GOP gets a thumpin', and media revive their substance-free, sophomoric taunting ... of Democrats
Elections rarely present perfect tests of progressivism versus conservatism. But they are the best way we have of keeping score, and the scoreboard shows that progressives won a resounding victory last week.
Given the magnitude of that victory -- just two years after the media told us that Democrats had become a permanent minority, they won control of both houses of Congress, a majority of governorships, and denied Republicans the pickup of a single congressional district -- we might expect the media to praise the strategic brilliance of the Left, just as they spent much of the past six years lavishing praise on Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman and, basically, everyone who has ever set foot inside the Republican National Committee. (Media Matters has repeatedly noted, debunked -- and occasionally mocked -- the media's tendency to swoon at the mere mention of Rove; most recently, Eric Boehlert addressed the topic in his column this week.)
Given the magnitude of the Republicans' loss, we might expect the journalists and pundits who have so mercilessly mocked Democrats as bumblers and fools, the political equivalent of the Washington Generals, to turn their snide comments and patronizing jokes on the GOP. With Karl Rove apparently wandering around in a daze, wondering what the hell happened, surely his spectacularly incompetent reading of the electorate has earned him months, if not years, of ridicule by the likes of Norah O'Donnell, Chris Matthews, and Mark Halperin.
Better yet, given the thumpin' the GOP took at the hands of progressives -- and given the public's giddy reaction to the election results -- we might expect a rash of news reports about how out of touch the Republican Party is; how its far-right agenda has been rejected; how the GOP is now a regional party, unable to appeal to voters outside of the deep South.
Certainly the Republicans' reaction to last Tuesday's shellacking only feeds into such a narrative. Surveying the smoldering wreckage of the Republican Party (a phrase we first used in September 2005, when the GOP's collapse was obvious to all but the nation's political pundits) and presumably noting that the only one of the "big six" Senate races they won was the one in which they leveled what were widely seen as transparently racist attacks on the Democratic candidate, the Senate Republican caucus chose as its new second-in-command the party's most famous racist, Trent Lott.
We all know how the pundits would chortle if Democrats took an electoral thumpin', then responded by elevating their most liberal members to the party leadership. We'd hear how their policies and their demeanor were anathema to "real Americans" -- and how their reaction to defeat shows just how clueless these effete liberals are.
But those waiting for similar treatment of the GOP at the hands of the nation's political reporters and pundits shouldn't hold their breath. It isn't coming.
Over at The Note, ABC's political tipsheet and unofficial headquarters of the Rove/Mehlman Fan Club, Halperin & Co. have given no indication that they've removed the pictures of their hero Karl from their wall. In eight editions of The Note since the Thumpin', its authors steadfastly avoid Rove's miscalculation; indeed, his name barely appears, except in passing. Is it because they like him too much? Because they remain in awe of his genius even as he loses? Or is it because undermining that genius could hurt sales of Halperin's mash note of a book, The Way to Win?
Whatever the reason, it isn't likely to end anytime soon. Suggesting non-interest in dwelling on the GOP's failure, the title of today's edition of The Note consists of a lyric from the Bruce Springsteen song "Don't Look Back" (The Note's affinity for Springsteen constituting a compelling reminder of the old adage about even a stopped clock being right twice a day).
It's easy enough to look past the obvious, if unintentional, double standard. After all, if the public isn't well-served by the sort of inane, substance-free mockery and derision to which the media have subjected progressives in recent years, such treatment of conservatives would merely even the score, not necessarily constitute a move toward more responsible treatment of serious issues. So we might see the lack of sophomoric taunting as a positive.
That would be a mistake. The political media aren't becoming more responsible; they're simply continuing to direct their scorn at Democrats and progressives. Just this week, media have hyped purported Democratic disarray while downplaying or ignoring altogether GOP infighting; falsely suggested that Nancy Pelosi is as unpopular as President Bush; asserted that Democrats -- who do not yet actually control Congress and won't until next year -- are "starting to feel some of the pressure" of catching Osama bin Laden without explaining how Bush and the GOP let him get away; and suggested that Nancy Pelosi, who hasn't even become speaker of the House yet, is already "damaged goods." Meanwhile, Trent Lott, who has as good a claim on being "damaged goods" as anyone, is the beneficiary of a media whitewash of his history of associating himself with racist organizations and ideas. Fox News, not typically known for subtlety or for downplaying controversy, told viewers that Lott "ran into a little bit of difficulty, but now he's making a comeback." Yes, that unpleasantness about his suggestion that America would be better off had a segregationist been elected president is behind him, and Lott is now ready, we presume, to act as a uniter, not a divider. Right.
