Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Democrats and press "scripts"

I think Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby should be regular daily reading for all Democratic Presidential candidates and all their strategists and PR people. And Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog required reading for every literate American citizen, but that's a story for another post.

A lot of us Dems have spent years, decades even, poo-pooing the rightwing conspiracy theory of the Liberal Press, a conspiracy theory that gets more widely spread the more conservatives get media bullhorns. I heard Sean Hannity ranting on FOX News the other day that the New York Times (of Judith Miller fame), the Washington Post (which supported the Iraq War), plus CBS and NBC (or was ABC in there too?) were all "very leftwing".

Bob Somerby has been making the case for years that liberals and Democrats have failed to face up to the fact that the mainstream media, or the Establishment press as I prefer to call it, has been the driving force behind the trivialization, trashing and ridicule of Democratic candidates during the last decade and more. The Republican rightwing definitely plays a role, as in the phony and dishonest story spun up by Rev. Moon's propaganda machine and popularized by FOX News that Barack Obama attended a radical, Saudi-funded "madrassa" as a child. Somerby gives a (for him) rare pat on the back to CNN for quickly debunking that one.

But it's not just a matter of the rightwingers making stuff up and having the "press corps" adopt it as their script, though that happens far too often. The mainstream press corps originates a lot of this, a process of which Somerby provides copious examples at The Daily Howler.

I liked this definition of the problem as defined by Al Gore, one of the primary victims of this press dysfunction, in a talk that Green Greenwald summarized as follows(
Various items Unclaimed Territory blog 01/09/07):

I listened to part of an interview with Al Gore earlier today in which Gore argued that the Internet and blogs are in the process of fundamentally changing the nature of political debate and dialogue in this country. Television has been overwhelmingly dominant in shaping public opinion, Gore argues, and because its attributes (corporate control, advertisement-dependence, reliance on an entertainment-format) preclude meaningful political discussions, our political debates have been vapid, substance-free and highly manipulative (and those who have exercised the most influence in that environment - presumably television "journalists" and pundits - have thrived because they excel at these empty tasks.

Gore contends that the Internet will make political debates far more substantive and will render the punditry world far more meritocratic, because online commentators are largely free of the constraints of television which ruin political debates, and because online political dialogue both permits and demands higher-quality arguments in order to persuade. ... (my emphasis)
I don't mean to make Bob Somerby sound like the William Faulkner of the Web, or something. Comparing people like Faulkner or Elvis or Britney Spears to mere mortals just isn't fair to the poor mortals. Somerby strangely failed to understand the significance of the Valerie Plame case, which turns out to still be one of the outlets from which we are learning a great deal of fatual detail about the road to war in Iraq and about the rank maliciousness and dishonesty of the Cheney-Bush administration.

But he's is very good when he focuses on the "scripts" that the press locks into about various individuals, in particular. And while the "scripts" may very occasionally favor a liberal, they usually don't. And, he is good about keeping in mind the reality that the problem is not simply personal bias toward Republicans, thought that certainly does happen. It's the very kinds of things that Gore mentioned: shallowness, sensationalism, an "entertainment" orientation.

post of 01/29/07 gives a good example of how rigid scripts, superficiality and just plain carelessness and dumbness so badly distort political reporting in the US today, to the particular detriment of Democrats.

And he argues passionately that Dems, including those of us in the "liberal Web", have to find a way to counter those scripts. That presents particular challenges in a primary seasons when the Democratic candidates are fighting to distinguish themselves from each other.

But Somerby's right. The frivolous, dishonest story that the Moonie Website "Insight" made up about Barack Obama having attended a radical Islamic "madrassa" as a child and that it was Hillary Clinton's campaign spreading the rumor is a good example. As Joe Conason points out, not only were both claims bogus. But they are a signature Nixon-style "dirty trick" from the Watergate days:
Ghosts of dirty tricks past Salon 01/26/07. And the real damage is not that an outlight for a far-right cult group makes up these stories, irresponsible as that is. The most serious damage is that allegedly responsible journalists, pundits and news outlets pick it up and publicize it. In this case, CNN did some actual journalistic work and debunked the story.

I have my own reservations about Obama as a Democratic candidate, which I've expressed here before. Not least because I'm still hoping that Al Gore will announce his candidacy. Obama has been the beneficiary of the press' celebrity obsession. But we've already seen with the Moonie madrassa story how quickly that can morph into the Establishment press spreading total hokum about him.

But Somerby's point is that even while the Dems battle it out for the Presidential nomination in 2008, we all have to guard against those deadly, phony "scripts", even for our less-favored candidates. Because by the time the primaries are over, they will be much harder to undo.

"Dirty trick" sounds almost benign these days, doesn't it? In the Cheney era, full-blown sleaze-slinging, shameless manufacture of stories, outing of CIA agents, accusations of treason (against war critics, not against Republicans who out CIA agents for cheap politics) and godlessness have become standard operating procedure for the Grand Old Party.

Here's a prime example of this kind of problematic reporting, from Matt Taibbi who writes on politics for Rolling Stone:
Hillary Is In It to Win It Alternet.org 01/22/07. Now, Taibbi can do good reporting. I've seen some of it in Rolling Stone. But this is essentially a smug, cynical polemic against Hillary Clinton, relying on some of airhead press scripts that are kicking around out there. The short version of Taibbi's piece: Hillary Clinton uses English words in her speeches that other people have also used and this proves she a Big Phony! It's ridiculous.

And, not to pick on Alternet which runs some good articles and which I normally check daily. But what's with Earl Ofari Hutchinson whose work they regularly feature? He is supposed to be, like, their token black Republican or something? Oh, I see at his Web site that he's a "FOX liberal", as in "I'm a liberal except on the subject which we're talking about at the moment where I totally agree with the Republicans".

On the same day as Taibbi's hit piece, they published Hutchison's
Hillary's Problem Is Hillary, Not Republicans 01/22/07. To use just one example, let's take the third paragraph:

In exit polls on election night last November following her smash Senate reelection victory, one out of five New York voters were adamant that Hillary would not make a good president. And these were the voters that backed her in her Senate victory.
Okay, he didn't cite which exist polls. But on the face of it, what does it say? If you read it quickly, it certainly sounds like a fifth of the New Yorkers who voted for her do not like her for President: "these were the voters that backed her in her Senate victory."

But what he reports about the poll in the preceding sentence is that "one out of five New York voters were adamant" in insisting that Clinton would not make a good President. Now, I don't have the final results of that race in front of me. But as I recall, the Republican candidate got more than 20% of the statewide vote. I would have thought that all New York Republicans and maybe some small percentage of Democrats would be against her Presidential candidacy. The 20% figure, though, presumably wouldn't even include all the Republicans.

Yet he presents this as showing that 20% of the New Yorkers who voted for Hillary are "adamant" against her Presidential campaign. This sloppy at best, clownish and dishonest at worst.

Bob Somerby on 01/23/07 reacting to the press coverage of Hillary's announcement that she intends to run for President.

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