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 meaningful reform.
This 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 journalists.
Meanwhile, the 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.
By contrast, 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 them.
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 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 state troopers.
Through talk 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 conspiracy.”
After Clinton 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.
“There 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.
On 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.)
What 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.
Rather, 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.
“It 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.
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 April 14, 2009.