Watching Glenn Beck of Fox News rant about "progressive fascism" - and
muse about armed insurrection - or listening to mainstream pundits
prattle on about Barack Obama as the "most polarizing President ever,"
it is hard to escape the conclusion that today's U.S. news media
represents a danger to the Republic.
By and large, the Washington press corps
continues to function within a paradigm set in the 1980s, mostly
bending to the American Right, especially to its perceived power to
destroy mainstream journalistic careers and to grease the way toward
lucrative jobs for those who play ball.
The parameters set by this intimidated (or bought-off) news media, in
turn, influence how far Washington politicians feel they can go on
issues, like health-care reform or environmental initiatives, or how
risky they believe it might be to pull back from George W. Bush's "war
on terror" policies.
Democratic hesitancy on these matters then enflames the Left, which
expresses its outrage through its own small media, reprising the old
theme that there's "not a dime's worth of difference" between Democrats
and Republicans - a reaction that further weakens chances for any
vicious cycle has repeated itself again and again since the Reagan era,
when the Right built up its intimidating media apparatus - a vertically
integrated machine which now reaches from newspapers, magazines and
books to radio, TV and the Internet. The Right accompanied its media
apparatus with attack groups to go after troublesome mainstream
American Left never took media seriously, putting what money it had
mostly into "organizing" or into direct humanitarian giving.
Underscoring the Left's fecklessness about media, progressives have
concentrated their relatively few media outlets in San Francisco, 3,000
miles away - and three hours behind - the news centers of Washington
and New York.
the Right grasped the importance of "information warfare" in a modern
media age and targeted its heaviest firepower on the frontlines of that
war - mostly the political battlefields of Washington - thus magnifying
the influence of right-wing ideas on policymakers.
One consequence of this media imbalance is that Republicans feel they
can pretty much say whatever they want - no matter how provocative or
even crazy - while Democrats must be far more circumspect, knowing that
any comment might be twisted into an effective attack point against
So, while criticism of
Republicans presidents - from Ronald Reagan to the two Bushes - had to
be tempered for fear of counterattacks, almost anything could be said
against a Democratic president, Bill Clinton or now Barack Obama, who
is repeatedly labeled a "socialist" and, according to Beck, a "fascist"
for pressuring hapless GM chief executive Rick Wagoner to resign.
The Clinton Wars
The smearing of President Clinton started during his first days in
office as the right-wing news media and the mainstream press pursued,
essentially in tandem, "scandals" such as his Whitewater real-estate
deal, the Travel Office firings and salacious accusations from Arkansas
radio and mailed-out videos, the Right also disseminated accusations
that Clinton was responsible for "murders" in Arkansas and Washington.
These hateful suspicions about Clinton spread across the country,
carried by the voices of Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy as well as
via videos hawked by Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell.
While not accepting the "murder" tales, mainstream publications, like
the Washington Post and the New York Times, often took the lead in
pushing or exaggerating Clinton financial "scandals." Facing these
attacks, Clinton sought some safety by tacking to the Right, which
prompted many on the American Left to turn on him.
The stage was set for the Republican "revolution" of 1994, which put
the GOP in charge of Congress. Only in the latter days of the Clinton
administration, as the Republicans pushed for his ouster through
impeachment, did a handful of small media outlets, including
Consortiumnews.com and Salon.com, recast the war on Clinton as a new-age coup d'etat.
Yet, despite the evidence of that, the major American news media mocked
Hillary Clinton when she complained about a "vast right-wing
survived impeachment, the national press corps transferred its
hostility toward Vice President Al Gore in Campaign 2000 , ridiculing
him as a serial exaggerator and liar, even when that required twisting
his words. [For details, see our book Neck Deep.]
Then, when George W. Bush wrested the White House away from Gore with
the help of five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court, the
drumbeat of hostility toward the American President suddenly
disappeared, replaced by a new consensus about the need for unity. The
9/11 attacks deepened that sentiment, putting Bush almost beyond the
reach of normal criticism.
Again, the right-wing media and the mainstream press moved almost in
lockstep. The deferential tone toward Bush could be found not just on
Fox News or right-wing talk radio, but in the Washington Post and (to a
lesser degree) the New York Times - and on CNN and MSNBC. [For details,
see Consortiumnews.com's "America's Matrix."]
To some foreigners, the U.S. news media's early coverage of the Iraq
War had the feel of what might be expected in a totalitarian state.
have been times, living in America of late, when it seemed I was back
in the Communist Moscow I left a dozen years ago," wrote Rupert
Cornwell in the London-based Independent. "Switch to cable TV and
reporters breathlessly relay the latest wisdom from the usual unnamed
'senior administration officials,' keeping us on the straight and
narrow. Everyone, it seems, is on-side and on-message. Just like it
used to be when the hammer and sickle flew over the Kremlin."
