|Part Two of Eric Alterman's "The right sort"...from the London Guardian
The Conservative Media
One of the conservative movement's strokes of genius has been to invest
a fortune in persuading the rest of the nation of the existence of a
beast called the "liberalmedia". This is, from a conservative
standpoint, extremely useful nonsense. Journalists may be a bit more
liberal on cultural matters such as abortion and pornography than many
Americans, but they are probably more conservative on economic
questions, and in any case take their orders from editors and producers
who are often extremely conservative. The multinational or even
family-controlled corporations that own the mainstream media do not
appoint leftwing radicals to oversee their properties. Never mind the
lie, conservatives have set up their own network of extremely generously
funded media, on the phoney grounds that this is needed just to give
their views a fair shake. This network includes the Moonie-owned
Washington Times, the Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel, New York Post and
Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, the Drudge Report, Rush
Limbaugh, the American Spectator, the venerable National Review, and a
host of others.
During the Clinton years, the value of this network - or "vast rightwing
conspiracy" as Hillary Clinton injudiciously characterised it - was its
ability to inject into the news-stream almost any accusation against the
president, no matter how egregious or outlandish. Made up stories were
recycled - sometimes by way of the rightwing British press or the online
Drudge Report - in more respectable outlets such as the Wall Street
Journal editorial page. The explosion of 24/7 cable television talk
shows occurred around the same time, creating an endless demand for
guests willing to make wild and outrageous allegations, the more
salacious the better. These shows, in turn, drove the discussions on the
weekend network gabfests, where the cycle began anew. Rarely did anyone
who circulated these wild stories take responsibility for even
attempting to verify them. They were "out there", and that was good
enough. In this manner, the conservatives were able to drive the
political direction of the entire US media as they simultaneously
subverted its standards.
With George Bush riding high, Al Gore in hiding, Bill Clinton writing
his memoirs, and Hillary lying relatively low in the Senate, the
rightwing media has been forced to find a new focus for its obsessive
fear and loathing. The pickings have been slim, as the Democratic
opposition has proven rather listless since the election - the more so
since September 11 - and no clear leader for the party has yet emerged.
Grasping at straws, rightwing broadcasters have been forced to go to
amazing lengths to keep the faithful interested. This desperation was
more than evident on a July afternoon this summer when the conservative
radio host Rush Limbaugh, who frequently uses terms such as
"environmentalist wackos" and "radical feminazis", expounded at length
on the hypothesis that Tom Daschle, the soft-spoken South Dakotan leader
of the Senate Democrats, might really be another name for Satan. I am
not making this up.
Shortly after this broadcast, the new president of CNN, Walter Isaacson
(formerly editor-in-chief of Time Magazine), contacted Limbaugh to try
to convince him to join the CNN team. Limbaugh could afford to be
choosy, however, as he had recently inked another radio contract reputed
to be worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
Because there is no leftwing equivalent to any of the conservative media
conglomerates, more and more mainstream media outlets cast their news to
the tune demanded by the right. Just before the twin towers attacks took
place, journalists were starting to admit aloud that they were bending
over backwards to be kind to Bush because it was so much easier than
taking the flak that honest criticism would have involved. The
Washington Post's White House correspondent, John Harris, admitted as
much earlier this year, when he wrote: "The truth is this new president
has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars
if they had occurred under Clinton." The reason: "There is no
well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each
day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president... the
liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist."
Now that criticism of Bush is equated with communism in the bad old
days, the rightwing media are riding as high as John Wayne in an Indian
massacre. When Susan Sontag wrote critically of the president in the New
Yorker in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, she was greeted with
so loud and unending chorus of boos, you would think she was pointing
out that America was being led by an unelected president.
Most corporate conservatives are not genuinely conservative except in
the traditional sense. Most could not really care less about matters of
ideology. They believe in keeping the government out of their business
unless their business needs a hand from the government, in which case
they are prepared to be flexible. The CEOs of the nation's top 200
companies enjoy, on average, compensation packages in excess of
$20million a year. They are not looking to remake the country. They like
things pretty much the way they are - and are prepared to pay the price
by underwriting the cost of multi-million-dollar television campaigns.
Since the conservatives do a better job of protecting corporate
interests than liberals, it is into their coffers that a great deal of
corporate cash falls, like so much protection money paid to the Mafia.
When George W decided to run for president, he raised an unprecedented
$100million just for his primary campaign.
The effect of their donations is that very little happens in American
politics that corporations do not want to happen. Few politicians are
brave enough to buck the interests that pay for their campaigns. For
instance, in 1998 cigarette makers spent $40million on an ad campaign to
kill a proposed settlement of state and federal lawsuits. Two years
later, the drug industry spent double that to prevent Congress from
enacting laws that would eat into their profits. For a
$110billion-a-year industry, this is peanuts, but it is enough to create
a stranglehold on the legislative process, no matter who is in office.
