The election results are in and, as expected, Democrats took it on the chin. It remains to be seen how the historic gains made by Republicans -- and their Tea Party doppelgaengers -- will play out in the next session of Congress. But as one of MTV's memorable characters put it some years ago, "I've got a bad feeling about this Butthead."
In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to consider a few stories that got spun, overlooked, or just plain ignored amid the deluge of news, analysis and opinion coming out of the 2010 midterm elections. Here, then, in no particular order, are five stories that deserve a closer look.
Bad day for Blue Dogs
The biggest losers on Election Day were conservative Democrats, the so-called Blue Dogs. The conservative Democratic caucus lost half of their members, including Indiana's Ninth District U.S. Rep. Baron Hill.
Reading the tea leaves on election night, mainstream reporters and the punditocracy pointed to the Blue Dog's ignominious defeat as clear evidence that the country has rejected the Obama administration's policy initiatives and legislative agenda. In the days since, this has emerged as the dominant narrative coming out of the midterm election.
But there's another side to this story -- one that confounds this simpleminded analysis of the election results. Unlike their conservative colleagues, progressive Democrats faired quite well on Nov. 2. With nearly 80 members, the Progressive Caucus is poised to keep the heat on both House Republicans and the administration.
"Unlike their conservative colleagues, progressive Democrats faired quite well on Nov. 2."
Speaking on Pacifica radio's Democracy Now! Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, indicated that "the role of the Progressive Caucus and progressive members, in general, is going to be beyond the role of loyal opposition ... and to assure that the legislative items that have to be challenged that the Republicans are going to bring up are also challenged by alternatives that are put together by progressives and Democrats."
Countering the corporate media's spin on the Democrats' defeat, Grijalva rejected the notion that the Democrats were defeated because they supported Obama's "radical" legislative agenda. According to Grijalva, Congressional Democrats lost their majority because "we compromised and watered down many, many important initiatives, and I think we paid the price for it."
Of course, this perspective wasn't open to discussion in the corporate media. For mainstream news workers, the lesson of the 2010 midterms is clear: Obama needs to work in a bipartisan fashion with Republicans. It should go without saying that such assessments ignore recent history. (Hell, it makes me wonder what parallel universe these reporters and pundits occupy.) After all, Obama went out of his way to reach out across the aisle on any number of issues, from health care and the economy, to education reform and climate change.
Rather than embrace the administration's efforts, the Party of No's strategy going into the 2010 midterms was evident from the day Obama took office: the Republicans would work to deny Obama and the Democrats legislative victories by any means necessary. True to form, Republicans demonized Obama in the press and used every procedural trick in the book to obstruct Obama's momentum and undermine his mandate.
Nevertheless, Grijalva's analysis has merit. The Democratic leadership's spirit of compromise and consensus has done little to overcome the gridlock in Washington, D.C. Instead, any legislative victories the Obama administration might claim have been half-measures and sweetheart deals with Wall Street, private military contractors, the insurance industry and other entrenched interests.
More to the point, the election results suggest that progressive Democrats didn't suffer from the "enthusiasm gap" that decimated the ranks of conservative Democrats. That's saying something about the resiliency and determination of "the professional left" -- as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissively referred to progressives who dared criticize the Obama administration.
All of which is to say that the handwriting is on the wall: progressives ought to cut their losses and call it quits with the Democratic Party. With so-called third parties all the rage these days, perhaps the time is right for the Professional Left Party (PLP).
War and veteran suicides
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were conspicuous in their absence as campaign issues during the 2010 midterms. The reasons for this are clear enough; despite the public's growing opposition to U.S. military adventurism, congressional Democrats and Republicans alike continue to support the war effort.
Notwithstanding Obama's efforts to re-brand the war on terror at home and abroad, the costs of these grinding occupations continue to mount. The result: staggering debt, the escalation of hostilities in Pakistan, growing international skepticism over U.S. motives and the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians across the region.
All the while, American soldiers and their families receive little more than lip service for their sacrifice. The sanctimonious praise for our veterans peaked not long after the midterm elections, as politicians and the major news outlets turned their attention to Veteran's Day.
"Notwithstanding Obama's efforts to re-brand the war on terror at home and abroad, the costs of these grinding occupations continues to mount."
NPR got the ball rolling during the Nov. 6 broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday. Host Scott Simon spent a little over eight minutes speaking with Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah, about the Pentagon's efforts to curtail suicides within the ranks of American service men and women. The interview was pegged to a news story that didn't get much play at the time; four soldiers -- all veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars -- took their own lives at Fort Hood in Texas this past September.
No doubt Adm. Mullen and his wife are deeply disturbed by the rising number of suicides within the Armed Forces. As Mullen observed, the suicide rate has doubled since 2004. "We now exceed the rate in the population in the country," Mullen noted.
Speaking to the importance of providing support services for our soldiers, Ms. Mullens said, "I think one of the issues if we don't do this is that we're going to find that we're going to have another generation of homeless veterans." Ms. Mullens continued, "We're already beginning to see the numbers increase faster than they did from Vietnam, and it is -- they become homeless sooner than they did after Vietnam. We're seeing more homeless female veterans."
Throughout the interview, the admiral and his wife spoke of their bewilderment with the growing crisis. Mrs. Mullen suggested that the "silence" among military personnel and their families regarding suicide was, perhaps, a contributing factor. Likewise, the admiral indicated that the stigma surrounding suicide, especially in the military culture, confounds the Pentagon's ability to understand and address the problem.
