Even though we’ve lived with it for more than thirty years now, it’s hard not to marvel at the effectiveness of the right’s campaign to intimidate, cajole and complain their way into favorable treatment from the mainstream media for their candidates and causes. What’s so interesting is that they no longer even bother to argue the merits of their case in normative terms. Rather, they operate on the basis of a kind of faith-based definition of news, in which such niceties as facts and evidence play no role. And it works.
The ideology of the faith-based news was nicely stated by Bush senior media adviser Mark McKinnon to reporter Ron Suskind, “You think he’s an idiot, don’t you?… all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read the New York Times or Washington Post or the LA Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!”
Speaking to Salon‘s Eric Boehlert, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller admitted, “We’re puzzled over what seems to be a more intense antipathy [from] this White House, especially since the campaign heated up.” Keller said he could “only speculate, but some of it may be that they think whacking a big newspaper with ‘New York’ in its name plays well with the conservative base. Perhaps they think if they beat up on us we’ll go soft on them.” What Keller misses is that the hostility so evident among right-wingers is–at least for the intelligent among them–a put-up job. When Republican consultants “work the refs” they don’t need to believe their own charges. They only need to pretend to believe them long enough to insure the following kinds of actions on the part of the media:
§ Just as it had done following the Cheney-Edwards debate, after the third presidential debate, ABC News disgraced itself by publishing a poll its own journalists could not have believed. The respondents to their instant poll skewed Republican, 38 to 30, despite the fact–known quite well to the folks at ABC–that the past two elections have seen a 39-to-35 turnout favoring Democrats. ABC therefore showed a tie, when all the honest polls that followed demonstrated a strong win for Kerry. Had ABC attempted to do such a thing to the disadvantage of the Republicans, there would have been hell to pay–on Fox, on Drudge, on Rush, in the Wall Street Journal editorial pages and across the Murdoch empire. But because they were screwing the Democrats–twice–it was just business as usual.
§ Commenting on the same debate, NBC offered up Andrea Mitchell, who, in response to a question on the future of Social Security that criticized Alan Greenspan, proceeded to attack Kerry for alleged demagogy. Unfortunately, neither she nor NBC thought it relevant to inform viewers that Ms. Mitchell is also Mrs. Greenspan. Can there be a clearer, more precise illustration of a genuine conflict of interest? One can barely even imagine what fresh hell the MSNBC switchboard operators would have been forced to experience had the Bush campaign been the victim of so blatant a violation of journalistic ethics. (Meanwhile, what was up with MSNBC following the debate with four pro-Bush pundits out of five?)
§ In the aftermath of the same debate, as the blog “Media Matters” noted, “Kerry’s accurate and respectful reference to Mary Cheney’s sexuality” received four times as much punditocracy attention as Bush’s inaccurate denial that he had ever said he wasn’t worried about Osama bin Laden.
§ Issues, shmissues: Just as it did four years ago, the Bush campaign is determined to ignore issues whenever possible–lest the party’s extremism become the subject of discussion–and focus instead on “character” and “values.” Following the influential example of the authors of ABC’s The Note–which goes so far as to mock Times editorial writers for getting “super excited about the substance of the VP debate”–CNN’s commentators played into the Bush playbook by mocking the very idea that a presidential candidate might communicate something about his policies in a presidential debate. Candy Crowley complained of being forced to sit through “a bit of a wonk fest.” She was followed by Jeff Greenfield, who belied on television his reputation for brains by grumbling, Rush Limbaugh-style, “This was the least satisfying debate, the most drenched in wonkery.”
The net result of the so-called liberal media’s abdication of its constitutional role–together with an active campaign of deception by the right-wing media, on Fox and elsewhere–is a nation voting in profound ignorance of what its votes will mean. As a recent study by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes demonstrates, even after the final report of Charles Duelfer, demonstrating the complete absence of any WMD program in Iraq, 72 percent of Bush supporters operate in ignorance, and believe Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major development program (25 percent). No less disturbing, 75 percent of Bush supporters believe Iraq was providing significant support to Al Qaeda, and 63 percent are under the impression that we have discovered evidence to support that contention. A mere 31 percent of Bush supporters are aware that most of the world continues to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, with 42 percent assuming an evenly divided global opinion and more than a quarter believing that the rest of the planet approves.
It’s hard to argue that democracy can be said to be functioning under these circumstances; and it’s even harder to defend the role of the American media in upholding a respect for fact over “faith.” But given his record of almost unprecedented incompetence, ideological fanaticism, mendacity and corruption, faith over reality represents Bush’s only chance.