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Commentary :: Government & Elections

Dean's demise and the rise of the Corporate Media


Howard Dean has joined the list of victims of U.S. corporate media consolidation. Dean shares this distinction with Dennis Kucinich and the people of the formerly sovereign state of Iraq, among many others. Dean was stripped of half his popular support in the space of two weeks in January while John Kerry - tied in the polls with Carol Moseley-Braun at seven percent just two months earlier - rose like a genie from a bottle to become the overnight presidential frontrunner. Both candidates were shocked and disoriented by the dizzying turns of fortune, and for good reason. Neither Dean nor Kerry had done anything on their own that could have so dramatically altered the race. Corporate America decided that Dean must be savaged, and its media sector made it happen.

This commentary, however, is not about the merits of Howard Dean.

If a mildly progressive, Internet-driven, young white middle class-centered, movement-like campaign such as Dean's - flush with money derived from unconventional sources, backed by significant sections of labor, reinforced by big name endorsements and surging with upward momentum - can be derailed in a matter of weeks at the whim of corporate media, then all of us are in deep trouble. The Dean beat-down should signal an intense reassessment of media's role in the American power structure. The African American historical experience has much to offer in that regard, since the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were born in a wrestling match with an essentially hostile corporate (white) media.

However, there can be no meaningful discussion of the options available to progressive forces in the United States unless it is first recognized that the corporate media in the current era is the enemy, and must be treated that way.

Rich Man's Mic

It is no longer possible to view commercial news media as mere servants of the ruling rich - they are full members of the presiding corporate pantheon. General media consolidation has created an integrated mass communications system that is both objectively and self-consciously at one with the Citibanks and ExxonMobils of the world. Media companies act in effective unison on matters of importance to the larger corporate class.

For all politically useful purposes, the monopolization of US media is now complete, in that the corporate owners and managers of the dominant organs are interchangeable and indistinguishable, sharing a common mission and worldview. (That's the underlying reason why their "news" product is nearly identical.) Monopolies do not require a solitary actor - an ensemble acting in concert achieves the same results. In the past year we have seen consciousness-shaking evidence of the corporate media's implacable hostility to any manifestation of resistance to the current order. Media rushed to embed themselves in the US war machine's Iraq invasion, and collaborated to actively suppress public awareness of a full-blown movement against the war.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors were made to disappear in plain sight. Corporate media conspired - which is what businessmen in boardrooms do as a matter of daily routine - not only to shield the public from dissenting opinions (their usual assignment), but to drastically diminish, distort and even erase huge gatherings that were profoundly newsworthy by any rational standard. This is not mere bias, but the end result of the corporate decision making process. There is no line separating "news" producers from larger corporate structures, nor can media companies be neatly segregated from the oligarchic herd. Corporate media's ties to the Pirates in Washington are organic and nearly seamless.

Their collusion seems almost telepathic, because they share the same class and worldview - the most far reaching consequence of media consolidation.

Death by Ridicule

The corporate media is a window on the dialogue among the rich. They are saying loudly and uniformly that even mild resistance to their rule will be treated as illegitimate and subjected to censorship and ridicule by their media organs. The scope of tolerable dissent has been narrowed, as reflected in the behavior of corporate media. The Dean beat-down is just the latest twist in the tightening of the screws. The thoroughly Republican nature of corporate opinion molding mechanisms is evident in their treatment of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

The media giants subjected Clinton to the full fury of the Hard Right's campaign to destabilize his presidency, ultimately resulting in impeachment hearings.

Al Gore, a sitting vice-president seeking the top job in 2000, was reduced to a caricature by the corporate press corps and punditry - the torture of a thousand daily cuts. Gore's cardboard image was the cumulative product of relentless corporate press commentary, disguised as reportage. Jay Leno and the other late night jokers feed off carrion that has already been slaughtered by corporate "news" media. Clinton's Republican predecessors were not subjected to anything approaching such scrutiny and abuse.

It is self-evident that George Bush, who should have been buried under a glacier of scandal and criminality within months of entering the White House, enjoys the full-time protection of the corporate press. Their institutional intention is to elect him again.

Media apologists offer fictions about press vs. power, when in reality corporate media = corporate power, just as Bush = corporate power. The Democrats are not part of this equation. Thus, the rich men's media descended on the Democratic Party primary process in order to mangle and denigrate it, while propping up the corporate champion in the White House. The New York Times, through its chief political reporter, Adam Nagourney, set the parameters of coverage by eliminating any mention of the three "bottom tier" candidates - starting with his "analysis" of the May televised debate in South Carolina, a state in which Al Sharpton is a key player! Nagourney systematically erased Sharpton, Kucinich and Carol Moseley-Braun from his weekly coverage of the contest - a professionally suicidal routine were it not consistent with the objectives of corporate management.

