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Where Are the Slander Merchants Taking Us?

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Watching the recent "exclusive" FoxNews investigative report on Barack Obama's "ties to controversial people and radical groups" on Hannity's America was a reminder of the almost startling degeneration of the American media in recent years.

I say almost startling because host Sean Hannity has long since ceased to shock with his aggressively insipid demagoguery. Insipid might sound like the wrong word to go with demagoguery. But, in fact, Hannity is a dullard. He is about as interesting as the loud-mouthed guy in the tavern whose crude political opinions have been loosened by one too many drinks and now thinks he's a genius because he can talk over everybody else and to everyone's dismay, just never shuts up.

Thus Hannity reveals such shocking truths as the proximity of Obama's south side Chicago home to not only former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers, but also Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Even worse we learn that Obama's neighborhood is near where legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky once worked.

It's ironic that Hannity's broadside against Obama is based almost entirely on guilt by association. That's because Hannity's expose took much of its fire from his own association with "internet journalist" Andy Martin, a right-wing Chicago lawyer who reportedly once called a federal bankruptcy judge a "crooked, slimy Jew, who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race." True to form Martin is urging the McCain campaign to go "exclusively, almost relentlessly, negative" for the remainder of the election campaign. To win, McCain needs a "bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Obama" strategy, says Martin.

Hannity's America is to journalism what a back alley dumpster full of discarded food waste is to nutrition. The segment on Obama's community organizing days was prefaced by Hannity asking if this time in the senator's life represented "the beginning of a grand scheme perpetuated by radicals?" Just what sort of wild hijinx were Ayers and Obama up to in the mid-1990s? Was it really so innocuous as holding a meet-the-candidate social or sitting on boards of non-profit foundations? Or was all that just a front for their sinister scheme for world domination worked out over pizza at Medici's restaurant on 57th street?

Actually, the education work that found Ayers allied with Obama earned the former a Chicago's Citizen of the Year award in 1997. The "radical education foundation" the McCain campaign describes in a new ad was the Annenberg Foundation, named for billionaire Republican publishing magnate Walter Annenberg.

No matter. If, as they say, people will believe what they want to believe, then right-wing Republicans believe what they want you to believe. "If, God forbid, we live to see Mr. Obama president," writes actor Jon Voight in a July 28 Washington Times Op-Ed, "we will live through a socialist era that America has not seen before, and our country will be weakened in every way." How exactly will this weakening occur? "Then Messrs. Farrakhan, Wright, Ayers, and Pfleger will gain power for their need to demoralize this country," explains the man who himself used to pal around movie sets with Jane Fonda.

Ironically, until President Bush decided to effectively trash the Reaganite anti-big government mantra with the largest government award to private business in the nation's history, sundry right-wing ideologues spent most of the past year denouncing not only Obama's "radical associations," but also his supposedly far-left politics.

"I have said publicly, and I will again, that unless he proves me wrong, [Obama] is a Marxist," declared Tom DeLay, former House Republican majority leader, in a radio interview earlier this year.

A few months ago Cliff Kincaid of the right-wing Accuracy in Media (AIM) group thought he was on to something when he exposed Obama as "an associate of a Chicago-based Marxist group with access to millions of labor union dollars." The reference was to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a group whose extremist record includes endorsing Walter Mondale for President in 1984. In case Kincaid's concern appeared slightly overwrought, he let us know that this past winter Obama campaign workers in Houston were under fire for publicly displaying a Che Guevara flag in their campaign office.

Then there was Investor's Business Daily, which this past summer ran a series of articles on the Obama campaign titled, "The Audacity of Socialism." The otherwise staid stock market publication wallowed in scurrilous drivel about Obama's communist father ("Like Father, Like Son"), the candidate's ties to Jim Wallis, the "Bolshevist" publisher of the progressive Christian magazine Sojourners, and the fact that favorable editorials on Obama's "transformative candidacy" were emanating from such publications as the communist People's World Weekly.

If you were still not convinced of Obama's radicalism, take it from CNN's leading scholar of 19th century European political thought, Glen Beck. "This guy really is a Marxist," confirmed the top-rated media star.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as just more evidence of the molten sludge of right-wing slander that now regularly oozes to the earth's surface as informed conservative opinion. In the wake of the recent Wall Street bailout, we can even have a good laugh at the irony now of such characterizations, based as they are on the view that anyone who believes in "income redistribution," or even the notion that government has a positive regulatory role in society, represents nothing less than a subversive challenge to free people everywhere.

But we shouldn't laugh too much. Cries of "terrorist" or "kill him" waft through the air now at some McCain and Palin campaign rallies when Obama or Ayers are mentioned. The other day some ordinary voter's "I'm mad as hell" speech about socialists taking over the country had the McCain crowd in a frenzied state. Things have gotten so out of hand that McCain has had to remind supporters that Obama is not "an Arab" or an indecent human being.

It should be incredible that a moderate Democratic politician like Obama evokes such vitriol from the right. It should be, but it's not. For years now right-wing Talk Media has fanned the hate fires against even the most moderate of liberals. Tellingly, it was only a few months ago that McCain strongly repudiated far-right radio host Bill Cunningham's vulgar anti-Obama remarks at a Republican rally in Cincinnati. But what does McCain expect now when his campaign has been touting hyperventilated ads about Obama's links with "terrorists" or desire to introduce sex education to kindergartners? The once fringe spirit of the worst far right demagoguery now flows freely through the arteries of the Republican campaign.

The vitriol signals a political trend with dangerous authoritarian implications. But it's also just one factor in the larger mosaic of a democracy in decline. The empty fuel of crude slander is all the McCain campaign has to run on; ironically, against a Democratic candidate who can't come up with even one progressive policy proposal not watered down enough to be almost guaranteed to eventually disappoint. Meanwhile, it's not even an issue for the mainstream media that legitimate minority candidates are excluded from the public debates.

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Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). His blog, "Writer's Voice," can be found at www.HarrisMedia.org.

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