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The Not Obviously Insane Network | The Nation

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The Not Obviously Insane Network

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I thought I was alone in being unable to hear the words "liberalmedia" without thinking of Antonio Gramsci. But it turns out I have a comrade in Rush Limbaugh.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Writing in an Internet publication called Bad Subjects (eserver.org/bs), Charlie Bertsch quotes Rush letting his readers in on the secret of "an obscure Italian communist by the name of Antonio Gramsci [who] theorized that it would take a 'long march through the institutions' before socialism and relativism would be victorious." Rush goes on to note that "Gramsci theorized that by capturing these key institutions and using their power, cultural values would be changed, traditional morals would be broken down, and the stage would be set for the political and economic power of the West to fall."

Not being a chronic masochist, I don't listen to Rush enough to know if this bit of erudition is typical. But for a man who recently theorized, aloud and at length, that Tom Daschle is actually Satan, it is typically insane. What Gramsci brings to the party of contemporary media analysis is not the left's "long march through the institutions," which, pace Todd Gitlin, applies only to a few humanities departments, but the idea of "hegemony" as a tool of political control. Hegemony flows not from the barrel of a gun but from moral and intellectual consensus. It is the politics of "hearts and minds."

Limbaugh would have us believe that the pinkos have taken over our culture and are oppressing conservatives by mocking and excluding their views from the hegemonic liberal media. But even intelligent conservatives do not genuinely believe this. (Paging my main man again, Billy Kristol.) Indeed, if you think Jack Welch and Andy Lack over at NBC, Michael Eisner and David Westin at ABC, and Sumner Redstone and Andrew Heyward at CBS are secretly conniving to spread the gospel of world revolution, I'm afraid there is not much that can be done for you this side of electroshock.

Let us take the case that has been in the news lately, AOL Time Warner's CNN, which has recently been courting Limbaugh himself, and, according to rumor, the no-less-nutty Bill O'Reilly. The rap on CNN is that it leans too far leftward to attract the right-wing cable news audience that is rapidly falling into the lap of "fair and balanced" Fox News. Tom DeLay regularly refers to CNN as the "Communist News Network" and has suggested a Republican boycott of its programs. The network's new head, Walter Isaacson, recently made a high-profile diplomatic démarche to DeLay's minions, outraging Democrats and inspiring fears of future on-air suck-ups.

Perhaps CNN does see its financial salvation in becoming a kind of faux Fox. In the meantime, if CNN were really run by liberals--to say nothing of actual commies--we might hear a great deal more about Tom DeLay, for instance. How about a CNN special dealing with DeLay's pre-Congressional career as an exterminator, where he fought off three separate tax liens for failing to properly pay payroll and income taxes, and twice paid former business associates court-ordered settlements? Part two of the special might focus on DeLay family values. Where are the family values, a liberal CNN might ask, of a conservative leader who refuses to speak to his own 77-year-old mother and does not even invite her to the wedding of her granddaughter? A network that can milk Gary Condit's affairs for a billion consecutive hours should be able to find a few for a story this good.

More to the point, if CNN were actually a liberal station, it would employ genuine liberals to host its shows. (I hear that Jesse Jackson has a show, though nobody I have asked has ever seen it.) All right, Bill Press is a decent match for Tucker Carlson on Crossfire, albeit from a deep-inside-the-Beltway perspective. Al Hunt and Mark Shields also qualify as liberals by the conservative hegemonic standards of punditocracy discourse. But historically, no CNN "liberal" has proved an ideological match for the fire-breathing zealotry of the pro-fascist Pat Buchanan, the pro-McCarthy Robert Novak or even the charming apparatchik Mary Matalin. And what of the rest of the schedule--Is Larry King a liberal? Wolf Blitzer? Jeff Greenfield? Greta van Susteren? Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb? The only way to apply this honorable label to the likes of these nonideological, nonthreatening interviewers is to define the word "liberal" to mean "not obviously insane."

CNN counts as "liberal" only in a universe where conservative political hegemony is so strong that critics have lost the ability to think clearly about anything. CNN does not cover trade from the perspective of the antiglobalization movement.

It does not cover business from the perspective of the labor or environmental movements. It does not cover war from the perspective of the peace movement and it does not cover dictatorships (and illegal military occupations) from the perspective of their victims. It does not even cover George Bush from the perspective of the people who had their election subverted. Indeed, a recent study of the guests on Wolf Blitzer's Inside Washington recently found that the guests were more often Republican than Democrat, more often conservative than liberal. True, not all those who count as "conservative" are willing to go on record about Tom Daschle's supernatural satanic powers, but that's why we have Rush, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Times, the New York Post, Matt Drudge, etc., etc.

* * *

Obviously, most of this column was written before the attacks of September 11. In light of those calamities, it's hard to believe that anyone cared about Gary Condit's relationship with Chandra Levy and the like. Still, the problems discussed above are not going anywhere. A moment pregnant with so many unhappy possibilities as this one brings home our need for a genuinely liberal alternative national news source to the conservative/centrist mainstream. If only the critics were right about CNN...

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