consortiumnews.com

Gore & the Need for a 'Counter-Media'

Editorial
December 19, 2002

In deciding not to fight for the office that many Americans feel was stolen from him two years ago, Al Gore may have been surrendering to the inevitable – that the national news media and the Republican attack machine would never let him win the White House.

While understandable on a human level – who would want to go through what Gore did in 2000? – the former vice president's decision carries both short- and long-term dangers. For one, the national news media now can safely tuck away its responsibility for grossly mis-reporting that pivotal campaign. If not for the media's fabrication of quotes and distortion of Gore's personal history, George W. Bush never would have gotten close enough to win by having five Republican Supreme Court justices stop the counting of votes in Florida. [For details on the slanted media coverage, see Consortiumnews.com's “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

Another danger from Gore's decision is that liberals will now conclude that there is no need to do the hard work to challenge the deepening conservative bias in the national news media. Instead of investing in a media infrastructure to fight for honesty and fairness, liberals might buy into the comfortable hope that a new “fresh face” won’t get muddied up like Gore did.

Indeed, one of the fringe benefits of a Gore candidacy would have been the forcing of a long-overdue debate about the troubling state of the national news media. That debate was beginning in recent months with leading Democrats starting to challenge the conservative myth of a "liberal media." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former President Bill Clinton and Gore himself commented about the national press corps' dramatic shift to the right. 

With no Gore in 2004, the space for that debate has narrowed. It will be harder for Americans to demand that the news media admit how both conservative outlets, such as the Washington Times and Fox News, and mainstream ones, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, made up quotes for Gore and exaggerated stories about his supposed exaggerations to portray him as a delusional laughingstock in Campaign 2000.

The manufactured quotes -- that Gore had said he "invented the Internet" and had claimed that "I was the one that started" the Love Canal clean-up -- were milestones in the campaign, becoming excuses for the media to cite other alleged examples of Gore puffing up his resume. Remember, too, the beloved story line of Campaign 2000, how Gore was the liar who would do or say anything to get elected, while George W. Bush really didn’t care that much whether he won or not.

[For more details of the media’s mis-reporting of Election 2000, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Press” or turn to Bob Somerby’s DailyHowler.com. For a look at the consequences of that reporting, see Consortiumnews.com's "So Bush Did Steal the White House."]

Renewed Assault

This fall, the national media – from TV pundits to talk radio to op-ed pages of major newspapers – was gearing up for another assault on Gore. But simultaneously grassroots activists – operating mostly at a few under-funded Web sites – were developing their own sophisticated analysis of the American media.

These critics saw the national press corps divided roughly into two parts: a dedicated conservative media, and mainstream journalists who, out of fear or personal careerism, generally followed the lead of the conservative media. Gore had become the touchstone of this debate.

As soon as Gore stepped back onto the political stage, the conservative and mainstream pundits resumed the heckling.

In one rant, Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly wrote that Gore's critique of Bush's Iraq policy " was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible." [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002] [For more details on the conservative denunciations of Gore, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Politics of Preemption."]

Mainstream columnists also joined the assault, possibly to buy some protection from the epithet of “librul” often hurled by conservative press critics at mainstream journalists who step out of line. In an influential column, for instance, the New York Times Frank Rich ridiculed Gore as a phony and challenged Gore's insistence that he might not run again as just another Gore lie.

“The new, post-wooden Gore is determined to be spontaneous if it kills him, and us,” Rich wrote. “But it took Katie Couric all of three minutes to uncover the old Al Gore lurking inside the latest model. When he protested that he wouldn’t really, really decide whether to run for president until after the holidays, she spoke for many viewers by responding, 'Why am I having a hard time believing that wholeheartedly?' "

Rich judged that Gore was lying about his hesitancy to run again. “People don’t change,” the pundit wrote. “Mr. Gore doesn’t let the chips fall where they may; you can still spot him counting each one before doling them out. And of course he is still running for president.” [NYT, Nov. 23, 2002] [For a review of Rich's column, go to Bob Somerby's Daily Howler.]

