Saturday, October 28, 2006

"The Enemies of Truth"

The corporate media have finally noticed that a very large, very rabid skunk is busy spraying its caustic stink all over the 2006 election campaign. Some journalists, like the Washington Post's Michael Grunwald, are even acknowledging -- oh-so-gently -- that the varmint has a name:

While negative campaigning is a tradition in American politics, this year's version in many races has an eccentric shade, filled with allegations of moral bankruptcy and sexual perversion . . The result has been a carnival of ugly, especially on the GOP side, where operatives are trying to counter what polls show is a hostile political environment by casting opponents as fatally flawed characters.

It's an improvement, at least, over the spin being put on the story at ABC News, where Mark Halperin is taking his promise to keep conservatives happy this November literally, and blaming the Democrats for ads they haven't run yet.

But no one in the corporate media, to my knowledge, have even come close to putting an accurate lead on the story -- which would look something like this:

Faced with the likely loss of one if not both houses of Congress, the Republican Party has embarked on a massive, last-ditch effort to smear Democratic challengers in competitive districts across the country.

The resulting campaign has completely demolished whatever minor restraints remained on the use of lies and distortions in political attack ads, and has pushed the already debased American political process to a new low.

A "straight" journalist couldn't possibly write a lead like that and expect to get it past his/her editor -- even though the Republicans themselves revealed their intentions quite clearly some weeks ago:

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which this year dispatched a half-dozen operatives to comb through tax, court and other records looking for damaging information on Democratic candidates, plans to spend more than 90 percent of its $50 million-plus advertising budget on what officials described as negative ads.

Opposition research is power," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), the NRCC chairman. "Opposition research is the key to defining untested opponents."

The only fresh "news" is that the resulting ads are even fouler and more despicable than any the Rovian machine has unleashed in the past -- to the point where some of them would probably have made Joseph Goebbels himself blush.

This alone tells you something about the almost complete breakdown of political accountability in this country. The Rovians now assume they can say anything, any freaking thing at all, and it will still come out the other end of the journalistic sausage factory as a "balanced" assessment that "both parties are doing it."

And so, after listing five specific cases of maximum, over-the-top GOP sleaze -- including Ken Blackwell's gaybaiting in Ohio, claims in Indiana that Democrats "want to abort black babies," and the now-infamous masturbating geezers and Vietnamese prostitutes ad in Wisconsin and North Carolina -- the Post story adds this caveat:

Some Democrats are playing rough, too. House candidate Chris Carney is running ads slamming the "family values" of Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), whose former mistress accused him of choking her. And House candidate Kirsten Gillibrand has an ad online ridiculing Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) for attending a late-night fraternity party.

And that's it: the sum total of the evidence produced for the case that Democrats are also "playing rough." Chastising Don Sherwood for beating his mistress, an affair (the sex, not the abuse) that he has already publicly admitted, and tweaking John Sweeney for his party habits. This is "balanced" only in the same sense that an elephant balances a mouse -- because, after all, both are mammals.

The way the media is currently handling the GOP's Swiftboat extravaganza is a textbook example of how the conventions of journalistic "objectivity" have become the enemies of truth, not its allies. It shows why so many on the left are so angry even with "responsible," non-Foxified news organizations: because they insist on describing a moral equivalence that factually doesn't exist -- and which many, if not most, reporters know does not exist.

The Democrats certainly aren't the Children of Light here, and there's no question liberals are perfectly capable of ignoring the motes in their own eyes -- and those of their political patrons. The general reaction in Left Blogistan to the reporting on Harry Reid's land dealings in Nevada was a good example. Lefty bloggers generally fell all over themselves excusing Reid's financial ties to an extremely dirty circle of local Las Vegas pols (to find out how dirty, Google "Operation G-string" or "Rick Rizzolo") and arguing that the Minority Leader's failure to disclose his partnership with a known mob attorney was a mere technicality. Reid's dealings may not have been illegal, or even unethical, but I have absolutely no doubt that if he had been a Republican pol caught with the same pair of pants around his ankles, the cries at Daily Kos for a special prosecutor would have been deafening.

But at some point refusing to recognize the disproportionality -- a disciplined, lavishly funded and utterly ruthless authoritarian machine on one side; the usual run of backslapping bribe takers on the other -- becomes a form of lying, and we're long past that point.

When even Chris Matthews can smell the odor wafting from "Ken Mehlman's cesspool," you know how strong the stench is, but most journalists, most of the time, continue to flee from the truth: that the GOP machine will use every totalitarian propaganda trick in the book, if need be, to keep all three branches of the federal government in its grip. Or, at a minimum, that the men at the top -- Rove, Mehlman and, of course, Junior -- show no signs of having any limits on their willingness to use such techniques.

The sinking sensation this produces in my stomach is comparable to the feeling I had after the Abu Ghraib story broke, when it quickly became clear that torture and sexual abuse had been used as routine tools of interrogation not just in Iraq but at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, but the corporate media insisted on treating the Cheney Administration's lies as equal to, if not greater than, the events unfolding in front of their eyes.

