Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pressing The Depressing Press For A Little Press

The top political story of the past year is money in politics, but that's the case with every year, and, viewed as mere business-as-usual, it isn't really "news" at all. The details are always different, but the story is always the same. That's how most of those in the corporate press look at it, anyway. Given the weight it merits, it should lead the evening newscasts every night--given the weight they assign it, it's barely even mentioned. U.S. politics are all about money. It overwhelms every other consideration. A lack of understanding of this basic fact precludes any understanding of U.S. politics.

The corporate press tends to present politics as, instead, a battle of personalities and of competing ideologies. It's no easy task. Ignoring a 2,000-lb. gorilla in the room never is, and a 24-hour news cycle makes it that much tougher to pretend it doesn't exist.

Money isn't the only gorilla, though. This particular one has several big gorilla babies the press either entirely ignores or mentions only in passing, and without reference to parentage. The biggest of these babies, for more than a year, has been Republican obstructionism in congress. If you get your news from most of the corporate press, you don't know a lot about it.

Barack Obama won the 2008 election in spectacular fashion, crushing Republican John McCain by nearly 10 million votes. His party, which had already won the congress two years earlier, heftily increased its majorities in both houses, almost achieving, in the Senate, a 60-vote filibuster-proof supermajority. Conventional wisdom held the election to be historic.

What a difference a year makes, eh?

The immediate aftermath, of course, was that Republicans embraced a strategy of obstruction, declared their opposition to anything and everything of any significance that was proposed by Obama and the Democrats, and used and abused every trick in the book to stop it all. Even when Obama and the Democrats adopted Republican proposals as their own, the Republicans who had made the proposals turned against them.

Entire volumes will probably be written about the remarkable opportunity the Obama squandered in his first year. He rode into office via landslide, and his popularity soared to even greater heights as he was sworn in, while public identification with his Republican opposition hit its lowest point in the history of polling. The world was his oyster, and instead of boldly seizing the moment and wringing some progress from it, he embraced the politics of compromise, accommodation, "bipartisanship," seemingly oblivious to the opportunity before him, oblivious to the ugly political reality of the contemporary American right, oblivious to the fact that you can't compromise when there's no one with whom to make a deal. Simply put, Obama blew it. One must judge him, in this monumental failure, as, at best, tragically misguided, and, at worst, utterly contemptible.

It probably isn't any surprise to my regular readers that I've leaned toward the latter conclusion; it's been mine since prior to the Obama's inauguration, when the administration he set about building made plain what was to follow. Everything that eventually did happen was a foregone conclusion. A shame, really.

But my contempt for Obama isn't my subject today. Today, I have some other contempt to spread around. Maybe I'll even offer something that amounts to--gasp!--some serious criticism of a theoretically important institution!

That institution is the press. I've never made any secret of the fact that I am, to put it mildly, not a fan of much of it. In theory, it's indispensable. In practice, it's reprehensible. It's supposed to be a watchdog on the powerful. At this, it fails miserably.

Republican obstructionism, particularly in the U.S. Senate, has been the biggest of that big gorilla's big gorilla babies in the past year. Consider this, for a moment. Why hasn't it been the #1 story on the nightly newscasts every night for most of the past year? I mean, since money-in-politics can't be directly touched. The Demos rode in on that wave of enthusiasm in 2008, but, through the Senate filibuster and various other abuses, Repubs--the losers of the election--have managed to stop just about everything Obama and the Demos have advanced. There were 75 cloture votes in the Senate last year. To put that number in perspective, the 2nd-most-frequent use of cloture in an entire two-year congress in the entire history of the United States was 82 votes. The Republicans nearly tied it in only one year. These same Republicans set the current #1 record for cloture votes in a congress, as well--when they lost both houses in 2006, the next two years saw 139 cloture votes, over double the average of the previous five congresses. They're going to beat that record with this current congress. They're being allowed, by the press, to do so. Their behavior isn't scandalized. It isn't reported in any sort of sustained, systematic way that would inform the public what's happening. For the most part, in fact, it's barely even reported at all in most major media outlets. Repubs obstruct everything, then say the Demos' policies have failed; Obama and the Democrats see their approval ratings tank.

Not that Obama and the Demos aren't mostly to blame for that. If they'd just decided to go through the Republicans right from the beginning, they wouldn't be in this position. Their efforts at accommodation have done them in, and its impossible to have any sympathy for them. I have to believe, though, that if the press was doing its job, and if the public had gotten, from it, a sustained, systematic narrative of this extraordinary campaign of obstructionism, public disapproval would be tilted rather differently.

That sort of sustained work by the press would have also put the just-concluded Jim Bunning situation in its proper perspective. Over the weekend, Sen. Bunning (Clown-KY) decided to launch a one-man crusade against extension of unemployment benefits, holding them up and allowing them to expire. Bunning's behavior has been treated by the press as some sort of anomalous outrage, when, placed in its proper perspective, it's perfectly consistent with his parties' behavior. The press reacted the same way (when reporting the matter at all) when, a few months ago, Sen. Tom "Payola" Coburn (Clown-OK) was holding up veteran's benefits. Anomalous. No sense of context. Sen. Richard Shelby (Clown-AL) blocks over 70 Obama nominees to national security-related posts because he wants a pork project for a foreign-owned company in his state, instead of an American-owned company elsewhere. It was barely reported at all, and when it was, it was the same routine. Anomalous.

