Politics, media and the politics of media.
As I was flipping between the Sunday morning political shows—where the most animated talk was about Christine O'Donnell’s abruptly canceled appearances on the Sunday morning shows—and a cable station playing School of Rock, it became painfully clear why O'Donnell has way more than a snowball’s chance in hell to become the junior senator from Delaware.
I was trying to watch David Gregory, Bob Schieffer and Chris Wallace, but Jack Black and his rockin' 10-year-old students were irresistible. Christine O'Donnell is no Jack Black, but, like him, she and her Tea Party compatriots cannot wait to blow the minds of the establishment and drown out all the nay-saying number crunchers like Karl Rove with another stunning battle-of-the-bands upset.
It helps, of course, that O’Donnell looks like Sarah Palin—the round face and pop-out cheeks, the shoulder-length, big-banged brown hair—even without the Tina Fey glasses. There's always a satisfaction, in the media and in us, in discovering lookalikes. The fun process of comparing and contrasting itself makes us want to keep O’Donnell on the national stage. And many of us are deciding she’s "better" than Palin. Next to the lipsticked pit bull, Christine has the face of an angel.
"She does not have a mean bone in her body," says Bill Maher, who claims O'Donnell is a "close friend." "She's a lot more relaxed.… More fluent with the English language," says Joe Scarborough. "She is better in front of cameras than even Sarah Palin."
She should be. She’s defended her flakesville follies on Maher’s old show, Politically Incorrect, on some twenty-two episodes. On Friday, he ran a clip in which she laughingly admitted that she had "dabbled into witchcraft," and he warned her, hostage-crisis style, "If you don’t come on this show, I’m going to show a clip every week." Who knows if those tapes hold anything more wicked than Wicca, but (again, unlike Palin) she seems able to laugh at herself. "I think she's a goof and a good sport," notes Chris Kelly, a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher. "She's got a smile that could light up an abortion clinic bombing."
Besides, in the Christian-inflected Republican and Tea parties, you can get a pass for screw-ups if you claim to now be saved. Witchcraft? A teenage indiscretion that opened her eyes to the evils of Halloween. Anti-masturbation nuttery? Extremism in pursuit of virtue is no vice. Wouldn't lie to Hitler to save a Jew? A silly hypothetical. Believes scientists have developed "mice with fully functioning human brains"? Why not?! The elites have developed a Muslim commie with fully functioning presidential powers. Wake up, sheeple!
Perhaps a more worrisome infraction among her crowd is that O'Donnell is not a Mama Grizzly—she’s 41 years old and has no kids. But, eh. None of that matters any more than facts—or logic or reason or consistency—have ever mattered among the faith-based political base. As one woman who called into a radio station years ago said, "President Bush would have to murder my mother before I’d turn against him."
What matters is the passion, the televisual sparkle, or, as Chris Matthews has been hammering home recently, the "juice"—"the desire to get to that voting booth and vote with all you got against what is going on now," he said. "That comes at the Democrats in November, that juice."
So far, though, the Democrats have been delighted that O'Donnell, and not the popular, moderate Mike Castle, will face Democratic senate nominee Chris Coons in November. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the witch business or the watchdog group CREW's charges that O’Donnell is a "criminal" who has been "embezzling" campaign money will eventually repulse the far right in Delaware.
But for now the 11-point spread favoring Coons does not seem insurmountable, and the money—$1 million reportedly the day after the primary—is flowing O'Donnell's way, in part to punish Rove for saying that she lacked "rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character" (this from a man who allegedly engineered the imprisonment of the Democratic former Alabama governor Don Siegelman on trumped-up charges and who still insists the Iraq war was justified). And anyway, most of the races pitting Tea Party types against Democrats are close or tinged red: Rand Paul v. Jack Conway in Kentucky; Sharron Angle v. Harry Reid in Nevada; Joe Miller v. Scott McAdams in Alaska. And who saw that Scott Brown would take Ted Kennedy's seat this long before election day?
But even if O'Donnell doesn’t win this battle of the bands, she’s already won the battle of the BS. She’s shown that no matter what stupid things you’ve done, if you have a certain twinkle in your eye while you spout rightwing shibboleths, the media will find you bewitching.
Not too bad actually. A week out from his "Restoring Honor" rally Beck—and by extension, Tea Partyers everywhere—have given themselves a good whitewashing, a God-washing really, that should keep ‘em smelling clean at least until the November 2 midterm elections.
No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch wrote in Sunday's Times that at Beck's rally, as at Martin Luther King Jr.'s forty-seven years earlier, "sweet piety floated above tribal antagonisms." David Brooks chimed in that "the spirit was really warm, generous and uplifting," adding, "The only bit of unpleasantness I found emanated from some liberal gatecrashers behaving offensively…"
Oh sure, in the days since "8/28," as Beck calls the event, elevating it to his 9/11-9/12 pantheon, he's received his knocks, mostly from lefty bloggers and MSNBC's nighttime lineup. They've called him out for disappearing MLK's focus on social justice, twisting the history of the Washington monument and lying about handling the original of George Washington's first inaugural address. But Beck has flicked all that off as so much factual dandruff.
For now, the consensus, in the mass media and in our heads, is that the rally was "not political." And so, because it fell short of the torch-carrying mob that many of us expected, the floodgates of goodness have almost washed the Beck brand clean of partisan taint. He seems suddenly scrubbed of, say, Andrew Breitbart's smear of Shirley Sherrod, which Beck at first supported. (Nevermind that Beck's new website, The Blaze, will be run by a Breitbart alum.) Maybe the rally won't end up restoring advertising to Beck's show on Fox, but it was a start.
