Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Obama transition and our off-the-tracks media

The Senate Dems' sad capitulation to Joe Lieberman was, well, sad.

But Harry Waxman's winning the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is great news! He's a real global climate change hawk, if that's the right word for someone who urgently wants to do something about it.

And on Cabinet appointments, it's looking like Eric Holder at Justice, Tom Daschle at Health and Human Services with special responsibility for getting Obama's health-insurance plan through Congress, Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security. (In the grand scheme of things, it's not such a biggie, but can't we give that department some less Orwellian sounding name than "Homeland Security"?)

That lineup is sounding good to me so far. I'd be happy to see Hillary Clinton at State, too. She's knows her stuff, she's tough and smart, and she has a high and positive profile abroad. And, when it's necessary, she fights. The biggest drawback with her as Secretary of State is not her own doing. It's the press corps' Clinton Derangement Syndrome, which is apparently incurable and untreatable.

Needless to say, the press commentary about her possible selection has been daffy. Maureen Dowd seemed to be in remission for a couple of weeks while she was obsessing about Sarah Palin's clothes budget. Not the most substantial issue around, but it seemed to give a pause to her personality disintegration. Then Clinton's name surfaced as a possible Secretary of State. And poor Maureen is on the skids again, as evidenced by her last two columns.

Don't miss Eric Boehlert's long and informative post comparing the general press treatment of the White House transition of 1992-3 to that of 2000-1, Covering new presidents: the media's double standard Media Matters 11/19/08. While the massive press dysfunction of the previous 16 years has tended far more to favor Republican partisan interests than that of Democrats, the problem with out Establishment press is not a mirror-image of conservatives' claims about "media bias" in favor of liberals.

Aside from the fact that the Republicans' meta-narrative about the Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press! is a phony construct, American media dysfunction is far more complicated than simple ideological or partisan "bias". The upper-end press tends to do poor fact-checking (see Judith Miller, fake reporter and shameless war propagandist), shows bad judgment in news priorities (Palin's scandalous clothes get a higher profile than the expansion of the Afghanistan War into Pakistan) and tends to be very weak on analysis (this side says something that's true, the other side says something that's plainly a lie, so they report "the controversy" without the background information to allow the readers to form a judgment on what's correct).

Sometimes, as with the White Princess' huge clothing budget, it tends to favor Democrats. But those examples are few and far between. The most basic research on the Bill Ayers controversy, for instance, would have shown that it's ludicrous to link Obama with the ideology or actions of the Weather Underground 35 years ago. But we mainly heard reports on "the controversy" and speculation about how it was affecting the horse-race poll numbers.

And in Palin's case, the "gotcha" reporting tended to obscure the more genuinely substantive and disturbing questions about her direct, active, present-day links to crackpot radical groups like the Alaska Independence Party/Constitution Party. And her deep personal and emotional ties to an apocalyptic, militaristic, theocratic brand of Pentecostalism that emphasizes the need for their adherents to deceive the unbelievers (among whom they count most Christians in America) about their true political goals.

I think Robert Perry, an independent investigative reporter, strikes the correct balance about the mainstream media when he describes the effects of their reporting in What Must Be Done Now! 11/20/08, when he writes:

America’s right-leaning media imbalance was a big reason why George W. Bush was able to misgovern the United States for eight years, leaving the nation in two bloody wars and wallowing in the worst financial crisis since World War II. Hundreds of thousands are dead and millions may soon be out of work.

Despite Barack Obama’s election victory, this media asymmetry will not go away. Indeed, it is almost certain to limit his ability to bring about significant change and could tilt the country back in the direction of the Republicans in the not-too-distant future. [my emphasis]
Perry's column is interesting in that he traces the evolution of today's press dysfunction to trends that were at work well before Bill Clinton started running for President. But it's also important to recognize the press entered a new era at some point, one characterized by a qualitative leap in the kinds of problems I've been talking about here. An era that can be usefully and pretty accurately marked as having started in March 1992, when the New York Times did it's first front-page story about the Whitewater pseudoscandal.

Perry also has some thoughts about why "the Left" (by which he seems to mean liberal Democrats as well as those who in American terms would consider themselves "left" as distinct from "liberal") generally didn't realize what was happening to the national media and how radically it was affecting the health of democracy in general and the prospects for reform movements and the Democratic Party. As he puts it:

So, it was not so much that the Left lost the “war of ideas” to the Right over the past three decades; it was more that the Left abandoned the battlefield.

The Left’s neglect of media proved disastrous.
Perry is referring primarily there to the need for additional long-range sources of funding for independent, progressive media outlets, to at least partially offset the large infrastructure on the right fondly known to Democrats as "wingnut welfare".

But it's also reflected in the failure of liberal activists and writers to call out the various media dysfunctions we experiencing for the truly damaging things they are.

Lots of people - even sensible conservatives, if there are any left - have got to learn to work their way around our kooky media. Which obviously a large number of people have been doing, in practice, as evidenced by the fact that Barack Obama could get elected President.

But it's true in the long run, and very often in the short run (see the Iraq War, the torture policy, etc.), that we can't maintain a healthy democracy with a national press this badly dysfunctional.

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