I could, of course, cite other examples -- the WMD fraud, the secret wiretapping, the insane debate over whether the sectarian slaughter in Iraq qualifies as a "civil war," and so on. But the common denominator, in each case, was the corporate media's stubborn, and I would say deliberate, insistence on "balancing" obvious lies and partisan spin against the facts. Truth versus truthiness.

Needless to say, if the TV bimbos and the ink-stained wretches were willing to give the Geneva Convention that kind of treatment, it's no surprise they're willing to do the same in a political campaign -- which, after all, tend to be vapid, vicious, inane and dishonest even at the best of times. But every failure to draw some kind of line, to make a distinction between "both parties are doing it" and "one of the two parties is completely out of control," encourages the out-of-control party to behave even more outrageously. In the end, it will also force the Democrats to respond in kind (that is, if they want to survive) thus making ABC's prediction that the left, too, will unleash it's garbage a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Or maybe not, since the Dems also depend heavily on the votes of moderate, educated voters, male and female, who may not respond as readily to the kind of limbic politics the GOP now specializes in. But if that's so, then we're probably well on our way to the corporate one-party state, in which case the question may eventually arise: Why do we even need elections, or a bunch of arrogant, culturally liberal reporters to cover them?

Forgive me for belaboring the obvious here. I'm obviously not the first guy to make the point that ignoring the truth is not the same thing as telling the truth (genuflects before pictures of Paul Krugman and Stephen Colbert) but where I might go beyond most liberal critics is in arguing that the "objectivity" convention itself is primarily a commercial arrangement, not a political one. And, like all arrangements in a dynamic capitalist economy, it has a finite life cyle, one which may be nearing its end.

The mass media -- the TV networks, the news weeklies, the large, national circulation newspapers like the New York Times -- have been under enormous economic pressures for over a decade now, and those pressures are only getting worse. The mass market itself is being torn apart, into smaller and smaller niches. For most old media, the networks in particular, it's become a zero sum game. Just trying to hold the audiences they have is a losing battle. This loss of market power is one of the forces driving the trend towards consolidation (oligopoly). It's a defensive reaction in an industy that is getting more competitive, not less.

In this kind of environment, the old journalistic tradition -- balancing partisan viewpoints across a relatively narrow, centrist ideological spectrum -- becomes more and more problematic. So does the old "liberal bias," which could more accurately be described as a kind of cool, technocratic disdain for populist passions, which in this country since about the 1950s, has meant the populist right. The market for that kind of centrist pablum is receding almost as quickly as David Broder's hairline.

Combine those commercial realities with the progressive polarization of the electorate (and the conservative reach for hegemonic power) and the old media have a serious problem: That which appeals to some bits and piece of the old mass audience may drive away other bits and pieces.

One strategy for dealing with this dilemma is simply to avoid controversy whenever possible, and try to persuade your loudest critics -- which again usually means the populist right -- that you're bending over backwards to be "balanced." That was the initial corporate reaction in the '80s and early '90s, in fact you often got the feeling the networks wouldn't have minded getting out of the news business entirely, if their licences would have allowed it.

But instead the rise of cable and its insatiable appetite for programming turned news into a profit center. It's cheap to produce, the scripts essentially write themselves and there are plenty of cross-selling opportunities (as ABC, Disney and Rush Limbaugh are busy proving). When it comes to filling air time, it's as cost effective as the reality shows, if not more so. If only the audiences didn't keep getting smaller, and older . . .

What finally appears to have dawned on old media is that trying to please everyone not only doesn't keep the critics off their backs, it doesn't help them hold their existing audience or build new ones. The geezers depart for Fox News, the 18-to-35 year olds get their news from the Daily Show. Meanwhile the opportunity costs, in terms of forgone revenues, have gotten higher. So hard choices have to be made: Which slices of the audience should they try to hold, and which can they afford to alienate if that's the price for keeping the ones they want?

It's a triage operation, in other words -- and to me it looks as if a conscious, corporate decision has been made to try to hold (or win back) the conservative "red state" audience even if it means losing the liberal "blue state" audience. Whether this is because the conservative audience is larger and more affluent, or because the strategists at Viacom, Disney, GE and Time Warner have decided that liberals are less likely to change channels when their ideological beliefs are offended, or because the more demographically desirable blue state audiences have long since "self selected" their way out of old media's reach all together, I don't know. But when Mark Halperin promises Bill O'Reilly he will feel his pain, or the CBS Evening News gives every conservative nut job in America a spot on "Free Speech," or NBC refuses to accept an ad for the Dixie Chicks documentary because it disrepects Shrub, or Time puts Ann Coulter on the cover, I think they're making economic statements as much as journalistic ones.

You could say: To hell with old media, they're just a bunch of senile dinosaurs anyway, who cares who they pander to? But old media, for better or worse, still set the news agenda, and still dominate the political process. And they're doing an energetic, if not yet totally successful, job of sucking up new media and sticking them in the same corporate straight jacket. If they decide, as matter of cold capitalist calculation, that one-party Republican rule is the smart way to bet, that could also become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Maybe I'm wrong -- I hope I am. But if I'm right, then in years to come progressives may look back and sigh for the good old days when journalistic "objectivity" still encouraged the corporate media to give the truth and conservative propaganda equal weight, instead of just mindlessly repeating the latter.

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