An Uneven Contest:
What if there were a great debate concerning the nature and future of American society, and only one side showed up?
That approximately describes the condition of the U. S. media today.
The right wing is operating a super-charged carnival of hype, hysteria and hoopla, while the left struggles along with a pipsqueek sideshow: a few magazines like The Nation, Mother Jones and The American Prospect, with minuscule circulation among the already converted, some tolerated columnists like Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Frank Rich, and of course there’s Shultz, Olbermann and Maddow on MSNBC.
Meanwhile, one by one, the lights are going out: in January, Air America Radio fell silent, and last month David Broncoccio’s outstanding investigative program, NOW, closed shop. Last Friday, Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS broadcast its final program. Shultz-Olbermann-Maddow remain on MSNBC at the sufferance of the owners and managers of NBC and MicroSoft, while Comcast is attempting a takeover of NBC. If successful, how long will this lone outpost of progressive cable-TV commentary remain?
The good news is that the audience size of FOX News is vastly over-rated. On a good night, Beck or Hannity or O’Reilly will be seen by three million viewers. That’s less than one percent of the U. S. population. The worse news is that the progressive voices at MSNBC draw about a third as many.
The influence of FOX News is amplified as their antics and outrages –” “birtherism,” climate change denial, baseless accusations of “socialism” or even “fascism” –” are uncritically reported far and wide by the mainstream media (MSM). In addition to FOX, the airwaves are crammed solid with right-wing talk shows –” about 90%, by some counts. Leading these is Rush Limbaugh, with an audience estimated from fifteen to thirty million.
To be sure, there are many admirable broadcast voices on the left, in addition to the MSNBC team: Thom Hartmann, Amy Goodman, Bill Maher, Stephanie Miller, Bill Press, Mike Papantonio, Cenk Uygur, and Randi Rhodes. But their messages are uncoordinated, dispersed, and poorly promoted. And unlike FOX and Limbaugh, etc., there is almost no corporate media amplification of progressive talk radio and cable TV. Strange to say, some of the most incisive liberal commentary seems to originate with the comedians, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. (A review and assessment of these efforts deserves a separate essay. Watch this space).
The regressive bias of the corporate media is starkly revealed by the coverage, and the non-coverage, of the public demonstrations of last month. When a couple of thousand tea-party or gun-rights enthusiasts show up on the Mall in Washington, or across the Potomac in Virginia, the mainstream media is there to cover them en masse. But when up to ten thousand protesters gather on Wall Street, or fifty thousand jam downtown Los Angeles to protest the Arizona “show your papers” law, these events might just as well have taken place on the far side of the moon.
If the MSM takes any notice of progressive talk radio or cable TV, it is usually to portray a false equivalence with the bloviators on the right, as an implied excuse for the latter’s rhetorical excesses and outright lies. Amazingly, that false equivalence was repeated last week by the President himself, at his University of Michigan commencement address.
There is no equivalence. When Olbermann or Maddow make a trivial errors of pronunciation, attribution, or date of an event, etc. they make on-air corrections as soon as these slip-ups are brought to their attention. But when O’Reilly, Beck, Hannity, et al, tell flat-out demonstrable lies, they do so without fear of consequence and therefore without public correction. And their fearlessness is justified, for no one in the mainstream media is likely to hold them to account. To be sure, Ed Shultz calls them out in his “Psycho Talk,” and Keith Olbermann in his “Worst Persons,” and Rachel Maddow does not hesitate to call a liar a liar, but when they do the regressive talksters and the MSM take little notice, which only further demonstrates the insignificance of progressive media commentary.
Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, Bill O’Reilly told his audience that a “team of FOX researchers” had determined that, contrary to the accusations on MSNBC, no one at FOX had ever said that those who refused to sign up for health insurance under “Obamacare” would be jailed. Olbermann then promptly collected and strung together more than a half-dozen video clips of FOXers stating precisely that. The final clip was a segment from Bill O’Reilly’s show. A slam-dunk refutation, and by no means the first one. Did this embarrass FOX and O’Reilly? Not in the least.