Limbaugh Photos

Beyond the media sarcasm, right-wing activists hounded Gore when he appeared in public, including demonstrating against his book signings.

On Dec. 7, outside an Olsson’s book store in Arlington, Va., demonstrators – sporting photos of Rush Limbaugh and carrying signs from the Web site FreeRepublic.com – shouted at people in line waiting to have Al and Tipper Gore sign copies of Joined at the Heart, their book about families in America. The demonstrators shouted slogans through a bull horn, accusing Gore of trying to steal the election in Florida two years ago.

So Gore may well have surveyed the political landscape and concluded that there was no feasible route for him to reach the White House, that another run would simply leave him carrying the blame for another Bush “victory.”

But Gore’s decision did not sit well with some Democrats who remain outraged over Bush’s hardball strategies in Florida, including the disenfranchisement of thousands of African-American voters. These Democrats felt that Gore owes a special debt to the country – and to history – to set matters right by defeating Bush in a rematch. There is some logic to this point.

As an experienced leader with well-defined ideas for addressing the nation’s economic and foreign policy challenges, Gore also may have stood the best chance -- however slim -- of unseating Bush.

But as we have noted in articles since 1999, the Democrats’ dilemma is much deeper than Al Gore’s supposed weaknesses as a campaigner. Any Democrat who presents a serious challenge to Bush can expect the same or worse from the existing national news media, as Sen. John Kerry is learning as he confronts silly stories about his hair cuts and his fingernails. The Republicans have a well-oiled media machine that can spew mud on each and every “fresh face” – and the Democrats are still in no position to do anything about it. [For a brief history of the Republican's media machine, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Democrats Dilemma.”]

Indeed, perhaps one of the most remarkable political facts in the two years since the Florida debacle is that the nation’s liberals have done next to nothing to build a  “counter-media” that can reach a sizable number of Americans. Grassroots Democrats have started a few Web sites, such as smirkingchimp.com, mediawhoresonline.com, democraticunderground.com, makethemaccountable.com and democrats.com. But liberals with major money have stayed on the sidelines.

Taking Hold

Still, even with limited financial backing, the “counter-media” analysis has begun to take hold. Even some center-left pundits, such as the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr., have come to recognize the truth.

“It’s time to revisit a matter on which the conventional wisdom is, roughly, 180 degrees off,” wrote Dionne. “You hear the conventional wisdom all the time from shrewd conservative commentators who understand that political pressure, relentlessly applied, usually achieves its purposes. They have sold the view that the media are dominated by liberals and that the news is skewed against conservatives. …

“But the continuing attacks on mainstream journalists have another effect. Because the drumbeat of conservative press criticism has been so steady, the establishment press has internalized it. Editors and network executives are far more likely to hear complaints from the right than from the left.”

Dionne noted that when Daschle made a legitimate complaint that “shrill” attacks from Limbaugh had contributed to physical threats against Democrats and their families, mainstream media commentators rallied to Limbaugh’s defense. The media could have examined Limbaugh’s use of inflammatory rhetoric that has included portraying Daschle and other Democrats as traitors or Satan’s allies. Daschle, after all, was the recipient of an envelope full of anthrax a year ago.

Instead, as Dionne noted, “the establishment commentary was mostly aimed against Daschle and picked up the conservative cry that he was ‘whining.’ Limbaugh was invited for lengthy and respectful interviews on CNN’s ‘Reliable Sources’ and Tim Russert’s show on CNBC.”

Dionne added, “Limbaugh’s new respectability is the surest sign that the conservative talk network is now bleeding into what passes for the mainstream media, just as the unapologetic conservatism of the Fox News Channel is now affecting the programming on the other cable networks. This shift to the right is occurring as cable becomes a steadily more important source of news.” [Washington Post, Dec. 6, 2002]

This new media reality, which has been evolving over the past quarter century and gaining powerful momentum in the past decade, was becoming an issue in the context of Gore’s potential candidacy. It is a debate that may be sidetracked following Gore’s decision to step aside.

