This year’s campaign season has been more bizarre than usual. From the manufactured controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque and Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” ad to Barack Obama’s “Yes we can, but” moment on The Daily Show, it’s been a long, strange trip.
With a tip of the hat to the Tea Party, and the journalists and pundits who love them, here are a few thoughts on the intersection of media, politics and culture on the eve of Decision 2010.
"What passes for political discourse on talk radio and the cable news channels would make Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels blush."
Anti-incumbency and the news normal
“Throw the rascals out!” is a sentiment that neatly sums up the electorate’s mood these days. And with good reason. America’s reputation, not to mention its future, is on the line.
For instance, despite Obama’s best efforts to rebrand Bush’s “war on terror,” America’s still got a credibility problem overseas. Mired in two costly and protracted foreign occupations, the United States has destabilized one of the more volatile regions of the world. Doing so, we’ve also incurred a staggering debt in blood and treasure.
What’s more, our repeated violations of human rights conventions at Guantanamo, coupled with our ongoing support of Israel’s apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories, make it clear to the international community that change has not come to America.
Here at home, talk of a “jobless recovery” isn’t fooling anyone who’s been unemployed for any length of time. And for the hundreds of thousands of families displaced by the foreclosure crisis, the American dream is over. In the meantime, as income inequality reaches historic proportions, the super rich cry “class warfare” at the mere suggestion that Bush era tax cuts might soon expire.
"Contemporary journalism fuels public cynicism toward political processes and opens the door for the corporate takeover of American public life."
All the while, what passes for political discourse on talk radio and the cable news channels would make Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels blush.
This is the new news normal: Bad news on every front, leavened with a steady diet of fear mongering and cynicism. For anyone who still believes in the promise of American democracy, it’s a recipe for disaster. But if you happen to be in the news business, it’s the next best thing to Monica’s dress.
In short, for all the anti-incumbent fervor out in the country, we seem to be throwing the baby out with the bath water. While our system of government is far from perfect, our democratic tradition demands greater respect -- especially from the Fourth Estate -- whose historic role is to nurture and support an informed and engaged public.
Instead, all this talk about the excesses and abuses of Big Government and the attendant anti-incumbent rhetoric provide cover for the real threat to American democracy: unchecked corporate power.
From the unprecedented level of corporate spending during this election cycle to the BP oil disaster, the signs of corporate excess are hard to miss. And yet, the news media routinely direct the public’s ire at government. Doing so, contemporary journalism fuels public cynicism toward political processes and opens the door for the corporate takeover of American public life.
Burying the lead
Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in this year’s midterm elections. Throughout the election cycle, the Tea Party has dominated the news narrative. While popular movements deserve press coverage, the U.S. press corps’ slavish attention to the Tea Party -- and it’s continued marginalization of progressive movements -- says a lot about what’s wrong with journalism these days.
"The U.S. press corps’ slavish attention to the Tea Party -- and it’s continued marginalization of progressive movements -- says a lot about what’s wrong with journalism these days."
For all the time and effort news workers have spent covering the Tea Party, there is little in the way of substantive reporting on the powerful players and interests that are behind a great deal of this “populist” outrage. The independent and alternative press has been on this story for some time now. And in August, the New Yorker magazine ran a fine investigative report by Jane Mayer that exposed the role of the wealthy, and stealthy, Koch family on the Tea Party and the broader “war against Obama.”
Nevertheless, the mainstream press has all but ignored this. Only recently have news reports even mentioned the Koch family or the role that Bush’s brain, Karl Rove, has played in fueling anti-incumbent, anti-Obama sentiment. Rove’s astroturf group, American Crossroads, has gotten some mention, but it’s been fleeting and a bit late in the day. A vigilant press corps would have run with this story early and often; instead, the Tea Party and likeminded groups received a free pass in most news outlets and a megaphone from their cohorts at Fox News Channel.
The influence of big money on the midterm election is one of the underreported stories of the year. A recent report issued by the Center for Responsive Politics suggesting that spending for this year’s midterm election may exceed $4 billion hasn’t received much press coverage. One reason for this may be that commercial media companies are the big winners in all of this. As an Oct. 29 AP business story noted, while the electorate may be sick of the seemingly endless stream of virulent political ads on television, “for TV stations it’s a stimulus package.”
Small wonder, then, that this story would fly under the radar of corporate media -- commercial media outlets don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. It’s less clear why non-commercial media, like NPR, would likewise bury the lead on these stories. And yet, a recent report on public radio’s All Things Considered did just this.
"The Tea Party and likeminded groups received a free pass in most news outlets and a megaphone from their cohorts at Fox News Channel."
Framing a story on campaign spending in a Colorado senate race with the standard horserace template, NPR’s Jeff Brady’s closing remarks get closer to the heart of the matter than the entire piece.
Brady concluded his report, saying, “All that money spent on ads has left the senate race in Colorado virtually tied, according to polls. And the biggest beneficiaries from that spending may have been the local media. The Gannett Co., which owns the leading television news station in Denver, says it expects advertising revenue for its broadcasting unit to jump by more than 20 percent this quarter over the same period last year, largely because of political ads.”
Without putting too fine a point on it, our money-driven political processes are unlikely to change if there’s an economic incentive for news outlets to continue with business as usual. But commercial and public media outlets are unable, or more likely, unwilling, to connect the dots when it comes to campaign spending, for-profit media and a dysfunctional political system.
In the meantime, stories about progressive movements aimed at eliminating corporate influence on electoral processes don’t get much traction. Despite news stories that discuss how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case has opened the flood gates for corporate spending in this year’s election cycle, it’s up to independent and grassroots news outlets, like Democracy Now!, to report on the efforts of Free Speech for People, a coalition of public interest groups working to “restore the First Amendment to its original purpose” and to draft a “constitutional amendment that puts people before corporations.”
"Without putting too fine a point on it, our money-driven political processes are unlikely to change if there’s an economic incentive for news outlets to continue with business as usual."
There’s cruel irony in all of this. Over the course of the campaign season, there’s been talk of rewriting the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce -- a proponent of Arizona’s notoriously anti-immigrant, racial profiling bill, SB 1070 -- has called for revoking birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. Such a move runs counter to longstanding American values and traditions. And yet, this extremist impulse to amend the constitution has received a fair amount of media attention.
At the same time, the efforts by Free Speech for People to amend the Constitution and defend our system of self-governance from corporate rule can’t get any traction in the mainstream media. Was a time when amendments to the Constitution extended and enhanced American freedoms and liberties. These days, efforts to curtail our freedoms seem all the rage. And the U.S. press corps seems reluctant to side with the better angels of our nature.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.