Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obama and the Establishment press, Week 4

I'll confess I really don't know what to make of the state of the national press corps in America. On the one hand, I feel confident in saying that it represents a distinct preference for the needs of the corporate world as interpreted by the corporations who dominate the media landscape.

And I feel confident in saying that it represents some sort of Beltway conventional wisdom, as indicated by the name Beltway Village that has caught on among liberal media critics.

And I feel even more confident in saying that the national press, particularly TV news and leading pundits in general, suffer from what seems to have become a chronic, institutionalized set of problems: poor attention to facts; terrible laziness when it comes to providing context; painfully superficial analysis; a bad (even bizarre) approach to prioritizing news coverage; an obsession with trivia; a love of scandals real or manufactured; a stenographer mentality that assumes they should report "both sides", i.e., Democratic and Republican; excessive coziness with the powerful; a fraternity-and-sorority social clique tendency to adopt favored story lines and scripts for certain situations and politicians; an amazing level of narcissism, expressed especially by the pundits' use of "what the American people think" to mean "what the Beltway Village thinks" even when there is good polling data contradicting what they are saying. There weird obsession with clothing styles is also obvious, but so pitiful and embarrassing that even I'm hesitant to mention it.

What throws me off still, and what I don't fully understand, is the seeming lack of any rational consistency, even any obvious neurotic variety, to the Village lurches here and there. There's no question in my mind that the mainstream media dysfunctions heavily favor Republican and conservative interests over those of Democrats.

And yet it's not simple partisanship, either.

Some of it is good old fashioned class bias, for sure. But there nothing new about that. Wealthy publishers have always been notoriously tempted to favor the opinions of the wealthy over those of everyone else. It's been a rare thing in American history and remains so until this day for a newspaper or electronic news outlet to take editorial stances defending striking labor unions against management. The only new twist in that aspect is that star journalists can now pull down salaries rivaling those of top movie stars and athletes. So now journalists themselves, e.g., Keith Olberman at $5 million per year or Katie Couric at $15 million, are more likely than their counterparts 40 or 50 years ago to view themselves as sharing the personal tax-law preferences of CEO's or trust-fund babies.

The media dysfunction does sometimes cut against Republicans. The national press did latch onto to the evident lack of knowledge that Sarah Palin displayed about national policy issues in 2008. And they latched on to her clothing budget, because style stories fascinate them and it's not so difficult for them to process through their minds and report.

But that's not really something Democrats need to be cheering, although obviously we're happy to have a break when we get it. The more substantive issues that the press should have investigated and reported on were not things like how she froze at telling Katie Couric what news magazines she reads. They needed to be reporting on the real nature of her involvement with a radical religious movement, Third Wave Pentecostalism, which makes rightwing political priorities a major part of their religious message, and is known for not only authoritarian attitudes but also for cult-like organizational forms (what was once called the "shepherding movement"). They needed to be looking closely at her ties to the radical-right, neo-Conservative Alaska Independence Party and the Constitution Party. There was definitely some crowding-out effect going on there, with the Beltway media clique's favorites (dumb Sarah and her clothes) crowding out the more substantively important ones.

One result is that the Establishment press will find it very difficult to find a meaningful and substantive framework to report the 2012 Republican Presidential primaries, which could well become a contests between white Southern Baptists (Huckabee supporters) and white New Wave Pentecostals (Palin's crowd).

There are some outstanding sources for regular media criticism from a Democratic/liberal perspective. There's Media Matters, of course, including their lively blog County Fair. Digby, dday and the rest of the crew at the Hullabaloo blog have been taking a close look at the evolving Beltway line on the new administration. Glenn Greenwald at Salon stays hard on the Establishment media's case, as does Salon editor Joan Walsh. Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby is incomparable on media madness. The FAIR blog is also a good source, along with Think Progress, David Neiwert at both Orcinus and Crooks and Liars, and others, as well. I'm not trying to give a comprehensive list here.

Two articles I'll mention in particular. One is Sunday's column from the New York Times' Frank Rich, an actual liberal but one who Somerby regularly takes to task for sharing the sloppy habits of the Beltway Village, They Sure Showed That Obama dated online 02/15/09. In this one, he actually manages to mention at least in passing the media's own conduct, bold behavior for a Beltway Villager in good standing.

But it shouldn't escape notice that it took Obama's own team explicitly going after the Village's dumb behavior and inability to process information in the way normal humans do to get Rich to write a piece like that. Early in the column, he writes quotes David Axelrod, Obama's political consultant (it would be unfair to him to call him Obama's "Karl Rove"):

“It’s why our campaign was not based in Washington but in Chicago,” he said. “We were somewhat insulated from the echo chamber. In the summer of ’07, the conventional wisdom was that Obama was a shooting star; his campaign was irretrievably lost; it was a ludicrous strategy to focus on Iowa; and we were falling further and further behind in the national polls.” But even after the Iowa victory, this same syndrome kept repeating itself. When Obama came out against the gas-tax holiday supported by both McCain and Clinton last spring, Axelrod recalled, “everyone in D.C. thought we were committing suicide.”

