Timidity of major media and top Dems combine
to defuse public outrage
February 25, 2006
By Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter
now, progressives should stop hoping that the next colossal blunder
or abuse of power by the Bush administration' will finally and magically
ignite the public into rejecting the Bush Administration and its
reign of incompetent crony capitalism.
The latest reminder: most media coverage of the current firestorm
over the Dubai port deal buries the key element of cronyism. Specifically,
Commerce Secretary John Snow, who railroaded this decision on the
fast track to approval, also took part in CSX's sale of port facilities
to the same Dubai firm while serving as CEO of CSX.
However, it is clear by now that the public is largely numb to
the implications of the Bush policies, whether it be the disaster
caused by Katrina or the growing war in Iraq. It is time to go back
to the drawing boards to redefine a progressive strategy. While
much has been said about the lameness of the Democratic party and
the lack of courage of the media, the interaction of these two elements
is a critical barrier for any meaningful mobilization of public
The ever-unfolding, multi-dimensional disaster of the Iraq War
alone should be enough to inspire dozens of John Murthas in Congress
demanding US withdrawal and unleash hundreds of Seymour Hershes
in the media, unveiling torture, special rendition, and wiretapping.
Instead, we have the voices of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman
joining the Republicans and the basic framework and dominating the
voices of dissent that appear in the mainstream media. Rather than
consistent coverage on the ruinous effects of the US war, we listen
to NPR hosting a forum on the absurd question of whether Bush is
too ambitious in trying to promote democracy in the Mideast. What'
next? "Is Michael Jackson too ambitious in trying to spread
happiness to children at Neverland?"
Similarly, the predictable and preventable disaster of Hurricane
Katrina, still an ongoing tragedy for hundreds of thousands of New
Orleans and Gulf Coast residents, has been largely forgotten by
most major media outlets, with honorable exceptions like CNN's Anderson
Cooper. The fact that Bush could omit any specific reference to
Katrina in his State of the Union speech, despite his earlier lavish
promises, illustrates the major media's unwillingness to forcefully
raise even the most obvious issues. Few media outlets lashed Bush
for this central, continuing failure of his domestic policy or the
cronyism that caused it.
Shamefully, Katrina was barely present in the Democrats' supine
response to Bush's speech despite the horrors afflicted by Bush,
Chertoff, and Brown on the Democrats' most loyal constituency, poor
African-Americans. And if neither the major media nor the opposition
party hold the president accountable in any serious way, our democracy
and any balance of power is simply not functioning.
From observing the US media's timid tip-toeing around massive scandals
and leading Democrats' cowardly capitulation on critical issues,
it should be clear that the major media and the top Democratic leadership
are unwitting partners in enabling the Bush machine to rumble forward.
This is especially true with regard to the ongoing appointment of
competence-free cronies, the special deals for Halliburton, and
the current port scandal based on the connections of John Snow with
the Dubai company.
When long-time hawks like Rep. John Murtha finally speak out against
the Iraq War in a concise and forceful fashion, they not only face
predictable Republican Swift-boating, but also sabotage by the conservative
element of the Democratic leadership -- like Hillary Clinton, Steny
Hoyer, and Democratic Leadership Council.
This profoundly shapes media coverage. Instead of the spotlight
being on a capable spokesman speaking from the heart on principle,
the media naturally depicts a divided and confused party. Murtha's
powerful and articulate dissent becomes forgotten. Consequently,
the space for "responsible" critics shrinks in the media
to people like Clinton who confine their critique to tactical matters.
Thus, any urge for boldness on the part of the media is weakened
by the absence of real opposition from the Democrats, while the
Democrats are enfeebled by the tepid media coverage on those rare
occasions when they do substantively criticize the Republicans.
In this way, the alleged opposition party and supposedly independent
media function as co-disablers of democratic debate in America.
Neither the opposition party nor the media step forward to create
a larger, genuine space for debate that includes perspectives beyond
those of entrenched Beltway insiders.
A huge part of the problem is the mainstream media' standard conventions.
The media shape the way most people view the world, as the major
source of information on an extremely complex world. Even while
we recognize that the major media are composed of corporate institutions,
progressives must doggedly challenge them on their critical role
of monitoring abuse in our democracy.
A failure to effectively monitor and confront the media lets major
news outlets serve as uncritical outlets for administration propaganda.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, the media cravenly accepted -- Knight-Ridder
reporters notably excepted -- without challenge every false assertion
made by the Bush administration, as exemplified by Judith Miller's
breathless claim, "The first sign of a 'smoking gun,' they
argue, may be a mushroom cloud." The major media never dared
to note that the US government has a long history of lying to set
the stage for war, going back to the Spanish-American War and the
battleship Maine explosion, the contrived Tonkin Gulf incident that
was used to escalate the Vietnam War, or the utterly false testimony
about Kuwaiti babies torn from incubators, which was crucial in
setting the public mood for the Persian Gulf War.
On domestic policy, every public issue is turned by the media into
an "inside baseball" analysis of partisan advantage or
weakness, as if the only stakeholders in policy debates were just
the 535 members of Congress of the two major parties. The impact
of major issues on average citizens -- America's appallingly expensive
but third-rate health care system, new environmental damage wrought
by the Bush and the Republicans, or the administration's admitted
policy of encouraging the outsourcing of jobs overseas to low-wage
tyrannies -- is barely mentioned. The perilous phenomenon of global
warming is covered almost entirely in terms of politics; as if the
only consequence of global warming is which party will benefit.
In the same vein, despite their enormous resources for news gathering,
the major media displayed spectacular incompetence in covering news
critical to the government operating in the people' best interests.
The rampant cronyism of the current Administration developed under
the knowing nose of the multi-billion dollar U.S. media, yet major
media outlets felt little obligation to explore the appropriateness
of these appointments. It isn't as if the media didn't know a good
deal of this stuff, it just didn't seem important to cover it in
a consistent fashion. Why was the media so late to cover the systematic
appointment of well-connected cronies to institutions vital to public
safety and health like FEMA, FDA, or the Mine Safety and Health
In the absence of such coverage, how can the public possibly become
informed? In this vacuum of information, how can a meaningful democracy
Over the past five years, the corporate media have sunk below even
our lowest expectations in their unwillingness to even timidly question
the most outlandish assertions of the Bush administration. But this
cowardice has been fed by the spinelessness of top Democratic leaders,
whose passivity reinforces the major media' shrinkage of the space
for serious public debate about the US empire abroad and growing
inequality and repressiveness at home.
Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter are Milwaukee-based activists and
writers. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.