The Times proudly sets the standard for national reporting, but its leadership was not necessary to ensure that the bottom tier would remain at the bottom. The organs of corporate speech all march to the same tune because there is not a dime's worth of difference between their owners.

Get Rich or Drop Out

The corporate media's weapons are censorship and ridicule. Dennis Kucinich absorbed the full measure of both. However, TV "news" producers, mindful of viewer demographics, tried to avoid direct aggression against the characters of Moseley-Braun and Sharpton. ABC finally showed its true corporate colors at the New Hampshire debate in the person of Nightline's Ted Koppel. Imperiously addressing the bottom trio, Koppel said:

"You've [to Kucinich]got about $750,000 in the bank right now, and that's close to nothing when you're coming up against this kind of opposition. But let me finish the question. The question is, will there come a point when polls, money and then ultimately the actual votes that will take place here in places like New Hampshire, the caucuses in Iowa, will there come a point when we can expect one or more of the three of you to drop out? Or are you in this as sort of a vanity candidacy?"

Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley-Braun acquitted themselves well in the exchange. The real story here is that Koppel felt empowered to all but demand that the three most progressive candidates (and both Blacks) vacate the Democratic presidential arena.

Koppel had fumed to the New York Times about the uppity intruders, the month before. The day after the debate, ABC withdrew its reporters from all three campaigns. (None of the other networks had even bothered to give full-time coverage to the bottom tier.) Koppel's arrogance, so unbecoming to a journalist, is rooted in his actual status at ABC/Disney: he is a corporate executive who pretends to be a newsman on television. His professional history notwithstanding, Koppel and each of the high profile TV "news" personalities are millionaire executives who act as spokesmen for the corporate divisions of their parent companies.

They interact with executives of other divisions, principally marketing - the domain of sales and "impressions." Koppel is incapable of thinking in terms other than money and polls, an important marketing tool. He is proprietary about the political process because, as an esteemed executive in the ruling corporate class, he thinks he owns it.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Howard Dean's brilliant use of the Internet allowed him to capitalize on anti-war sentiment while assembling a funding base independent of the usual corporate suspects. Dean's December surge took the corporate media by surprise, alarming the bosses and their friends in the White House. Like a Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the corporate media rose with one voice to question Dean's "electability." It is important to note that in mid-December, according to Newsweek's poll, Dean, Kerry and Clark were doing equally in a match-up with George Bush, at 40, 41, and 41 percent, respectively. There was no statistical basis to single out Dean as unelectable.

Dean had just gotten the endorsement of Al Gore and two of the nation's most important unions, AFSCME and SEIU. No matter. The corporate media has the power of self-fulfilling prophesy, and they know it. Negative impressions rained down on Dean like a monsoon, and didn't let up even after the damage was done. Dean was tagged by the media as a loser to Bush well before he let out "The Scream" - an innocuous, non-event, on the night of his Iowa defeat.

Dean understands what was done to him, although there's nothing much he can do about it. In an interview with CNN's repugnant Wolf Blitzer, the candidate said: "You report the news and you create the news. You chose to play it ["The Scream"] 673 times."

It is clear from the numbers that Democratic voters, determined to be rid of George Bush, were afraid to support the "unelectable" Dean. Lots of them ran to Kerry, who had polled at only 7 percent nationally, in November. Kerry had done and said nothing to affect this sea change. The irony here is that it is Bush who is so scary to Democratic voters that they backed away from Dean, whom the corporate media had pegged as a "scary" guy. Chris Bowers offered a compelling analysis of the corporate media coup in the January 28 Daily Kos:

In order to reduce the increasing control of the Political Opinion Complex over our political process, we need to begin developing and strengthening institutions strong enough to counter its current influence. Specifically, we need to further develop networks where political information can be mass distributed outside of the POC's control.

Not long ago, there were several such outside institutions. Unions and churches were a far more pervasive part of people's lives. Newspapers and periodicals were significantly more numerous and varied in their political outlook. Public television and radio had far larger audiences. Political parties and societies were either machines or at least overflowing with active members. All of these now weakened institutions once served as means to perform end-runs outside the control of the corporate media and the Political Opinion Complex.

Engagement with the political process through means other than television was far greater. However, those institutions no longer serve as significant counter-weights to the strength of the Political Opinion Complex

Black Corporate Radio

African Americans faced a much more hostile establishment (white) press in the days of Jim Crow, local newspapers that often incited mob violence against Blacks and, on occasion, announced lynchings in advance. In the Fifties Blacks employed informal and church networks and the Black press (where it existed) to create mass movements - facts on the ground that could not be ignored. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and, later, mass marches and jail-ins in Birmingham drew the attention of the northern-based corporate media.

