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Breaking Down Media Spin on Obama and Stimulus

Joe Brewer

The ideological battle continues as progressive leaders seek to save the U.S. economy from collapse. Conservatives in the federal government and beyond have rallied together to challenge the will of the people with the most sophisticated propaganda machine known to politics. Last week, in Calling Out the Conservative Lies on Stimulus, I drew attention to the hidden motives of conservative leaders in Congress. This week I'd like to shift focus and call out some of their spin agents in the mainstream media for their less than savory attempts to undermine the progressive movement.

First a recap of what has happened in the last few weeks:

President Obama was inaugurated in the presence of more than two million people who came together to show their commitment to a fundamental change in the course of our country. Obama immediately set to work fulfilling campaign promises - the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, closure of Gitmo, an end to torture, and a bold recovery plan for an economy crippled by years of conservative mismanagement.

President Obama also made good on his promise to change the tone in Washington, calling for unity and reaching across the aisle to invite Republicans to help rebuild America. Days on end were devoted to gaining Republican participation in a landmark bill to envision a nation prosperous in its shared infrastructure, outstanding in the education of its populous, and equipped for the energy demands of the future.

President Obama's inclusive approach stood in stark contrast to the block of Republicans who unanimously voted against the recovery plan in the House of Representatives. Senate Republicans then took to the political stage to grandstand against the plan, halting the delivery of true relief (in the form of jobs that provide stable incomes to millions of unemployed). They preferred to obstruct the process to allow time for allies in the media to organize a counter-attack.

The stage has been set. Editorial pages are starting to fill with opinion articles by members of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and hundreds of other conservative think tanks. Talking heads in the cable news parrot memes crafted and disseminated through a consolidated, and largely conservative owned, media apparatus.

No matter where you turn, you'll now find messages about runaway "government spending", the need for more "tax cuts", and seedlings of doubt about Obama's character. My favorite of these disingenuous mumblings is the deeply ironic framing of bipartisanship. What once meant something akin to "working across party lines" has been twisted to mean something else. Now we hear nonsense like this from Steve Holland of Reuters UK:


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"President Barack Obama showed he is willing to cast aside talk of bipartisanship and flex Democratic muscle to push opposition Republicans out of the way in the battle over a U.S. economic stimulus."

This came from an article titled, What the stimulus battle tells us about Obama. Holland goes on to note the"Republican charges that the plan was stuffed with wasteful Democrat spending items" - a hat tip to the conservative idea that the efficiency of markets are superior to pesky government programs. This is followed with a claim that Obama "changed his tune, reverting to some of the rhetoric he used on the campaign trail to win the White House."

Here is our first inkling of what bipartisanship is supposed to mean. Working across party lines is only about party boundaries. It says nothing about ideology. After all, there are a few very conservative-minded people in the Democratic Party (Joe Lieberman anyone?). President Obama's efforts to work across party lines can be ignored when bipartisanship means granting conservative ideology as the centerpiece of the plan. More than a week of meetings with Republican leaders doesn't count because there is no change in ideology. As long as President Obama continues to attempt the unthinkable - a recovery plan that delivers millions of jobs and a promise of advances in renewable energy, education, health care, and more - he will be treated as an obstructionist by the media.

Never mind that President Obama won a landslide victory in November. Ignore the millions of people who happen to agree with his views about government and the economy. Pretend that conservative principles of governance are not the root cause of this disaster. None of these things matter so long as we have a Bad Apple in the barrel. Our President is a flip-flopper. He's the real problem.

Okay, back to reality. The truth is that our economy is in dire shape. Every day ends with thousands more people out of work. Where's that story? I'm still waiting for the news article pointing out how Republicans are obstructing the process. Hundreds of elected officials, all from the same party, are refusing to budge from their ideological stance like defiant children on the verge of throwing a tantrum. Yet, we're expected to question the character of President Obama after he offered a hand of friendship to the most extreme and reckless band of ideologues to hold the reigns of government in U.S. history.

A series of yarns with the stench of truthiness are expounded daily to the detriment of our democracy. Our challenge as progressives is to overtake this massive message machine - or bypass it entirely - and tell our stories. We can speak out about the promise of opportunity that only comes through investments in common infrastructure. Our voices can ring with joy at the progress we've made expanding the boundaries of human dignity to include women and people of color. And we can speak truth to power, shifting the locus to an empowered citizenry, by calling deceptive media narratives out when we see them.

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Joe Brewer is founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, an educational and research center devoted to the application of cognitive and behavioral sciences to politics.  He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement.

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