MEDIA ME-TOOISM?

by E.C. Fish on February 17, 2003

Since the Republican gains of the 2002 elections, the behavior of the Democratic establishment has reminded me of nothing so much as the old parable about the blind men and (appropriately enough) the elephant, with various factions defining parts of the whole without ever acknowledging anything like the big picture. For the last few months, one particularly vocal group of Democrats and fellow traveling liberals, apparently standing a few feet behind the elephant, have decided that, to quote the old S. Gross cartoon, “An elephant is soft and squishy.”

The Republicans’ secret weapon, they have decided, is the Republican domination of media, both mainstream (the major networks and daily press) and pseudo-mainstream (Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, call-in radio). And so far so good. Since the Reagan administration pulled the plug on the Fairness Doctrine back in the ’80’s, the mainstream media, which that decade’s trend towards corporate conglomeration has pretty much rendered a fully owned and operated subsidiary of Fortune 500 companies, has been skewed towards the interests of its corporate masters, while biased “infotainment” like the Rush Limbaugh show and the Fox News channel have presented themselves as an alternative to a “liberal” media that for all intents and purposes never really existed in the first place. Both these phenomenon have been a plague upon both the Democrats and the nation at large, resulting in an uninformed, or worse misinformed electorate and a complete absence of a source of objective facts in the national debate, largely to the benefit of the Republicans and the conservative movement.

Where these sages begin to fall all over themselves is in their solution to this problem. Outgunned by Fox News and Limbaugh, they have announced that what the country really needs is a liberal Rush Limbaugh manque and a cable network with a leftward skew to counteract the right-leaning Fox. Which is soft and squishy, for many reasons.

First, like most postmodern political tactics, it puts the cart firmly before the horse. “If you start from the premise that the message was right, which we do…..” begins the statement of one unidentified Democratic Party insider, and anything following such a clause with reference to the Democratic “message” of 2002 couldn’t possibly be less relevant. The failure of the Democrat’s “message” consisted largely of their failure to have one in an election year when referring to a spade as a goddamn spade would have sufficed nicely, not to mention having to run on a record of post-9/11 capitulation on a host of what should have been clear cut Democratic issues.

Months later, the question of just what the Democrats would shout given a Republican-sized megaphone is still a rather large one. Democratic responses to Republican conservatism run the narrow gamut from the neoconservative homilies of Leiberman and Edwards to the incremental me-tooism of Richard Gephardt to the unlikely patrician populism of the spookily Kennedyesque John Kerry, the party’s lone if faltering voice of genuine protest having been silenced months ago. As for the greater left, between the influence of identity politics and the self-defeating practice of political correctness litmus testing, it has jangled like a bag of nickels for decades, unable to muster anything like unity even on those issues considered crucial by a majority of its members.

Furthermore, the main question that comes to mind when I hear that liberalism needs its own Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly is “Why the hell would we want one of those?” As popular or influential as either of these gentlemen (to use the term loosely) might be, their stock in trade consists of equal parts lies and sophistries– collections of their factual misstatements are all over the web and occasionally on the best seller lists. It is their freedom from the constraints of honesty and fairness that has allowed them to develop the freewheeling, take no prisoners styles responsible for so much of the entertainment value of their respective programs. If one of the qualifications for the Rush Limbaugh of the Left is a similar lack of scruples, such a person is much more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

In this as in so many other efforts, a large part of the Democrats’ mistake comes in overestimating the influence of the conservative Republicans. Not only don’t most Americans listen to Limbaugh and watch Fox, most Americans don’t agree with their point of view. Even the much-vaunted support for the President is a mile wide and a millimeter deep, disappearing entirely when questions turn to specifics of his performance. There is certainly much to be said in opposition to the current regime– millions of people worldwide said part of it rather eloquently this weekend. With this in mind, rather than treating the American people as an audience, the Democrats, and the left in general, should try treating them as citizens– offering information, countering disinformation, and insisting on restoring a standard of honesty that has been lacking from the public debate for years. It doesn’t take a cable network to do that– it just takes courage and conviction. Unless the Democrats can reclaim those, no step they can take can be a stop in the right direction.

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