More interested in recording the show than supporting the protestors, the media nevertheless served to fire up the spirit of Black America and hasten the demise of Jim Crow. As the Sixties unfolded, mass incendiary activity presented the media and nation with additional facts - burning cities are not easily ignored.

The corporate press grudgingly integrated their staffs. Although Black newspapers went into steep decline, Black radio sprouted news departments that encouraged local organizers to tackle the tasks of a post-Civil Rights world. Thirty years later, media consolidation has had the same strangulating effects on Black radio as in the general media. Radio One, the largest Black-owned chain, recently entered into a marketing agreement with a subsidiary of Clear Channel, the 1200 station beast. Both chains abhor the very concept of local news.

There is no question that Blacks and progressives must establish alternative media outlets, and not just on the Internet. However, there is no substitute for confronting the corporate media head-on, through direct mass action and other, creative tactics.

The rich men's voices must be de-legitimized in the eyes of the people, who already suspect that they are being systematically lied to and manipulated. African Americans have an advantage in this regard, since we are used to being lied to and about. No society in human history has confronted an enemy as omnipresent as the US corporate media. Yet there is no choice but to challenge their hegemony.
The world can be changed, but only by changing the way others see their world.

By David Podvin

On December 1, 2003, Howard Dean was ahead by twenty points in the polls when he appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews and said, "We're going to break up the giant media enter-prises." This pronouncement went far beyond the governor's previous public musings about possibly re-regulating the communications industry, and amounted to a declaration of war on the corporations that administer the flow of information in the United States.

It was an extraordinarily noble and dangerous thing to do: when he advocated a truly free press, Dr. Dean was provoking the corrupt media conglomerates that control what most Americans see and hear and read, and thereby control what most Americans think.

The media giants quickly responded by crushing his high-flying campaign with the greatest of ease. This time, they didn't even have to invent a scandal in order to achieve the desired result; merely by chanting the word "unelectable" at maximum volume, the mainstream media maneuvered Democratic voters into switching their support to someone who poses no threat to the status quo.

John Kerry is a member in good standing of the feeble Daschle/Biden/Feinstein wing of the Democratic Party, a group of politicians whose disagreements with the mercantile elite tend to be merely rhetorical. Any doubts about Kerry's level of commitment to his stated progressive beliefs were conclusively answered in 1994 when he proclaimed himself "delighted" with the Republican takeover of Congress. The media oligarchy knows that a general election race between Kerry and George W. Bush will insure a continuation of its monopoly, regardless of who wins.

The news cartel had always been hostile to Dean; independent surveys revealed that he had received the most negative coverage of any candidate except Dennis Kucinich (the only other contender who strongly favors mandatory media divestment). But after his statement on Hardball, reporting about Dean abruptly came to an end and was replaced by supposition. The existing conjecture in political circles about his ability to win was transformed into a thunderous media mantra that drowned out all other issues.

By mid-December, the news divisions of the four major television networks were reporting as fact that Dean was unelectable.

The print media echoed the theme; on December 17, the Washington Post printed a front-page story that posited Dean could not win the presidency. The Post quickly followed up with an onslaught of articles and editorials reasserting that claim. Before the month was over, Dean's lack of electability had been highlighted in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and every other major paper in the United States.

As 2004 began, Time and Newsweek simultaneously ran cover stories emphasizing that Dean was unelectable. In the weeks before the Iowa caucus, the ongoing topic of discussion on the political panel shows was that Dean was unelectable.

National talk radio shows repeatedly stressed that Dean was unelectable. The corporate Internet declared that Dean was unelectable. And the mainstream media continued with the storyline that Dean was unelectable right up until Iowans attended their caucuses. Iowa Democrats could not watch a television or listen to a radio or read a newspaper or go online without learning that Howard Dean was unelectable. It was the classic Big Lie.

Through the power of repetition, the corporate media - which has been wrong about who would win the popular vote in two of the last three presidential elections - inculcated the public with the message that Dean could not win. Pollster John Zogby wrote, "Howard Dean was the man of the year, but that was 2003. In 2004, electability has become the issue and John Kerry has benefited."

The unexamined factor is how electability became "the issue". It had never before been the dominant consideration in Democratic primaries, because voters had focused on policy rather than crystal ball gazing. Electability was this campaign's version of "Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet": it was a media contrivance that was used to manipulate voters. On January 19, Democratic caucus goers in Iowa - who were the initial intended audience for this propaganda disguised as reportage -overwhelmingly repudiated Dean, telling pollsters they believed he was unelectable.

Later that evening, Dean yelled encouragement to his supporters at a pep rally, an incident that provided the pretext for the coup de grâce. During the week leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the media obsessed about Dean's "bizarre" rally incident, adding "un-presidential" and "emotionally unstable" to its descriptions of the governor. The unified message was that Dean had self-destructed. When he finished a distant second in New Hampshire, journalists and pundits hailed the defeat as confirmation of their premise that Dean had always been unelectable. Yet there had been no tangible basis for that assertion.

