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Obama, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News: A Look at Media in 2009

Josh Silver

Ask just about any public interest advocate concerned about the dismal state of media and journalism, and they will tell you that Obama's media policy platform is excellent: the beginning of what could be the most public interest friendly administration in presidential history. Part of this optimism stems from Obama's understanding that Internet and technology are the cornerstone of a 21st century economy and society. Another part comes from the competence and integrity of the media and telecom advisors working on his transition team. And another comes from his direct experience.

Obama-the-candidate commented several times that voters' false views of him -- that he's a Muslim, a socialist and unpatriotic -- were fed and spread by Fox News and their cohorts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham in the far-right media. Obama understands that they are the special sauce in Karl Rove's toxic recipe to discredit progressive policies and politicians, and divide Americans with wedge issues.

And Obama understands that pushing back against guys like Limbaugh - who this week blamed the president-elect for the financial crisis, calling it "Obama's recession" - requires a bold policy agenda that uses the Internet to pry media distribution monopolies away from the largest media companies. Though often underreported, Obama spoke frequently about his commitment to blocking further media consolidation, fostering more independent and diverse media, ensuring universal high-speed Internet access, and "taking a back seat to no one" in passing "Net Neutrality" laws to prevent Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T from creating fast and slow lanes on the Internet. (click here for a look at Obama's important media reform pledges during his campaign).

The Washington Post ombudsman and others claim that the media was too kind to Obama and hard on John McCain. This superficial analysis is both wrong and misleading. Wrong because you had a candidate that was forcefully embracing the policies of George W. Bush while the nation spiraled into one of its darkest moments in its history. The idea that the press should not exert sharp criticism of such a candidate reflects the kind of tepid pandering that has become the hallmark of mainstream corporate media.

And misleading because the real problem is not the media favoring one candidate over another, but rather its utter failure to practice critical journalism. Turn on your television or radio, and it's 24/7 horserace political coverage, partisan shouting matches, and salacious crap. There is no effort to tell voters the difference between the candidates' rhetoric and reality, how their proclamations match their voting records, and what their policy proposals would actually do. While there were a few notable moments when news outlets actually did this during the campaign, they were few and far between.

Olbermann and Maddow's increased popularity is moving the range of debate on cable from center-right to left-right, but radio is still overwhelmingly right-wing, and the changes at MSNBC fall far short of a comprehensive, long-term solution to thecrisis of journalism. Newsroom layoffs mount across television, radio and newspapers, and omission has become the greatest threat. There is virtually no in-depth coverage and analysis on television of Iraq and Afghanistan, poverty, the environment and the other critical issues facing working Americans. And despite the explosion of the Internet, 45% of American homes still have no high speed Internet, while some 65% of Americans still cite TV as their primary news source.

Charges of liberal bias continue to strike such fear in the hearts of corporate news editors and producers, that they continue obsessive contortions to present both sides of every debate -- not from a factual perspective, but from a partisan one. Even if one side of an argument is clearly true, today's Wolf Blitzer, Charlie Gibson or Brian Williams - and even NPR and PBS - dare not say it (such as the economic bailout being a corrupt boondoggle for banking fatcats) and suffer the wrath of the right wing noise machine, and pressure from their corporate bosses. In today's media environment, the truth becomes irrelevant.

Take a walk through rural Ohio as I did this Election Day, and working-class voters are watching Fox, reading empty newspapers running on a bare-bones staff, and listening to radio's right-wing hate-fest. In today's media environment, we must face the fact that if not for the financial crisis and a disastrous GOP vice-presidential pick, this election might well have been McCain's.

So the incoming president is excellent on media policy, and his election allows media reform advocates to move from defense to offense. However, as Obama inherits a severe economic crisis, two wars, and myriad other problems, it will be too easy for media issues to get pushed down the to-do list. And the well-financed lobbyists from the phone, cable and broadcasting companies who supported Obama's candidacy are expecting a return on their investment. As well they should: if you look back at the history of Democratic presidents and media policy, there have been many disappointments, and cause for us to be as cautious as we are optimistic.

Here's a quick list of the top policy reforms to watch in 2009 for anyone who shares my disgust with news coverage, sky-high cable and phone bills, and the other maladies brought by a media system dominated by the likes of Comcast, Disney, AT&T, General Electric, Verizon, News Corporation and Time Warner:

  • Getting super-fast, open/neutral, affordable Internet to every home and business in America, urban and rural, rich and poor - Internet that will allow every website to be a television or radio network... a complete game changer.
  • Reversing consolidation of media ownership through tougher broadcast license requirements and incentives for more independent, diverse and local radio, television and print outlets.
  • Dramatically increasing funding for public media: for PBS and NPR, as well as community radio and television, and other noncommercial outlets. This includes policies that better protect public media from undue political pressures.

Now that the champagne has been put away, it's time to realize that while disastrous members of Bush & Co. are heading towards the exits, the disastrous members of mainstream media remain firmly in place. Ignore the problem at your - and the nation's - peril.

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Josh Silver is the Executive Director of Free Press.

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