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Pin the Terrorist on the Donkey | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

Pin the Terrorist on the Donkey

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It's impossible to pinpoint any single factor that determined the Democrats' defeat on election day, but a significant disadvantage that is going unremarked in the discussion of "God," "gays" and "values" in the election's aftermath is the naked partisanship and political dishonesty of the conservative punditocracy who dominate our public discourse.

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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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Given the reality of a 24/7 propaganda machine in the place of what was once a largely nonpartisan media structure, Democrats must compete at a significant disadvantage in any contested election. Evidence of the pundits' willingness to cast aside traditional measures of disinterested analysis, or even nominal self-respect, can be found in the almost universal assumption, adopted without a shred of evidence, that Osama bin Laden's video election intervention would prove an unambiguous boon to the President's hopes for his first legitimate election victory.

Immediately after the video surfaced, virtually every voice in the public square accepted the Bush campaign's amazing contention that the terrorist who taunted Bush, mocked him, attacked his nation and then escaped retribution--despite Bush's schoolboy macho posturing at the time--would remind voters of why only George W. Bush could be trusted to protect the nation. While the assumption that Bush was "winning" the terrorism issue was not without foundation, this too was largely a reflection of the mainstream media's unwillingness to focus either on Bush's failure to capture bin Laden or on the benefits bin Ladenism has clearly enjoyed as a result of Bush's incompetent invasion of Iraq. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, experts such as Rand Corporation vice president Bruce Hoffman believe that, given the above, "Bin Laden probably prefer[s] the current administration."

In light of all this, pundits might have been expected to mount a coherent argument to justify their eagerness to read from the Rovian script. Alas, this would be wishful thinking. As the folks at Media Matters have helpfully documented, the baseless consensus that the bin Laden broadcast benefited Bush included, among others, William Safire, Peggy Noonan, Sean Hannity, Roger Simon, Joe Scarborough, Pat Buchanan, Dick Morris, Karen Tumulty, Mike Barnicle, Chris Matthews, Andrea Mitchell, Morton Kondracke, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, Bill O'Reilly, Charlie Cook, Lawrence Kudlow, G. Gordon Liddy, Stephen Hayes, Major Garrett, Jeff Greenfield, Neil Cavuto, Fred Barnes and Bill Gertz. Each insisted that the bin Laden intervention either intended to help Kerry, would help Bush because voters would perceive bin Laden as wanting to help Kerry or would simply help Bush because that's the way things are. Given that the grand total of sources inside Al Qaeda shared by this collective hot-air production factory is approximately zero, one can only assume that they were projecting their own prejudices. (Many, including Safire, pointed to the pre-election bombing in Spain as a precedent, apparently unaware that evidence indicates it had actually been planned years before the US invasion of Iraq and Spain's agreement to join the US-led "coalition.")

When tested by pollsters, the pundits' analyses proved lighter than air. Stan Greenberg's Democracy Corps poll found that 46 percent of respondents said the tape "makes me think that George W. Bush took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and diverted resources to Iraq," while just 36 percent said, "It underscores the importance of George Bush's approach to the war on terrorism." Gallup also noted a net loss for Bush on the security issue, post-video.

No matter. Moving from obstinate ignorance to McCarthyite malevolence, a number of pundits insisted that the video showed that Kerry and the Democrats could now be viewed as on the same side with bin Laden and the terrorists--along with any other nation that has dared to dissent from Bush Administration dogma. Laura Ingraham accused Kerry voters of aligning themselves "with the people of France...with China...which actually came out today saying they hate, they don't like George Bush's foreign policy. You heard Osama bin Laden try to inject himself into American politics. So all these people you're aligning yourself with, it's not good." Right-wing dope fiend Rush Limbaugh upped the ante, insisting that "a Kerry victory after the bin Laden tape, will accomplish this--it'll give Osama bin Laden bragging rights all across the Middle East." Rupert Murdoch's New York Post descended even more deeply into its glitter-filled gutter with a lying headline that said bin Laden "Urges Bush Defeat." A miscreant Post columnist named Adam Brodsky actually wrote, "A vote for Kerry is a vote for European anti-Semitism. And terrorists. In Iraq...and Israel. It's a vote for Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria and Iran." Finally, he added, a vote for the man who won three purple hearts in Vietnam while Bush was home drinking in bars was a vote for Al Qaeda.

If the Olympics were ever to introduce a competition for intellectual acrobatics, the hands-down gold medal winner this year would be Dick Morris. On October 23, just before the video surfaced, the disgraced Clinton adviser asked Sean Hannity, "Do you hear a peep out of them? Do you hear a bin Laden tape?" A deeply impressed Hannity declared Morris to be "100 percent right." Likewise, two days later, speaking to Bill O'Reilly, America's most famous foot-fetishist explained, "Al Qaeda attacked us in Spain before the election. Al Qaeda attacked Australia before the election. Hamas and Hezbollah attack Israel before every election, and there has been no Al Qaeda attack anywhere in the world in months. No bin Laden tape, no threats coming out of it, and I think that Al Qaeda is voting with its silence for John Kerry."

But it turns out that in Morris's universe, bin Laden votes for Kerry when he's silent and he votes for Kerry when he's not. After the tape's release, Morris told Fox viewers that "obviously" the tape was "a design on [bin Laden's] part to help Kerry, and that's going to backfire massively." Hannity earned a silver with his own Pythonesque pirouette on his previous pronouncement: Bin Laden, he now said, had "come out and virtually tr[ied to] influence the election today in favor of John Kerry."

It's going to be a long four years.

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