Obama and the Media
Eric Alterman - January 13, 2011
The following is excerpted from Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, by Eric Alterman. Available from Nation Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.
BACK IN the spring of 1969, journalist Pete Hamill prophetically described the as-yet-undiagnosed “Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” together with its relation to what he called “the information explosion.” Speaking of the white, largely ethnic denizens of the working-class boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, he wrote:
Television has made an enormous impact on them, and because of the nature of that medium—its preference for the politics of theatre, its seeming inability to ever explain what is happening behind the photographed image—much of their understanding of what happens is superficial. Most of them have only a passing acquaintance with blacks, and very few have any black friends. So they see blacks in terms of militants with Afros and shades, or crushed people on welfare....And in the past five or six years, with urban rioting on everyone’s minds, they have provided themselves (or been provided with) a confused, threatening stereotype of blacks that has made it almost impossible to suggest any sort of black-white working-class coalition....The working-class white man is actually in revolt against taxes, joyless work, the double standards and short memories of professional politicians, hypocrisy and what he considers the debasement of the American dream. [But if ] the stereotyped black man is becoming the working-class white man’s enemy, the eventual enemy might be the democratic process itself.
The phenomenon discerned by Hamill more than forty years ago has exploded like a mushroom cloud in today’s media environment, with consequences very much like those he predicted. Fox News is by far America’s most popular cable news network, and its lead over MSNBC and CNN just keeps growing. This is a matter of considerable political significance for the potential success of any progressive president, because the number one cable news network in America just happens to be dedicated to a program of purposeful misinformation rather than any honest accounting of the news.
The Fox News channel is often described as a cable news station. On occasion, the word “conservative” or “biased” is attached to that description. But few dispute the journalistic orientation of the overall enterprise. This is a mistake. Fox is something new—something for which we do not yet have a word. It provides almost no actual journalism. Instead, it gives ideological guidance to the Republican Party and millions of its supporters, attacking its opponents and keeping its supporters in line. And because Fox manages to earn over a half a billion dollars a year, according to 2009 figures, in doing so, it functions as the equivalent of a political perpetual motion machine.
Fox’s broadcasting is deeply biased against liberals in almost every way imaginable. Fox News broadcasters regularly distort what the president says or cut away before letting him finish. They invite Republican politicians and conservative propagandists to come on and lie outright about both people and policy and then build on those lies to tell even larger lies. They invite faux liberals to come on the air to attack the real thing. In doing so, they engage in conspiracy theories so lurid and outlandish that one is tempted to turn on old episodes of The Twilight Zone for a reality check. They all but ignore Republican scandals and obsess about Democratic ones.
“Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” conservative commentator David Frum has observed, “and now we are discovering we work for Fox.” This turned out to be literally true in the case of at least four likely Republican candidates for president in 2012: Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. In fact, as two Politico writers observed in the autumn of 2010, “with the exception of Mitt Romney, Fox now has deals with every major potential Republican presidential candidate not currently in elected office.”
This cozy arrangement sure works for the candidates, who not only rake in cash but also are protected from answering any uncomfortable questions. Why else would Sarah Palin tell Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell to stick to Fox (and do so while on Fox)? “She’s gonna have to dismiss that, go with her gut, get out there, speak to the American people, speak through Fox News, and let the independents who are tuning into you, let them know what it is that she stands for, the principles behind her positions,” Palin explained.
The single best place for candidates to scare up contributors is by pitching themselves to Fox viewers. Delaware Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell reportedly told Republican Party insiders who resisted her candidacy “that she has ‘Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money by attacking you guys.’” The Las Vegas Sun has acquired audio of Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle explaining the following to a guest at a house party in her honor:
When I get a friendly press outlet—not so much the guy that’s interviewing me—it’s their audience that I’m trying to reach. I’m going on Bill O’Reilly the 16th. They say, “Bill O’Reilly, you better watch out for that guy; he’s not necessarily a friendly.” Doesn’t matter, his audience is friendly, and if I can get an opportunity to say that at least once on his show—when I said it on Sean Hannity’s television show we made $40,000 before we even got out of the studio in New York. It was just [great]. So that’s what I’m really reaching out to is that audience.
Although Fox purports to keep its own employees off the Republican fund-raising circuit, a Media Matters investigation demonstrates beyond any doubt that such appearances are business as usual at the network, saying, “At least twenty Fox News personalities have endorsed, raised money for or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes, or against Democratic candidates or causes, in more than 300 instances and in at least 49 states,” and they have been routinely advertised as Fox News personalities while doing so.
