What if there were a great debate concerning the nature and future of American society, and only one side showed up?
That approximately describes the condition of the U. S. media today.
The right wing is operating a super-charged carnival of hype, hysteria and hoopla, while the left struggles along with a pipsqueek sideshow: a few magazines like The Nation, Mother Jones and The American Prospect, with minuscule circulation among the already converted, some tolerated columnists like Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Frank Rich, and of course there's Shultz, Olbermann and Maddow on MSNBC.
Meanwhile, one by one, the lights are going out: in January, Air America Radio fell silent, and last month David Broncoccio's outstanding investigative program, NOW, closed shop. Last Friday, Bill Moyers' Journal on PBS broadcast its final program. Shultz-Olbermann-Maddow remain on MSNBC at the sufferance of the owners and managers of NBC and MicroSoft, while Comcast is attempting a takeover of NBC. If successful, how long will this lone outpost of progressive cable-TV commentary remain?
The good news is that the audience size of FOX News is vastly over-rated. On a good night, Beck or Hannity or O'Reilly will be seen by three million viewers. That's less than one percent of the U.S. population. The worse news is that the progressive voices at MSNBC draw about a third as many.
The influence of FOX News is amplified as their antics and outrages "birtherism," climate change denial, baseless accusations of "socialism" or even "fascism" are uncritically reported far and wide by the mainstream media (MSM). In addition to FOX, the airwaves are crammed solid with right-wing talk shows about 90%, by some counts. Leading these is Rush Limbaugh, with an audience estimated from fifteen to thirty million.
To be sure, there are many admirable broadcast voices on the left, in addition to the MSNBC team: Thom Hartmann, Amy Goodman, Bill Maher, Stephanie Miller, Bill Press, Mike Papantonio, Cenk Uygur, and Randi Rhodes. But their messages are uncoordinated, dispersed, and poorly promoted. And unlike FOX and Limbaugh, etc., there is almost no corporate media amplification of progressive talk radio and cable TV. Strange to say, some of the most incisive liberal commentary seems to originate with the comedians, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. (A review and assessment of these efforts deserves a separate essay. Watch this space).
The regressive bias of the corporate media is starkly revealed by the coverage, and the non-coverage, of the public demonstrations of last month. When a couple of thousand tea-party or gun-rights enthusiasts show up on the Mall in Washington, or across the Potomac in Virginia, the mainstream media is there to cover them en masse. But when up to ten thousand protesters gather on Wall Street, or fifty thousand jam downtown Los Angeles to protest the Arizona "show your papers" law, these events might just as well have taken place on the far side of the moon.
If the MSM takes any notice of progressive talk radio or cable TV, it is usually to portray a false equivalence with the bloviators on the right, as an implied excuse for the latter's rhetorical excesses and outright lies. Amazingly, that false equivalence was repeated last week by the President himself, at his University of Michigan commencement address.
There is no equivalence. When Olbermann or Maddow make a trivial errors of pronunciation, attribution, or date of an event, etc. they make on-air corrections as soon as these slip-ups are brought to their attention. But when O'Reilly, Beck, Hannity, et al, tell flat-out demonstrable lies, they do so without fear of consequence and therefore without public correction. And their fearlessness is justified, for no one in the mainstream media is likely to hold them to account. To be sure, Ed Shultz calls them out in his "Psycho Talk," and Keith Olbermann in his "Worst Persons," and Rachel Maddow does not hesitate to call a liar a liar, but when they do the regressive talksters and the MSM take little notice, which only further demonstrates the insignificance of progressive media commentary.
Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, Bill O'Reilly told his audience that a "team of FOX researchers" had determined that, contrary to the accusations on MSNBC, no one at FOX had ever said that those who refused to sign up for health insurance under "Obamacare" would be jailed. Olbermann then promptly collected and strung together more than a half-dozen video clips of FOXers stating precisely that. The final clip was a segment from Bill O'Reilly's show. A slam-dunk refutation, and by no means the first one. Did this embarrass FOX and O'Reilly? Not in the least.
And so it continues, almost daily: For example, the consensus of thousands of climate scientists and the conclusions of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific publications can not prevail over the well-orchestrated denialism of the oil and coal industries' public relations campaign, a campaign that utilizes the familiar PR techniques that reassured millions of cigarette smokers that the health effects of smoking was no big deal, thus leading millions to an early demise. (See the Union of Concerned Scientists report, "Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air how Exxon Mobil Uses Big Tobacco's Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science.")
No accusation is too absurd to be credited by the right-wing propaganda machine. Last week, Rush Limbaugh suggested that the Gulf oil disaster was the result of a plot by "wacko-environmentalists. Quoting Limbaugh: "What better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants than by blowing up a rig?" And on FOX News, Bush's Press Secretary, Dana Perino, introduced a conspiracy theory by saying: "I'm not trying to introduce a conspiracy theory, but was this deliberate? You have to wonder"if there was sabotage involved."
Such irresponsible accusations by FOX News and Rush Limbaugh are nothing new. Far more significant was the behavior of the major broadcast media (CBS, NBC and ABC) and the once credible newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, in the months immediately preceding the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2002. As I reported in July, 2005:
On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell presented Bush's case for war with Iraq to the United Nations Security Council. Subsequent events and exhaustive and unrestricted searches in Iraq proved the speech to be pack of lies. But at the time, US Editorial opinion was completely taken in. A sampling: "Powell lays out convincing evidence of Iraq defiance (USA Today); "[Powell] offered a powerful new case that Saddam Hussein's regime is cooperating with a branch of the al Qaeda organization that is trying to acquire chemical weapons" (Washington Post); "The Powell evidence will be persuasive to anyone who is still persuadable" (The Wall Street Journal); "Powell laid out the need [for war] ... in step-by-step fashion that cannot be refuted without resorting to fantasy" (Chicago Sun-Times).
The mainstream media blitz had its desired effect:
In April, 2004, the Program on International Policy Attitudes [University of Maryland] reported that "a majority of Americans (57%) continue to believe that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, including 20% who believe that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11 attacks. Forty-five percent believe that evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found. Sixty percent believe that just before the war Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction (38%) or a major program for developing them (22%)."