Beck and his people, goes this emerging new image, are positive, tolerant and as harmless as Beck's big cheeks are soft. The rally, Beck said later on TV, was one of the greatest displays of "cleanliness and politeness" ever (and to prove it he compared an aerial long-shot of an all green Washington Mall after his rally with close-ups of the litter left after Obama's inaugural gathering, which, as you may have noticed, was a bit more, um, diverse than Beck's). Yes, Beck's folks were clean, not contentious; polite, not political. Did you see the zero number of signs?! Beck banned signs, and, as further evidence of his power over their psyches, his flock lay down their swords.
But then, Beck and his guest star, Sarah Palin, were the signs. Had they done nothing but stand before the Lincoln Memorial and smile… well, less is more, and we could measure their virtue by how well they resisted saying "Pelosi." Anyway, the only signs you really need are from God, like that wedge of geese that flew overhead, prompting Glenn to gush that their presence was a "miracle"—only an unbeliever would point out that flying fowl formations were a popular form of divination among the pagan Romans, too.
The more obvious politics could, and did, come later. In fact, the very next day, when Chris Wallace asked Beck if he regretted calling Obama a "racist," Beck unloaded. The word racist, Beck admitted in the passive tense, "shouldn't have been said." But he didn't apologize, and he showed no charity, much less faith in the truth, when he "amended" his judgment that Obama, instead, "is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology.… It's all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation.…"
Reparations! (to take just one outrageous charge in his harangue): why, that's the essence of the political lie that Beck, and Limbaugh, have been hurling at Obama, and the NAACP and Acorn, for years now. The "reparations" charge, in fact, betrays the bigotry lying in wait in so much of the anti–Big Government free-market capitalism: "Those people" want our money! Starve the beast so they can't have it!
But such negative thoughts were on the down low at 8/28. And so the mass media mind, which never saw an either/or it didn't like, couldn't help but juxtapose Beck's nice beige gathering against that other rally, the one with the Others, and find it, tsk tsk, political. There was Al Sharpton, going on about how Beck's people "want to disgrace this day" by hijacking MLK's legacy. Glenn gave Al every reason to believe he'd do just that, but when he didn't, at least not overtly—well, that made Al look like… an angry black man—and a stand-in for the secretly angry, secretly Muslim reverse-racist black president.
And all week long, Beck has been speaking in his 8/28 voice, trying to gaslight the libs, hoping they'll get crazy angrier as he gets eerily calmer.
We can debate which is the real Beck: the above-the-fray messianic Beck or the political demagogue Beck? It doesn't really matter. His rally allows him to play roles both more successfully. He created what he set out to: a sacred day, a talisman of apparent goodness that he could forever glory in, and replay and replay, with selected images, especially of supportive black people, no matter how much he might partake in the sin of politics later.
Not that there’d be anything wrong with it, but President Obama was not, as the Reverend Franklin Graham so unequivocally states, “born a Muslim.”
After that sad Pew Research poll came out suggesting that a record 18 percent of Americans now believe that Obama is Muslim and 43 percent say they don’t know what he is (he is, of course, Christian), Franklin Graham, son of evangelist icon Billy Graham, went on John King’s CNN show and spouted this drivel:
“I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim. His father gave him an Islamic name. Now it's obvious that the president has renounced the Prophet Muhammad and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”
So much is so wrong with that, starting with the Rev’s “that’s what he says” dog whistles. Hillary was slammed for punting that “as far as I know” Obama wasn’t Muslim, but now coy innuendo about Obama’s faith is standard GOP fare. "The president says he's a Christian,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday on Meet the Press. “I take him at his word." (Mitch and Franklin say they’re Christian family men with valid birth certificates. I cannot say they’re not. So I just have to believe that they are what they have said.)
Meanwhile, Graham, who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion,” was foisting outright falsehoods. The president has not, as Graham claimed, “renounced” Islam—and before some winger twists that to “The Nation admits Obama never renounced Islam!”—let’s be clear: He had nothing to renounce. He was not a Muslim, he wasn’t raised as a Muslim, nor did he choose to practice or worship as one. Perhaps Franklin Graham (who surely has his own daddy-seed issues to deal with) has confused Obama with his Kenyan father, who was indeed raised a Muslim. But, as the president writes, “by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.” Which leads to Graham’s next doozy: The atheist father was highly unlikely to have given his son “an Islamic name”—but he did give him his own name, Barack Hussein Obama.
And though the next night John King brought on a religion professor who scorched Graham for his Islamophobia, King didn’t challenge Graham’s central claim, that President Obama was “born a Muslim.”
This misconception has long been out there, and was neatly shot down during the presidential campaign. The military historian Edward Luttwak had written an embarrassing New York Times op-ed stating that because “Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood,” he’d risk his life visiting Muslim countries for having committed the “apostasy” of “converting” to Christianity. Again, he “converted” from being nonreligious, not from Islam. But just think: for Fox News–type purposes, how much better it’d be if some foreign Muslims whacked the president than American whites, or white supremacists—who, in reality, have been the prime source of plots and threats against Obama. In any case, Obama’s successful trip to Egypt last year pretty much shut down the false “apostate” alarm.
And thanks to then–-New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, who essentially fact-checked Luttwak, we learned that he--and now Graham--are way off on the “born a Muslim” meme.
