Hard Lessons from MoveOn Fiasco
September 22, 2007
The furor over MoveOn.org’s silly “General Betray Us” ad – which led to a bipartisan Senate condemnation of MoveOn after Republicans blocked a move to include right-wing smears against military veterans like Democrats Max Cleland and John Kerry – carries a bitter lesson for the American Left.
Simply put: This is what happens when one side of American politics – the Right – spends three decades and many billions of dollars building a sophisticated and powerful media apparatus and the other side – the Left – does next to nothing on media infrastructure.
Yes, it’s true that many Democratic senators behaved spinelessly, but a leading reason for their political cowardice is the Republicans’ extraordinary ability to whip up national frenzies over anything that can be portrayed as an affront to them or their allies.
The Right’s powerful ideological media – stretching from newspapers, magazine and book publishing to talk radio, TV networks and the Internet – is arguably the most intimidating force in modern American politics. There is nothing remotely comparable – in size, reach or funding – on the Left.
Indeed, this asymmetry in U.S. media not only has contributed mightily to the existence of George W. Bush’s presidency and the Iraq War, but may be viewed by future historians as a key factor in what doomed the American Republic, as propaganda, fear-mongering and intimidation substituted for fact, reason and balanced debate.
Any misstep by Democrats or the Left is amplified through the Right’s giant echo chamber, resonating to all corners of the country and whipping up public outrage. In contrast, mistakes or abuses by Republicans and the Right get far less attention and often are ignored entirely (assuming the offense isn’t tapping for gay sex in a men’s bathroom).
After the Right starts one of its cascading campaigns of outrage, the mainstream news media sees little choice but to report on what’s already so widely disseminated that it’s crossed a threshold of “what’s news.” Indeed, mainstream journalists risk being accused of “liberal bias” if they don’t start writing about what the Right has gotten everyone talking about.
So, the MoveOn fiasco becomes a front-page story pushing aside more significant information about brutal ethnic cleansing in Iraq occurring under the eyes of Gen. Petraeus's forces [see the lower half of this article in the Sept. 22 edition of the New York Times] or evidence that President Bush is transforming U.S. Special Forces units into “death squads.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “George W. Bush’s Thug Nation.”]
Although the Right has long denounced the mainstream corporate media as “liberal,” the reality is quite different.
Many of the publishers and media moguls are personally right-wing or neoconservative, while their hired news executives know that their careers can be sidetracked or destroyed if they get labeled “liberal” by the Right’s attack apparatus. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com's "The Bush Rule of Journalism."]
At times, mainstream journalists even will act preemptively to prove they're “not liberal,” creating stories that will look good to the Right.
For instance, after Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, some senior editors at major news organizations vowed to be tougher on a Democrat than they were on any Republican.
What followed was the merging of interests between the growing right-wing media and the mainstream press. Everyone piled on.
The green-lighting of this “prove-we’re-not-liberal” pattern carried over to Campaign 2000 during which the New York Times and the Washington Post led the way in demeaning Vice President Al Gore for his choice of clothing and his supposedly dishonest boasting.
In reality, many of the accusations against Gore were based on inaccurate reporting, fabricated quotes and tendentious interpretations of his words. But the biased journalism brought no known punishments to the reporters who were responsible.
By contrast, George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, were free to play fast and loose with facts and face almost no challenge to their honesty. Careerist journalists sensed intuitively that Al Gore had become a kind of political free-fire zone but Bush/Cheney could fire back and hurt you if you got on their wrong side.
[For more on how this imbalanced reporting came to pass, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or our new book, Neck Deep.]
The MoveOn ad, a pun on Gen. David Petraeus’s name, represented a classic case of an unforced error by a left-of-center group. MoveOn and its ad agency, Fenton Communications, should have recognized that mocking someone’s name is both juvenile and offensive. It can be viewed as an insult to a person’s ethnic heritage.
Republicans and pundits – from right-wing bloggers to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen – then needled the word “betray” to claim that MoveOn was accusing Petraeus of “treason,” even though “betray” has many lesser meanings, such as betraying a trust or betraying one’s friends.
Many puffed-up chests later, the Republicans were branding Democrats as “puppets” of “extremist” groups like MoveOn, and Democrats were scurrying around desperately seeking cover.
At a Sept. 20 news conference, President Bush called the ad “disgusting” and charged that “most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, then brought an amendment to the Senate floor and asserted, “For MoveOn.org and their left-wing allies to brand General Petraeus a traitor and a liar crossed a historic line of decency. It was a despicable political attack by a radical left-wing interest group.”
Before passing Cornyn’s amendment, the Republicans blocked a substitute amendment by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, which would have “strongly condemned attacks on the honor, integrity and patriotism of any individual who is serving or has served honorably in the United States Armed Forces, by any person or organization.”
The Boxer substitute pointedly would have covered the Republican ad campaign in 2002 that likened triple-amputee war veteran Max Cleland to Osama bin Laden and the dishonest “Swift boat” attacks that took aim in 2004 at John Kerry’s decorated service in Vietnam. But the Republicans weren’t going to let their clear shot at MoveOn be muddled.
So, after preventing the Boxer substitute from getting the 60 votes it needed for consideration, GOP senators pushed through a resolution “to specifically repudiate the unwarranted personal attack on General Petraeus by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org.”
In the 72-25 vote, 22 Democrats joined a solid phalanx of Republicans denouncing MoveOn by name, an extraordinary act by the Senate in singling out a group of American citizens for criticizing a government official during an important public debate.
By contrast, one only needs to contemplate what would happen if Democrats dared sponsor a resolution denouncing abrasive right-wing commentators by name for bandying about the actual charge of “treason” against Iraq War critics, including people such as Scott Ritter who served in the military.
The Republicans and the Right’s media machine surely would howl about censorship and the importance of the First Amendment. But the maintenance of this double standard is guaranteed by the remarkable power of the Right's media infrastructure versus the virtual absence of one on the Left.
Today, the Right’s media machine already is busily spinning the nay vote from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the “not present” from Barack Obama as a way to spread the MoveOn fiasco into Campaign 2008.
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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