Part of America’s ongoing political crisis is that Official Washington remains cowed by the angry Right, even as it engages in subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to bigotry and invitations to violence. As the outrages mount, most of the national press corps prefers to look the other way, a pattern that now stretches back many years.
For instance, when the Republicans were stealing Election 2000 in plain sight – dispatching rioters from Washington to disrupt a Miami vote count and finally having five partisan justices on the U.S. Supreme Court stop all vote tabulations – the U.S. news media acted as if it were no big deal.
There was almost a sense of relief about the GOP theft, that perhaps acquiescence to these riotous right-wing white guys would calm things down, that maybe the Establishment gods of the proper order would be pleased by a restoration of Republican (and Bush Family) control of the White House.
So, George W. Bush paid no real price for stealing the election, which he lost both nationally in the popular vote and in the key state of Florida. Bush wasn’t even called to account when a lengthy journalistic study of Florida ballots showed Al Gore winning regardless of what standard of chad was used in assessing legally cast votes.
To protect Bush’s “legitimacy” – when the count was completed after the 9/11 attacks – the news organizations that had sponsored the recount did all they could to conceal their own discovery of Gore’s rightful victory. When they released the results in November 2001, the news outlets focused on hypothetical partial recounts and buried the actual will of the Florida voters deep in the stories.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz went so far as to ridicule as “conspiracy theorists” those who still thought Gore had won and mocked their belief that respecting the will of the voters actually mattered.
“Now the question is: How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century – and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?” Kurtz wrote.
At Consortiumnews.com, we were one of the few journalistic entities that still cared.
On Nov. 12, 2001, after examining the recount statistics, I wrote a story entitled “Gore’s Victory,” observing that “Al Gore was the choice of Florida’s voters -- whether one counts hanging chads or dimpled chads. ... By any chad measure, Gore won.”
I also suggested that maybe editors hid the obvious lede of Gore’s victory out of a misguided sense of post-9/11 patriotism.
Within an hour or so, I received an angry call from the New York Times’ media writer Felicity Barringer, who accused me of impugning the journalistic integrity of then Times executive editor Howell Raines. It was as if Barringer had been on the look-out for some deviant analysis that had to be stamped out.
To this day, many Americans remember the phony headlines of those news accounts about Bush’s “legitimate victory,” not realizing what the findings actually showed.
For a generation now, it has been the behavior of the major U.S. news media – across the existing spectrum which reaches mostly from right-wing to centrist – to treat Republicans with extraordinary deference (by reacting to their otherwise abnormal behavior, like Bush's election theft, as if it were normal) and to slap down Democrats (especially when they show some liberal or progressive tendencies).
This pattern has continued despite Barack Obama’s solid election victory and the strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Even as the rhetoric from right-wing and neoconservative voices has crossed the line into bigotry and implicit advocacy of violence, most of the U.S. news media continues to act as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
With the exceptions of MSNBC’s experimental evening lineup of liberal hosts – Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow – and a few other scattered voices, the major news corporations continue with their usual suspects of the same ol’ commentators.
No one even blinks an eye when Washington Post neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer slyly promotes the bigoted right-wing canard that Obama is a secret Muslim by referring to the President’s recent trip to Cairo, Egypt, as “his ‘Muslim world’ pilgrimage.” [Washington Post, June 12, 2009]
There’s barely a shrug when Fox News star host Glenn Beck (who was a long-time feature on CNN’s Headline News) muses about an armed insurrection, denounces Obama’s efforts to salvage the U.S. auto industry as “progressive fascism,” or invites on right-wing guests to define “progressives” as people who want “to progress” away from the U.S. Constitution.
It’s considered normal now when ugly rhetoric reverberates through the right-wing media, Even when the hate-filled words are translated into outbursts of right-wing terrorism – such as the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller and a murderous assault on Washington’s Holocaust Museum – the mainstream “frame" for addressing these questions is how unfair it is to link words and deeds.
Official Washington often acts like some primitive community living in the shadow of a rumbling volcano, eager to demonstrate obeisance to the volcano gods and fearful that any show of defiance might start a full-scale eruption.
It seems that the only time mainstream U.S. journalists beat their breasts is when they detect a challenge to the still-prevailing free-market theology.
For instance, CNBC – the premier U.S. business channel – has become home to a growing fury toward any “government” interference in the market, as if the theories of self-regulating markets and the perceived wisdom of financial gurus like Alan Greenspan hadn’t been blown apart by a financial meltdown that threatened to create a new Great Depression.
Though the Obama administration has continued policies that are very bank-friendly – extending trillions of dollars in government help while asking little in return – CNBC acts as if the financial crisis had been brought on by some government bureaucrats, not by the excessive greed of many Wall Street darlings long featured and fawned over by CNBC’s interviewers.
