Sometimes, it seems like there are only two groups on earth that don’t grasp the importance of media – the American Left and some tribe in Borneo, though the word is that the tribe may have just bought a radio transmitter, leaving only one group that doesn’t get it.
Indeed, part of the reason for the dangerous media imbalance in the United States – tilted heavily to the Right, especially in cable TV and talk radio – is that the American Left has made media a very low priority, underfunding or closing down its own outlets even as the Right poured billions and billions of dollars into a vast media infrastructure.
Yet, even as the Left has undervalued media, two other groups may be overestimating its power to control public perceptions and thus may be failing to adjust to new realities. Those two groups are the U.S. Republican Party and Israel’s Likud government.
Both appear to be holding onto past recipes for success, relying on the ability of friendly media to manipulate public opinion even as the ground shifts under them. But perhaps no one should blame them, since it makes sense to keep doing what works at least until it doesn’t work anymore.
For their part, the Republicans are seeking a replay of the 1994 elections when a newly built and highly energized talk radio apparatus stirred up enough grassroots anger against Bill and Hillary Clinton that the path was opened for the GOP to win control of Congress. Recognizing the important role that media played, House Republicans made talk radio host Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of their caucus.
Today in Israel, the Likud government is behaving as if it expects a repeat of previous cases in which Israel waited out or undermined U.S. presidents trying to push Israel into peace talks with the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors. This time, on top of the peace initiatives, President Barack Obama also is applying indirect pressure on Israel to acknowledge its undeclared nuclear weapons program.
To negate Obama’s efforts, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is counting on Israel’s legendary clout in Washington – from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (sometimes called simply The Lobby) to neoconservative allies in the U.S. news media.
Yet, despite Israel's formidable defenses, Obama has proceeded, slowly ramping up pressure. Israelis didn't miss the fact that Obama embraced the view of Gen. David Petraeus, who has blamed the Israeli-Palestinian impasse for increasing the risks faced by American soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere.
On Tuesday, at a press conference ending the 47-nation summit on nuclear security, Obama outlined his attitude toward Middle East peace, saying that “the United States can’t impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of old patterns of antagonism. ...
“What we can make sure of is, is that we are constantly present, constantly engaged, and setting out very clearly to both sides our belief that not only is it in the interests of each party to resolve these conflicts but it’s also in the interest of the United States.
“It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”
Beyond his evenhanded comment about the need "to break out of old patterns of antagonism,” Obama further irritated the Likud government by holding the security summit amid demands that all countries rein in nuclear ambitions and increase transparency for their programs.
Fearing demands to finally declare Israel’s nuclear arsenal, Netanyahu balked at attending the summit in Washington, sending instead his deputy, Dan Meridor, who expressed relief at the end of the conference that Israel had not become “the central topic here.”
However, Israel’s secret nukes did come up at Obama’s press conference when the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson asked, “You have spoken often about the need to bring U.S. policy in line with its treaty obligations internationally to eliminate the perception of hypocrisy that some of the world sees toward the United States and its allies.
“In that spirit and in that venue, will you call on Israel to declare its nuclear program and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty? And if not, why wouldn’t other countries see that as an incentive not to sign on to the treaty that you say is important to strengthen?”
Obama first sought to evade the question about Israel by redirecting the focus onto the United States’ commitment to reduce its own nuclear stockpile. He then tried to demur on the Israeli issue.
“As far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their program,” Obama said, before adding: “What I’m going to point to is the fact that consistently we have urged all countries to become members of the NPT,” the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Israel has refused to sign.
(Interestingly, although it was a Post reporter who asked the question about Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal, the increasingly neoconservative newspaper failed to mention anything about Israel in its two articles on Wednesday about the nuclear summit.)
Netanyahu may have reason to hope that the pro-Israel bent of major U.S. news organizations, also including the New York Times and CNN, will continue to give his Likud government cover to stall on peace talks and to keep hiding its nuclear arsenal.
Yet, reality may be asserting itself. Israel’s steady drift to the Right, as ultra-Orthodox political parties have come to control key government ministries, has alienated more and more former supporters, including many American Jews who are alarmed by policies that many believe have crossed the line into racism and bigotry.
For instance, an under-reported element of last month’s flare-up between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government over the announcement of 1,600 more Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem was that the Housing Ministry is now in the hands of Ariel Atias, an ultra-Orthodox religious fanatic.
Atias, a rising star in the religious Shas Party, has publicly called for imposing legal and physical constraints on the housing choices of Israel’s Arab population. But his demands for segregation do not stop at Arabs. He also targets secular Jews who don’t follow strict religious rules.
Last July, Atias told a conference of the Israel Bar Association that Israel’s Arab population must be prevented from buying homes in many parts of Israel.
"I see [it] as a national duty to prevent the spread of a population that, to say the least, does not love the state of Israel," Atias declared, also speaking favorably about relying on aggressive ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredis, to keep the Arabs in line.
