Media’s Messaging Debate Eclipses Policies—and the Crises They Address — FAIR

Media’s Messaging Debate Eclipses Policies—and the Crises They Address — FAIR

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Election Focus 2020Voters, according to Rep. Kurt Schrader (D.–Oregon), are “very afraid that this will become a supernanny state, and their ability to do things on their own is going to be taken away.” Schrader made the remark to the Washington Post (11/5/20), discussing a now-infamous Democratic Party call in which the party’s neoliberals blamed the left for their lackluster election performance (FAIR.org, 11/10/20).

Given the raging pandemic that is now killing more than 1,000 people in the United States on an average day, and the devastated economy that has left tens of millions without enough to eat or the ability to pay rent, a reasonable observer might conclude that more supervision is precisely what the US needs right now. The derisive “nanny” characterization aside, the burning question of the moment is how much and exactly what kind of government intervention is necessary to address the multiple crises that are, literally, killing people and the planet itself.

WaPo: Centrist House Democrats lash out at liberal colleagues, blame far-left views for costing the party seats

The Washington Post (11/5/20) said that “Democrats” privately say their problem is “obvious. The party in recent years has moved further left. “

Yet the Post article in which Schrader was quoted was not at all about a debate on best policies to respond to the crises. Rather, it was entirely about a messaging debate: whether Democratic politicians should stop mentioning progressive proposals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and defunding the police, and whether talk of “socialism” was electoral poison.

The Post piece was one of multiple corporate media reports on the leaked Democratic Party call (e.g., ABC, 11/5/20; New York Times, 11/7/20), and part of a wider genre of election analysis. But in the Beltway bubble in which these pieces were written, the ideas are never discussed in terms of the problems that need to be addressed, only in terms of political calculations of whether they are advantageous to the party. In this universe, a plan to ban fracking, for instance, is never about the environmental damage and danger to surrounding communities, nor about stemming the increase in global warming and all its attendant catastrophes; it is about winning or losing votes and (even worse) saying things that the Republicans will turn into attack ads.

The opening question of an NPR interview (11/12/20) with Rep. Ro Khanna (D.–Calif.), vice chair of the House Progressive Caucus, was: “Did progressive positions like ‘defund the police’ lose you seats in the House?” The followup question was about whether the “language of activism” works in some parts of the country and not others. Nowhere in this line of questioning did it occur to Noel King to ask: What is needed to end the epidemic of police violence against BIPOC communities?

Politico: Inside the House Democrats’ post-election reckoning

The message Politico (11/13/20) seemed to suggest the Democrats should stress was, “We’re not for defunding the police and we’re not socialists.”

Over at Politico, it was more of the same. Democrats say the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “needs to craft a proactive campaign that counters GOP attacks on everything from Medicare for All to fracking,” a typical post-election analysis piece (11/13/20) reported. Missing, again, was the underlying question of what healthcare, environmental and other policies are necessary to address urgent problems.

As Julie Hollar documented last week, the neoliberal bias in this genre of articles is not supported by data, which continues to show that the policies right-wing Democrats blame for their losses are robustly popular. But even in those pieces that align with the data, the emphasis continues to be not on the necessity of various policies supported by the left, but on their marketability.

Rolling Stone’s “The 2020 Election Shows Climate Can Be a Winning Issue for Democrats” (11/10/20) is essentially a mirror image of the pieces Hollar dissects, arguing that the Green New Deal can be part of a successful strategy for the Democratic Party. But here, too, the emphasis is entirely on political calculation, and not on material need.

Some focus on messaging and the debate about the appeal of central left-wing policies makes sense, especially in the context of Democratic Party infighting as a news story. Such analysis has a limited role to play in election postmortem pieces—though it is no excuse for ignoring the underlying crises altogether, or demoting their reality to the subjective realm of “progressives say….”

To see how corporate media handled this balance, I looked at coverage of two issues/policies at the center of this discussion – healthcare/Medicare for All and climate change/Green New Deal—in the month before the election.

Analysis, especially during an election campaign, of how effectively different candidates’ ideas and plans would address huge crises consuming the country is an essential function of media in a democracy. An overemphasis on electoral messaging considerations, to the detriment of substantive exploration of actual policy proposals, deprives voters of critical information.

Yet this is precisely what the pre-election coverage of Democratic positions on healthcare and climate change did. The overwhelming emphasis was on electoral strategy, and not on the problems these policy proposals were designed to solve.

Burying the lead on climate catastrophe

WaPo: Biden’s debate-night comment on oil highlights the delicate tightrope he must walk on climate change

The Washington Post (10/25/20) paints the climate issue as pitting “an energetic liberal base” against “suburban moderates in the oil-rich Sun Belt” and “white, working-class voters in the Rust Belt.”

The headline for the Washington Post’s October 25 piece on the Biden campaign walking back a comment the candidate made during the final presidential debate pretty much sums up the article: “Biden’s debate-night comment on oil highlights the delicate tightrope he must walk on climate change.” The tightrope in question is balancing between climate activists, on the one hand, and oil-industry dependent politicians and constituents on the other—finding a way to make his pledge to “transition from the oil industry” palatable to both camps. The underlying urgency of the transition is alluded to briefly, but even here, reality is implicitly subordinate to political expediency:

Carbon emissions must go down by 7% each year by 2030 to avoid catastrophe, but President Trump and his allies seized on Biden’s comments throughout the weekend, portraying them as evidence that he is beholden to his party’s left wing.