But while the GOP choses as one of its leaders a man who seemed to endorse segregation just four years ago, it is the Democrats who draw the punditry's derision. Glenn Greenwald details some of the criticism of Pelosi:
Over at New Republic's The Plank, we learn that the election of Steny Hoyer as Majority Leader "is a real embarassment (sic) for Nancy Pelosi" and that to have any chance to "move past" this towering defeat she must "resist her tendency to seek payback against apostates" (Michael Crowley); "Pelosi looks pretty bad right now" (Jason Zengerle); and, in short, "this was a disaster for Pelosi all the way around" (Christopher Orr). And oh - the great and powerful Tom "Hammer" Delay (who pioneered the art of punishing apostates) would never have allowed something like this to happen.
Their overseer, Marty Peretz, surveys his decades-deep familiarity with American politicians and decides that Pelosi reminds him of . . . . . of all people . . . . Bella Abzug. After he notes the many important and serious differences between the two -- "Pelosi is rather svelte, which Bella was not. Pelosi also doesn't wear a big-brimmed hat" -- he says that neither of these women can "discern between a political difference and a personal war. So if it was the former, it quickly also became the latter." Says Peretz of Pelosi: she "cannot separate personal from political differences. And where Pelosi's vanity goes, there, apparently, the House Democrats will follow."
At Slate, Timothy Noah has a column entitled "Dump Pelosi[?]," in which he generously decrees: "Let Pelosi remain speaker for now. But let her know that, before the new Congress even begins, she has placed herself on probation." Noah warns her: "One more strike -- even a minor misstep -- and House Democrats will demonstrate that they, unlike Speaker-elect Pelosi and President Bush, know how to correct their mistakes."
Pelosi, who just led the Democratic caucus through an election cycle in which they seized control of the House for the first time in a dozen years, winning everywhere from "blue" New York to "red" Kansas, is portrayed as an incompetent bungler.
Meanwhile, who gets praised by the media?
Michael Steele, who ran a deeply dishonest campaign, the primary message of which was that he was a puppy-loving (we have no reason to doubt this is true) Democrat (this most certainly is not), is heralded as the most clever of campaigners; a man who ran so masterful a campaign, he must feel like a winner. Even though he lost. By double-digits. That cold, hard reality doesn't stop the likes of Wolf Blitzer from channeling Trent Walker ("Who's the big winner here tonight at the casino? Huh? Mikey, that's who. Mikey's the big winner. Mikey wins").
And, of course, there's John McCain. No matter what the outcome, the political media know one thing: It's good news for John McCain. An election in which the voters made quite clear their disapproval for a war McCain has enthusiastically supported is portrayed as good for McCain. McCain wants to send more troops to Iraq, public support for which is at a meager 17 percent. That's "would you like to go hunting with Dick Cheney?" territory, but CNN's Bill Schneider announces that McCain's presidential ambitions got a boost from "a midterm where Iraq was a big issue."
And it's only going to get worse, as anyone who remembers the media's behavior during the Clinton-Gore era can tell you. The media that treated Bill Clinton's haircut as a bigger story than George W. Bush's avoidance of both the draft and his obligations to the National Guard is most certainly not going to react to the public's strong preference for progressive policies and leaders by treating them more accurately than they have in recent years.
Digby told it like it is:
There are no honeymoons for Democrats. Remember that. And "moral authority" is about haircuts and Hollywood, not torture and illegal wars. It is not merely a fight against the Republicans or a fight over politics and policy. It is a non-stop battle with the press to cover events with seriousness and responsibility. For some reason, when Democrats are in power the press corps immediately goes from being merely shallow to insufferable, sophomoric assholes.
No, it will only get worse. Matt Drudge rules their world, after all. And the Republican National Committee rules Drudge's world. The media's commitment to believing that they hold those in power accountable (if not to actually doing so) coupled with the Right's success in browbeating journalists into doing their bidding, will lead to all-too-predictable results. Don't take our word for it; here's former Washington Post reporter William Powers, writing for the National Journal:
Journalists are more aggressive under Democratic rule. This doesn't jibe with the stereotype of reporters as liberals, but it's the stereotype that winds up undermining itself. When Democrats are in power, there's a huge incentive for reporters not to appear too sympathetic and thereby confirm the old liberal-bias charge. Thus, despite the friendly coverage we're seeing in this honeymoon period, the Democratic restoration will eventually produce tougher coverage than we saw of the GOP Congress, as media outlets strive to prove that they aren't soft on the Democrats.
Anyone who doubts this need only consider ABC's Mark Halperin. In The Way to Win, Halperin acknowledges what too few of his colleagues have: that, during the 2000 presidential campaign, the media treated Al Gore much more harshly than George W. Bush -- treatment that, in an election Bush ostensibly won by the slimmest of margins, proved determinative. Halperin and his co-author John Harris write:
No one who kept a close eye on the media coverage of the 2000 campaign would deny that the press corps assigned to Gore was more aggressive and more hostile toward the candidate than those assigned to Bush, a vivid reminder that liberal bias is hardly the only factor influencing Old Media coverage, and often not the most important. This discrepancy made Old Media reporters much more likely to buy into political party press releases, late-night comic jokes, and the general story line that mirrored the Bush campaign's crafted version of Gore.