Hoyt interviewed experts on Islam and, he wrote, “All of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong…. including assertions that in Islam a father’s religion always determines a child’s, regardless of the facts of his upbringing [and] that Obama’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity was apostasy…”
In fact, one scholar, Hoyt wrote, cited an ancient Islamic jurist “who said, ‘If you divorce a Christian woman and ignore your child from her to the point that the child grows up to be a Christian, the child is to be left,’ meaning left to make his own choice.” Obama’s father, of course, divorced his mother and left the family when Obama was 2 years old.
But if Graham really wants to pick at genealogical grubs, what’s he to make of the fact that Obama’s father’s father was a Christian who converted to Islam (and only then took the name Hussein). Aha! What religion is that seed now?
Personally, I’m stuck on the word seed. Graham meant it in the Biblical (or Koranical) sense, but when I hear about a “seed passing through” in the context of an American president, I can’t help but see Monica Lewinsky and her “semen-stained blue dress.”
Regardless of what the Muslim world may or may not believe, this whole seed fixation is profoundly un-American. It says that genealogy is destiny, that a man is Muslim regardless of what he espouses or believes. It’s all about descent—and nauseatingly close to the “one drop rule” of the post-Reconstruction South. That rule held that if a person had any African or Indian ancestry whatsoever, he or she was classified as “colored” and subject to anti-miscegenation laws, voter disenfranchisement, and segregation at large. At least eighteen states adopted some form of the rule; Virginia’s 1924 law, for instance, was called the Racial Integrity Act.
Whether it’s a drop, a seed, a particular kind of birth certificate, or a distance of six blocks from Ground Zero instead of two, these selectively applied purity tests are far more dangerous to our national character (and, as Frank Rich points out, to our overseas troops who rely on Muslim goodwill) than Islamophobics accuse Muslims of being to our freedom.
Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who helped destroy ACORN with heavily edited, racially tinged videos (the unedited versions of which have still not been released), just scored another victory over reverse racism, proving once and for all that it’s just like old-fashioned, regular racism: when it occurs, it's always a black person who suffers.
If you need to search for culprits in the railroading of USDA worker Shirley Sherrod, Breitbart is the obvious heel, but hardly the only one. (Tip to kids who live in Ag Sec Tom Vilsack's neighborhood: this Halloween, dress up like Glenn Beck, and the Vilsack household won't just give you all the candy you want, they'll shoot the family dog and cook it up for you.)
The real creeps are anyone in the media who excuses or erases the role played by Breitbart, Fox News, and the Tea Party blogosphere in smearing Sherrod as a racist.
I say that because, once the full video had proven that Sherrod was not shooting off bigoted remarks but actually explaining how she overcame her own bias against whites (and after the white farmer’s wife had confirmed that Sherrod saved the family farm from auction and was a “friend for life”), the right-wing media turned on a dime and gave us nine cents change. Following Breibart’s lead, the winger media began parroting the line that the controversy wasn’t about Breitbart or Sherrod herself but about the NAACP calling the Tea Party racist, and about NAACP members laughing when Sherrod said she had been tempted to do the wrong thing. To do that, they had to write Breitbart out of the story. The villains, they insist, are the NAACP and the Obama administration: those two organizations—both headed by African-Americans, BTW—fell for some silly ol’ video and beat up on Sherrod, who the right is now trying to claim as their sister in victimhood. As conservative David Frum writes:
There will be not even a flutter of interest among conservatives in discussing Breitbart’s role. By the morning of July 21, the Fox & Friends morning show could devote a segment to the Sherrod case without so much as a mention of Breitbart’s role. The central fact of the Sherrod story has been edited out of the conservative narrative, just as it was edited out of the tape itself.
It’s true that the NAACP and Vilsack acted like Pavlovian dogs, conditioned to cower before endlessly replayed video on rightwing TeeVee. But the overreactions on the left and on the right are in no way equal. NAACP head Ben Jealous made a heartfelt and cogent apology for allowing himself to be “snookered” into throwing Sherrod under the bus; Vilsack not only offered Sherrod an apology and her job back, he tried to get her to accept some sort of promotion, apparently to help clear the massive overhang of minority lawsuits against the agriculture department left over from the Bush years.
On the other hand, on the basis of the edited tape, Beck bashed Sherrod as a reverse racist on his morning radio show ("Have we suddenly transported into 1956, except it's the other way around?” he queried). Later that afternoon, as word of the full video was coming out, he defended her on his Fox show, bashing anyone (though not himself or Breitbart) who was stupid enough to take her speech out of context. At the same time, he kept hurling reverse racism charges, asking, "When was the last time the NAACP didn't give someone the benefit of the doubt right away who was African-American?”
As for Breitbart, well, he’s still being reverse-whipped on his reverse-plantation, crying out in anguish, “How long, O Lord?” Last night on John King show, Breitbart didn’t so much defend the cleverly edited smear he’d promoted as try to change the subject, harping repeatedly on videos that he insists “prove beyond a shadow of a doubt” that the Congressional Black Caucus members who said they were called the N-word at a Capitol Hill Tea Party rally back in March are lying to make the TP look racist. (Here are the videos and they prove nothing.) More weirdly, Breitbart suggested that Sherrod was hoodwinking CNN, asking King, “You're going off of her word that the farmer's wife is the farmer's wife.”
