August 6, 2008—It might seem unlikely that the United States would elect John McCain to succeed George W. Bush when that would ensure continuation of many unpopular Bush policies: an ill-defined war with the Muslim world, right-wing consolidation of the U.S. Supreme Court, a drill-oriented energy strategy, tax cuts creating massive federal deficits, etc., etc.
But there are reasons – beyond understandable concerns about Barack Obama’s limited experience – that make a McCain victory possible, indeed maybe probable.
Here is one of the big ones: The U.S. news media is as bad as ever, arguably worse.
On Monday, Obama gave a detail-rich speech on how he would address the energy crisis, which is a major point of concern among Americans. From ideas for energy innovation to retrofitting the U.S. auto industry to conservation steps to limited new offshore drilling, Obama did what he is often accused of not doing, fleshing out his soaring rhetoric.
McCain responded with a harsh critique of Obama’s calls for more conservation, claiming that Obama wants to solve the energy crisis by having people inflate their tires. McCain’s campaign even passed out a tire gauge marked as Obama’s energy plan.
For his part, McCain made clear he wanted to drill for more oil wherever it could be found and to build many more nuclear power plants.
These competing plans offered a chance for the evening news to address an issue of substance that is high on the voters’ agenda. Instead, NBC News anchor Brian Williams devoted 30 seconds to the dueling energy speeches, without any details and with the witty opening line that Obama was “refining” his energy plan.
So, instead of dealing with a serious issue in a serious way, NBC News ignored the substance and went for a clever slight against Obama, hitting his political maneuvering in his softened opposition to more offshore drilling.
Williams’ quip fit with one of the press corps’ favorite campaign narratives, Obama’s flip-flopping. But the coverage ignored far more important elements of the story, such as the feasibility of Obama’s vow that “we must end the age of oil in our time” or the wisdom of McCain’s emphasis on drilling – and nuking – the nation out of its energy mess.
And, as for flip-flops, McCain’s dramatic repositioning of himself as an anti-environmentalist – after years of being one of the green movement’s favorite Republicans – represents a far more significant change than Obama’s modest waffling on offshore oil.
The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s premier environmental organizations, has repudiated McCain and now is running ads attacking his energy plan. But McCain’s flip-flops – even complete reversals – remain an underplayed part of the campaign story. They just don't fit the narrative of maverick John McCain on the "Straight Talk Express."
The major U.S. news media has been equally superficial in dealing with the Iraq War and the “war on terror.” It is now a fully enshrined conventional wisdom that George W. Bush’s troop “surge” was a huge success and vindicates McCain’s early support for it.
On Obama’s overseas trip, it became de rigueur for each interviewer to pound him for the first 10 or 15 minutes with demands that he accept the accepted wisdom about the “surge” and admit that he was wrong and McCain was right.
Obama’s attempts to offer a more subtle explanation of what had occurred in Iraq – that key reasons for the declining violence actually predated the “surge” – were treated with bafflement by the interviewers, who simply reframed their questions and came back at him in a show of toughness against Obama’s supposed evasions.
CBS News anchor Katie Couric started this pattern, but others fell smartly in line, including NBC’s Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press.” Indeed, many of the same media stars who had cheered the nation to war in 2003 (such as Brokaw) were now hectoring Obama, who had spoken out against the invasion in real time.
Conversely, McCain is never challenged about his misjudgment in advocating a rapid pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq in late 2001 and early 2002, before Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda were captured and before Afghanistan had stabilized.
That premature pivot now stands as one of the biggest military blunders in U.S. history, leaving American troops bogged down in two open-ended wars and allowing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to regroup and to plot in safe havens inside Pakistan.
However, American voters who rely on the major news media for their information would have no idea about McCain’s central role in this fiasco. All they hear about is how McCain was right about the “surge” and how Obama won’t admit he was wrong.
When American news consumers aren’t hearing misinformation, they’re almost surely hearing trivia. The TV news shows couldn’t resist endlessly repeating McCain’s attack ad that compared Obama and his enthusiastic reception in Berlin to misbehaving celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Though the juxtaposition was clearly meant to demean – and reminded some political observers of the “call me” ads of a sexy white woman whispering to black Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford – McCain’s campaign insisted it was all in good fun.
While some pundits did take note of McCain’s detour onto the low road, others picked up McCain’s campaign theme that Obama is a “presumptuous” elitist who looks down on others.
That powerful attack line, which touches on the grievances of working-class whites who feel that some blacks have gotten unfair advantages from affirmative action, is at the heart of modern American racism. Since the Nixon era, Republicans have played this Southern Strategy with great success, telling whites that they’re the real victims.
This Obama-elitist theme reached its apex (or nadir, if you prefer) when the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank distorted a reported quote from Obama to a closed Democratic caucus and used it to prove Obama was a “presumptuous nominee.” [Washington Post, July 30, 2008]
Jonathan Capehart, Milbank’s colleague from the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page, then took the point a step further on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, citing Milbank’s misleading quote to establish that Obama is an “uppity” black man.
Yet, the true meaning of the Obama quote appears to have been almost the opposite of how Milbank used it.
Painting Obama as a megalomaniac, Milbank wrote: “Inside [the caucus], according to a witness, [Obama] told the House members, ‘This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,’ adding: ‘I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.’"
However, other people who attended the caucus complained that Milbank had yanked the words out of context to support his “presumptuous” thesis, not to reflect what Obama actually said.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said Obama’s comment was “in response to what one of the [House] members prefaced the question by,” a reference to the crowd of 200,000 that turned out to hear Obama speak in Berlin.
