If the Republicans with their politics of obstruction and destruction gain control of the U.S. Senate after tomorrow’s mid-term elections, the fault will lie squarely on the news media that is apparently the slave to corporate America. The media claims that in allowing bigoted extremists on the right a “fair” hearing without putting such views in their proper context or under close examination, it is only doing its “duty.” Far from it. The fallacy of “symmetry” between Republicans and Democrats in media reporting, especially on CNN, has now become the primary motor for governmental and societal dysfunction, focusing on the salacious and sensational while failing to expose the destructive influence of partisan propaganda from the right—in fact doing whatever it can to spread it. For many voters, all they know is what they “learn” on television.
Of course we expect “asymmetry” from Fox News, since it is the mouthpiece of the extreme right. But CNN pretends to be what Fox News claims to be, but clearly is not: “Fair and balanced.” In fact it is far from that. It would have the viewer believe that the failures (and successes) of the opposing parties are “equal.” CNN has long since lost the ratings “war” for the right-wing fringe to Fox, yet it apparently believes that the so-called “center” and “undecideds” want to hear falsehoods that temper the crimes of the right. It basically serves as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party, refusing to expose its efforts to disenfranchise voters, deny basic human rights for the majority of people for partisan political reasons, its refusal to understand that compromise is necessary when a majority of citizens don’t even agree with its policy agenda.
In their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein claim that it was right-wing politicians like Newt Gingrich who “discovered” that the media preferred to cover “confrontation” over “education,” although whether or not Gingrich was “educating” anyone is a matter of partisan opinion. Certainly confrontation wasn’t exactly unknown in the halls of Congress; in the lead-up to the Civil War, confrontation could and often did lead to physical violence over the question of slavery (Southerners who claim the war was about “states’ rights” always neglect to mention that the “right” they are talking about was the “right” to own slaves and expand slavery’s territorial reach).
The book notes that hard-right Republicans like Gingrich, Rick Santorum, John Boehner and others seized on the so-called House banking scandal of 1992—in which House members sometimes overdrew from their pay accounts from an internal House bank—which Gingrich and company used stirred-up a tsunami and rode the wave of public discontent into control of the House in 1994 and for next 12 years. The media, seizing on the discontent for ratings, failed to hammer home the point that not only were Republicans as well as Democrats guilty, but Gingrich was one of the worst abusers of the banking “system.” The media allowed Republican hypocrisy free reign as Gingrich and his cronies successfully diverted all attention away from their own guilt by their self-serving bombast; it made for good ratings—and their corporate owners and sponsors approved as well.
With the electorate primed to view the Democratic majority in Congress as the “problem,” and with the election of Bill Clinton, it was Gingrich who would begin the process of Republican obstruction that would be their strategy to block all policy initiatives of Democratic presidents to come. Clinton recently claimed that Obama had it “easier” than he did; he may be referring to his own failure to enact healthcare reform, but in any case in 1994 and in 2008 Republicans hit on the “strategy” of total obstruction. Mann and Ornstein note that
“In 1992, the electorate, reacting to a poor economy, brought in a Democratic president for the first time in twelve years, with continuing Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. This scenario was ideal for Gingrich, as it allowed him to capitalize on his party’s frustration at being out of power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in twelve years; he was able to convince his party to vote en masse against major Clinton initiatives. Gingrich in effect convinced Republicans to act like a parliamentary minority; even in areas where some GOP members might have agreed with Democrats or wanted to bar gain with them, they united in opposition, daring the majority to find votes only from within their own ranks. When Clinton could not keep the congressional Democrats united, it resulted in embarrassing and damaging policy delays and, on his signature health-care reform plan, spectacular failure, along with a deepening sense among voters of a broken political system. That sense was just what Gingrich and his allies wanted to cultivate.”
Republicans were advised to use the vilest “code words” to demean and demonize their Democratic opponents in 1994. Besides political discourse being “broken,” so to was the media’s failure. Gingrich and the extreme Republican right was “great” theater, and who wanted to spoil the show if was good for ratings—even if most of it was all lies and hypocrisy? And what was the result of the media’s utter failure to expose the extreme right’s agenda?
“Gingrich wanted to establish the House almost as a parallel government, challenging the president and his policy initiatives—and his very ability to shape the agenda—at every turn. Believing that Clinton was soft and would cave to pressure, enabling the House Republicans to move from winning an election for Congress to taking effective charge of the government and implementing a sweeping policy revolution, he confronted Clinton and challenged established policies at every turn”—this was the de facto result of his so-called “Contract with America.”
But Clinton held firm on the budget and debt ceiling confrontation with Gingrich. To avoid further embarrassment, “Gingrich saw that his overreach and hubris threatened his majority’s ability to win a second term; he was still popular enough to convince his colleagues to pivot and work with the president and to have sufficient accomplishments to mollify voters, even if it meant burnishing Clinton’s status at the same time.”
Here Clinton was wrong about having it “easier” than Obama; even when current Speaker of the House John Boehner sought to work with him, Boehner was repeatedly stymied by his lack of clout among his own members, especially with the Tea Party and its racial undercurrents. Since 2010, when voters still unsure about the viability of the Affordable Care Act, they allowed their fear and the rhetoric of paranoia to return the Republicans to control of the House. If people knew then what they know now about the positive effects of ACA, the results may have been far different; thanks to the media’s increasing inaction and silence on matters of vital importance to the country, they wouldn’t have learned anyways.