Let’s be clear about the media hoopla over reverse racism this past month, from Rush Limbaugh’s claim that Obama is causing high unemployment as a “payback” for black slavery to Michelle Bachmann’s assertion that Obama is creating “a nation of slaves” to Fox host Megyn Kelly’s eye-popping claims that the New Black Panther Party is somehow immune to prosecution by the Obama justice department: We are not in a race relations crisis. We are in an economic crisis. And these manufactured racial melodramas are meant to frighten Vilsackian Democrats to never dare do anything that might ruffle Tea Party feathers, like push through a desperately needed second stimulus or nominate Elizabeth Warren as head of the consumer protection agency.
As Shirley Sherrod said in her speech, “It’s not about black and white, it’s about poor versus rich, and how the system works to keep it that way….
“[Historically, dividing the races had been] working so well, they said, Gosh, looks like we've come up on something here that can last generations—and here we are. Over 400 years later, and it's still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it's health care or whatever it is, they'll do what they need to do to keep that power.”
Somehow, that part of her speech didn’t get much play on Fox.
When the job numbers for May were announced back in early June, I felt like my favorite Uncle Joe had just sucker-punched me in the kidneys. It wasn’t the disappointing numbers alone—411,000 of the new jobs were temporary Census jobs—but that Joe Biden had, once again, been so confident and so wrong, this time for predicting that the May numbers were “going to be well beyond” the previous month’s. If you counted the temp work of the Census, he was technically correct, but the 41,000 reasonably permanent private-sector jobs created in May were in fact a big disappointment after April’s creation of 218,000 private sector jobs. (The later revised numbers show an even larger discrepancy.)
The problem is, Biden just keeps on saying stuff like this no matter what happens. Even after the June jobs reports showed a net loss of 125,000 jobs, Biden went on to boldly tell Politico, “We’re going to range—on average, by the time we get to Election Day—probably between 100,000 and 200,000 job creations a month.”
In fairness, Biden’s jobs forecasts have occasionally been right, and sometimes he’s merely echoing analysts’ overly optimistic forecasts. He does know that his monthly forays onto weak limbs can really piss people off: "Even some in the White House said, 'Hey, don't get ahead of yourself,'" Biden relayed this spring. But Joe just can’t help himself—and his lunchbucket Nostradamus act goes far beyond jobs alone:
On the chances that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan when Obama promised: “In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out,” he told Jonathan Alter last fall. “Bet on it.”
On how the rest of the planet would treat the new Obama presidency: “Mark my words: It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy,” he said shortly before the 2008 election. “Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.… As a student of history and having served with seven presidents, I guarantee you it's gonna happen.”
And, perhaps most important, on the Democrats’ chances in the midterms: “I think we can beat Rand Paul—absolutely,” Biden said recently. “I do not see this grand debacle,” he added, laying odds that Senate majority leader Harry Reid would beat Sharron Angle in Nevada with “a 55 percent chance or better.”
Well, some folks say the home team will win every game as they switch on the set, even when they’re Cubs fans. I think Biden’s likely way off on Afghanistan (though his idea of targeting Al Qaeda with special forces and drones may eventually prevail), but can anyone tell me if Joe ever identified the international “generated crisis” that tested Obama in his first six months? And I’d love to think he might be right on the Dems’ chances overall—if not specifically about Reid and Paul—but his track record on jobs and wars makes me think he’s whistling past a Democratic graveyard.
Joe’s frequent forecasts are clearly a subset of his outsized need to tell whoever he meets what they want to hear. But they are not at all “gaffes”—and they certainly don’t fit Michael Kinsley’s much-quoted definition of a political gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth." These hardcore predictions may or may not have anything to do with truth. Rather, they’re part of the popular parlor game that politicians, pundits and journalists play nonstop, both in order to reassure themselves of their insiderish importance and to sway public opinion. At their most malevolently propagandistic, you have predictions like those of another former vice president who divined that American troops would be ''greeted as liberators'' in Iraq and that the insurgency there was “in the last throes.”
Biden, on the other hand, is more like the gassy uncle who’ll reassure a niece who’s put on an extra 20 pounds, “Whaddya mean, sweetheart?! You’re beautiful! You’re gorgeous! It’s just more to love!” My sneaking worry is that Joe applies the same gusto to administration policy decisions: Don’t sweat it, kid! Half a loaf is better than nothing! I mean, can’t everybody see we have their best interests at heart?
You gotta love the guy, just for his downright convivial garrulousness. He’s in your court and that is a big f**king deal. But like most absolute certainties—and, let’s face it, we all have them—Biden’s are less about the issue at hand than about himself: “I guarantee you,” “I promise you,” “Bet on it.” He has, as his late mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, might say, that Irish grace to lead with his chin, and he really doesn’t seem to care how many times he gets cold-cocked.
Let's just hope his election predictions are better than his jobs predictions. The worry is that they are pretty much the same thing and that Joe is walking into another punch this fall.
Okay, I know Glenn Beck wants me to write about this. I know that his fatuous giggles to Bill O'Reilly are supposed to give him a trap door escape when I or anyone else calls him on it—Glenn is only funnin', and of course he's not saying the president of the United States is in reality an incarnation of Mnemoth, the demon of hunger whose body is composed of a swarm of locusts, or Beelzebub, the true Lord of the Flies, or any other creature that Egon Spengler might look up in Tobin's Spirit Guide or Hellboy might have to put down quick. Glenn is not saying those things. He's just blowing on his dog whistle really, really hard:
And then there's this:
If you're not a fundy or a Hellboy fan or a Mormon (like Beck), all this talk about angels and demons probably goes right over your head, and the joke you hear is that Obama is drawing flies—and you know what draws flies, right? Alternatively, if your sense of white identity is so strong that it bars sympathy for starving children in Africa, you might see the fly on Obama's upper lip as jessdunto does in his comment on Free Republic: “That is one of the most dsgusting [sic] pictures—did he become accustomed to it when he lived in Kenya?”