Is it any wonder that according to survey after survey, Fox News viewers, despite their obsessive interest, are among the worst-informed Americans about politics? A study by Democracy Corps finds that this audience believes “Obama is deliberately and ruthlessly advancing a ‘secret agenda’ to bankrupt our country and dramatically expand government control over all aspects of our daily lives,” with the ultimate goal of “the destruction of the United States as it was conceived by our founders and developed over the past 200 years.” And it’s not just Fox’s audience that is the problem, because so much of the misinformation Fox promulgates seeps unfiltered into the rest of the MSM. Remember the “death panel” craze of summer 2009? That August an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow “the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.” As E. J. Dionne points out, “A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates,” and it was repeatedly and knowingly trumpeted on Fox.
Fox’s all-but-official sponsorship of the Tea Party movement, its ginning up of anti-Obama protesters both on and off camera, and the willingness of its hosts to put forth the most irresponsible kinds of allegations and accusations in an atmosphere that is already thick with the threat of violence directed toward America’s first black president are truly shocking and scary developments in the history of media. The cumulative effect of such reports can be seen in the August 2010 finding that 24 percent of Americans questioned had somehow come to the conclusion that the United States of America elected a Black Muslim to the presidency in 2008; this was nearly double the almost-as-incredible number who had thought this to be true in March 2009.
But even to focus on so significant a force as Fox is to miss an entire forest for a few trees. The News Corp empire is vast and wide, and it deliberately slants the news while shamelessly promoting blatant disinformation in platform after platform all over the world. Murdoch controls so many media properties in so many places that the notion of focusing on one single donation to one group might be considered trivial by comparison. The entire empire is at the disposal of political conservatism. Ask yourself, Why does News Corp continue to publish a newspaper, the New York Post, that loses—according to Murdoch family sources—in the area of $50 million a year? Is it because the company is so proud of its terrible tabloid? On the other, more respectable end of the far-right spectrum from Fox one finds its most significant recent money-losing acquisition: the Wall Street Journal.
For decades, in the days before Murdoch’s takeover of Dow Jones Corporation, which owns the newspaper, the Journal’s conservative editorials benefited from being placed in a newspaper that was a must-read for the nation’s business community. The authority of its often-excellent news pages gave a certain gravitas to opinions that would otherwise have been considered quirky at best, nutty and irresponsible at worst. Today, however, the political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that the oddball ravings in the paper’s opinion pages are considered comfortably within the spectrum of responsible opinion.
By inserting the irresponsible views of right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and Tea Party agitators into respectable discourse, the Journal editorial pages have become yet another valuable weapon in the conservative quiver. When someone who was once as respected and admired across all political lines as Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami sounds like Rush Limbaugh on the newspaper’s pages about what he deemed, not thirteen months into Obama’s presidency, to be the unhappy “un-American moment in our history” that gave rise to Barack Obama’s election, this is a victory for thoughtlessness itself. Gone was “the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics,” Ajami argued, apparently seriously, in the wake of George W. Bush’s fantasy presidency. “A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies,” Ajami went on. Obama, Ajami maintained, had interpreted the election “as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic” and had “overwhelmed all restraint.”
The influence of this unmistakable attempt to challenge Obama’s legitimacy in so high profile a forum, together with countless other examples like it (remember, Karl Rove is also a weekly Wall Street Journal columnist), presents a barrier to Obama and his agenda that no president has faced before. Not even the same paper’s hysterical campaign against Bill Clinton can compare because it was undertaken when the far-right media were much weaker and the MSM much stronger. (The editors followed not long afterward with another anti-Obama op-ed by page staffer Dorothy Rabinowitz titled, I kid you not, “The Alien in the White House.”)
The Journal’s role in helping to make Fox “kosher” for the rest of the media is undeniably important. (Fox even hosts the editor’s regular Friday night television program, originally developed at taxpayer expense and hosted by the alleged bastion of far-left radical politics, the Public Broadcasting Service [PBS].) No less important is the unwillingness of those in the more respectable precincts of the mainstream media to admit the distinction between allegedly objective journalism and Fox’s brand of naked propaganda.
When, in the autumn of 2009, interim White House communications director Anita Dunn explained that the White House now planned to treat Fox “the way we would treat an opponent,” adding that because the network had “undertak[en] a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave,” most MSM journalists rushed to Fox’s defense. For example, ABC’s Jake Tapper complained to White House briefer Robert Gibbs, “It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations ‘not a news organization’ and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization. Can you explain why it’s appropriate for the White House to decide that a news organization is not one?” That Tapper could not see how the Fox News network differed from his own was sad but telling.