There was the spectacle last week of the pro-Wall Street anchors at CNBC harassing and interrupting House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank as he tried to explain his proposals for limiting the huge compensation packages for executives and brokers. Finally, Frank yanked out his ear piece and ended the interview.
“Fine, goodbye sir,” anchor Mark Haynes said dismissively. “We'll manage without you.”
Not surprisingly, the right-wing blogosphere had a field day mocking Frank for his “snit” while it was hard to find any commentary about the biased behavior of the CNBC crew.
Similarly, the right-wing media infrastructure stoked an anti-Obama brushfire in February when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli fumed about the President’s plan to help up to nine million Americans avoid foreclosure.
Santelli asked whether “we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages.” Then, gesturing to the wealthy traders in the pit of the Chicago commodities exchange, Santelli declared, “this is America” and asked “how many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills, raise their hand.”
Amid a cacophony of boos aimed at Obama’s housing plan, Santelli turned back to the camera and said, “President Obama, are you listening?”
Though Santelli’s behavior in a different context – say, a denunciation of President Bush near the start of his presidency – would surely have resulted in a suspension or firing, Santelli’s anti-Obama rant was hailed as “the Chicago tea party,” made Santelli an instant hero across right-wing media, and was featured proudly on NBC’s Nightly News.
Stoking the Fires
Another emerging theme on the Right is that Obama’s efforts to bail out the economy are somehow an assault on the U.S. Constitution, an odd argument coming from right-wing commentators who fiercely defended Bush’s claim to near-monarchical powers, including ignoring habeas corpus and fair trial rights and claiming the power to wiretap Americans without warrants.
Suddenly, however, the right-wing media is appealing to supposed “patriots” to defend the Constitution against the actions of the first African-American President, whose rightful status as an American and whose belief in Christianity are endlessly questioned and impugned.
It is also the vehemence of these right-wing claims that gives the demagoguery force. After all, loud and angry white guys in suits must know best.
Amid the nation's economic distress, the screamers on the Right can have a disproportionate impact on Americans seeking scapegoats to explain why their jobs are disappearing and their personal incomes are declining.
Appeals to extremism and even violence – whether overt or implicit – may reach a receptive audience. And the Right has a powerful megaphone to spread those resentments.
In a normal world, one might expect mainstream media voices to speak out against irrational arguments and to condemn the false innuendos about Obama, but there are few such voices left in mainstream journalism. After several decades of sustained right-wing assaults on honest journalists, those who might have spoken up have been mostly marginalized or silenced.
Does anyone believe that TV careerists like Wolf Blitzer, John King, David Gregory, Katie Couric, George Stephanopoulos and many others would put their huge salaries at risk in the spirit of Edward R. Murrow and take on the modern-day Joe McCarthys? Is there even a Dan Rather left who would pose tough questions to today’s Richard Nixons?
On the print side, the major news organizations – like the New York Times and the Washington Post – have long since surrendered any moral high ground through their clumsy efforts to ingratiate themselves with the Right.
That has progressed from the pandering to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s; through the proving-we’re-not-liberal phase of piling on against Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the 1990s; to the fawning coverage of George W. Bush during much of his eight-year reign of catastrophes.
There are some honorable exceptions – for instance, see Frank Rich’s “The Obama Haters’ Silent Enablers” – but the larger reality is that we are now more than a generation into the decline of the American press corps.
The Washington Post is still living on its Watergate reputation earned 37 years ago, much like the New York Times still basks in its role in the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. The truth is that neither newspaper would be likely to take on those kinds of risks today against right-wing pressures.
The American Left also deserves a share of the blame, having ignored the urgent need to build honest news outlets when the Right was constructing a multi-billion-dollar vertically integrated media apparatus and was pummeling the remaining truth-tellers in mainstream journalism.
Instead the Left sat back, lamenting the surging influence of the Limbaughs, Savages, Hannitys and O’Reillys – and condemning the cowardice of the corporate media. But when brave journalists did take risks for the truth – the likes of Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News or Mary Mapes of CBS’s “60 Minutes II” – the journalists found themselves pretty much on their own when the attacks came.
More often than not, the chief role of the U.S. news media in recent years has been to tamp down flashes of public worry about threats from the Right. Mainstream journalists understand that to do otherwise would put their careers and livelihoods in jeopardy.
That was the case eight years ago when the news organizations acted as if no one should be upset that George W. Bush was stealing a U.S. presidential election. It was the case again when Bush took the nation into an aggressive war against Iraq.
Now, we are witnessing the mainstream U.S. news media once more putting on blinders so it’s easier to ignore today’s escalating – and dangerous – demagoguery on the Right.
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 June 15, 2009.