Well, the problem with Orly Taitz is that she's a moderate. True believers know there is no such thing as extremism in the pursuit of Virtue, and what's more extreme than End Times prophecy? After all, Beck was using his sit-down with Papa Bear to promote his own End Times novel, The Overton Window, with its interesting cover illustration that substitutes a spear for the book in the Statue of Liberty's hand.
The conventions of prophecy, unfortunately for Glenn, do establish a few low bars in order to rule out mere coincidence, like the invocation of multiple examples. That's why O'Reilly says he was aware of only two incidents involving houseflies, and Beck rather nervously counters, "No, no, no, there's three”—though it rapidly becomes clear that the third example of tiny winged vermin at the White House is established by Michelle's beehives on the South Lawn. The addition of the vole running across the Rose Garden during a press conference is the sort of forced symbological piling on Glenn does every day on his show—Beck calls it a rat, of course, because rats are the universal sign of corruption, and voles are merely garden pests—but it also helps out with the short count for flies. If you're not paying close attention, the concatenation sounds like three plagues all happening at once. OMG!
Never mind, for right now, that Beck's phenomenological list has been culled from more than a year of clips (Michelle's beehives were installed in March, 2009; Obama killed the fly during an interview in June of that year; the vole ran through the Rose Garden this last May; and the video of a fly buzzing around a joking Obama during a speech was taken last week—the still photo of the bug briefly touching his lip makes it look oh so much more… eerie). As a Mormon, Beck has to be aware that the opposition between God's chosen and pesty winged insects was made explicit in the early years of what is now Salt Lake City, when a swarm of locusts descended on the Mormon fields, threatening the settlement with ruination, only to be destroyed, as the folklore has it, by a flock of providentially guided seagulls.
But bees are not Mormon demons. Quite the contrary: Bees, which the Mormons brought with them from the Midwest, are admired for their industry and usefulness, and beehives are popular Mormon symbols. After all, Brigham Young called his first home the Beehive House. Utah is the Beehive State. And the first name for the Mormons' new land in the western US was Deseret, which means honeybee. So, in Beck's own religion, locusts (or flies), bad; bees, good.
But making airtight liturgical sense is not Beck's chief reason for hinting at biblical plagues on the Obama administration. All the heady, pseudo-religious demonology has a practical political point. Between now and November the folks out there just might walk by a window full of TVs not tuned to Fox and hear some pretty disturbing news about the Republican Party: for example, that it's obstructing unemployment benefits to desperate citizens during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, or that it's creating a permanent filibuster in violation of the original purpose of the maneuver, or that it just voted to keep bailing out the big banks rather than have them submit to financial regulation. These things are pretty hard to explain to any constituent who doesn't sit on a corporate board.
If, on the other hand, you can describe each of these actions as necessary to oppose a White House occupied by the Lord of the Flies himself, well, then, they're not extreme at all—they're a solemn duty, wise precautions every one, like carrying around a briefcase holding the Seven Daggers of Megiddo that alone can send Damien back to Hell.
Don't forget: a vote for reforming Wall Street is a vote to restore Azathoth to the Throne of Chaos. Or something.
Another BP safety valve blew last week, and this time Republicans fought among themselves over whether the resulting gusher should be shut down immediately or allowed to flow until the Grand Old Party is turned into a dead zone. Yesterday, almost buried under the cover of Gen. McChrystal’s defenestration, they announced they were going with the latter.
We’re referring, of course, to Rep. Joe Barton’s gushing apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward for Obama victimizing the poor little oil giant by pressing it to create a $20 billion compensation fund for the real victims of BP’s disaster. This sort of Republican Crude—naked, knee-jerk support for corporate profits no matter what—has been poisoning democracy long before Joe Barton explicitly spelled it out. And the party has always tried to soft-pedal it as the American way, with the aid, naturally, of the corporate media.
But what really sets this episode apart is that it’s a relatively rare instance in which reason and unthinking emotion are on the same side. In politics today, they’re usually in conflict, with “What’s the Matter with Kansas” liberals like me yelling “Don’t they seeee? They’re only screwing themselves.” But this time the raw populist anger at BP (and at anyone who’d actually apologize to it) is allied with the simple logic that says if you cheat, lie, and destroy, you must pay for it.
Bill O’Reilly is one of the few media figures on the right who knows enough to stick with that good ol’ mob-inflected outrage even when it’s shared by libs. We need a Chicago-style shakedown, he told Michele Bachmann, who knee-jerked that Obama was “extorting” BP for the $20 bill. “Come on!” roared Bill. “I'd go in there with a machine gun if I were president and say, hey, you put the money in here or you're not getting out of the room. So, I mean, I'm okay with it.”
That is one confused congresswoman! I’m all for an escrow fund, but I’m not. Obama should pressure BP, but he shouldn’t. Bachmann was trying her best to agree with O’Reilly—she assumes, after all, that he’s with her in yet another us-against-them battle—but she’s too ideologically brittle to even get his point. Their confrontation exemplifies a growing split among conservatives. Not just between fringers and establishment Repubs, but between those who believe extremist statements are the only way to demonstrate they are willing to “walk the walk”—“No-RINO-me” types--and those who realize that that walk leads off a plank.