Fox’s propaganda efforts, cloaked as journalistic enterprises, have so successfully inserted themselves into mainstream discourse and debate that conventional journalists are willing to embrace them without even realizing what is happening. Ask yourself, Why did the 2008 Democratic presidential debates—particularly those moderated by George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson—focus so relentlessly on future tax rates affecting barely 5 percent of America’s wealthiest citizens? Why did CNN, which found it could no longer live with racist birther Lou Dobbs, rush to hire the incendiary right-wing blogger Erick Erickson on the basis of such clever commentary as to call Michelle Obama a “Marxist harpy” and Supreme Court justice David Souter a “goat fucking child molester”? Why does MSNBC cohost Mika Brzezinski insist, rather crazily, on the day after Sarah Palin resigned her job as a governor to begin an estimated $20 million-plus-a-year career as a pundit and public speaker, that Palin represented “real Americans” as opposed to those who thought her quitting her job in the middle of her term worthy of criticism? Why does CNBC’s Jim Cramer casually refer to the “Pelosi Politburo emasculation”? Why was racist Rush Limbaugh considered an appropriate roundtable commentator on NBC’s Meet the Press?
Even without the heavy overlay of right-wing propaganda, the American media as they are now constituted would be hard-pressed to provide the kind of information and opportunity for debate required if the president were to undertake fundamental liberal reforms of our various dysfunctional institutions and outdated public policies. It is no secret that, with just a few laudable exceptions, complicated stories about government proposals and their likely implications do not excite what remains of a decimated journalistic establishment. Sensationalism, not substance, is what drives ratings. True, it has ever been thus, but the intensity of this focus has increased enormously in our age of celebrity obsession and the ongoing blurring of news and gossip. At one of President Obama’s earliest press conferences, CNN’s Ed Henry repeatedly badgered the president, demanding to know why he allowed other politicians to exhibit their anger about AIG’s executive bonuses before he had a chance to do so. “So on AIG, why did you wait—why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage? . . . It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, ‘Look, we’re outraged.’ Why did it take so long?” Obama’s answer—“Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak”—did not appear to impress Henry, who actually bragged about this exchange afterward.
Even at the highest levels of the profession, personality trumps substance at every turn. Politico, the well-funded and financially successful new publication that increasingly sets the tone for so much insider coverage, displays virtually no interest in policy and instead merely offers up a constant scorecard of who’s up, who’s down, and who’s “driving the convo” that day. As Mark Liebovich notes in his lengthy New York Times Magazine profile of Politico’s star reporter, Mike Allen, the publication’s headline over its coverage of President Obama’s health care summit was “No Clear Winner in Seven-Hour Gabfest.” Former McCain adviser Mark Salter notes of Politico’s widespread influence, “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel. . . . It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s the self-promotion.”
Then there’s the stupidity. Together with an insouciant lack of concern for evidence, context, or even simple logic that characterizes so much of our right-leaning media, it is a wonder that any sensible liberal argument ever reaches the larger public. Ben Domenech, a former Bush administration aide and Republican Senate staffer, was able to publish on CBS’s Web site in April 2010 his observation that President Obama would “please” much of his base by picking Elena Kagan as the country’s “first openly gay justice.” Here Domenech demonstrated perhaps all of the qualities that simultaneously make sensible discussion of complicated political questions in the American media so difficult. First, the young man was lying. Kagan was not “openly gay” and never had been. Second, the statement was entirely personal and prurient, having nothing whatever to do with her legal views. Third, CBS, which originally refused to take down the post despite a complete lack of any attempt at verification, offered credibility to this falsehood, further eroding the distinction between this once respected MSM news organization and the most petty, partisan corners of the blogosphere. Fourth, to add insult to injury, this very same blogger had earlier been hired and resigned over a three-day period by a no-less-desperate Washington Post after he was discovered to be a serial plagiarist. It was a sad development for the standards of mainstream journalism when the Post felt it necessary to hire someone like Domenech in the first place. And here he was again on CBS, playing out the farce.
One would think such irresponsibility on the part of a mainstream media organization would demonstrate the limits of the MSM’s willingness to pander to right-wing smear tactics. Sadly, on Election Day 2010, ABC News managed to top even this. It invited, I kid you not, the admitted liar, video-doctor, and sponsor of criminals-who-pretend-to-be-journalists,
Breitbart has pronounced himself “committed to the destruction of the old media guard.” But there is apparently no limit to the humiliation—up to and including a known liar and news fabricator committed to its destruction on a network’s Election Day coverage—to which these once proud media organizations will subject themselves in the hopes of somehow appeasing their conservative critics. And yet here was the prism through which Barack Obama was supposed to communicate the priorities of his administration and hold opponents accountable for the obstacles they put in his way.
Eric Alterman is Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.