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Alito & the Media Mess

By Robert Parry
January 25, 2006

A friend, who’s an astute observer of American journalism, told me recently that there are two real priorities for reporters holding down mainstream media jobs: get the basic facts right (names, ages and such) and never let anyone pin the “liberal” label on you.

That gritty perception was on display in the lead story of the New York Times on Jan. 25 as reporter David D. Kirkpatrick crafted an article about Samuel Alito’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court that bought wholeheartedly into the Republican spin that Democratic opposition to Alito is just politics.

The story is devoid of the constitutional concerns about Alito, such as his role as a chief architect of the radical theory that the President possesses nearly unrestrained power as the “unitary executive” and – in time of war – as Commander in Chief.

Instead of those weighty constitutional issues, New York Times readers got a heavy dose of the Republican view that the Democrats were just trying to score political points with liberal interest groups, even if the Democrats' opportunism threatened congressional comity and non-partisan evaluation of judges.

“Senators turned the occasion (of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote on Alito) into a broader and sometimes heated debate over the rancorous and partisan nature of the confirmation process,” Kirkpatrick wrote. Republicans “said the Democratic opposition to Judge Alito could alter the judicial confirmation process for years to come.”

Power Grab

Jumping from Page One to the story’s continuation on A16, a reader still found nothing about Alito’s controversial views on the “unitary executive,” which would grant George W. Bush extraordinary discretion over enforcing laws and regulations, or on Bush’s “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief.

This Executive power grab has raised alarm among rank-and-file Democrats as well as among some conservatives who fear that Alito could tip the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of an all-powerful Executive and thus shatter the Founding Fathers’ unique system of checks and balances.

Indeed, if Alito’s theories are followed to their logical conclusion, the American people no longer possess the “unalienable rights” guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but rather their liberties exist only at the forbearance of Bush or a successor, at least as long as the ill-defined War on Terror continues.

These worries about Alito’s radical views are also not just hypothetical.

His theories are the underpinnings for Bush’s decisions to waive the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in ordering warrantless wiretaps of Americans; to detain U.S. citizens without charge as “enemy combatants”; to brush aside laws like the McCain Amendment ban on torture at Bush’s sole discretion; and to order military conflicts on presidential authority alone.

With the future of the American democratic Republic in the balance, one might expect the nation’s premier newspaper to take a more substantive view of the issues surrounding the Alito nomination, especially since senators such as Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, outlined these concerns in their public statements on Jan. 24.

But to do so would have opened reporter Kirkpatrick and his editors to Republican charges that they were adopting the Democratic narrative of the Alito nomination. The Republicans and powerful conservative media outlets might have wielded the word “liberal” like a club.

So it was far safer for both the reporter and the New York Times to couch the Alito nomination in terms of political tactics, just as the Bush administration wanted.

“Republicans are laying the groundwork to attack Democrats who vote against Judge Alito as beholden to liberal interest groups,” the Times story said. “Democrats plan to make an issue of his votes on subjects like abortion rights or environmental regulations.”

Media Imbalance

Yet as galling as it may be for some readers to see how the Times and other major mainstream media outlets are framing the Alito confirmation, the broader problem has been the failure of well-to-do liberals and progressive foundations to finance a media infrastructure that can act as a counterweight to the right-wing media machine.

The Right’s media now rises like a giant vertically integrated corporation from newspapers, magazines and books to talk radio, cable news, TV pundits and Internet sites. The machine is lavishly financed at each level and can turn even fringe issues (like the “war on Christmas”) into questions that dominate the national debate.

By contrast, the Left’s chief funders have historically starved independent media outlets, following the dogma that “activism” and “organizing” can solve almost all problems. Therefore, Democrats find themselves dependent on the mainstream media for whatever attention their positions do get.

These contrasting media strategies – as pursued by conservatives and liberals over the past three decades – have reshaped the American political landscape.

Conservatives have been richly rewarded from their investment in an infrastructure to get their message out and help Republicans build a powerful base of support among the people, especially in areas with little media diversity, i.e. the Red States.

Meanwhile, liberals have struggled to explain their positions to the American voters and thus Democrats often end up finessing controversial issues – which, in turn, infuriates their base, which desperately wants leaders who will fight.

The most obvious way for progressives to get out of this trap would be to invest aggressively in a media infrastructure that would employ honest, professional journalists who wouldn’t have to worry about the Right baiting them with the “liberal” tag.

These journalists could then feel free to explain to the people important issues, like those of the Alito nomination, and could count on independent outlets to disseminate the information broadly to Americans. That, in turn, would put pressure on the existing mainstream media to more fully reflect the diversity of the nation’s opinions.

In the short-term, wealthy liberals could beef up existing independent media outlets, including “progressive talk radio” which has demonstrated a capability to grow despite chronic shortages of money.

However, the longer the Left’s funders delay in taking on this challenge, the harder it will be to change the media dynamic – or to save the country from a historic diversion into authoritarianism.

[For more on the American media dilemma, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation” and “Five Pointers for a Left Media.” For more on how the Right built its media juggernaut, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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