Obama and the Media Dilemma

It was only a few years ago - when the Republicans controlled both
Congress and the White House - that the U.S. news media offered up
one-sided coverage of the Bush administration, relying on Republicans,
right-wingers and pro-war military experts to shape what Americans got
to see and read.

The reason for marginalizing Democrats and other critical voices, we
were told, was that the Republicans were in power and it made no sense
to have on guests or to quote experts who didn't share in the power.
The premium was to have Republican insiders explaining what was going

So, one might have thought that when the Democrats won control of
Congress and the White House, Republicans would largely disappear from
the TV chat shows and the news pages. After all, the Republicans today
have even fewer representatives in Washington than the Democrats did
during most of the Bush years.

But if you thought that, you would be wrong. Instead, the cable
networks and the print media have been falling over themselves to get
the views of Republicans and to disseminate those opinions widely to
the American public.

During a key early stage in the battle over Barack Obama's stimulus bill, the Center for American Progress examined the political affiliations
of guests on major cable networks and found that Republicans
outnumbered Democrats by 2-to-1. Suddenly, the premium was on the views
of those out of power.

other words, Republicans get to dominate the news programs when they're
in power and they get to dominate when they're out of power. The one
constant is that the U.S. news media bends over backwards to favor the
Republicans; what changes is the rationale.

This dynamic was even more acute in the run-up to invading Iraq when
CNN and MSNBC competed to out-fox Fox as the most aggressively
flag-waving, pro-war network. Iraq War skeptics were decidedly not
welcome, whether the likes of former weapons inspector Scott Ritter or
Rep. Ike Skelton, who was a ranking Democrat on the House Armed
Services Committee.

If you
raised questions about invading Iraq, you were a flake - and no
self-respecting producer wanted to risk his/her career by allowing such
a dissident opinion on the air. Media insiders took note of what
happened to talk-show host Phil Donahue at MSNBC when he booked a few
anti-war voices to dissent from the views of a majority of his pro-war

There wasn't much
difference in the so-called prestige newspapers, such as the Washington
Post and the New York Times. Everybody knew which side their career
bread was buttered - and it wasn't in offending President Bush, the
Republicans or their right-wing allies.

A Rip Van Winkle who awoke during that period might have thought the
Soviet Union had won the Cold War and had imposed its concept of press
freedom on the United States.

Three-Decade Dynamic

But there was a logical explanation for this dynamic. Since the
mid-1970s - when the Washington press corps exposed Richard Nixon's
Watergate scandal and printed the secret Pentagon Papers history of the
Vietnam War - the Republicans and the Right have mounted an expensive
drive to label the press as "liberal" and to punish journalists who dug
up undesired information.

Besides funding anti-journalism attack groups, the Right financed its
own media infrastructure - from print forms like newspapers, magazines
and books to electronic media like TV, radio and later the Internet. As
tens of billions of dollars poured in consistently over the past three
decades, the Right achieved a powerful influence over the U.S. media.

Meanwhile, American liberals and the Left largely ignored the growing
media imbalance, counting on mainstream journalists to somehow resist
the encroachment of right-wing pressure. The progressive side also did
little when honest journalists were punished and marginalized, which
left behind careful media careerists who understood how ruthless the
right-wingers could be.

time, the U.S. national news media could be roughly defined as those
who worked directly for right-wing outlets and those who survived in
mainstream news organizations by recognizing the limits of how far they
could safely go in annoying the Right.

Yet, since the co-opted mainstream journalists won't admit their
professional timidity, they had to come up with excuses to explain
their behavior.

So, when
George W. Bush and the Republicans were at the height of their power,
media professionals justified booking lots of pro-Bush operatives since
they were the insiders. Now, with the Republicans out of power, a
premium is placed on having as many voices as possible from the GOP

Surely, if in
2012, the Republicans retake the White House and Congress, you can
expect that the rationale will shift back again and there will a
preponderance of Republican insiders.

As readers of Consortiumnews.com know, our view is that the only way to
change this dynamic is for concerned Americans to invest substantially
in building media institutions that aren't afraid of the Right and
won't bend to those pressures. [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]

Until that happens, one can expect this strange media dynamic to
continue - and President Obama is likely to remain on the defensive.

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