consortiumnews.com

The Democrats' Tiny Megaphone

By Robert Parry
February 9, 2006

Sen. John Kerry says a key reason that the Democratic political message seems so muddled to many Americans is that Democrats have a smaller “megaphone” than the one wielded by the Republicans and their conservative allies.

“Our megaphone is just not as large as their megaphone, and we have a harder time getting that message out, even when people are on the same page,” the Massachusetts Democrat explained to the New York Times for a story about the party’s missed opportunities heading toward Election 2006. [NYT, Feb. 8, 2006]

While Kerry’s observation is undeniably correct – when one considers Fox News, right-wing talk radio, well-paid columnists and magazine racks weighted down by conservative publications – the overarching question remains why Democrats and progressives haven’t invested more in getting a competitive megaphone.

Wealthy progressives and liberal foundations can match up almost dollar for dollar with conservative funders. But the American Left has adopted largely a laissez-faire attitude toward media infrastructure, while the Right has applied almost socialistic values to sustain even unprofitable media ventures.

Indeed, the Right’s subsidizing of media may be the most under-reported money-in-politics story in modern American history. Many good-government organizations track the millions of dollars contributed to candidates, but much less attention is paid to the billions of unregulated dollars poured into media.

This imbalanced attention continues even though the conservative media is arguably the most important weapon in the Republican arsenal.

Political “propaganda themes” – often coordinated with GOP leaders – are distributed instantaneously across the country, reaching into both rural and urban America with a repetition that gives these messages a corroborative ring of truth.

The messages echo from talk radio to cable news to conservative columnists who appear in the mostly pro-Republican local newspapers. The themes then are reinforced in magazine articles and in books that dominate the shelves of many American bookstores.

Over the past two decades, Republicans have exploited this media capability with great deftness in consolidating power across large swaths of the country, especially where there is little media diversity (i.e. the Red States).

Key Moments

The Right’s megaphone is particularly decisive at key moments when power is being conveyed – that is, before national elections, when a Supreme Court nominee is facing confirmation, or when the nation is poised to go to war. But it’s also there when conservatives are working to consolidate their base or just rile up the true-believers.

So, for instance, when the Senate was weighing the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, the right-wing news media – and much of the mainstream press – spent more time chastising Democrats for supposedly making Mrs. Alito cry than they did explaining Alito’s radical theories of the “unitary executive

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who often speaks eloquently about the constitutional checks and balances that are under assault from Alito’s theories, said he was swayed to vote for Alito because so many West Virginians called to complain that the Democrats had been mean to him during the confirmation hearings.

It’s doubtful, of course, that many West Virginians actually watched the Alito hearings on television. But they surely heard the spin given to the hearings on right-wing radio stations as they drove to and from work.

Similarly, the right-wing media helped feed the war fever that swept the United States in late 2002 and early 2003.

Anyone who questioned George W. Bush’s case for war with Iraq was pilloried as un-American. Celebrities, such as the Dixie Chicks and Sean Penn, were held up to ridicule. Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who doubted the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, was called a traitor.

Not surprisingly, most Democrats and much of the mainstream news media quickly fell into line. Often, it was difficult to distinguish between the pro-war coverage on Fox and the pro-war coverage on MSNBC and CNN, as those two cable networks scrambled to “Out-Fox Fox.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bay of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.”]

On other occasions, the Right ties its themes to the calendar, such as the ballyhooed “War on Christmas” that roiled the chat shows in December and was cross-marketed with a book by Fox News anchor John Gibson, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

As absurd as it might be to think that the United States doesn’t adequately honor Christmas – when the lavish celebration lasts for a month – the “war on Christmas” theme agitated Christians with the notion that they’ve become the victims of secularists, Jews and other non-Christians. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Meaning of (the War Over) Christmas.”]

In essence, the right-wing media – a vertically integrated machine reaching from books, magazines and newspapers to radio, television and the Internet – has the power to make almost any ludicrous notion seem real and threatening to millions of Americans.

Secondary Benefits

The Right’s media infrastructure also offers important secondary benefits to the conservative political movement.

Though right-wing media operations often aren’t profitable themselves, they help create an environment in which conservative writers and commentators get the publicity needed so they can earn millions of dollars on books. That, in turn, guarantees that the Right’s personalities are sought after by publishers focusing on the bottom line.

By contrast, the Left’s neglect of a media infrastructure has made liberal books a relatively hard sell with publishers. Without the expectation of a buzz resonating through an ideologically friendly echo chamber, the major houses are less eager to take on left-leaning books or give liberal authors reasonable advances.

These cascading financial consequences eventually mean that fewer liberal books are produced and bookstores end up overstocked with conservative tomes. In that way, the right-wing dominance of bookstores has become the print equivalent of the AM-radio dial, with many more conservative messages than liberal ones.

Just as liberals have long avoided AM radio, some now grit their teeth as they enter bookstores brimming with indictments of liberals as traitors, idiots, bigots, perverts and people lacking in civility. Less political Americans come away thinking that conservatives must have more ideas and more facts than liberals do.

In the past year or two, there has been some pushback from the Left, particularly the launch of Air America Radio with a 24-hour broadcasting package that has allowed scores of stations across the country to switch to a progressive talk radio format. Low-budget Internet sites also have sprung up to challenge the Right’s media power.

But what has been remarkable – considering the stakes involved for American democracy – is that wealthy progressives and major liberal foundations have mostly stayed on the sidelines, avoiding a significant investment in media infrastructure.

A shortage of money almost doomed Air America on takeoff and still limits its expansion, especially into the Red States. The Left’s funders have continued a pattern that can be traced back to the 1970s of focusing on “grassroots organizing” and “activism” instead of building media outlets and producing journalistic content.

When liberal foundations do provide money for media, it is often for “media reform,” which can be translated into organizing around media issues.

So, the Left ends up financing petition drives that demand President Bush appoint someone nice to run the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the Federal Communications Commission, when those appeals are certain to have no effect.

Triangulating

Another consequence of the Right’s smart media investments – versus the Left’s clueless approach – is that nearly everyone at the national level in politics and journalism reacts to the pressures that the conservative media brings to bear.

Though Bill and Hillary Clinton may have popularized the concept of “triangulation,” it was a natural reaction to the career dangers faced in Washington once the conservative media became an intimidating force in the 1980s.

Intuitively, journalists began positioning themselves to avoid being branded “liberal,” a label that could mean the end of a promising career. National Democrats also tried to shield themselves from taking the brunt of the Right media’s attack by giving themselves some conservative cover.

Over time, rank-and-file Democrats grew furious – or demoralized – over what they saw as the equivocation and ineffectiveness of the party leadership. That, in turn, generated more stories about Democratic divisions and indecision.

So, while Kerry has a point in noting that a key weakness of the Democrats is the size of their megaphone, the more pertinent question is: What is America’s liberal community going to do about it?

[For more on the nation’s media dilemma, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation” or “Five Pointers for a Left Media,” or read Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.] 


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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