In terms of threat assessment, catastrophe, it seems, is on par with being mistaken for a leftist.

Over at Time (10/30/20), a piece about Biden’s climate policy is framed, once again, in terms of electoral viability rather than planetary survival. The article mentions that Trump’s environmental deregulation and support for fossil fuel industries are “deeply unpopular” with US voters, and that most people oppose fracking, though it says almost nothing about the actual environmental impact of any of those policies.

The mind-blowing part of this piece, however, is its parenthetical admission of the devastating impact of unchecked climate change. In context:

This cycle, the [Trump] campaign’s message…has shifted the focus slightly, asserting not that climate change isn’t real, but that addressing it would be too costly. (Of course, leaving climate change unchecked would in fact cost significantly more than addressing it.)

Talk about burying the lead! The “of course” put me over the edge—as though readers are expected to know this, even though virtually none of the coverage of climate policy discusses it, Time’s article itself being the perfect example.

Better dead than red

CNN: Biden campaigns on strengthening the Affordable Care Act as Trump undermines it

CNN (10/15/20) says Biden has resisted ” pressure from the Democrats’ progressive wing, which wants to put the federal government at the center of the nation’s healthcare system.”

On healthcare, I found a decent number of articles that gave an overview of Biden’s healthcare proposals, and I took some solace in the presence of something beyond polling data. But even the meatiest pieces among them failed to connect the policy proposals to the current crisis.

A Washington Post article (10/27/20) on Biden’s healthcare plan is an ode to “pragmatism.” “Biden has managed to produce a proposal that could synthesize decades of debate over this most critical issue,” it said, but never explains why this issue is so critical. It traces the policy genealogy back to Truman, but other than some allusions to the cost savings of scaled public healthcare systems, there’s no indication of the problems this “more than a half-century in the making” plan is addressing. This is astounding, given that we are in the middle of a pandemic that has made over 11 million people ill, an economic crisis that has cut off healthcare coverage for 15 million, and a sustained assault on the Affordable Care Act, which could end coverage for another 21 million people. The article never even mentions the coronavirus.

CNN (10/15/20) outlined Biden’s plan in a piece that at least mentioned the 30 million uninsured in the US. But here, too, you’ll look in vain for mention of the pandemic, though you will find reassurance that “competition and the option of private insurance” remain central to Biden’s plan.

That reassurance, of course, comes in response to the red-baiting of the Trump campaign specifically, and the GOP more broadly. As CNN put it, Trump “is seeking to paint Joe Biden’s healthcare plan as socialized medicine that would eliminate private insurance coverage.”

Popularity of redistribution stumps NYT

The socialist label didn’t stick for most voters, not least of all because Joe Biden is obviously a neoliberal who went out of his way during the campaign to disavow the progressive ideas to which the Republicans tried to tie him.

NYT: Why Trump’s Efforts to Paint Biden as a Socialist Are Not Working

The New York Times (10/14/20) reports that “Democrats” say that Biden has been “bolstered by his refusal to endorse many of the most liberal economic policy plans of his Democratic rivals in the primaries.”

An October 14 New York Times article (10/14/20) earnestly tried to analyze Trump’s failure to convince the electorate that a Biden presidency would be “a socialist nightmare.” One reason, it solemnly explained, is that Biden isn’t a socialist, and has been a “moderate” (aka right-wing Democrat) for decades. With palpable wonder, the article went on to say:

Some of it appears to also be about the “socialist” policies themselves. Despite months of attempts by the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers and conservative advocacy groups to forecast a descent into a Stalin-like regime of stringent government controls on business and limits on personal freedom if Democrats win, many of the plans favored by the most liberal wing of Democratic leaders remain popular with wide groups of voters, polling shows….

Support for those programs appears to grow from a desire by many voters for the government to move more aggressively to curb America’s economic inequalities.

The United States is currently a country in which more than 10% of adults don’t have enough to eat (for households with children, it’s 14%), while the stock market continues to rise; where 11 million have not recovered from the Depression-Era unemployment rates of last spring, while billionaires have increased their wealth by almost a trillion dollars in that same time; and where unemployment, hunger, the threat of eviction, and let’s not forget Covid have disproportionately ravaged BIPOC communities. Speaking on behalf of the vast majority in the US living outside the Beltway bubble, I think it’s safe to say that support for desperately needed government help and gross economic inequality are definitely linked—no need to qualify it with “appears to.”

The only surprising thing about the popularity of policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal is that it endures and continues to grow despite corporate media attempts to strip those ideas from their material origins and reduce them to chess pieces in a political game of party politics. Imagine how much stronger support for social democratic or even genuinely socialist policies might be in the US if our leading media outlets discussed them in relationship to the social and economic problems they are designed to address.

On the eve of the election, the New York Times published a piece about the lasting effects the Trump era will have on both political parties (11/2/20). Policy choices once again are divorced from their origins:

Democrats face their own divides over whether to use the moment of national crisis to push for far-reaching structural changes on issues like healthcare, economic inequality and climate change.

Should Democrats “use” the “moment of national crisis” to…address the crisis? The answer seems obvious, except in the corporate media world, where “structural changes” aren’t related to structural inequality.



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