While it is essential that the Pentagon confront this issue and that the U.S. press corps cover this story in an ongoing and substantive fashion, NPR's coverage belies public broadcasting's "inside-the-beltway" perspective.
That is to say, there are any number of individuals and organizations across the country, including mental health workers and others, who can and do speak to this issue. For instance, Military Families Speak Out, an advocacy group working to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been calling attention to veteran suicides for years now.
And yet, for all of their talent, resources and journalistic credibility, NPR is unwilling to speak directly with veterans and their families for stories about the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of our service men and women.
Sure, NPR cares. But not enough to listen to the voices of veterans and military families who are on the front lines of this national crisis.
Prop 23 defeated
One of the defining characteristics of the 2010 midterm elections was how thoroughly the campaign was nationalized. Local and statewide races were consistently framed as a referendum on the Obama administration. Here, the financial stimulus plan and Obama's health care reform initiative took center stage. As a result, races in Delaware, Alaska, New York and Nevada received significant national media attention.
"It's remarkable that the defeat of Proposition 23 in California didn't generate much discussion in print, on the airwaves or on the rolling news channels."
In this climate, it's remarkable that the defeat of Proposition 23 in California didn't generate much discussion in print, on the airwaves or on the rolling news channels. After all, the story has all the makings of a "feel good story" wherein California voters of every political persuasion resoundingly defeated an effort, financed in large measure by Big Oil, to overturn AB32, California's landmark environmental law.
It was a victory, short-lived perhaps, for so-called green energy policies. And yet, the defeat of Prop 23 barely got a mention in all the Wednesday morning quarterbacking following the election.
As the influential community activist, Saul Alinsky, famously noted, the only way to defeat organized money is with organized people. Seems the popular defeat of an oil industry-sponsored referendum simply isn't newsworthy. But it makes you wonder: if the Tea party had opposed Prop 23 would this impressive people's victory have made the nightly news?
Olbermann campaign contributions
In the immediate aftermath of the midterms, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann emerged as the poster child for growing concerns over journalistic standards and, to a lesser extent, the influence of runaway campaign contributions on electoral processes.
In a report by Politico, Olbermann acknowledged that he gave contributions to three Democratic candidates. When news of Olbermann's contributions broke, MSNBC suspended him indefinitely. The ensuing uproar over Olbermann's violation of NBC's professional standards dominated the news cycles for several days.
"If MSNBC is 'hard left' then Obama must really be a socialist. And Lord knows what that makes NPR!"
Among the more hyperbolic assessments of the episode aired on the aforementioned broadcast of Morning Edition. According to NPR's "media correspondent," David Folkenflik, MSNBC and its parent, NBC News, have increasingly divergent definitions of news, news analysis and commentary. Fair enough. These tensions are surfacing across the media industries, in large part due to the technological and cultural shifts in news production, distribution and consumption over the past decade or so.
But then Folkenflik makes an outrageous, if unintentionally hilarious, assertion about MSNBC: "The channel has increasingly gone hard left, in large part because of the success of Keith Olbermann's Countdown program in opposition to then-President George W. Bush."
If MSNBC is "hard left" then Obama must really be a socialist. And Lord knows what that makes NPR!
As the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has pointed out, the larger question about campaign contributions gets missed in all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the Olbermann affair.
In a recent action alert, FAIR noted, "A journalist donating money to a political candidate raises obvious conflict of interest questions; at a minimum, such contributions should be disclosed on air. But if supporting politicians with money is a threat to journalistic independence, what are the standards for Olbermann's bosses at NBC, and at NBC's parent company General Electric?"
Predictably, such questions are "off limits" in the corporate media. After all, according to the Supreme Court, corporate speech enjoys all of the rights -- but none of the responsibilities, it turns out -- that you, or I, or Keith Olbermann enjoy.
As the dust over at MSNBC settled and Keith Olbermann returned to television, leaked reports indicated that President Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission was coming back with recommendations that would be sure to agitate Americans of every political stripe.
"Holland cautions that this is but the latest assault on working people across the country. "
On Wednesday, commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles released their preliminary recommendations for balancing the federal budget. Predictably enough, the corporate press framed the story as an unfortunate, but all too necessary, remedy for our runaway deficit. To lend an air of respectability to the commission's recommendation, an awful lot of reporters and pundits used the label "bipartisan" to describe the commission's work.
Writing in AlterNet, Joshua Holland pointed out that this initial report shouldn't be taken at face value. As Holland notes, these preliminary recommendations constitute a "profoundly regressive, unrealistic set of proposals that wouldn't get the support of 14 of the commission's 18 members -- required to spur Congressional action -- much less enough votes to pass on the Hill."
Nevertheless, Holland cautions that this is but the latest assault on working people across the country. "It should be seen for what it is: a opening gambit in a campaign to shift yet more of the risks of a modern capitalist society off the shoulders of corporations and the highest-earners and onto working families."
Under the guise of "bipartisanship" then, the forthcoming deficit reduction measures, like the Wall Street bailout and the foreclosure crisis, are intelligible signs of full-spectrum class warfare being waged against middle-class and working families.
In this light, the midterm elections were but a skirmish in the wider war being waged against the majority of decent, hardworking Americans by a desperate, and increasingly ruthless, minority of political and economic elites.
All of this puts me in mind of the late Steve Goodman's Ballad of Penny Evans. Whether it's the war on terror, the culture wars or the corporate assault on working people, Goodman's lyric plainly, if rather ominously, captures the state of our union: "They Say the War Is Over but I Think It's Just Begun."
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.