For years, progressives like myself have been repeating these complaints, and you know what? We've totally missed the point. To say that our side has been the victim of clueless, lazy, and inept reporting, rife with false equivalencies and double standards, delivered by useful idiots who are unaware that the right is using them actually lets the media off too easy, hiding a darker truth:
The mainstream media is objectively pro-GOP.
Let's review: Chris Matthews goes on the air and says that Osama bin Laden sounds just like Michael Moore. Around the same time, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell claims that Jack Abramoff gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans. In the former case, a loudmouth pundit who passes himself off as a political "moderate" pushes the GOP meme that liberals and progressives are on the side of the terrorists. A vicious, disgusting smear. In the latter case, the woman who is supposed to be acting as the journalistic watchdog for one of the nation's most influential papers passes along a blatant falsehood that helps the GOP defuse their brewing ethics scandal by playing into the widely-held belief that such corruption is simply endemic to politics, no matter what side of the aisle you're on.
It's possible to look at these events as just the latest data points on a steadily-climbing curve of media atrocities. For some reason, however, I perceive them as a discontinuity, as a telling moment when masks come off and agendas are revealed. I feel like the dude in They Live who puts on the specially-treated sunglasses and suddenly sees that aliens are walking among us. Creepy, malign, right-wing aliens, bereft of humanity and intent on world-wide domination. Any day now, I expect the Post to reveal their new masthead complete with the GOP elephant, the Times to disclose that it was acquired in 2001 by the American Enterprise Institute, and Chris Matthews to show up on the air doing shots of Dubya juice through which he will gargle the notes of "Hail To The Chief".
Suddenly, it has come home to me with unprecedented concreteness that we lefties are, as Peter Daou recently put it, "all alone in the wilderness". The media isn't merely deaf to our calls, they're actively helping the GOP exclude us from the dialog, doing their damnedest to keep us out in the cold. The Democrats can't hear us because they're either cowering in fear or succumbing to political Stockholm Syndrome, believing the right's lies about them and seeking to please their tormentors.
Daou has actually been doing a smashing job lately of putting together a coherent theory of how the new American political landscape works. His idea of the "triangle" that exists between bloggers/activists, the mainstream media, and each side's (purported) party has proved a powerful analytical tool. In his latest post on this topic, he hammers home the same essential point I make above: That our national media is actively playing for the right-wing "team".
What's the common thread running through the past half-decade of Bush's presidency? What's the nexus between the Swift-boating of Kerry, the Swift-boating of Murtha, and the guilt-by-association between Democrats and terrorists? Why has a seemingly endless string of administration scandals faded into oblivion? Why do Democrats keep losing elections? It's this: the traditional media, the trusted media, the "neutral" media, have become the chief delivery mechanism of potent anti-Democratic and pro-Bush storylines. And the Democratic establishment appears to be either ignorant of this political quandary or unwilling to fight it. ...
You've heard the narratives: Bush is likable, Bush is a regular guy, Bush is firm, Bush is a religious man, Bush relishes a fight, Democrats are muddled, Democrats have no message, national security is Bush's strength, terror attacks and terror threats help Bush (even though he presided over the worst attack ever on American soil), Democrats are weak on security, Democrats need to learn how to talk about values, Republicans favor a “strict interpretation” of the Constitution, and on and on.
A single storyline is more effective than a thousand stories. And a single storyline delivered by a “neutral” reporter is a hundred times more dangerous than a storyline delivered by an avowed partisan. Rightwingers can attack the media for criticizing Bush, can slam the New York Times for being liberal, but when the Times and the Post and CNN and MSNBC echo the ‘Bush stands firm’ mantra, it adds one more brick to a powerful pro-Bush edifice.
These narratives are woven so deeply into the fabric of news coverage that they have become second nature and have permeated the public psyche and are regurgitated in polls. (The polls are then used to strengthen the narratives.) They are delivered as affirmative statements, interrogatives, hypotheticals; they are discussed as fact and accepted as conventional wisdom; they are twisted, turned, shaped, reshaped, and fed to the American public in millions of little soundbites, captions, articles, editorials, news stories, and opinion pieces. They are inserted into the national dialogue as contagious memes that imprint the idea of Bush=strong/Dems=weak. And they are false. ...