At heart, it’s a psychological difference. You can see it on Bachmann’s face—she’s sweating severe cognitive dissonance there, neither nimble enough nor knowledgeable enough to distinguish between a corporate-inspired faux populism and an authentic populist rage over the destruction of an invaluable national resource. This is a disaster that happened on Obama’s watch, and by God she wants to stick it to him—after all, last week began with people saying he was like a mayor who would get canned for failing to clean the streets after a snowstorm. The only way to keep that narrative going after he extracted money from the corporation responsible for the disaster is to walk out as far as she can on the plank and scream--hopefully, loud enough that she won’t hear herself hit the water.
And there are a lot of Republicans screaming like that right now. It ain’t good for the Tea Party, for one thing, as Joshua Green wrote for The Atlantic earlier this month in “How the Oil Spill is Killing the Tea Party.” Rahm Emanuel famously said that Barton committed no gaffe, he merely laid out the GOP philosophy. And it’s Barton’s clear statement of that philosophy in the context of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history that exposes so many inconvenient truths:
· Most important, that the whole Republican party has a sustainability problem. The right won’t ever admit it, but the environmentalist argument against unregulated industry is now proven. And with that proof comes a growing conviction that every part of the GOP agenda is as unsustainable as Drill, Baby, Baby: Deregulated capitalism causes devastating crashes, the endless wars can’t be won or maintained, the unregulated health insurance system is bankrupting us, and on and on. Papering over financial, social, and environmental problems only lets them to grow into huge national existential threats.
· The Tea Party’s populism is hollow. Rand Paul, Bachmann, Beck, et al. have come out siding with a corporation that’s executed an eco-attack on America—and a corporation, moreover, that’s owned by the same furriners that the original Boston Tea Partiers revolted against.
· The old anti-government/smaller government line no longer works: We need the government to do enormous things now more than ever, and the right has been the first to call Obama inept for not doing more. (The left has been second.)
· The conveniently late Tea Party/GOP hysteria over the deficit makes no practical sense here. Republicans are attacking Obama for getting money out of BP and not putting the nation further into deficit. If the corporation didn’t set aside money to pay those they injured, where was it going to come from—the sale of magic beans?
· For rightwing Christians (many of them Tea Partiers) who see the coming apocalypse in the oil spill—well, they are just deeply confused. As Lisa Miller points out in Newsweek, this may be the first time they can’t link End Times to the sins of abortionists, homosexuals, and liberal behavior in general. Logic and emotion dictate that they link the world’s end to Republican-backed corporate greed—but of course, they can’t go there.
Hence, the screaming. It’s beginning to sound like lobsters in a pot.
Oh, it’s easy to be cynical about BP’s ad attempt to clean up its image. Now that we’ve gone through nearly two months of the worst environmental disaster in US history, we can recite the lies that keep lapping up on shore (1,000 barrels a day; no, 5,000; uh, sorry, chap, make that 40,000). We sniff out the word “legitimate” in BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “we will honor all legitimate claims” as a legalistic escape hatch. We are galled that BP has decided to spend $50 million on advertising—so daringly close to its low, lobbyist-set $75 million liability cap. And we get that the high-resolution furrows on Tony’s forehead mean “Message: I care,” just as we understand that the hi-res video of the gushing wellhead (footage BP released only under pressure) sends the message “We’re screwed.”
Yes, the ad—only the first of more to come--is awful. (And it’s made by none other than frequent Hardball guest and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and his partner in crisis PR, CNN pundit and GOP adman Alex Castellanos; their Purple Strategies consultancy also shills for the US Chamber of Commerce, which is fighting Congressional efforts to raise BP’s liability limit.) And it’s spawned parodies, all richly deserved, like this one.
But as cynical as we may now be about BP’s “we care” spot, it’s important to remember that for years BP advertising had millions of people across the world convinced that it was the greenest, the most enlightened of the energy companies. The ads had me going for a decade. In 2000, BP spent $200 million to rebrand itself from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum, from oleaginous ocean-killer to dolphin-dating dreamboat. Its stable of fresh, understated and charming commercials—which ran right up until the Deepwater explosion--created so much good will that even now it stays with me like a thin layer of grease that I can’t quite wash off.
Yep, it’s a start. But, in fact, BP never passed start. It didn’t get much beyond admitting that there is climate change—a smart PR move itself, helping the company to stand out from its competitors (who remain in denial) and diverting attention from late-‘90s charges of human rights violations in Colombia.
But who needs to actually make great environmental strides when a well-designed new look can do it for you? Shooting on video instead of film says “authentic”; the ostentatiously humble lowercase b and p say “not imperialistic”; highlighted words surrounded by clean white space say, “We focus on what’s important”; the youngish people on the street say “future”; the suspenseful but metronomic music says, “Be patient, we’ll get there.” And the green and yellow logo—well, is it the sun, suggesting solar energy, or is it a Teletubby flower, suggesting sheer innocence?
This next spot, also from 2006, pushes natural gas, but by asking, “What would you ask an oil company?” it’s really pushing the idea that BP is listening: They want to know what I think. (And catch this post-spill parody.)