The stimulus battle was more of the same. "This town talks to itself and whips itself into a frenzy with its own theories that are completely at odds with what the rest of America is thinking,” he says. Once the frenzy got going, it didn’t matter that most polls showed support for Obama and his economic package: “If you watched cable TV, you’d see our support was plummeting, we were in trouble. It was almost like living in a parallel universe."

For Axelrod, the moral is “not just that Washington is too insular but that the American people are a lot smarter than people in Washington think.” [my emphasis]
Now, anyone accustomed to reading some of the sites I linked above will scarcely blink at the notion that the media Village is "living in a parallel universe". My favorite theory myself is that many of them are pod people from Fomalhaut b.

But Establishment pundits don't normally carry such quotes. Rich even uses the term "hissy fits" to describe Republican behavior! Digby is the leading authority on the Republican hissy fit. And that's another phrase the Village doesn't often apply to Republicans. And that's why it is important for Democratic office-holders to make those points forcefully so they will at least get attention in the "this side says, the other side says" stenography our press corps practices.

But Rich's cheering for Obama's side can be a mixed blessing, if as is most probable he keeps up sloppy Establishment media habits. For instance, this paragraph cheers for Obama:

But, as he said in Fort Myers last week, he will ultimately be judged by his results. If the economy isn’t turned around, he told the crowd, then “you’ll have a new president.” The stimulus bill is only a first step on that arduous path. The biggest mistake he can make now is to be too timid. This country wants a New Deal, including on energy and health care, not a New Deal lite. Far from depleting Obama’s clout, the stimulus battle instead reaffirmed that he has the political capital to pursue the agenda of change he campaigned on.[my emphasis]
I'm hoping this time that the sentence, "The biggest mistake he can make now is to be too timid", is faithful court stenography, actually. Because that would be another signal that Obama is going to go after the Republicans much harder now. But then, that's why it would be helpful to be able to rely on major pundits for some actual thought. Because a leak like that could also be a head-fake from the President's team to shut the liberals up a bit from criticizing all this "bipartisanship" talk.

But more noticeable to me is, "This country wants a New Deal." I would like to think that's true. But just why does Frank Rich think it's true. Actually, the safer assumption is that he probably didn't stop to think that at all. The Great Pundits assume that they speak for the people. So when they start talking about "this country wants", that typically means it's what they want or, more likely, what they think the Village conventional wisdom is at the moment.

Of course, it's always fun to see the Republicans be the butt of Beltway scorn, maybe especially so because it never lasts very long:

This G.O.P., a largely white Southern male party with talking points instead of ideas and talking heads instead of leaders, is not unlike those “zombie banks” that we’re being asked to bail out. It is in too much denial to acknowledge its own insolvency and toxic assets. Given the mess the country is in, it would be helpful to have an adult opposition that could pull its weight, but that’s not the hand America has been dealt.
Here's one clue to the kind of thinking that Bob Somerby heaps scorn upon, when Rich also says in criticizing the Republicans, "There hasn’t been this much delusional giddiness in these ranks since Monica Lewinsky promised a surefire Republican sweep in the 1998 midterms."

As Somerby said in one of his posts, they can't stop loving her. Ten years later, the palace Heathers are still drooling over Monica. Those happy hours that the Villagers once knew.

Now, I've actually argued many times now that the worst kind of "Southern" influence dominates the Republican Party. But since I see Frank Rich saying it, I find myself reflecting that, yes, the GOP is "a largely white Southern male party" - whose Presidential ticket consisted of a man from Arizona and a woman from Alaska.

They have "talking points instead of ideas and talking heads instead of leaders"? That was also the case in 1999-2000, which Rich and the rest of the Village were foaming at the mouth (in joy!) over Monica and trashing Al Gore relentlessly as the world's biggest liar and phony and sissy. As opposed to that "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush, who was the kind of guy you would like to have a beer with. Which was the kind of "talking points" that the "talking heads" of the press exhibited during that election. And during most of the Cheney-Bush Presidency.

And, oh yeah, Rich was laughing at the hick Republicans who were deluded about their political prospects in 1998. Omitting to mention there that the press were having a collective orgasm over the Monica story and relentless trashing the Clintons and Al Gore at the time. As we saw last year, their Clinton-trashing urges haven't been satisfied yet.

But those hick Republicans won the Presidency in 2000 with the eager help of the press horde, despite losing the popular vote and having the Supreme Court's Scalia Five install Cheney and Bush into the Presidency. Without the press' craziness from the first Whitewater story in March of 1992 in Rich's New York Times to their "Al Gore invented the Internet" yuck fest, Bush would have been unlikely to get close enough for the Florida ripoff to work.

So, yes, I enjoy seeing Rich trashing those dumb ole Republican hicks the way he did this past weekend. It's good clean fun. But even that column shows telltale signs of the chronic press dysfunction that has worked so heavily against the Democrats and far more heavily against the needs of ordinary working people since 1992. So I'm restraining my enthusiasm.

The second article to which I wanted to call attention, but won't elaborate upon here, is Somerby's Howler post of 02/12/09; scroll down to "The Fix Is In". It's about the Mystery of the Shrinking Stimulus, and how the major media failed to explain something that one would think would catch the attention of even a mildly curious journalist.

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