In Atias’s vision for Israel, certain lands would be sold to Arabs, others to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and still others to secular Jews, creating a nation segregated along inter- and intra-religious lines.
“I, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, don't think that religious Jews should have to live in the same neighborhood as secular couples, so as to avoid unnecessary friction,” Atias explained. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Israel’s Troubling Tilt Toward Apartheid.”]
This growing religious intolerance inside Israel gets little attention from the U.S. news media, which continues to follow the old template of Israel as an embattled democratic ally surrounded by violent Islamic extremists. Much of the criticism of Israel is simply dismissed as anti-Semitism.
If this old media template holds – and if Obama doesn't back down – he may face the kind of political destruction that Jimmy Carter encountered in 1980 when an earlier Likud government concluded that a second Carter term would have meant unacceptable pressure on Israel to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.
So, behind the scenes, Likud leaders threw their support to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, whose administration later rewarded Israel by letting up on the peace pressure, green-lighting an invasion of Lebanon, and collaborating with Israel on secret intelligence operations, such as the Iran-Contra weapons shipments.
Later in the 1980s, as Israel faced public-relations damage from exposure of these operations, it relied on influential U.S. neoconservative media outlets to cover its flanks, from The New Republic to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to the Washington Post op-ed section. [For more on this history, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
In the years since, Israel has continued to consolidate its influence within U.S. press circles, but there simultaneously has been an erosion of sympathy for the Israeli cause in other areas of public opinion, such as Washington’s so-called “realist” community and among progressives who resented pro-Israeli neocons pushing the United States into war with Iraq.
Though President Obama has surrounded himself with a number of staunch Israeli backers, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, some annoyance with Israeli high-handedness has begun to seep into the White House.
Not only has the Netanyahu government thumbed its nose at U.S. requests to halt Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, but some Israelis have engaged in ugly attacks on Obama, emphasizing his middle name, Hussein, and accusing him of siding with Muslims.
What’s unclear today is whether the Likud, in coalition with right-wing religious parties, can still orchestrate the kind of public relations campaign inside the United States that would force Obama to retreat from his efforts to extract concessions from Israel in Middle East peace talks and possibly to get Israel to come clean about its nuclear weapons.
Today, the Republican Party is faced with a parallel question: Can the powerful right-wing media convince enough Americans that Obama is some combination of Lenin-Hitler-and-bin-Laden to assure that GOP candidates win big in November? Or is the Right’s propaganda veering so far from reality that American voters will rebel?
As Norman J. Ornstein, a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has observed, the anti-Obama rhetoric from Republican politicians and right-wing talkers has reached such extremes that it retains little connection to the real world.
Ornstein reviewed Obama’s policies and appointments in his first 14 months in office and concluded that they represented a centrist or center-left – “but not left of center” – approach to governance. Even Obama’s most controversial initiatives, such as health-care reform, represent a blend of mostly moderate Republican ideas, certainly not socialistic, Ornstein said.
Obama’s health reform strategy even upset many liberals by jettisoning a modest “public option” and instead requiring Americans to buy health insurance policies from private industry.
A year ago, Obama also rebuffed calls from the Left to nationalize some of the failing big banks. Instead, he pursued a bailout that saved these reckless capitalists from ruin and returned their institutions to profitability.
Yet, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently went before a conference of Southern Republicans and denounced Obama as “the most radical president in American history.” Gingrich, who engineered the Republican victory in 1994, depicted Obama as a ruthless extremist ramming through dangerous policies behind a “secular, socialist machine.”
Other right-wing heroes, such as Liz Cheney and Sarah Palin, accused Obama of endangering U.S. national security with a naïve approach toward nuclear war and terrorism.
Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, came up with a revised “three-A” accusation against Obama. Instead of the Nixon-era attack on Democrats for favoring “acid, abortion and amnesty,” her new formulation summarized Obama’s foreign policy as “apologize for America, abandon our allies and appease our enemies.”
Even wilder comments can be heard on radio stations across the nation as well as on Fox News and at countless right-wing blogs and print publications.
But the hard-to-assess question is: Will this Republican smear-Obama strategy work as well as the smear-Clinton approach did in 1994?
Clearly, the Right’s media infrastructure remains very powerful – able to convince millions of Americans that the health-care law contains “death panels” that will put the elderly to death. Many other Americans have been persuaded that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii.
And the American Left hasn’t helped matters by doing so little to build an alternative media infrastructure that could challenge the lies and exaggerations from the Right. Rather than build its own media outlets, the Left has hoped against hope that some big corporation might toss a few crumbs of media content to the progressive side, like General Electric carving out a few hours a day of liberal programming on MSNBC.
But, still, there may be limits to the raw power of propaganda – and to the gullibility of the American people.
The Republicans, like the Likudniks in Israel, are now testing those limits. Will American voters continue to believe the endless propaganda or finally trust their lying eyes?
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, 2010.