The Politics of Media
If you believed what you saw on Tuesday’s NBC evening news or what you read in the Washington Post’s lead editorial on Wednesday, you wouldn’t have a clue that Republicans are engaged in a scorched-earth political strategy to destroy the Obama administration.
Instead, you’d think that everyday Americans are solidly behind the congressional Republicans in their unanimous opposition to health reform (NBC) and that President Barack Obama and the Democrats have done next to nothing to bridge the partisan divide (the Post).
Let’s start with NBC’s biased coverage of Obama’s signing into law the landmark health care reform. The multi-part opening segment could have been scripted by the Republican National Committee.
“Make no mistake,” NBC anchor Brian Williams said, “for millions of Americans who were not in the East Room [of the White House] today, it was the beginning of a fight against what they see as a government health-care behemoth that they have to now live by.”
Then, after dismissing the White House signing ceremony as a political pep rally of “giddy supporters” – and after explaining none of the new law’s features – NBC lovingly interviewed Republicans about their determination to roll back this government overreach.
NBC correspondent Kelly O’Donnell gave Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, his say without mentioning DeMint’s foiled scheme to make health reform President Obama’s “Waterloo” to “break” him. Normally, that would seem like a natural question to ask, but NBC apparently didn’t want to cast the GOP’s stalwart opposition to the new law as part of any partisan strategy.
NBC’s reporting also featured comments from Sens. Mitch McConnell, John McCain and John Barrasso explaining their high-minded goals. O’Donnell also checked out the flood of anti-reform calls coming into two GOP Senate offices. (No mention was made of the views of Democrats, and there was the usual silence about criticism of the health-reform bill from the Left.)
O’Donnell’s report was followed by a similarly uncritical look at anti-reform lawsuits from Republican state attorneys general. Then, NBC did what is called a vox populi, the voice of the common man, except in this case it amounted to tracking down one couple living near Oklahoma City who recited more Republican talking points about the Democrats playing politics and ramming the law through.
NBC's coverage included no one who either liked the new law or who felt it didn’t go far enough, even though polls show that most Americans either favor the new law or fault it for failing to include a single-payer system or some other form of “public option.”
Yes, I know, some MSNBC hosts have addressed those positions as part of the cable network’s experiment of having a few liberal voices in the evening. But not only does the NBC evening news reach a much wider audience than MSNBC, but NBC’s other cable channel, the business-oriented CNBC, has beaten a steady drum against health reform, even predicting a stock market dive if the bill became law.
Instead on Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. stock markets surged, another case of CNBC’s remarkable record of giving out ideological market advice that could cost its listeners money. As Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart joked last year, that if he’d listened to CNBC’s bullish advice before the 2008 crash, "I'd have a million dollars today. Provided I started with 100 million dollars."
It may be coincidence but General Electric, which owns NBC and its sister networks, has been running a flurry of ads that amount to paeans to right-wing Republican President Ronald Reagan. GE, where Reagan once served as the company’s spokesman, is sponsoring next year’s gala celebration of the centennial anniversary of Reagan’s birth.
The WPost’s Blindness
If you followed up watching NBC by turning to the Washington Post’s editorial page on Wednesday morning, you’d find a similar blindness to the Republican strategy of obstructionism.
Anyone who followed the debate on health care would know the Democrats made extraordinary efforts to bring Republicans onboard, including time-consuming negotiations within the Senate Finance Committee and Obama’s political courtship of Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
And, even though many of the GOP demands were met, including adding many Republican amendments and subtracting the “public option,” Snowe and the other Senate Republicans wouldn’t even allow an up-or-down vote, forcing the Democrats to line up their 60-member caucus to shut down a filibuster on Christmas Eve.
However, that’s not how the Post’s editorialists saw matters.
“The bill could have been improved with the inclusion of more Republican ideas – by giving consumers more ‘skin in the game,’ for example, to promote cost control, or by reforming the nation's crapshoot of a malpractice system,” the Post’s lead editorial said on Wednesday.
“Neither party has all the answers. Most of the country agrees with us on this point, not with the apostles of ideological purity. A plurality of Americans are independents. They want pragmatic cooperation, and they want sensible ideas acknowledged regardless of which party promotes them.
“Fundamental reform passed on party-line votes has less credibility with them and less chance of quickly weaving itself into the American social fabric.”
Then, the Post added: “We're purposely not apportioning blame to one side or the other.”
But what if one side is more to blame than the other? This “both-sides-are-equally-at-fault” notion of “centrist” journalism fails to recognize that sometimes the truth doesn’t rest comfortably in the middle.
Nor do the Post’s editorialists really believe that it does. On many other issues, the Post has concluded that the truth lies close to the neoconservative pole, such as the Iraq War (which the Post enthusiastically supported) or the Middle East conflict (where the Post almost always sides with Israel).
But the Post isn’t willing to acknowledge that the Republicans embraced a strategy from the start of the Obama administration to take the knees out from under the new President, a game plan very similar to what worked against President Bill Clinton in 1993-94.
The slanted coverage at places like NBC and the Washington Post makes sense if you understand the mix of ideology and careerism that influences mainstream news judgments.
At high levels, the owners and top executives have their pet favorites, whether the Post’s neoconservatism on foreign policy or GE’s fondness for Reagan’s anti-government ideology. At working levels, reporters and editors know that their livelihoods are protected if they tack in those directions.
It’s also important to avoid offending the Right, which has invested heavily in attack groups created to go after and "controversialize" wayward journalists. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Even if a working journalist realizes how corrupting this process is to the integrity of the news, he or she can personally justify going along under the rationale that it’s up to someone else – politicians, other journalists or even citizens – to somehow straighten the mess out.
That’s where independent journalism comes in. Without strong news outlets willing to tell the truth on important topics, the U.S. democratic Republic has little hope of climbing out of the pit of political ignorance where many Americans find themselves mired.
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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