It's simple: if your core values and beliefs and positions, no matter how reasonable, how mainstream, how correct, how ethical, are filtered to the public through the lens of a media that has inoculated the public against your message, and if the media is the public's primary source of information, then NOTHING you say is going to break through and change that dynamic.
It's that last bit -- the notion that the media has "inoculated" the public against the acceptance of liberal ideas -- that really makes me want to scream. Bush is right: The media is a filter. It's his filter, and it makes sure only Bush-vetted, GOP-approved ideas get a fair hearing.
We can't even start a serious discussion with our fellow citizens about how the Iraq war might be instigating more terrorism because our media (relentlessly prodded by the right) has inoculated the public against this idea by labelling it "sympathetic to terrorists". We can't even start a serious conversation about our obscene income gap, the destruction of the middle class by outsourcing, or the wisdom of nationalized healthcare because our media (relentlessly prodded by the right) has inoculated the public against these ideas by labelling them "socialist". It's fucking insane. We lose these debates before they start not because our ideas are inferior -- the opposite is true -- but because the media, which provides the only arena for a sustained national discourse, is playing for the other team.
Daou closes by saying:
Progressive bloggers and the millions of online activists whose conversations they shepherd are fighting to close the triangle. Sadly, Democrats will resist, out of fear. And the press will fight back, hard. Not to mention the anticipated wrath of the rightwing machine, built on the "liberal media" myth. Still, the latent power of the netroots is ignored at the political and media establishment's peril.
I'd like to think that he's right, and that the blogosphere can provide a way around the pro-Bush media filter, but I don't really see that as being the case. Left Blogistan is a fragmented and chaotic place. We rarely find a unified voice, rarely manage to get all our horses pulling a story line in the same direction, and even when we do -- think Downing Street -- we're at the mercy of the mainstream media in general and television news in particular to reach the great mass of people who aren't sitting at their computers soaking up every iota of political information the way we do. Bloggers can dig up stories, refine them, and help shape them, but we need the Big Megaphone of the mainstream media to get them into the national consciousness.
So what do we do? I remember reading somewhere recently about the possibility of funding a "Liberal FOX News". It's intriguing, but I don't think such a parallel infrastructure is the answer. We'd be fighting our way into an already over-saturated cable news market. We'd also be playing right into the right's underlying agenda of making all the news -- all the "facts" -- political by further balkanizing the media into "right" and "left". Even if such a network succeeded, we'd end up talking to ourselves.
No, contra Kevin Drum, I think the best approach is to turn the Media Criticism knob to eleven. To "work the refs" the way the right has for the past two decades, only harder, faster, more relentlessly, and making constant use of our biggest built-in advantage: The facts on the ground. Behind every media atrocity of the last decade has been a set of facts that are being systematically distorted or ignored by the media in order to make the story more simpatico for the cry-babies on the right. We need to throw those facts in the face of today's right-wing media whores every chance we get. Remember how Wolf Blitzer reacted recently when Howard Dean pointed out that, no, Jack Abramoff had not given a single dime to any Democrat? The blank stare? The sputter? That's what happens when you put them on the spot. It's an uncomfortable position. No one likes being publicly proven wrong. That's a disincentive we can use to our advantage.
I think the battle to take back the media will, in the long term, prove more important than the battle to take back the House, or the Senate, or the Presidency. As the Democratic Party has repeatedly demonstrated on those infrequent occasions when they actually bother to get elected, winning office doesn't guarantee you anything. Clinton threw gays in the military under the bus within weeks of taking office, then turned around and sold out the working class with NAFTA. Connecticut's own Joe Lieberman has had his head up Bush's ass on foreign policy ever since the towers fell. Real power, real victories, won't flow from simply putting Democrats back in office, but from wresting the never-ending dialog of democracy back from the right.
(Note: Apologies for excerpting a lot of the same content Shakes did below. Didn't want to blow it off and lose the flow of the post. Such as it is.)
(Cross-posted at TwoGlasses.)