"Not every election is a fair fight," Halperin and Harris reveal, explaining that "The media, the New leading the Old, helped Bush tell his good story about himself, and helped Republicans tell a bad story about Gore."
None of this is news to anyone familiar with the 2000 campaign; the passages in The Way to Win about the media's handling of that campaign is interesting only because major media figures like Halperin and Harris rarely acknowledge it.
But what is truly informative is what Halperin has said since putting his name to those words. Halperin embarked on a whirlwind tour of right-wing media, declaring to his hosts that the media had to "prove to conservatives that we understand their grievances."
In other words, Halperin says the media treated Al Gore more harshly than George Bush ... and that the media has to "prove to conservatives" that their grievances are understood.
Progressives -- anyone who cares about honest, accurate, and fair journalism, really -- simply must understand what they are up against: an elite media that continually screw them, then apologizes to the Right for not screwing the Left harder.
That's what's coming. The Right, having been spanked at the ballot box, will increase their attacks on the media, blaming journalists for the unpopularity of their failed ideas and leaders. Journalists, already carrying water for the GOP -- wittingly or not -- will apologize for not carrying more, internalize the complaints, and reflect them in new reports filled with an ever-growing deluge of conservative misinformation.
Unless progressives react to the midterm elections not with a sigh of relief and misguided trust that, having flexed their political muscles, they'll start to get a fair shake from the media, but with a full-throated and sustained insistence it happen.
"I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it," President Bush declared after his 2004 re-election. He spent it incompetently, but he was right that electoral results give the winner some capital, if they are willing to use it.
Progressives must take that lesson to heart and insist on fair and accurate treatment from the media. When media get something wrong, or sneeringly dismiss progressives and their goals, they have to hear about it, loudly and from every direction. From every direction. It isn't enough for progressive leaders to be silently thankful that Media Matters and FAIR and a few other organizations and blogs correct the media. They must join in; they must make clear to news organizations that they won't be pushed around and marginalized. The American people have spoken, they prefer progressive policies and leaders, and it's damn well time the pundits and journalists start internalizing that.
A good place to start, as always, is with the cesspool that is cable news. Nearly every progressive and Democratic organization in Washington has televisions tuned to CNN and MSNBC and Fox News during the day. When a cable channel broadcasts a falsehood, or a mocking, sneering portrayal of a progressive leader, their producers and reporters and executives should promptly hear from those organizations. Washington is a small town; progressive leaders and the media who undermine them with falsehoods and petty smears interact on a regular basis. It's time for that interaction to include pressure to change.
One change that progressives should push for immediately is an end to the imbalance that finds cable channels granting television programs to overt Republican shills like Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck, while progressive hosts are nowhere to be found.
It's simply unacceptable for Beck to be given a platform to spread his hate speech. In the past week alone, Beck told the first Muslim ever elected to serve in Congress, "[W]hat I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies,'" said it was "surprising" to see a Muslim criticize Al Qaeda, and bizarrely suggested Hitler would approve of Hillary Clinton's support for expanding access to health care. This foolish bigot has his own television show on CNN's Headline News, yet no progressive has a program on either of the CNN stations.
Over on MSNBC, Carlson has used recent editions of his show to defend Trent Lott's racism, George Bush's drunken driving (sure, he was drunk, Carlson tells us, but "it's not like he was wasted"), George Allen's use of the slur "macaca," Conrad Burns' equation of terrorists and taxi drivers, and the Pentagon's lies to the family of Pat Tillman about how he died. He defended ABC's broadcast of lies about the Clinton administration on the basis that the filmmakers acknowledged that they weren't telling the truth. This shameless apologist for the most shameful actions by conservatives hosts his own television show on MSNBC, a luxury not afforded any progressive.
The imbalance extends beyond the cable shows and beyond the roster of hosts. The Sunday after Democrats took advantage of voter disapproval of the Iraq war, NBC's Meet the Press brought viewers two guests, neither of whom were elected as Democrats, and both of whom are among the nation's most prominent supporters of the war. The Sunday shows have justified their reliance on conservatives and Republicans to fill out their guest lists by noting that the GOP has been in power. Now that Democrats have taken control of Congress, progressives should insist they be represented on these shows.
As we noted last week (and as Glenn Greenwald, among others, has explained), the major media have for far too long continued to treat as "serious" those who have been consistently wrong about the great issues of our time, while dismissing as unserious those who were right. The American people spoke last week. Progressives must use that unambiguous statement to fight back against media that have stacked the deck against them.