All that breezy, lowercase nonchalance predisposed me toward BP. Big Oil in general was not to be trusted, I knew that much, but I really didn’t question that BP at least wanted to be a “good steward of the earth,” as corporate flacks like to say. In much the same way that I don’t question too hard when I’m shopping and see the word “green” on a cleaning product or “natural” on processed food. I know that these words are legally, technically meaningless, but I’m in a hurry and I almost appreciate the corporations’ token effort. It means they’re aware that green is important, which means, I tell myself, they wouldn’t completely make things up. It’s a start… if you’re a fool for green-washing like me.
Of course, my ad-encouraged suspension of disbelief in BP also depended on remaining ignorant. I didn’t know, until recently, that in the last three years BP has had far more OSHA violations than any other oil company: some 760 "egregious, willful" safety violations, while Citgo, for instance, had two, and Exxon (Exxon!?) had one. And my mind was elsewhere in 2005 when a BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, killed fifteen people and injured 180, and was later blamed on BP’s corner-cutting profit enhancement.
Anyway, I had space in my overloaded consumer brain for only one villainous oil company and, likemost Americans, I figured Exxon was it. Put its XX next to BP’s sunny green thing and you don’t really need a third X to know who’s the bad guy. This isn’t to excuse any of the other oil companies for their misdeeds. But it does point to my—and our—tendency to funnel life’s nonstop gush of information into either the hero or the villain pipe. Relief pipes to deal with continuing pressure are coming any day now, we tell ourselves.
The awful truth is that none of us really wants to wake up every day to this story about how our need to drive to a 7/11 for Twinkies in the middle of the night has killed everything in the Gulf of Mexico. Those powerful Beyond Petroleum ads are emblematic of how persuasive corporate advertising works: a little denial, a little magical thinking, perhaps a dose of “authentic” people or heart-stopping visuals. And before you know it, you’ve tripped into a pleasant world where, after the corporation has done its best to manufacture doubt, you finish the job for them. The biggest lies you hear are usually the ones you tell yourself.
Could it be that the nation’s infatuation with Fox News is slowly, slowly coming to an end? Looking at long-term cable ratings, you might surmise that on its way to the Tea Party, Fox has indeed jumped a shark or two.
Nothing is simple when it comes to stats or cable news, but consider: Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Greta Van Susteren have each hit their lowest point in a year or more with the key 25- to 54-year-old demo, according to the latest Nielsens. This twelve- to sixteen-month measurement is more detailed than a “year to year” comparison, which can make a show look strong or weak depending on what particular month you start from. But as a CNN press release happily notes: “May represents The O’Reilly Factor’s worst performance since January 2009, Hannity’s lowest delivery to date since taking over the time period in January 2009, and [Van Susteren’s] On the Record’s lowest since May 2009. Fox Report with Shep Smith had its lowest demo delivery since December 2008.”
O’Reilly, for instance, had some 625,000 viewers in the 25-54 age range in January 2009, built to a peak of one million by November, and dropped, to 693,000, by May 2010. Hannity and Van Susteren had similar rises and falls. Glenn Beck did not hit a twelve-month-or-more low point. But as Eric Boehlert of Media Matters points out, Beck’s numbers have fallen since his high in January, and “after twelve months of hype, Beck has not significantly grown his TV audience.”
And, by any measure, if you look at total viewership for all of Fox News, some audience-shedding is also evident. “In total day total viewers, FNC was down 6% year-to-year (while MSNBC was up 3% and CNN was down 16%),” writes Mediaite.
It’s true that Fox dwarfs MSNBC and CNN in raw audience numbers and that it’s still the number-one cable news channel, with the top eleven shows in both total viewers and the 25-54 group; O’Reilly, Beck, and Hannity still lead the pack, in that order. (Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, the nearest non-Fox hosts, are number twelve and fourteen, respectively.)
But comparing Fox ratings to themselves over a long period does show a trend that calls into question the Fox News Free-Market Theory of Journalistic Evidence: We must be right, and our version of reality must be the truest, because we have the most people watching—in other words, the market is the ultimate Decider. But that audience is currently decreasing—ergo, the market has also decided that Fox is less right and its version of reality less true than it was in the past.
Furthermore, the Fox message appears to have been ringing less true to the general public just as the Tea Party has begun to fail at the ballot box (Rand Paul in Kentucky being the one major exception), hinting that cruel reality is finally kneecapping the network’s narrative. Over the past month Tea Party candidates (or those endorsed by Palin, sometimes two competing but essentially similar things) have either lost primary contests (as in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania) or espoused views so extreme they’ve raised Democrats’ prospects for the general (like Sharron “End Social Security” Angle in Nevada, where Harry Reid has suddenly taken the lead after being out of it for a year).
Fox News analyst Angela McGlowan exemplified the double helix of contemporary conservatism, since she united both the Fox News strand and the Tea Party strand into one very wingy bid for the GOP nomination to a Congressional seat in Mississippi. After she drew only 15 percent of the vote, her selfish genes expressed themselves when she refused to endorse the winner because “he’s a RINO Republican.” This isn’t electoral politics--it’s a botched attempt at ceremonial purification.
Fox anchors and guests have been getting more irrelevant and picayune with each passing day. All those hyperventilating old standbys from the days of terror and fear, like Hannity, Rudy Giuliani and Dick Morris, are arguing harder over ever more piddly issues: Investigate Obama over Sestak and Romanoff jobs! POTUS is wearing “fancy pants” in the Gulf! He won’t even gibber with rage and burst into tears on national TV! And their hysteria over such thin gruel usually comes with a pitch of daring exclusivity: Beck frothed that only he and Fox were brave enough to show the video of the peace flotilla activists clubbing Israeli commandos, when actually, as Jon Stewart shows, the clip was all over TV like tear gas on an antiwar rally.
