry paid liars on camera. A tough call, she said correctly.

Have insane people and extremist nut jobs become light entertainment for cable news outfits? It appears so.

Perlstein, author of Nixonland, says we should have seen this coming -- especially when the Senate gave the crazies the time to stage their little displays and tantrums at town-hall meetings:

"In America," Perlstein wrote, "the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests."

The elites being, of course, media execs and rapacious, ethically challenged health-insurance companies.

The difference today, he notes correctly, is that back in the 1960s, when extremist lunatics were claiming the landmark Civil Rights Act would enslave white people, a "more confident" media labeled such nonsense "out of bounds" and dismissed it, correctly, as "extremist" -- that is, if they mentioned it at all.

But back then, of course, we didn't have hungry 24-hour cable news operations that call just about anything "news."

Perlstein raises another valuable point in his thoughtful Post piece: That "liberals are right to be vigilant about manufactured outrage" like the kind we've seen at town-hall meetings lately, and, "particularly, about how mainstream media (read: cable news) can easily become that outrage's entry into the political debate."

Yes, it's a good thing that MSNBC and CBS, among other news operations, have run pieces exposing what Perlstein elegantly calls "the orchestration of incivility" by insurance companies and Dick Armey-type right-wing P.R. shills.

"Liberal power," historian Perlstein reminds us, has in the past,

"Induced an organic and crazy-making panic in a considerable number of Americans, while ... powerful elites find reason to stoke and exploit that fear."

Perlstein impressively documents other uncivil acts by the torch-bearing boob-wa-zee against progressive forces, such as a 1963 United Nations Day physical and verbal attack against Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in (gulp) Dallas. He also doubts that the late Walter Cronkite would have ever allowed manufactured nonsense like "death panels" to ever air on his newscast.

The health-insurance companies knew that an August recess would be the perfect time to unleash circuses of gullible and vocal know-nothings bent on expressing their ignorance and lies in pitched tones in public.

So, cable news failed yet another big test this month -- in allowing this orchestrated incivility to air. And even worse, to presumptuously portray it as "public sentiment."

At least Obama supporters can take some solace in another historical fact reported by Perlstein -- that Republicans branded the presidencies of FDR and Harry Truman as "20 Years of Treason."

The difference: Back then, news organizations had class and professionalism, and such outrageous lies weren't usually reported.