Mann and Ornstein rightly bemoan the fact that the news media treats the differences between the left and the right as being “equally culpable” in the nation’s problems. “It is traditional that those in the American media intent on showing their lack of bias frequently report to their viewers and readers that both sides are equally guilty of partisan misbehavior. Journalistic traditions notwithstanding, reality is very different. The center of gravity within the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. Its legendary moderate legislators in the House and Senate are virtually extinct. To be sure, a sizable number of Republicans in Congress are center-right or right-center, rather than right-right. But the insurgent right wing regularly drowns them out. The post-McGovern Democratic Party, while losing the bulk of the conservative Dixiecrat contingent, has retained a more diverse constituency base, and since the Clinton presidency, has hewed to the center-left, with an emphasis on the center, on issues ranging from welfare reform to health policy.”
They also quote a thirty year Republican Congressional staffer who states that Republicans have turned into something more like an “apocalyptic cult” or “intensely ideological authoritarian (read fascist) parties of 20th century Europe…Far from being a rarity, virtually every bill, every nominee for Senate confirmation and every routine procedural motion is now subject to a Republican filibuster…no wonder that Washington is gridlocked…legislating has now become war minus the shooting…a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself.” This was, of course, the avenue of the Nazis rise to power, and how the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to seize total power in Egypt.
The staffer also noted that it was an “understanding” within the party that there was a “method” to the “madness”—that the Republicans hoped to derail productivity in the Senate so that voters opinions on that body would be so low that they would “throw the bums out”—and they would incorrectly view the majority party in the Senate as the “culprit.” Yet even when the Republicans telegraphing their intentions, the news media seems incapable of divining their destructiveness and telling voters the truth. The fact is that if the media dispensed with “fairness” which is only abused and exploited by extremists on the right and just told the truth, Republicans would be forced to moderate their extreme, obstructionist ways and actually consider the value of governing.
What instead is happening is that “fair and balanced” Fox News—a putrid lie if ever—“makes more profit than the three network news divisions combined, despite having only 1/10th the viewership.” How can this be? Because its right-wing slant is valued by the Big Business and well-funded right-wing PACs with their salacious political advertisements. Fox News is in effect merely the mouthpiece of corporate America—as envisioned by an Australian who also happens to be a major pollutant in the British media, Rupert Murdoch. This “news” network maintains its “loyal audience of conservatives” by providing them “the same message presented in different ways by different hosts over and over again”—meaning, of course, they learn nothing.
CNN, meanwhile, “has tried multiple business models, but has settled on having regular showdowns pitting either a bedrock liberal against a bedrock conservative, or a reliable spinner for Democrats against a Republican viewer. For viewers, this is reinforcement that the only dialogue in the country is between polarized left and right, and that the alternative is cynical public relations with no convictions at all. The new business models and audiences are challenging the old notion that Americans can share a common set of facts and then debate options.”
With countless media outlets for “consumers” to choose from, we have seen the proliferation of scandal mongering from the likes of TMZ and Deadspin being passed off as “news,” and “traditional” news reporting has count on with the new “reality.” In order to compete, “all media have become more focused on sensationalism and extremism, on infotainment over information, and, in the process, the culture has coarsened. No lie is too extreme to be published, aired, and repeated, with little or no repercussion for its perpetrator. The audiences that hear them repeatedly believe the lies…In a fragmented television and radio world of intense competition for eyeballs and eardrums sensationalism trumps sensible centrism. The lawmakers who get attention and airtime are the extreme and outrageous ones…Outrageous comments result in celebrity status, huge fund-raising advantages, and more media exposure. Mild behavior or political centrisrn gets no such reward.”
Mann and Ornstein suggest that there is no actual “center,” that the “centrist” voter is a myth. What this means is that a third party to force a “fix” dysfunctional government in the absence of media responsibility is bound to fail. All it would do is syphon off votes from one candidate; this is why Ralph Nader’s presidential run in 2000 was one of conceited, pompous, self-serving, shortsighted and ultimately disastrous fantasies—and it prevented what would have been a comfortable victory for Al Gore and a much different country, perhaps one with a balanced budget without the disastrous tax, debt, revenue and war policies of the Bush administration.
Traditional media must stop pretending that the parties are “equal.” The public must be properly educated on the meaning and reality of asymmetric guilt in the current governmental dysfunction. Electing Republicans will only mean that the problems they created will only become worse. Politician’s lies or distortions about facts should be emphasized in news stories and not buried in back pages. It is the media’s duty to “clarify the differences in the party platforms.”
With the Tea Party continuing to be a “viable” political movement thanks to being propped up by an ignorant news media fascinated with their ignorance and destructive purposes, “Voters must punish extremism and seek to restore & maintain norms,” say Mann and Ornstein. But how can this be possible if the media refuses to do its duty and report the truth, rather than be “fair” to both sides which clearly are not “equal” in their culpability in the breakdown in government?