How the media patronizes us

The presidential election campaign for 2008 has already started with a whole host of declared and undeclared candidates running. George Bush’s performance seem to have persuaded people that anyone can do a better job than him.

On the Democratic side, we have Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson. (Tom Vilsack has already dropped out.)

On the Republican side, there is Rudy Giuliani, Duncan Hunter, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo, and possibly Newt Gingrich, Chuck Hagel, and Fred Thompson.

All the candidates face stiff hurdles in getting their respective nominations. But the reality is that almost all of them have no chance. It is not because they are not good candidates or are incapable of being president or have unsavory histories but because they have two inter-related issues that work against them right form the start.

One of those issues is the ability to raise money. It requires a lot of money to run a presidential campaign. This is something that everyone is aware of. The less obvious but related issue is that the media has already made a judgment about who is ‘worthy’ and capable of being president and some of the candidates have already been written off. The coverage of their campaigns will reflect this bias against them and this will adversely affect those candidates’ ability to raise money and gain name recognition.

It is clear that the media has already chosen the following as the ‘viable’ candidates based on nothing more than their own preferences. For Democrats they are Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. For the Republicans, they are Giuliani, McCain, and Romney.

The media will be either dismissive of the others, or treat them as distractions, or use them as fodder to provide ‘color’ to the campaigns. For example, Michael McIntyre says Kucinich’s in his ‘Tipoff’ column in the Plain Dealer on January 20, 2007 described Kucinich’s campaign as ‘futile.’ On what basis? He does not say. The fact is that Kucinich and Paul are the only Congresspeople running for president who had the foresight to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, the disastrous law that George Bush used to wage his illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq. But that seems to count for nothing in the minds of the media who continue to give prominence to the politicians and pundits who have been consistently wrong on everything concerning this war. (Obama was also against the war but not in Congress at that time.)

This is not a new phenomenon. The pack of media journalists that follow campaigns as a group has long tended to decide early on which candidates ‘deserve’ serious consideration, or even are worthy of being president and slant their coverage accordingly. Jonathan Schwarz describes an experience he had many years ago that illustrated to him that “the government and corporate media self-consciously see themselves as a governing elite that runs things hand in hand.”

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen came to talk at Yale in 1988, just after I arrived. Following schmancy Yale tradition, he had tea with a small group of students and then ate dinner with an even smaller group. I weaseled my way into attending.

Gary Hart had recently flamed out in the ’88 presidential race because of Donna Rice. And at dinner Cohen told all us fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty youths this:

The Washington press corps had specifically tried to push Hart out of the race. It wasn’t because Hart had had extramarital affairs—everyone knew this was the norm rather than the exception among politicians. So Hart wasn’t at all unusual in this respect. Instead, Cohen said, it was because the press corps felt that Hart was “weird” and “flaky” and shouldn’t be president. And when the Donna Rice stuff happened, they saw their opening and went after him.

(I wish I remembered more about what Cohen said about the specific gripe of the press corps with Hart, but I don’t think he revealed many details.)

At the time, I remember thinking this:

1. How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it’s appropriate.

2. How interesting that the DC press corps feels it’s their place to make decisions for the rest of America; ie, rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn’t be trusted to make the correct evaluation.

3. How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.
. . .
If you’re not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you’re stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can’t be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you’d go nuts and break America.

CBS News’s Dick Meyer confirms the fact that the media often decides to not tell the public the truth about political leaders:

This is a story I should have written 12 years ago when the “Contract with America” Republicans captured the House in 1994. I apologize.

Really, it’s just a simple thesis: The men who ran the Republican Party in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years were a group of weirdos. Together, they comprised one of the oddest legislative power cliques in our history. And for 12 years, the media didn’t call a duck a duck, because that’s not something we’re supposed to do.

The situation now is not unlike that which existed earlier when Thomas Jefferson said:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

It seems clear to me that the members of the mainstream media and the political classes today tends to fall into the first group. But for a healthy democracy, it is important that we advocate belonging to the second group. This is why I think that citizenship means that we do not accept what is given to us by the media but be active seekers of knowledge.


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