[Independent, April 23, 2003]
Bush skeptics were essentially not tolerated in most of the U.S. news
media, and journalists who dared produce critical pieces could expect
severe career consequences, such as the four CBS producers fired for a
segment on how Bush skipped his National Guard duty, a true story that
made the mistake of using some memos that had not been fully vetted.
Only after real events intervened - especially the bloody insurgency in
Iraq and the ghastly flooding of New Orleans - did the mainstream U.S.
press corps begin to tolerate a more skeptical view of Bush. However,
the news personalities who had come to dominate the industry by then
had cut their teeth in an era of bashing Democrats (Clinton/Gore) and
fawning over Republicans (Reagan and the two Bushes).
With Barack Obama as President, these "news" personalities almost
reflexively returned to the Clinton-Gore paradigm, feeling the freedom
- indeed the pressure - to be tough on the White House.
Though MSNBC does offer a few shows hosted by liberals and there are a
few other liberal voices here and there, the national media remains
weighted heavily to the right and center-right.
For every Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow or Paul Krugman or Frank
Rich, there are dozens of Larry Kudlows, Sean Hannitys, Bill O'Reillys,
Joe Scarboroughs and Charles Krauthammers who take openly right-wing or
neoconservative positions - or the likes of Lou Dobbs, John King and
Wolf Blitzer, who reflect Republican-oriented or neocon views out of
personal commitment or careerist caution.
While the right-wing media denounces Obama as a "socialist" and
Republican activists are organizing "tea parties" to protest taxes, the
mainstream media continues to follow the old dynamic of framing
political issues in ways most favorable to Republicans and least
sympathetic to Democrats.
CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, in an interview with Gen. Ray
Odierno, host John King pushed a favorite media myth about President
Bush's successful "surge" in Iraq. King never mentioned that many factors
in the declining Iraqi violence predated or were unrelated to Bush's
dispatch of additional troops, nor did King note the contradiction
about Bush's supposed "success" and Odierno's warning that he may have
to urge more delays in withdrawing U.S. troops.
The commentariat class also has continued to frame the Republican
hatred of Obama as Obama's fault, describing his "failure" to achieve a
more bipartisan Washington or - in its latest formulation - calling
Obama "the most polarizing President ever."
It might seem counterintuitive to call a President with approval
ratings in the 60 percentiles "polarizing" - when that term was not
applied to George W. Bush with his numbers half that of Obama's. But
this notion has arisen because Republicans have turned harshly against
Obama, while Democrats and Independents have remained supportive.
This gap of about 60 points between Democratic approval and Republican
disapproval is called the largest in the modern era. (Bush presumably
was less "polarizing" because his Republican numbers slumped along with
his approval from Democrats and Independents.)
is rarely acknowledged is that the Republican Party has both shrunk in
size and retreated toward its hard-line "base," meaning that the
"polarization gap" could simply reflect the fact that a smaller, more
extreme Republican Party hates Obama, while other presidents faced a
larger, more moderate opposition party.
according to the Washington pundit class, this gap is Obama's fault,
much as he was blamed for "failing" to attract Republican votes for his
stimulus bill and his budget. Rarely do the pundits lay the blame on
the Republicans who have taken a position of near unanimous opposition
to Obama, much as they did toward Clinton 16 years ago.
Instead of seeing a pattern - that Republicans may hope to torpedo
Obama's presidency and reclaim congressional control , as they did in
1993-94 - the Washington press corps describes the Republicans as
holding firm to their small-government principles and the Democrats as
refusing to give due consideration to GOP alternatives.
Already a new conventional wisdom is taking shape, that "polarizing"
Obama would be wrong to use the "reconciliation" process to enact
health-care and environmental programs by majority vote, that he should
instead water them down and seek enough Republican votes to overcome
GOP filibusters in the Senate, which require 60 votes to stop.
To get enough Republican votes on health care would almost surely mean
eliminating a public alternative that would compete with private
insurers, and on the environment, cap-and-trade plans for curbing
carbon emissions would have to be shelved.
But that is the course that the pundit class generally favors, while
demanding that Obama and the Democrats, not the Republicans, take the
necessary steps toward cooperation.
will continue to behoove Obama to woo Republican help - no matter how
tough the odds," wrote Washington Post columnist David Broder on Sunday.
"Presidents who hope to achieve great things cannot for long rely on
using their congressional majorities to muscle things through."
But if Obama takes the advice of Broder and other pundits and dilutes
his proposals to make them acceptable to Republicans, the President
will surely draw the wrath of the Democratic "base," which will accuse
him of selling out. The vicious cycle will have rotated once again.