In explaining his decision not to run, Gore, like Bill Clinton before him, said elections must be about the future, not the past. But that political principle can prove dangerous if a focus on the future allows past corruption to go unattended and uncorrected.

That happened after the 1992 election when Clinton and other Democrats cut off investigations into Iran-contra and Iraqgate crimes so President George H.W. Bush could retreat into retirement with his dignity intact. The result was a false rendition of history – pretending that the senior Bush was innocent in schemes for arming Iran and Iraq. By not giving the American people the full story in 1992-93, the Democrats inadvertently made possible the Bush political dynasty's fierce comeback eight years later. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s Trick or Treason or his Lost History.]

Like Royalty 

So what can be done now?

Our view for years has been that Americans concerned about the growing right-wing dominance of the national news media must invest in a “counter-media” that will not treat the Bush family like royalty and will give American voters important information on other topics.

Like his father, George W. Bush has gotten the kid-gloves treatment. In part, that’s because the Bushes are protected by two powerful elements within the news media: the red-meat conservatives and the blue-blood establishment. This double layer of protection makes the Bushes almost unique in American politics, shielded both by aggressive right-wing activists and by the Georgetown social set.

The “counter-media” must challenge that, by taking a hard look at Bush’s mistakes while giving the American people the context for understanding the risks of his domestic and foreign policies. The “counter-media” also must counteract the kinds of media fabrications and distortions that were directed against Gore in Campaign 2000, effectively deciding the election.

In recent weeks, there has been some stirring of interest about creating syndicated content for radio stations that realize the market for conservative talk radio is saturated and that there is an untapped liberal market. The “counter-media” also could take the form of a television outlet on satellite or cable – giving the American people a station they could tune in to hear directly what Gore and other embattled liberals are saying, not just what comes through the media filter.

Elements of a “counter-media” can be built through donations to non-profit organizations, such as our own Consortium for Independent Journalism. Other parts can be created through investments in for-profit companies, especially in the areas of talk-radio and television. But none of these efforts can achieve critical mass without the investment of significant sums of money.

Lack of money for a "counter-media" has made the billions of dollars spent by conservatives, such as Rupert Murdoch and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, even more decisive. For instance, our Web site, which produced original investigative journalism on a wide variety of topics including the Bush family, was forced to curtail its work and go part-time in early 2000 when our fund-raising ran dry.

At that time, potential donors didn’t grasp the political crisis that was looming. Some simply thought the problem of conservative bias in the national news media would solve itself. So, money will be crucial.

Principles 

To be successful, the “counter-media” also must be guided by a set of principles, including:

--While learning lessons from the conservative media, the “counter-media” should not be a mirror image of Rush Limbaugh's talk radio shows, Murdoch's Fox News or Moon's Washington Times. Rather, it should reflect the best instincts of the American people. It should maintain a journalistic ethos of honesty and fairness.

--For maximum impact, the “counter-media” must be based in the Washington area or have a major presence in the nation’s capital. Too often, “alternative” media outlets have been located in cities off the beaten path, such as San Francisco or Boston, thus minimizing their influence over the national debate.

--The “counter-media” must turn to accomplished journalists who have proven a commitment to their profession by experiencing career reversals rather than joining with the dominant media pack. The temptation to turn to today’s “big name” journalists must be resisted because almost all of them became “big names” by compromising with the corruption of today's national news media. For a list of some journalists who could become a core of talent for the “counter-media,” look at the “Media in Exile” list maintained at the Web site, mediawhoresonline.com.

In short, today's crisis in American politics calls for nothing less than a Marshall Plan for building a strong “counter-media.” There must be both adequate resources and great energy invested in this enterprise.

Though this new media infrastructure would not come cheap, the cost of doing nothing – both to the future of democracy and to the future of the planet – would certainly be far greater.

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