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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Refs

by digby

The Opinionator in the NY Times is well worth reading today, because it's all about Obama's executive orders on Guantanamo and the political establishment's response to them. It's an interesting overview with a lot of good links to various points of view. (Never mind that the writer calls me a "current darling" in spite of the fact that I'm so stale and out of fashion at this point that I might as well be Elaine Benes. It's informative anyway.)

It seems clear that everyone is happy, whether it's the left, which wanted Obama to repudiate the torture regime or the right (and the media) who are totally convinced that he is continuing those same policies. That seems like good politics. He certainly appears to have effectively sidestepped, at least for the moment, the danger that closing Gitmo and the rest would result in a "Don't Ask Don't Tell" style hissy fit. (I think in this case it helped that there was a strong public argument formulated outside the presidential campaign on the issue.)

But as we have learned in the past half decade, reality bites eventually and it will be clear exactly what the result of these orders are at some point. And, as I've written before, the stakes are not just US adherence to the Rule of Law, but US moral authority and Obama's ability to conduct a credible foreign policy. Winking and nodding may work in the beltway, but foreign governments aren't quite so willing to believe what they want to believe.

The fact is that if Obama does what is right for American foreign policy, there are many on the right who are going to be very angry, there's just no way around that. Perhaps it's a good thing to put off that moment of reckoning, considering all the things he has to deal with in the near term. But it will happen. And if he decides to eventually allow a little bit of torture-lite or finds some "common ground" on indefinite detention, he will also be sandbagged by the right who will accuse him not only of hypocrisy, but of not going far enough. There is only one way to politically and substantively deal with this, and that's to make a clean, clear break with the Bush administration.

One of the most thought provoking excerpts I came across in the Opinionator's long post was from Brian Beutler, in which he points out that the media simply has a need for conflict and so creates it where there is none. I think that's true as well, but in this case, the media is papering over the conflict and you have to ask yourself why that is. Aside from the fact that they are covering their own feelings on torture, I think it's just that the right is back to seriously working the refs, and that is a far more complicated issue for us to deal with.

The problem has never been that members of the media are conservative, although plenty of them are. The problem is that they are subject to sophisticated manipulation by the permanent political establishment (which is conservative by definition) and live and work in a world in which conventional wisdom cannot be freely challenged. And after many years of being called the "liberal media" they are still sensitive to the charge that they are in the tank and feel the need to prove their credibility. (The left's media critique has no similar slogan --- or clout --- unfortunately.) This ads up to a media which is now feeling the need to prove their "independence" --- and that never works out well for the liberal program.

The political establishment and the right wing noise machine are very, very good at this. They've been doing it for decades and their methods are far more nuanced and subtle than Rush Limbaugh screaming that he wants Obama to fail (although Limbaugh plays a part in this by legitimizing those who are playing a smoother game but are no less hostile.) They have the ability to manipulate the press to sabotage the progressive agenda through the building of false expectations, propaganda, social pressure, tabloid scandal and a long term commitment to the indoctrination among the people of ideological dogma. It's a very well-developed strategy and it doesn't suffer from Republican political failure because it exists outside of, and in spite of, electoral politics.

The problem with the press is far more complicated than a simple matter of fairness or even stultifying conventional wisdom, which as Jay Rosen explains in this widely read and important post, is hugely influential. It's also a matter of their own lack of self-awareness and inability to either see or fight the pressures to conform that are brought to bear by powerful interests and institutions.

Many members of the press clearly like Obama. But it won't help him pass his program or convey the message he wants to convey because the majority of those who are charged with disseminating his message aren't agents of change, they are agents for the status quo whether they know it or not. And they have the power to tilt the playing field.

There are exceptions, of course. There are examples of courageous journalists willing to challenge the CW and who are attuned to right wing tactics. But many times they are marginalized or forced to soften the edges of their reporting if they stray too far from the establishment line. The conservatives know how to use that weakness to their own advantage and in a brilliant bit of jiu jitsu have even managed to convince most of the country, and the media themselves, that they are actually the handmaidens of liberalism. It's one of their finest achievements.