At the beginning of 2004, a poll conducted by Time magazine showed that Dean trailed Bush by only six points. That was a smaller deficit than Gore faced shortly before the general election in 2000, and he wound up getting the most popular votes. Undaunted by this evidence to the contrary, reporters adhered to the motif that Dean had absolutely no chance.

Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times is one of the many deceitful corporate scribes who obediently supplemented the "Dean is unelectable" message with its companion lie, "Dean is emotionally unstable", although she was a little slow on the uptake. In a report she authored the night of the pep rally, Gold wrote, "We will not give up!" (Dean) declared, his gravelly voice barely audible over the din of applause inside the '70s-style disco hall.

"We will not quit, now or ever! We want our country back!" But twenty-four hours later, when it had become clear that the official corporate media version of events was to be Dean had gone berserk, Gold omitted all reference to the noise over which the Democrat had been shouting:

"Dean leapt onto the stage, tore off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. His face beet-red, he punched his fists in the air and spoke in a near-guttoral (sic) roar. The frenetic response to his poor showing struck many as inappropriate." Gold's colleague at the Times, Ronald Brownstein, joined the chorus of supposedly objective journalists who expressed relief after witnessing Dean's apparent demise. Brownstein has written that it is "reassuring" to see Democrats abandon Dean.

And to whom is it reassuring? It is reassuring to Brownstein's employers at the Tribune Company, which recently reported record earnings as a result of media deregulation implemented by Bush.

Howard Fineman, the author of the Newsweek attack on Dean, has now written an analysis of why Dean fell so far, so fast. One of the reasons Fineman cites is that Dean has been too "defiant". And whom has the former governor of Vermont been defying? When Dean advocated breaking up the media giants, he was defying Fineman's employers at the Washington Post Company, which recently reported record earnings as a result of media deregulation implemented by Bush.

Those Democrats who have been hoodwinked into believing Dean self-destructed by yelling at a pep rally should recall how the major media handled Bush's drunk-driving arrest that a small Maine newspaper revealed right beforethe 2000 election.

It was an incident that on the surface seemed as though it should have been politically fatal - the candidate who had based his campaign on the vow that "I will restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office" was proven to have lied about drunkenly driving off a road. Demonstrably, it is never what a politician does that creates a scandal; it is always whether the television networks and major metropolitan newspapers respond to the incident with saturation coverage.

When a presidential candidate who was committed to deregulating the corporate media got caught lyingabout breaking the law, the importance of the event was minimized. When a presidential candidate who was committed to breaking up the corporate media got caught shouting at a pep rally, the importance of the event was maximized. The scream that had the greatest impact on the Democratic presidential campaign was not Dean's gonzo yell in Iowa, but the deafening roar of deceit that emanated from Corporate America's media subsidiaries.

The downfall of the Democratic frontrunner was not self-induced; it was self-defense. Dean had threatened to mess with General Electric, Viacom, Disney, the New York Times Company, the Washington Post Company, et al., so they messed with him first. Such corporate vigilance is inconsistent with the principles of American democracy, but welcome to the real world. In a dicta-torship, the tiny minority of well-armed people maintains absolute power by intimidating the vast majority of unarmed people.

In a democracy that is populated by citizens who get their information from a few greedy companies, the tiny minority of well-informed people maintains absolute power by manipulating the vast majority of misinformed people.

When you control what people think, there is no need to point a gun at them. In recent years, corporations have dramatically increased their power at the expense of the average citizen (and with the apathetic complicity of the average citizen). Big Business has evolved from merely being a vital part of society into being master of both the political system and the means of communication. As a result, the boundaries of the national debate are now defined by the interests of the Fortune 500, and the malefactors of great wealth have become increasingly brazen.

Americans used to laugh at banana republics, where the ruling elites are so shamelessly debauched that judges go on duck hunting trips with the politicians whose cases they are scheduled to review, but it doesn't seem quite so funny anymore. After the last presidential election, the corporate functionaries on the Supreme Court overrode the will of the people by empowering the man who had lost. It was an awkward procedure, so the process has been refined.

In 2004, the mainstream media is rapidly disqualifying all the candidates who fail to honor the business agenda, thus eliminating the need for another controversial judicial intervention.

Howard Dean's campaign now lies in ruins because he chose to confront the multinational conglomerates that run this country. If Dean is so resilient that he fights his way back into contention, the Fourth Estate will be ready to batter him again. In the United States of America, people who pose a threat to the reigning corporate establishment are destroyed. Or, as the Soviets used to put it, emotionally unstable individuals who deviate from the party line are guilty of engaging in "self-destruction

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