Without the proper framing provided by sustained press coverage, something like the fight over health care reform can't even be understood by the broader public. The press aversion to the mother gorilla has already robbed the public of any real opportunity to understand what's driving the debate, but the aversion to the big gorilla baby has also left them mostly in the dark about the mechanics of the debate itself. Repub obstructionism is part of a conscious party strategy to bury anything the Demos try to do, then to try to bury the Demos themselves for being failures at governing, which would be very clear if sustained, systematic reporting on it had started with the obstruction campaign, the day the Obama took the oath of office. For that matter, Repubs, as I said earlier, first amped up the use of the filibuster to insane proportions two years before that, after they lost the congress. Again, this would have been clear, if the press was doing its job. Absent those needed months (and years) of context leading up to the health care debate, the coverage, instead, actually lends credibility to Repub suggestions that there's something terribly wrong with reform efforts, even if the coverage never explicitly says so. Otherwise, why would the Repubs be fighting it so fiercely?

The health care "reform" proposal advanced by Obama is based on several Republican health care "reform" proposals, but, initially, with a public option tacked on for cost-control purposes (something the Obama quickly abandoned when faced with criticism from the right).[*] That's a pretty damn important fact when Republicans start screeching about "socialism" and "government takeover," railing against the Demos exclusion of Repub ideas from the process, and going to such insane lengths to stop anything from passing. Pretty damn important, but good luck in ever hearing about it on the evening news.

Instead, Repub anti-reform propaganda--even blatant lying--is allowed, time and time again, to gain serious traction. When the charge of "death panels" aimed at killing old people was packing the congressional town-hall meetings with ranting idiots, it was almost impossible to get the press to do any significant reporting on the basic fact that there weren't any such "death panels," and that the proposal being used as a basis for the charge was an uncontroversial measure about a totally different matter that had been written by Republicans and had very broad support in congress right up until the point it became more convenient for one side to lie about it. At the height of the hysteria, Media Matters ran a piece aimed at documenting the many times the lie had been debunked in the press, but mostly succeeding in demonstrating what I've been describing about the shallow press coverage. While many major press outlets had, indeed, been critical of the lie, the criticism was relatively rare, and usually limited to a stray comment or two. Very few dedicated stories. No systematic reporting.

Now, Democrats are considering using the congressional reconciliation process to iron out the differences between the House and Senate health care bills. Repubs are behaving as their usual outraged selves, presenting this as some sort of unprecedented use of a procedural gimmick to force health care reform on an unwilling public, and they're getting lots of stenography of these baseless charges in the press. Sen. Orrin Hatch (Clown-UT) just authored a compendium of these lies, and the Washington Post saw fit to publish it. Over at Media Matters, Jamison Foser has just written an illuminating article on the matter, offering, in the process, yet another example of how journalistic failure has impacted the health care debate. Foser examined how the corporate media covered the Repubs' use of the reconciliation process to pass George Bush's 2003 tax cut legislation. Simply stated, they didn't. The reconciliation process was treated as a non-story. It wasn't scandalized. The fact that it was even being used at all was barely even mentioned. Now, though, Repubs are expending a great deal of effort to make it appear a scandal that Democrats are considering doing what they've done. If the press had been providing the proper coverage of Republican obstructionism for the past year (or the past three), the wider public wouldn't even need to know the details--it would immediately recognize the bullshit being shoveled by Republicans over this matter as just the latest from a big pile of bullshit aimed at obstructing Democratic proposals.

If the obstructionist story had ever been given the weight it deserved, the public would be sick of it very quickly, and up in arms about it within a month.

The corporate press simply won't act as an effective watchdog, which is what it's supposed to be, and, more importantly, what we so desperately need it to be. It is, instead, lazy, incompetent, often ill-intentioned, and unaccountable. That's why it needs watchdogs.

Unfortunately, our biggest watchdog, Media Matters, has been dropping the ball a lot lately. Nearly all of its work, for a few months, now, has been devoted to debunking fictions circulated by Fox News. Now, it's true Fox News is a cancer on the U.S., but it's also true that bashing them is like shooting elderly, arthritic fish in a very small barrel. The real problems with the press are found in the sort of deficient coverage I've been outlining, and it's the big news operations that are falling short. Media Matters barely touches them at all anymore.

So what's left are mostly no-name assholes like me, blogging away to little notice.

The corporate press needs its watchdogs. Their mission has to be a hell of a lot larger than just following whatever the idiots on Fox are lying about at any given moment. I went over there for a few days and griped about it, and today's output was an improvement. Foser's piece was a most welcome change. I hope they find their way again.



[*] The reason the "Democratic" proposal for "reform" is identical to those Republican plans is a story in itself--they're both written by industry lobbyists. Good luck seeing that on the evening new, too.

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