Neither party can survive without doing the businessman's bidding.
For America's corporations, the war is just one more excuse to use their
political power to take advantage of the rest of us taxpayers. Using
their leverage over the House Republican majority, they recently
convinced the House of Representatives to vote them a $212billion
"stimulus package" with two-thirds of benefits going to corporations and
three-quarters of the rest going to the top 10% of all taxpayers. The
proposed bill gives more to GM and Ford alone ($3billion plus) than it
sets aside for potential spending on health insurance for the newly
unemployed. Included among the goodies are:
· $25billion in corporate-rebate checks
· a permanent extension of a tax shelter that would allow multinational
corporations to shift profits offshore through manipulation of their
· a cut in the top tax rate on capital gains
· a scheduled reduction in the 28% individual tax rate down to 25%,
brought forward from 2006 to next year. (Three-quarters of taxpayers
would not see a dime of this $56billion giveaway.)
· a grand total of 41% of benefits going to the best-off 1% or
taxpayers, averaging $27,000 per person.
Even the Democrats could not resist snuggling up to corporations. Max
Baucus, senate finance committee chair, together with majority whip
Harry Reid, recently proposed doubling the deduction allowed for a
business lunch, as if frugal dining among executives is what is ailing
America's battle against terrorism. The Wall Street Journal demanded
that Bush exploit his "nearly universal public support" to do what
needed to be done in the wake of the tragedy, viz, exactly what, in
their view, needed to be done before September 11 - namely, "pro-growth
tax cuts" to enable "more domestic energy production, including drilling
for oil in Alaska" and more "free-trade negotiating authority". In the
ensuing weeks, George W demanded each of these from Congress, explicitly
citing the crisis as the reason why his already well-to-do
constituencies should be fattened even further.
Any one of the five groups of conservatives listed above would probably
be strong enough to defeat the entire panoply of liberal organisations.
Working together, they put the historically inclined in mind of Rome and
Carthage. Of course, they could not achieve so much were the rest of the
nation paying attention. Nor could they be so effective if they did not
act with such impressive discipline, particularly when compared with the
liberals, many of whom seem to hate one another with greater ferocity
than they do their opponents.
Before the terrorist war, conservatives had lost the Soviet Union as a
rallying cause, and their coalition occasionally looked ready to
implode. What held them together was the strategic vision of their
leaders and the mountains of money that underwrite their efforts. The
issues appeared to change almost daily. One day the threat was taxes, on
another it was guns. A third day it was stem cell research, and the next
Hollywood, homosexuals and abortion rights.
Their weekly agenda was hammered out every Wednesday at a meeting
chaired by Grover Norquist, a rightwing Leninist who believes in an
ever-shifting tactical alliance. Sometimes this involves courting the
business community, as it did when fighting for Bush's tax cut.
Sometimes it means opposing them, when, for instance, the movement
wishes to punish the Chinese communist infidels. Norquist has been known
to describe the US government as "tyrannical and overbearing", a regime
that "steals too much of people's money and... murders people in Waco".
He says his goal is "to cut government in half in 25 years... to get it
down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub". Among those who
attend the invitation-only meetings are spokespeople and representatives
of NRA, the Christian Coalition, the Heritage Foundation; corporate
lobbyists, the top people from the Republican party and the
Congressional Republican leadership, and chief White House aides.
Trusted rightwing journalists and editors also attend, though the
meetings are off the record.
While the ostensible purpose of the meeting is to share information and
coordinate strategy, they also give Norquist the opportunity to act as
an ideological enforcer. When one member of the Bush administration
worried to a New York Times reporter that the administration's plan to
repeal the estate tax would cripple charitable giving, he was publicly
warned by Norquist that this was "the first betrayal of Bush", and was
gone not long afterward. When a conservative pundit named Laura Ingraham
criticised a fellow conservative in the House of Representatives for
over-zealousness, she was immediately informed by Norquist to decide
"whether to be with us or against us". She was no longer welcome at the
It was Norquist's organisation, the National Taxpayers' Union, that
promoted the notion that a tax-cut for business was necessary to fight a
war against terrorists. "By reducing the rate at which capital gains are
taxed, President Bush and Congress could help revitalise the sagging
economy and bring new revenues to Washington, decidedly aiding our war
against terrorism," they announced. The idea is patently ridiculous, of
course, but you can bet that George W Bush will fight for it for the
duration of his presidency if necessary. After all, war or no war, he
knows who brung him.