According to Clyburn, Obama “said, ‘I wish I could take credit for that, but I can't. Because it's not about me. It's about America. It's about the people of Germany and the people of Europe looking for a new hope, new relationships, as we go forward in the world.’ So, he expressly said that it's not about me.”
A House Democratic aide sent an e-mail to Fox News saying, “Lots of people are reading the quote about Obama being a symbol and getting it wrong. His entire point of that riff was that the campaign IS NOT about him.
“The Post left out the important first half of the sentence, which was something along the lines of: ‘It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have just become a symbol ...’”
So, it appears that Obama’s attempt to show humility was transformed into its opposite, establishing that, as Capehart put it, Obama is an “uppity” black man. [Capehart himself is black.]
A week after Milbank pulled the Obama quote inside out, the Washington Post had yet to run a correction or a clarification. The august Post apparently judges that Obama’s supporters don’t have the clout to punish a news organization for getting a quote wrong, even if it continues to reverberate through the media echo chamber to millions of Americans.
Yet possibly even more offensive than the quote, Milbank’s column shoved everything, including the Secret Service security arrangements for Obama, through the lens of proving that the candidate is arrogant.
When Washington police and the Secret Service blocked off roads for Obama’s motorcade, that was not simply prudence in the face of extraordinary security concerns for Obama’s life; it was proof that Obama already sees himself as a head of state.
“He traveled in a bubble more insulating than the actual President's. Traffic was shut down for him as he zoomed about town in a long, presidential-style motorcade, while the public and most of the press were kept in the dark about his activities.”
Milbank groused, too, about the tight security that the police put around Obama’s movements on Capitol Hill.
“Capitol Police cleared the halls -- just as they do for the actual President. The Secret Service hustled him in through a side door -- just as they do for the actual President,” Milbank wrote.
While Milbank portrayed these security steps as further evidence of Obama’s hubris, there is no reason to believe that Obama had any say in the decisions of his security detail to protect the candidate.
Milbank and the Post were behaving as if they were oblivious to the physical danger that surrounds the first African-American to have a serious chance to be elected President of the United States. It was almost as if they were baiting him to order the Secret Service to pull back or face the accusation that he is, as Capehart put it, “uppity.”
This pattern of how the major media treats Obama also is not new. Although the McCain campaign and the right-wing media insist that Obama gets easy treatment from the press corps, that amounts to more “working the refs” than a legitimate complaint.
Just because Obama gets more coverage than McCain – the centerpiece of the Republican complaint – doesn’t mean that the press favors Obama, anymore than the fact that Bill Clinton got lots of coverage in 1998 over the Monica Lewinsky scandal meant that the press was favoring him.
Indeed, there have been repeated examples of media double standards working against Obama.
For instance, during the primaries, the major media obsessed for weeks over controversies that would have blown over for other candidates in days. The stupid remarks by Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were endless fodder for news programs, while offensive comments from pro-McCain pastors were just tiny blips and soon disappeared.
Similarly, Obama’s lack of a flag-lapel pin became a theme that was used to challenge his patriotism, although neither John McCain nor Hillary Clinton wore a pin. Neither, by the way, did ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson as they moderated the April 16 debate in Philadelphia where Obama was grilled over his lack of a flag-lapel pin.
(The flag-lapel “issue” was first given national prominence by New York Times columnist William Kristol and was given more impetus by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. To put the issue to rest, Obama finally began wearing a flag pin, though McCain still doesn’t wear one regularly.)
Every presidential election year, it seems, some economist publishes an article that declares that economic data – good or bad – will decide whether the White House will be won by the in-power party or the out-of-power party. For instance, the booming economy of 2000 supposedly assured Al Gore a resounding victory.
In Campaign 2008, this thinking holds that Americans – faced with severe economic troubles – will throw the Republicans out of the White House and elect a Democrat.
However, this economic determinism may no longer hold sway in a nation that is as inundated with media as the United States is. The ability to float false “themes” against one candidate or another and have the major media constantly repeat the propaganda is an extraordinarily powerful force in deciding American elections.
As we describe in our book Neck Deep, millions of Americans went to the polls in November 2000 believing a number of false claims that had been circulated about Vice President Gore (including the bogus notion that he had been part of a plan to sell nuclear secrets to China, when those secrets actually had been compromised during the Reagan years.)
Given the persistent superficiality – and cowardice – of the major U.S. news media, there’s even the larger question of whether a meaningful democracy can survive when the public is so thoroughly misinformed.
Although there are some Internet sites that challenge the major media’s errors, the imbalance remains tilted heavily toward the ideological Right. Especially when prestige newspapers like the Washington Post contribute to the distribution of false or misleading information – as with Milbank’s quote about Obama – the pro-Republican media eagerly amplifies it and most Americans never hear the other side.
Right-wing Internet sites also have proven to be very adept at inserting completely false claims about Obama that stick with many Americans, such as the oft-repeated lie that Obama is a Muslim or that he trained at a radical Islamic madrassah.
To assume that people will somehow see through such distortions has proven to be naïve in the past. More likely, many millions of Americans will head to the polls in November having internalized a hodgepodge of negative themes about Obama. Indeed, a significant number who have absorbed the uglier accusations will have come to hate him.
So, even if a McCain victory guarantees that the United States would solidify the policies of a deeply disliked President, many Americans may set aside what may be good for the country – or even good for their own pocketbooks – and vote against Obama, more based on perceptions than reality.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on August 6, 2008.