Ask Auntie Pinko
March 16, 2006
By Auntie Pinko
I'm a Vermonter with family in state government, and so I have
a better sense of Howard Dean than the average American, especially
after he was ripped apart by the mainstream news media. I remembered
Dr. Dean as a fiscal conservative - it was his hallmark. The Vermont
Democratic Party was often infuriated by his insistence on a balanced
budget. When he announced his candidacy for president, we were all
thrilled. He didn't look the part, but he was the MAN. We could
just see him tearing Bush apart in a debate - in a very slow, thoughtful,
Somehow, he ended up being portrayed as a wacky, angry, certifiably
insane al-Qaeda loving communist. I don't understand where this
bogus Dean came from. He never said anything to put him in that
category, and certainly Karl Rove had no reason to go after him
until the Party nomination, so who was vilifying him? And why? And
how? I'm utterly bemused. Even his much-mocked scream was nowhere
near as weird as I was told. Could it be the MSM just seized upon
the image of Crazy Howard because it would sell?
In a highly polarized citizenry, any leader with a strong character
will be "portrayed" in many ways, depending on the bias of those
doing the portraying. And in America today, it's a sad fact that,
more than ever, any particular portrayal will "stick"
to the extent that the bias of the person listening agrees or disagrees
with the bias of those doing the talking. Very few Americans (and,
shockingly, very few journalists) seem to deem it worthwhile to
do any in-depth research at all on primary sources to form a picture
of a candidate for office. Those few who do rarely seem to be willing
to go beyond one or two items that confirm their own biases or provide
the most sensational copy.
This is particularly tragic in light of the unprecedented access
Americans have to vast amounts of information regarding the background,
actions, and speeches of many candidates and almost all candidates
for national office. The Internet, while it vigorously proliferates
opinion, bias, and outright fabrication, also provides plenty of
primary, factual information. Government and news archives provide
voting records, minutes of committee meetings, transcripts of speeches,
records of legislation sponsorship, details of administrative or
executive initiatives and decisions, etc. Hundreds of advocacy and
interest groups offer secondary analysis of how candidates' past
actions, votes, etc., have affected specific issues and populations.
Yet far too many Americans wait for spin doctors and media flaks
with undisguised agendas to tell them what to think about this or
This has combined with a terrible reliance on misdirection, "bait
and switch," and what looks like simple laziness on the part
of media professionals, practiced for a variety of reasons. In the
case of Mr. Bush's administration (and a good many other professional
politicians and bureaucrats of both parties) the intent seems to
be to distract Americans from "complex, boring" topics
in favor of simplistic topics with heavy emotional appeal. The "complex,
boring" things often have deep implications for peoples' future
day-to-day well-being, and they often pit the interests of one group
of Americans against another, raising troubling issues that would
benefit from an informed national dialogue. But if the interests
of those with power and/or money are at stake, it's easier to slip
the "complex, boring" stuff under the radar while distracting
Americans with concerns about terrorists or gays getting married.
In the case of media professionals, even well-intentioned journalists
are often betrayed by a relentless focus on playing to a conventional
wisdom that depicts American audiences as shallow, myopic, selfish
individuals with short attention spans and an appetite for the sensational.
Unfortunately, the more the media adjusts itself to that audience,
the more they perpetuate and validate that description. By not challenging
Americans to look beyond the sensational and superficial, the media
fails in its most important obligation in a self-governing democratic
In Dr. Dean's case, he seems to have run into a convergence of
all of these elements. It is always advantageous for a candidate
to ensure that his or her strongest opponents are eliminated early
in the process. Both Democratic and Republican political strategists
spend a lot of time in the "down points" of election cycles
examining potential opponents and looking for ways to keep them
from becoming substantial threats. Dr. Dean posed a formidable challenge
to Mr. Bush's re-election from the moment it became clear that he
had activated a novel and apparently effective strategy of unknown
potency to raise funds and get his message across. The earlier he
was eliminated, the better. So of course they were working hard
to vilify him even before the nomination process was complete.
To some extent, even Dr. Dean's supporters provided an unintentional
liability - the deep, unsatisfied hunger for someone to express
the rage that many Democratic voters have felt since Mr. Bush was
awarded the Presidency in 2000 made Dr. Dean's forceful and outspoken
utterances a positive focus for many. His many restrained, reasonably-stated
positions did not always receive the same attention, even from his
supporters. And if many of his supporters expressed delight that
he was finally saying what they were feeling about Mr. Bush's
administration, it was that much easier for his campaign to be painted
as the angry and emotional wing of the Democratic Party.
Finally, never underestimate the cost/benefit analysis in the
media business. Covering six or seven candidates costs six or seven
times as much as covering one candidate. Consciously or unconsciously,
the media drives relentlessly to narrowing the choice so that they
can focus their resources strategically and minimize their costs.
How far they can push a Party to "anoint" one candidate,
without actually seeming to endorse or express a bias of their own,
is a constant experiment in newsrooms and boardrooms throughout
the media industry. Dr. Dean was a casualty of three things: Mr.
Rove's determined efforts to eliminate a strong opponent; the media's
relentless drive to narrow the field, and the pervasive perception
that the American information consumer is interested only in the
most sensational and superficial stories.
Until we restore the Fairness Doctrine and hold the media accountable
for its role in our democratic republic, I don't see much changing,
unless Americans wake up to the resources right under their noses,
and start using them! I'm sorry I couldn't be more comforting, Colin,
but thanks for asking Auntie Pinko anyway!
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