Wired For Conservatism

by dday

E.J. Dionne is one of the first traditional media journalists, to my knowledge, to openly state that the media tilts to the right, in the context of how the chattering class leaps at any utterance from the Newt Gingrichs and Rush Limbaughs and Dick Cheneys of the world, and he explains how this distorts the debate in Washington and what people pick up in the cultural milieu.

If you doubt that there is a conservative inclination in the media, consider which arguments you hear regularly and which you don't. When Rush Limbaugh sneezes or Newt Gingrich tweets, their views ricochet from the Internet to cable television and into the traditional media. It is remarkable how successful they are in setting what passes for the news agenda.

The power of the Limbaugh-Gingrich axis means that Obama is regularly cast as somewhere on the far left end of a truncated political spectrum. He's the guy who nominates a "racist" to the Supreme Court (though Gingrich retreated from the word yesterday), wants to weaken America's defenses against terrorism and is proposing a massive government takeover of the private economy. Steve Forbes, writing for his magazine, recently went so far as to compare Obama's economic policies to those of Juan Peron's Argentina [...]

This was brought home at this week's annual conference of the Campaign for America's Future, a progressive group that supports Obama but worries about how close his economic advisers are to Wall Street, how long our troops will have to stay in Afghanistan and how much he will be willing to compromise to secure health-care reform.

In other words, they see Obama not as the parody created by the far right but as he actually is: a politician with progressive values but moderate instincts who has hewed to the middle of the road in dealing with the economic crisis, health care, Guantanamo and the war in Afghanistan.

Dionne goes on to describe a panel he witnessed Tuesday with Jared Polis, Donna Edwards and Raul Grijalva - three of the most progressive members of Congress, but three whose names aren't in the Village Rolodex, and whose views have almost no impact on the way the debates in Washington are presented to the public. That doesn't mean they don't have power and importance - their decision along with the Progressive Caucus to pool their power and force the public option into the health care debate was masterful - but it confuses the way Obama is presented, and the space to criticize him from the left. Edwards explained this very specifically:

Polis, Edwards and Grijalva also noted that proposals for a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system, which they support, have fallen off the political radar. Polis urged his activist audience to accept that reality for now and focus its energy on making sure that a government insurance option, known in policy circles as the "public plan," is part of the menu of choices offered by a reformed health-care system.

But Edwards noted that if the public plan, already a compromise from single-payer, is defined as the left's position in the health-care debate, the entire discussion gets skewed to the right. This makes it far more likely that any public option included in a final bill will be a pale version of the original idea.

Her point has broader application. For all the talk of a media love affair with Obama, there is a deep and largely unconscious conservative bias in the media's discussion of policy. The range of acceptable opinion runs from the moderate left to the far right and cuts off more vigorous progressive perspectives.

And actually, this SUITS Obama. If he wanted to pick his enemies, he's much rather have Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney than Jared Polis, Donna Edwards and Raul Grijalva. For one, the public has a fairly definitive opinion of those conservatives, at least relative to Obama, and the President wins those debates without saying a word. For another, Obama has no need to move from the moderate center if the Beltway criticism doesn't approach him from that perspective. His choice of advisers and policy options clearly put him in that moderate mainstream of the Democratic Party, and it's where he feels - has always felt - the most comfortable.

The media has an interest in defining the terms of the debate, indeed a self-interest, given the conglomerates that they are. When ABC News gives the same amount of space to Sean Hannity as they do to the Secretary of State, implicit in that editorial decision is the fact that Hannity has spent many years as part of the ABC Radio Network. When business stories betray a perspective more sympathetic to corporate America than the working class, the very fact of the corporate behemoths that populate modern media bear a lot on that decision. But these decisions also enable Obama to operate without equal pressure from all sides of the policy argument, essentially a free hand. This may keep conservatism alive, but it also co-opts the Democratic Administration by giving them the only pressure they consider important - pressure from the right.