John Nichols on the AOL/Huffington Post merger, Ari Berman on the Democratic Leadership Council’s demise and Riddhi Shah on invisible government benefits


MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS: Less than a decade ago, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, MSNBC dumped Phil Donahue because he was too liberal for major media. Oh, how times have changed. Suddenly, progressives are hot properties. On February 7, Internet services giant AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million in a bid to reposition itself as a content provider. HuffPo co-founder Arianna Huffington, a former conservative turned progressive icon, was installed as the president of a new AOL company with multiple sites and a domestic audience of 117 million.

One day later, Al Gore and Joel Hyatt recruited Keith Olbermann—who proved that MSNBC could be liberal and successful, before signing off in January—as Current TV’s “chief news officer,” with a nightly program of his own and a charge to build a fresh news and public affairs cable network. Olbermann is now an equity stakeholder in Current, which is controlled by Gore and Hyatt but partially owned by NBC’s parent company, Comcast.

So within days, two of progressive media’s best-known figures have become potentially definitional players in “big media.” Why is this happening now? Today’s savvier cable and digital media CEOs recognize that there is money to be made by appealing to niche audiences. Like conservatives, progressives form a “community” ripe for targeting. Investing in Huffington and Olbermann, innovators with records of attracting progressive audiences, makes business sense.

Unfortunately, Huffington and Olbermann face tremendous pressure to attract not just audiences but revenue, pressure that has ruined many a news project. If they retain their independence while using greater resources, they could increase their influence and the quality of the discourse. Still, those of us who were reared on the teachings of George Seldes and I.F. Stone will be excused if we continue to believe that the most vital journalism will always come from scrappy independents who remain free enough from bottom-line pressures to speak truth to power—even when it’s bad for business.   JOHN NICHOLS

DLC DEAD; CENTRISM LIVES: The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the mainstay of the New Democrat movement for thirty years, is on the verge of bankruptcy and has decided to suspend operations immediately, likely for good.

Under the leadership of former Congressional aide Al From, the DLC grew quickly in the 1980s and early ’90s as aspiring Democratic politicians—most notably, Bill Clinton—gravitated to the organization, which existed to break the power of liberal interest groups inside the Democratic Party and attract support from the business community. Under DLC cover, New Democrats were able to shed the “tax and spend” stigma of the McGovern/Mondale years, raise big dollars from corporate America and pick up establishment media support. As president, Clinton largely followed the DLC program of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation, relying on DLC aides like Bruce Reed, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck. A top aide to Jesse Jackson groused of the Clinton-era Democratic Party, “The DLC has taken it over.”

But the DLC’s influence began to wane in the Bush years as its accommodationist instincts came to be viewed by many rank-and-file Democrats as doing more harm than good. For example, at a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the Congressional resolution to authorize the war in Iraq, current and former DLC chairs Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt flanked George W. Bush. New leaders and groups like Howard Dean and emerged to challenge the DLC, and even former New Democratic stalwarts, like Kamarck and New Democrat Network president Simon Rosenberg, began to distance themselves from the DLC’s harsh attacks on liberals. The group’s support for Lieberman in the 2004 primary and fierce opposition to Dean, in particular, backfired spectacularly.

The DLC suffered additional blows during Lieberman’s independent Senate candidacy in 2006 and DLC chair Harold Ford Jr.’s quixotic and short-lived bid for the Senate in New York. What was left of the New Democrat base gravitated toward the new group Third Way, which boasts ties to centrist members of Congress. When From retired in 2009, the DLC’s state and local chapters began to disappear.

To be fair, the DLC was also a victim of its own success. Former DLC CEO Reed ran the Obama administration’s deficit commission and is now Joe Biden’s chief of staff. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was a devotee of the group, as are many members of Obama’s economic team. Obama, though never close to the DLC, nonetheless appears to share the group’s pro-corporate inclinations and philosophy of compromise. “DLC is not out of business,” blogger Max Sawicky tweeted upon hearing the news. “HQ has moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”   ARI BERMAN

GET YOUR GOVERNMENT HANDS… According to a recent report in Perspectives on Politics, Americans are largely ignorant of the government benefits they receive. Of the more than 40 million retirees and survivors who receive Social Security benefit payments every year, a whopping 44.1 percent responded in a government survey that they had “not used a government social program.” For other programs, the numbers are even higher. Of the 35 million taking advantage of the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, 60 percent were unaware that it is a government-sponsored program. Even programs like Pell Grants (43.1 percent), Medicaid (27.8 percent) and food stamps (25.4 percent) have high rates of misrecognition.

The article, by political scientist Suzanne Mettler, argues that the problem is the government’s tendency to create “submerged” social programs. “These are welfare programs that are either administered through private agencies or through the tax system. As a result, they’re not as visible,” explains Mettler.

In February 2009, President Obama passed tax credits worth $288 billion. But a year later, only 12 percent of those polled believed they were paying lower taxes. ”The politics of the submerged state allows Americans to be deluded about the role of government,” Mettler says. “It makes a lot of people have anti-government attitudes even though they’re often beneficiaries of generous government programs.”   RIDDHI SHAH

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