Democratic Underground

Timidity of major media and top Dems combine to defuse public outrage

February 25, 2006
By Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter

By 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 opinion.

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 Administration?

In the absence of such coverage, how can the public possibly become informed? In this vacuum of information, how can a meaningful democracy exist?

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

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