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

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

  • 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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