How the US media marginalises dissent

The US media derides views outside of the mainstream as 'un-serious', and our democracy suffers as a result.

    In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was not invited to participate in the presidential debates. To date, only two third-party presidential candidates have participated in televised debates in the US [GALLO/GETTY]

    "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 honour 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 marginalise opinions, people and organisations 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-organised in all 50 states - is never quoted in newspapers or invited to send a representative to television programmes that purport to present "both sides" of a political issue. (In the United States, "both sides" means the back-and-forth between centre-right Democrats and rightist Republicans)

    Marginalisation 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 characterised 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" marginalisation 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.

    Throughout the last few years, especially since Obama took office in January 2009 and after the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year, calls to withdraw from one or both of America's major quagmires have been met with media claims by Very Serious People along the lines that "no one seriously thinks we can just withdraw". 

    According to a June 21, 2011 Pew Research poll, 56 per cent of Americans favour immediate withdrawal of US occupation troops from Afghanistan. Many of these antiwar voters know that there could be negative ramifications; the same percentage believes that the Karzai regime will collapse without a US military presence. So it is not not true that "no one" thinks we can withdraw. In fact, most people think we should withdraw. And many of them are willing to countenance the possibility that the Taliban would win an ensuing civil war.

    For "their" newspapers, radio and television journalists, however, these people - over half the population - don't count. They are "no one". They are certainly not "serious people" who have done the hard thinking. They are not, in other favourite meme, "realistic" or "pragmatic".

    "We can't leave Afghanistan at this juncture," former US National Security Council member Rick Nelson told ABC News after US commandos assassinated Osama bin Laden. "There is still a significant terrorist threat emanating from western Pakistan." The US must "commit the resources, personnel, and money against this threat until we are certain that it is completely dismantled", said Nelson, talking as though to a small, slightly dim, child. To which such a child might reasonably respond: How would one know that such a threat had completely vanished? Fortunately for Nelson, ABC's excuse for a journalist didn't follow up.

    "So why not just get out?" asked Newsweek's John Barry in 2009. "As always, it's not so simple."

    Sure it is.

    To paraphrase my fellow political cartoonist Matt Bors, US soldiers could go to the airport. They could board planes. They could go home.

    The US pulled out of Vietnam. Vietnamese and Americans are both better off as a result. The Soviets left Afghanistan. They boarded trucks and tanks and APCs and drove to Uzbekistan. The Russians' big mistake was not leaving sooner. But no one talks about that - at least not on the air.

    Barry lists a familiar litany of what-ifs. All that's missing is the possible unleashing of killer blood-sucking zombies:

    "If the Americans pull their troops out, the already shaky Afghan Army could collapse. (Once they lost US air support, South Vietnamese troops sometimes refused to take the field and fight.) Afghanistan could well plunge into civil war, just as it did after the Soviets left in 1989. Already, the Pashtuns in the south regard the American-backed Tajiks who dominate Karzai's administration as the enemy. The winning side would likely be the one backed by Pakistan, which may end up being the Taliban - just as it was in the last civil war."

    As a decidedly unserious person - in fact, I rather deplore seriousness - I wonder: So what? If the only alternative to endless war and occupation and oppression by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is civil war and Taliban domination, wouldn't it be better to leave the carnage to the Afghans?

    'Serious people' are often wrong

    The American Conservative, a pleasurable and often surprising magazine aligned with America Firster and former presidential prospect Pat Buchanan, ran a 2009 essay by Daniel Larison that noted, reasonably, "after the last decade of terrible foreign policy guidance by self-proclaimed 'serious people' there is hardly anything more damning one can say about something than to say that 'serious people' embrace it."

    Larison continued:

    "There is a problem in hiding behind policy consensus and dismissing those outside it as an irrelevant fringe, and this is that the consensus gets important things wrong with remarkable frequency. Hawkish interventionists were able to create the (false) impression that 9/11 happened because America was too wedded to geopolitical stability and was too willing to tolerate authoritarian governments in the Near East, and then the lazy establishment consensus allowed itself to be dragged along with them to support an unnecessary and disastrous war. Establishment consensus views on Iraq and its weapon programmes were wrong; consensus support for the bombardment of Lebanon and the Gaza operation was also wrong; the 'serious' bipartisan consensus in favour of NATO expansion has been disastrously wrong."

    Back to the debt ceiling crisis.

    For many Americans the gravity and absurdity of the current economy was crystallised by news accounts that Apple Computer had more ready cash on hand than the US Treasury ($76bn versus $74bn).

    Apple isn't alone. "Corporations collectively are hoarding more cash than ever before, posting glowing balance sheets," reports International Business Times. "At the end of 2010, companies held an estimated $1.9tn of excess cash, and so far in 2011 most have not let go." US banks, says The Washington Post, have more than $2tn available to lend.

    If you've read Karl Marx you can probably imagine a solution to the US debt ceiling crisis. The government is poor but giant corporations are rich. Why doesn't the Obama Administration appropriate the necessary sums from private companies and wealthy individuals via taxes or nationalisation? The Post answers: "But while the country is flush with assets, it doesn't mean the government can seize them to pay for public debt."

    Why not? The article doesn't say. Nor does it use the dreaded phrase "no one seriously thinks that …" But it's there all the same. Because the US doesn't officially countenance socialist economic solutions, advocates of European-style socialised medicine were dismissed by President Obama as naïve (and not Serious). Even when the federal government transferred hundreds of billions of dollars to banks and insurance companies during the 2008-09 meltdown, calls for accountability were dismissed as unrealistic. Not pragmatic. Nationalisation? Definitely not serious. Clownlike, really.

    As Daniel Larison says, the track record of the Serious Ones is atrocious. And yet, on one story after another, even relatively minor ones, the US media continues to turn yesterday's "no one thinks" into today's "everyone knows".

    In 2006 Trevor Bormann told ABC-TV viewers that the world would never again see the famous statues blown up by the Taliban at Bamiyan: "Archaeologists and restorers are now cataloguing every significant piece of rubble but no one seriously thinks the Buddhas can ever be rebuilt".

    Here's Joanna Kakissis of National Public Radio, less than a month ago:

    "At the time they were blown up, the statues were the largest Buddha carvings in the world, and it seemed they were gone for good. But today, teams from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, along with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, are engaged in the painstaking process of putting the broken Buddhas back together."

    It won't be as easy to rebuild Americans' trust in their journalistic institutions.

    Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His most recent book is The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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