And so it continues, almost daily: For example, the consensus of thousands of climate scientists and the conclusions of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific publications can not prevail over the well-orchestrated denialism of the oil and coal industries’ public relations campaign, a campaign that utilizes the familiar PR techniques that reassured millions of cigarette smokers that the health effects of smoking was no big deal, thus leading millions to an early demise. (See the Union of Concerned Scientists report, “Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air –” how ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science.”)
No accusation is too absurd to be credited by the right-wing propaganda machine. Last week, Rush Limbaugh suggested that the Gulf oil disaster was the result of a plot by “wacko-environmentalists. Quoting Limbaugh: “What better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants than by blowing up a rig?” And on FOX News, Bush’s Press Secretary, Dana Perino, introduced a conspiracy theory by saying: “I’m not trying to introduce a conspiracy theory, but was this deliberate? You have to wonder…if there was sabotage involved.”
Such irresponsible accusations by FOX News and Rush Limbaugh are nothing new. Far more significant was the behavior of the major broadcast media (CBS, NBC and ABC) and the once credible newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, in the months immediately preceding the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2002. As I reported in July, 2005:
On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell presented Bush’s case for war with Iraq to the United Nations Security Council. Subsequent events and exhaustive and unrestricted searches in Iraq proved the speech to be pack of lies. But at the time, US Editorial opinion was completely taken in. A sampling: “Powell lays out convincing evidence of Iraq defiance (USA Today); “[Powell] offered a powerful new case that Saddam Hussein’s regime is cooperating with a branch of the al Qaeda organization that is trying to acquire chemical weapons” (Washington Post); “The Powell evidence will be persuasive to anyone who is still persuadable” (The Wall Street Journal); “Powell laid out the need [for war] … in step-by-step fashion that cannot be refuted without resorting to fantasy” (Chicago Sun-Times).
The mainstream media blitz had its desired effect:
In April, 2004, the Program on International Policy Attitudes [University of Maryland] reported that “a majority of Americans (57%) continue to believe that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, including 20% who believe that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11 attacks. Forty-five percent believe that evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found. Sixty percent believe that just before the war Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction (38%) or a major program for developing them (22%).”
When I heard these lies immediately before the outbreak of the war, I was well aware that the UN inspectors had found no weapons of mass destruction and were unlikely to do so. “When the troops go in there and find nothing,” I thought, “there will be hell to pay.” Well, they found nothing and there was no hell to pay. Why? Simply because there was no independent media available to deliver the “hell” to the Bush/Cheney administration, to Colin Powell, or, for that matter, to the establishment corporate media that fed the lies to the public.
To be sure, liberal commentators like Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, et al, along with numerous progressive websites were complaining to high heaven. But who pays any attention to them? They are all outside the bounds of “respectable” opinion. And who determines what “opinion” is or is not “respectable?” That same mainstream media, of course.
The oligarchy that owns and runs our government and controls our mass media has learned Goebbels’s lesson well: A lie unanswered is a lie believed –” more so if the lie is repeated, over and over again.
Accordingly, a successful propaganda campaign must accomplish two essential and coordinated tasks: (a) tell the lies, and (b) see to it that they are not effectively refuted. The six media conglomerates that now control most of the US media accomplished both tasks supremely well.
And what an impressive roster of lies it is! Here’s a sample:
- In 2000: Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet. Gore also claimed to have “discovered” the Love Canal toxic site. Bush won the election fair and square. The Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore, was legally sound and, in any case, did not affect the outcome of the election. There was no reason to believe that the unverifiable touch-screen voting machines were not accurate. Lt. George Bush completed his required service with the Texas Air National Guard.
- 2002: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” (Dick Cheney).
- 2004. John Kerry’s alleged heroic war record in Viet Nam was a fake.
Etcetera, etcetera –” a list of lies much too long to enumerate here. But if you can bear to read about them again, see Joe Conason’s Big Lies (St Martins, 2003) and Jerry Barrett’s anthology, Big Bush Lies (Riverview, 2004). (My contributions to this anthology on Political Propaganda and The Environment are available online at The Crisis Papers).
Three pages into this piece, I doubt that I have said anything that most of you don’t know and agree with. And those who are not persuaded are urged to read Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media, and visit the website of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Media www.fair.org) and Media Matters For America.
What is to be done?
