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 on.
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.
In 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 guests.
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.
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.
Over 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 opposition.
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.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on February 17, 2009.