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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: Let's stop the Hitler talk in the media

Zurawik: Let's stop the Hitler talk, and other extreme media rhetoric.

Stop it, please.

I can't tell you how tired I am of hearing people in the media who clearly have no understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust talking about Nazis and Hitler these days.

There are millions of people still living with hearts and minds heavily scarred by what happened to family members in what were some of the darkest days in human history. No one has the right to try to appropriate their pain in hopes of using it to bolster an argument in a media debate about politics today. No one.

I didn't think our national media conversation could get angrier, crazier or less informed than it was during the election. But it has.

There was Sunsara Taylor, an anti-Trump protest organizer and writer for The Revolution newspaper, on Fox News Tuesday upping the Hitler ante by telling Tucker Carlson that Trump was "even more dangerous than Hitler ever could have been."

The full quote: "He has a Twitter feed, he has that ugly orange thing on his head, and he has nuclear weapons, the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world. And people better wake up, because he is more dangerous than Hitler ever could have been," she said.

I hope she isn't saying it's the Twitter feed and the bad hair that make Trump so much more dangerous, because Hitler had his own mastery of new media technology called radio as well as the father of 20th-century political propaganda in Joseph Goebbels coaching him in the use of it. (He also had some pretty strange-looking hair.)

But the problem isn't just the left pounding away at Trump with its favored narrative that his election means we are now living in 1930s Germany. The extreme rhetoric and mainstreaming of previously marginalized media voices cuts both right and left. And it goes well beyond all the Nazi talk.

Two weeks ago in prime time on Fox News, there was Tomi Lahren, of TheBlaze, helping show host Sean Hannity beat up on a liberal pundit over how badly mainstream media outlets have treated Trump's children versus the adulation of Chelsea Clinton. (Lahren must have missed my obsessive coverage of Clinton's humiliating run as a correspondent for NBC News at a salary of $1.8 million for three years.)

Lahren is the 24-year-old host on Glenn Beck's Texas-based media outlet who compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan in a tweet in July as emotions were running sky-high following the shooting of five police officers by a sniper.

A few days later, CNN's "Reliable Sources" had her on to discuss the tweet. I was a guest as well that day, and I told her on air that I was appalled by what she did and wished she worked for a responsible gatekeeper who would educate her to the dangers of such inflammatory speech, instead of Beck who has a history of using it himself.

To be honest, I was surprised to see her on that live Sunday-morning media show. I did not know she was going to be on until five minutes before air. I am not sure I would have done the show had I known in advance she was going to be on.

Given the Klan's history of murder and intimidation inflicted on generations of African-Americans, what Lahren wrote is either inexcusably ignorant or unconscionably hateful. Either way, a responsible media outlet should not be giving her a platform to amplify it.

No matter whether I denounced her on air, her mere presence as a panelist and the time she got to talk about her misguided sense of First Amendment rights on CNN validated her to some extent.

The same dynamic was involved in the booking of former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" earlier this month.

I applaud Jeremy Scahill, one of the founding editors of The Intercept, for canceling his own appearance as a panelist on the show. He said on Twitter that he did so because he disagrees with giving Yiannopoulos that HBO platform to "spew his hateful diatribes."

Maher outrageously tried to spin the provocateur's subsequent downfall in recent days as a result of exposure on his show. Please.

Yiannopoulos' fall was triggered by videos promoted on Twitter on Sunday that showed him endorsing pedophilia. The videos were from 2016.

CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is ending this weekend, disinvited him Monday in the wake of those videos. Simon & Schuster followed by canceling a $250,000 book contract, and Yiannopoulos resigned Tuesday at Breitbart, all of this amid a social media firestorm.

There are a number of factors contributing to the rise in extreme speech on mainstream media outlets.

The driving force is surely Trump — both his own words and the words of those in the media who have abandoned long-held mainstream values of fairness and balance in trying to de-legitimize his presidency.

Trump went the Nazi-talk route in January when a dossier of unverified oppositional research from a former British spy surfaced, alleging he committed unsavory activities in Russia.

"Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to 'leak' into the public," he tweeted. "One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?"

And Trump has brought someone from the far right into the very bosom of the White House with cheif strategist Steve Bannon, who ran Breitbart while Yiannopoulos was being showcased there as a senior editor.

So, Trump is far from being without sin as one of the chief perpetrators of extreme speech.

But the cable channels are guilty, too.

It is not hard to see what makes Lahren and Yiannopoulos appealing to cable news producers: They both bring big social media followings and the promise of conflict to any show on which they appear. (Yiannopoulos had 338,000 Twitter followers before he was permanently suspended in July for an online campaign of abuse against actress Leslie Jones. Lahren has 640,000 followers.)

Cable TV news loves nothing more than conflict. It's a sick addiction that poisons the nation's civic conversation.

It isn't just cable TV. Check out the New York Daily News cover from March 6, 2016 with images of Trump and Louis C.K., and the giant headline quoting the comedian: "Trump is Hitler." How exactly is that worthy of the cover, even for a tabloid?

We have been here before. A similar period of such extreme and polarizing speech hit the airwaves in 2009 after the election of the nation's first African-American president.

It included Beck, who was then running up big ratings as a host on Fox, going after the Obama White House, particularly Van Jones, an aide on green jobs, over his radical past.

Day after day, Beck pounded away on his show — even using the airwaves to invite viewers to send him any dirt they had on Jones or the White House. If he wasn't talking about Jones and Obama, Beck was talking about Nazis.

Keith Olbermann, who was then a primetime star on MSNBC, responded from the left with a jihad on Beck, requesting dirt on him.

I wrote at the time about how toxic the discourse had become and urged cable executives to rein in the combatants in the name of democracy.

Jones left the White House in the midst of Beck's barrage in 2009 with a resignation that was announced at one minute after midnight on a holiday weekend. He said he didn't want to be a distraction as Obama launched his effort for health care reform.

By 2011, both Beck and Olbermann were gone from Fox and MSNBC, marginalized to TheBlaze and Al Gore's now-defunct Current TV, respectively.

And the discourse became far more civil — until now.

Beck's got proteges like Lahren out there stirring pot these days, and Olbermann has re-emerged politically as host of GQ's webcast The Resistance.

Jones is now a contributor on CNN who since the election has been hosting town halls in prime time. He's the analyst who used the term "whitelash" to explain Trump's win on an incredibly emotional election night.

Media are in a nasty place at the moment. To some extent, cable TV executives can say they are only reflecting the acrimony in the land. But they are also manufacturing some angry rhetoric for ratings with the extremists they book and showcase.

CNN, MSNBC and Fox are all making money — more money than they have in years.

How much do they have to make before some sense of social responsibility kicks in?

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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