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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/5/11

How the US media marginalizes dissent

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Over the past few weeks, Washington has seemed dysfunctional," conservative columnist David Brooks opined recently in The New York Times. "Public disgust [about the debt ceiling crisis] has risen to epic levels. Yet through all this, serious people - Barack Obama, John Boehner, the members of the Gang of Six -- have soldiered on." 

Here's some of what Peter Coy of Business Week magazine had to say about the same issue: "There is a comforting story about the debt ceiling that goes like this: Back in the 1990s, the US was shrinking its national debt at a rapid pace. Serious people actually worried about dislocations from having too little government debt..."

Fox News, the Murdoch-owned house organ of America's official right-wing, asserted: "No one seriously thinks that the US will not honor its obligations, whatever happens with the current impasse on President Obama's requested increase to the government's $14.3tn borrowing limit."

"Serious people."

"No one seriously thinks."

Limiting the terms of debate

The American media deploys a deep and varied arsenal of rhetorical devices in order to marginalize opinions, people and organizations as "outside the mainstream" and therefore not worth listening to. For the most part the people and groups being declaimed belong to the political Left. To take one example, the Green Party -- well-organized in all 50 states -- is never quoted in newspapers or invited to send a representative to television programs that purport to present "both sides" of a political issue. (In the United States, "both sides" means the back-and-forth between center-right Democrats and rightist Republicans)

Marginalization is the intentional decision to exclude a voice in order to prevent a "dangerous" opinion from gaining currency, to block a politician or movement from becoming more powerful, or both. In 2000, the media-backed consortium that sponsored the presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush banned Green Party candidate Ralph Nader from participating. Security goons even threatened to arrest him when he showed up with a ticket and asked to be seated in the audience. Nader is a liberal consumer advocate who became famous in the US for stridently advocating for safety regulations, particularly on automobiles.

Third-party candidates have taken part in televised presidential debates twice: John Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992. Both, perhaps not so coincidentally, were men of the Right. In 2000, debate bosses excluded Nader using the excuse that his support (as measured by public opinion polls) was too insignificant to impact the election.

That assessment was dubious at best. Most analysts believe that Nader drew enough liberal votes away from Al Gore to cost him the state of Florida, which handed the election to Bush (This is not my assessment. The 2000 race was stolen by corrupt Florida election officials and a judicial coup d'etat carried out by the US Supreme Court). The point remains: Nader was denied access to the debates, and to coverage by the TV networks, because he wasn't an "important" candidate. Yet those same networks argue that he changed the course of the election.

When a personality -- almost always on the Left -- becomes too big to ignore, the mainstream media often resorts to ridicule. Like Communist Party USA chief Gus Hall, Nader is often derided as "perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader". Personalities on the far right wing, like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, on the other hand, are characterized as "refreshing" and "exciting" (if intellectually slight). Acknowledgement, when it happens, is post-mortem. Revisionist historian Howard Zinn and muckraking DC journo I.F. Stone received lengthy accolades in obituaries that appeared in The New York Times, which studiously censored them throughout their careers.

Fox News famously relies on the trope that "some people say..." in order to insert unsourced (i.e., Fox's own) opinions into a news story. "Serious people say" and "no one seriously thinks" are the flip side of this technique. Corporate-owned newspapers and broadcast media outlets use "some people say" in order to define the range of acceptable discourse and "no one seriously thinks" to smear opinions that are widespread among the public at large as marginal, infantile and perhaps even insane.

When "serious people say" something, those who disagree are by definition trivial, insipid and thus unworthy of consideration. "No one seriously thinks" is brutarian to the point of Orwellian: anyone who expresses the thought in question literally does not exist. He or she is an Unperson.

Military withdrawals viewed as 'un-serious'

Big US media uses the "serious people"/"nobody seriously thinks" marginalization meme on numerous subjects, but none so often as on war. You guessed it: "Serious people" think wars are necessary and must continue indefinitely. "No one seriously thinks" that the American military can "just" stop fighting a war without suffering all sorts of terrible consequences: "Instability." Becoming viewed by allies as "unreliable." Creating a "power vacuum." Allowing an already difficult situation to deteriorate "even further." Sure, people are suffering and dying now. But if the US leaves, many more people will die. In order to avert a theoretical bloodbath of the future, the United States is obligated to continue its present, sustainable rate of killing and maiming.

In this wacky topsy-turvy world, where the people who are usually wrong get to lord it over those who usually get it right, abject failures like Obama and Boehner -- who make logical assertions that are nothing but, and who have presided over fiscal collapse while not making the slightest effort to stimulate the economy with public works and other classic Keynesian responses to the global depression -- are lauded as Serious People.

The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were initially popular with the American public. The subsequent occupations, however, have racked up a toll in blood and treasure of which most voters have long tired. Now the government and its media allies are trying to convince Americans, not to support -- it's way too late for that -- but to tolerate continued expenditures on wars they view as unwinnable wastes.

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Ted Rall, a political cartoonist, is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1963, raised in Kettering, Ohio and graduated from Fairmont West High School in 1981. His first cartoons were published (more...)

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