Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

March 16, 2006
By Auntie Pinko

Dear 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, articulate manner.

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?


Dear Colin,

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 that candidate.

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 republic.

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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