Such predictable, pipsqueak fury will always work for a certain percentage of the population, whose dyspeptic anger can never get enough grist to mill. But folks with normally functioning thyroid glands appear to be wilting a bit under all the shouting.
Of course, if wingers begin toting guns into town halls again this summer, or if another Scott Brown-like upset takes place, Fox ratings could surge again. Each net has its strength: CNN’s ratings popped out of the doldrums last month with the BP oil spill, as they did in the weeks after the Haitian earthquake, because CNN is the place you go for major crises, just as Fox is the place you go to hear your prejudices and frustrations echoed.
But to hold its ratings, Fox needs to do more than that. It needs to win elections, too.
Ever since learning that BP had decided to douse the Gulf of Mexico with “dispersants”—that is, toxic chemicals that break down oil slicks, making them less noticeable on the surface but even more deadly to the sea life below—I thought, This sounds familiar.
In fact, it sounds like a good metaphor for how the mass media function in our culture. All too often, the corporate media are the dispersant that makes the gush of oily corporate and political malfeasance—George Bush stealing the 2000 election, say, or lying us into the Iraq war--less noticeable on the surface. Though in the long run, vastly more toxic to our democracy.
The best current example of media-as-dispersant is the way that prior to the Deepwater Horizon rig sinking on April 22, most mainstream news outlets had been dutifully pushing the business line that teched-up off-shore drilling was as safe as Sarah Palin and, more recently, President Obama said it was. The corporate and conservative media came very close to making the corrupt relationship between Big Oil and the federal agency charged with regulating it as hard to spot as a drop of crude in the big blue sea—even with documented evidence that the regulators had accepted gifts, sex, drugs, and huge amounts of cash from the industry for years.
“As the United States examines the origins of the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico,” Fairness and Accuracy in Media wrote this week, “one factor that should not be overlooked is media coverage that served to cover up dangers rather than expose them. When President Barack Obama declared a new push for offshore drilling (3/31/10), asserting that ‘oil rigs today generally don't cause spills’ (4/2/10), corporate news outlets echoed such pollyanna sentiments.” The talking point was that fear of drilling is so last century. Just two examples from FAIR’s compilation:
To fear oil spills from offshore rigs today is analogous to fearing air travel now because of prop plane crashes.
—Steven F. Hayward, Weekly Standard (4/26/10)
Some of the most ironic objections come from those who say offshore exploration will destroy beaches and coastlines, citing the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska as an example. The last serious spill from a drilling accident in U.S. waters was in 1969, off Santa Barbara, California.
—USA Today editorial (4/2/10)
FAIR went on to list serious accidents since those earlier disasters, many of them covered with only listless urgency while two oilmen ran the country. But after repeatedly hearing sunny pronouncements like those above, it can become a tiny bit easier for any of us to accept that, as Rand Paul said, “Sometimes accidents happen."
The job of a media dispersant isn’t always to deflect blame; sometimes it is to keep a myth going despite all evidence to the contrary. We’ve been hearing a lot about the purported “enthusiasm gap” between R’s and D’s: Republican voters, this notion goes, are much more energized about their candidates this year than the Democrats are, and that will surely spell Waterloo for the libs. But as John Nichols pointed out, in the four largest May 18 primaries, “The Republican side was where the turnout dropped off.” Most notably, in the Kentucky Senate primaries, Rand Paul actually got fewer votes than the losing Democrat.
But the media has been doing its best to keep news of Democratic strength far below the surface—it would muddy up the myth of the GOP’s big-daddy dominance and its inevitable resurgence after a brief hiatus from power. Which is analogous to what many pundits see in Obama's waning approval ratings: Most ignore that much of the wane is from the dissatisfied left, leaving the desired impression that the right is getting bigger and angrier--and that’s the side to stick with, boy, if you know what's good for you.
Of course, the news media don’t have to willfully lie, exaggerate, or ignore reality in order to let companies like BP and Halliburton get away with murder. Celebrity and lifestyle news is, and long has been, the dispersant added to hard news to make it palatable, to give it less of a greasy, ink-stained taste of what’s really happening.
And in the largest sense, the news media itself is being dispersed, treated by corporations as if it were an oil slick best dissolved into smaller, less concentrated droplets that can be sunk out of sight. Sometimes literally, as when BP CEO Tony Hayward snapped at a cameraman, “Hey, get outta there! Get outta there!” when he stepped over a boom to film clean-up efforts on a Louisiana beach this week.
It’s a little like the story of Ken Salazar’s hat. Remember how, especially since Obama picked him as Interior Secretary, Salazar, who has close ties to the oil industry, would show up at press conferences wearing a 10-gallon Stetson? That’s a wildcatter hat, an oil industry-friendly chapeau. But ever since the oil hemorrhage in the Gulf, Salazar’s been appearing at photo-ops in a baseball cap, the everyman’s eyeshade. Bit by bit, the baseball cap is slowly dispersing memories of the huge cowboy hat, which always made Salazar’s head look unusually large. For sending out a tough-on-oil message, small-headed Ken is better than big-headed Ken—though it’s unclear whether either one is anything but a bobblehead when it comes to the oil industry.