That gritty perception was on display in the lead
story of the New York Times on Jan. 25 as reporter David D. Kirkpatrick
crafted an article about Samuel Alito’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme
Court that bought wholeheartedly into the Republican spin that
Democratic opposition to Alito is just politics.
The story is devoid of the constitutional concerns
about Alito, such as his role as a chief architect of the radical theory
that the President possesses nearly unrestrained power as the “unitary
executive” and – in time of war – as Commander in Chief.
Instead of those weighty constitutional issues, New
York Times readers got a heavy dose of the Republican view that the
Democrats were just trying to score political points with liberal
interest groups, even if the Democrats' opportunism threatened
congressional comity and non-partisan evaluation of judges.
“Senators turned the occasion (of the Senate
Judiciary Committee’s vote on Alito) into a broader and sometimes heated
debate over the rancorous and partisan nature of the confirmation
process,” Kirkpatrick wrote. Republicans “said the Democratic opposition
to Judge Alito could alter the judicial confirmation process for years
Jumping from Page One to the story’s continuation
on A16, a reader still found nothing about Alito’s controversial views
on the “unitary executive,” which would grant George W. Bush
extraordinary discretion over enforcing laws and regulations, or on
Bush’s “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief.
This Executive power grab has raised alarm among
rank-and-file Democrats as well as among some conservatives who fear
that Alito could tip the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of
an all-powerful Executive and thus shatter the Founding Fathers’ unique
system of checks and balances.
Indeed, if Alito’s theories are followed to their
logical conclusion, the American people no longer possess the
“unalienable rights” guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of
Rights, but rather their liberties exist only at
the forbearance of Bush or a successor, at least as long as the
ill-defined War on Terror continues.
These worries about Alito’s radical views are also
not just hypothetical.
His theories are the underpinnings for Bush’s
decisions to waive the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act in ordering warrantless wiretaps of Americans; to
detain U.S. citizens without charge as “enemy combatants”; to brush
aside laws like the McCain Amendment ban on torture at Bush’s sole
discretion; and to order military conflicts on presidential authority
With the future of the American democratic Republic
in the balance, one might expect the nation’s premier newspaper to take
a more substantive view of the issues surrounding the Alito nomination,
especially since senators such as Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, outlined
these concerns in their public statements on Jan. 24.
But to do so would have opened reporter Kirkpatrick
and his editors to Republican charges that they were adopting the
Democratic narrative of the Alito nomination. The Republicans and
powerful conservative media outlets might have wielded the word
“liberal” like a club.
So it was far safer for both the reporter and the
New York Times to couch the Alito nomination in terms of political
tactics, just as the Bush administration wanted.
“Republicans are laying the groundwork to attack
Democrats who vote against Judge Alito as beholden to liberal interest
groups,” the Times story said. “Democrats plan to make an issue of his
votes on subjects like abortion rights or environmental regulations.”
Yet as galling as it may be for some readers to see
how the Times and other major mainstream media outlets are framing the
Alito confirmation, the broader problem has been the failure of
well-to-do liberals and progressive foundations to finance a media
infrastructure that can act as a counterweight to the right-wing media
The Right’s media now rises like a giant vertically
integrated corporation from newspapers, magazines and books to talk
radio, cable news, TV pundits and Internet sites. The machine is
lavishly financed at each level and can turn even fringe issues (like
the “war on
Christmas”) into questions that dominate the national debate.
By contrast, the Left’s chief funders have
historically starved independent media outlets, following the dogma that
“activism” and “organizing” can solve almost all problems. Therefore,
Democrats find themselves dependent on the mainstream media for whatever
attention their positions do get.
These contrasting media strategies – as pursued by
conservatives and liberals over the past three decades – have reshaped
the American political landscape.
Conservatives have been richly rewarded from their
investment in an infrastructure to get their message out and help
Republicans build a powerful base of support among the people,
especially in areas with little media diversity, i.e. the Red States.
Meanwhile, liberals have struggled to explain their
positions to the American voters and thus Democrats often end up
finessing controversial issues – which, in turn, infuriates their base,
which desperately wants leaders who will fight.
The most obvious way for progressives to get out of
this trap would be to invest aggressively in a media infrastructure that
would employ honest, professional journalists who wouldn’t have to worry
about the Right baiting them with the “liberal” tag.
These journalists could then feel free to explain to the
people important issues, like those of the Alito nomination, and could
count on independent outlets to disseminate the information broadly to
Americans. That, in turn, would put pressure on the existing mainstream
media to more fully reflect the diversity of the nation’s opinions.
In the short-term, wealthy liberals could beef up
existing independent media outlets, including “progressive talk radio”
which has demonstrated a capability to grow despite chronic shortages of
However, the longer the Left’s funders delay in
taking on this challenge, the harder it will be to change the media
dynamic – or to save the country from a historic diversion into
more on the American media dilemma, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Left’s Media Miscalculation” and “Five
Pointers for a Left Media.” For more on how the Right built its
media juggernaut, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]