The GOP and the regressive right have pointed the way; in particular, in Lewis Powell’s notorious 1971 memo to the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. While there is considerable dispute as to the actual influence of this memo, this much is clear; whether by design or by mere coincidence, the Powell Memo accurately describes how the regressive right has achieved its current dominance in American politics. The left would do well to study that memo and, when appropriate, adopt its proposals. In particular:
- Establish “think tanks:” progressive counterparts to The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Cato Institute, The Competitive Enterprise Institute, etc., then promote the publications of its resident scholars and their appearance on the mainstream media. There are, of course, progressive think tanks such as The Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America and their work is commendable. But the funding for these organizations is minuscule in comparison with financial support of their ideological opposites.
- Endow academic professorships and establish scholarships and fellowships. Encourage progressives to participate in the governance of educations institutions, from local school boards to university boards of trustees.
- Underwrite the writing, publication and promotion of progressive books, journals and websites. Establish publishing houses, like the regressives’ Regnery, devoted exclusively to progressive ideas and policy proposals.
- Gain editorial control of mass media outlets: newspapers, cable networks, radio, etc. Once in control, do not make them mere purveyors of left propaganda designed to “balance” the right. Instead, progressive media must restore the practice of responsible journalism: “just the facts” combined with aggressive investigative reporting.
When Lewis Powell wrote his memo in 1971, there was no internet. It has now become a major factor in the political/media equation, especially so today as the traditional print media are in severe decline.
Progressives have adopted this new medium with enthusiasm, and in some cases with noteworthy success. A few websites, such as Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, Truthdig, Salon, Alternet and The Huffington Post, staffed by savvy professionals, appear to be thriving (although, I could personally well do without the HuffPosts’s clutter of celebrity gossip). Most progressive websites, however, carry on solely due to the dedicated toil of their meagerly compensated webmeisters and its uncompensated contributors. They deserve better. In general, the internet is undeveloped and underutilized resource that the progressive establishment (such as it is) will continue to neglect at its peril.
Also neglected is the advice of the liberal “brain trust” of social psychologists, cognitive scientists, and public relations gurus –” the left counterparts of Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich. Brilliant scholars such as Drew Westen, George Lakoff, Geoffrey Nunberg, write insightful books and papers, which are largely ignored by the Democratic Party establishment, which appears to prefer the counsel of such losers as Bob (Zero for Eight) Shrum and James (Mr. Matalin) Carvill.
Of course, the program sketched above, requires an enormous amount of money in this new environment where, as never before, “money is speech.” After all, the regressive juggernaut owes its success to the generous contributions (better “investments”) of the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors and the Koch Brothers, whose fortunes have funded the aforementioned “conservative” think-tanks.
However, adequate financial resources are available to fund a progressive response to the right-wing propaganda machine. The progressives have their fat-cats too: George Soros, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Sr. (And who knows, maybe Junior as well). In addition, the “Hollywood liberals” such as Spielberg, Cameron, Beatty, and Streisand, so much derided by regressives, have both deep pockets, in addition to their talents and public celebrity.
Still other wealthy individuals and institutions may have to be persuaded to help fund the progressive media counter-revolution. However, that may not be difficult once it is made clear that “The Democratic Mainstream” is today somewhat to the right of what used to be called “Moderate Republicanism,” that the success of the U.S. economy depends on a productive manufacturing base, an educated work force and a robust physical infrastructure, and that the present economy, as celebrated and promoted by The American Enterprise Institute, et al, is leading the country in a direction that no informed citizen, whatever his income status, would want to follow.
The scope and power of regressive propaganda now at work is enormous and profoundly discouraging to those who would oppose it. But, in the final analysis, the progressives have a formidable and invincible ally: reality. Facts, as John Adams observed, “are stubborn things.” And the scientists will continue to discover and validate stubborn facts, regardless of what the right would prefer them to disclose regarding evolution, global climate, or whatever. In addition, the majority of Americans are facing each day the brutal reality of regressive economic policies as they lose their jobs, their homes, adequate health care, and the prospect of sending their children to college and on to rewarding careers. No amount of high-volume propaganda and media dominance can obscure these hard facts.
Even so, this much remains compellingly clear: unless and until the progressive left develops an effective media voice, there can be no restoration of American democracy, no return to political sanity, and no establishment of economic justice.