It used to be big news when leaders were dishonest. The media forced politicians of both parties to pay a price for even the slightest infraction. Just ask Al Gore, who was tarred and feathered for a few careless comments about the Internet. That has changed. The media now barely flinches when the truth is distorted. In just a few years, the same media that tenaciously attacked the last White House over the tiniest appearance of impropriety now barely reports when the current White House deceives, hides information and knowingly ignores hard facts.
Take the White House’s explanation of the deficit. On April 24th, President Bush said, “this nation has got a deficit because we have been through a war.” Then, a week later, he said, “we’ve got a deficit because we went through a recession.” The White House and the media knows both of these explanations are dishonest Bush’s own budget acknowledges that his tax cuts are the major cause of the deficits (see table S-3 of Bush’s budget where the White House acknowledges that without Bush’s tax cuts the nation would return to surplus by 2006, but with his tax cuts deficits will continue indefinitely). Nonetheless, despite the doubletalk, the media did not report the story that the President was being dishonest.
Or how about the White House’s assertion that “92 million Americans would receive an average tax cut of $1,083” under its economic plan? Again, the facts are seriously distorted in order to fool the public. In reality, 80 percent of taxpayers would receive less than $1,083, and half would receive $100 or less. The handful of millionaires who would get about $90,000 artificially inflates the average. The White House and the media know this, yet the misinformation continues unreported.
Why are these and countless other distortions swallowed by the media and fed to the American public without question?
First, in a post-9/11 world, the White House has effectively equated questioning of the Bush Administration with treason. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer threatened reporters after the attack, saying they “should watch what they say.” More recently, Fleischer implied that reporters were being disloyal to the military by questioning why the President felt it necessary to hold a circus stunt photo-op on the deck of an aircraft carrier. “It does a disservice to the men and women of our military to suggest that the president, or the manner in which the president visited the military would be anything other than the exact appropriate thing to do”, he said, just after admitting that he had been dishonest in saying the President actually needed to fly a jet to the ship.
But these tactics only go so far. What truly allows the White House distortions to go unreported or reported as fact is the Republican Party’s not-so-secret weapon: a 24-hour television, radio and newspaper advertisement, otherwise known as Fox News, Clear Channel radio and the Washington Times. These national “news organizations” are owned by Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch, longtime GOP benefactors Tom and R. Steven Hicks, and Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, respectively. These men are right-wing ideologues who take their radical agenda as seriously as their bottom lines. Their news staffs reflect this disposition (Just look at Fox News, whose CEO and news director is Roger Ailes, who before entering journalism was a major Republican Party political operative, and who informally advised Bush on post-September 11th image polishing). These ideologues understand that, devoid of effective ideas, conservatives can win by playing dirty—namely, by infiltrating non-partisan journalism with attack machines that use the pretense of objectivity as a cloak for pressing a radical right-wing agenda and diverting critical reporting away from the Bush Administration. As one Fox executive admitted a few months ago in Fortune Magazine: “[Murdoch] hungered for the kind of influence in the United States that he had in England and Australia. Part of our political strategy here was [sic] the creation of Fox News.”
Thus, legitimate questions about the war become a news hook for Fox to attack questioners as traitors. Inquiries about whether the President is adequately protecting the homeland become a chance to question Democrats’ patriotism. Suggestions that the Bush tax cut will expand the deficit are morphed into purported schemes to raise taxes. Republican tax cuts for the wealthy become altruistic efforts to “let people keep more of the money they earn”, as one Fox correspondent reported. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle is hammered by the media for daring to question America’s diplomacy, while Newt Gingrich gets favorable coverage when he does the same. In short, the right-wing media promote stories that serve conservative interests and deflect attention from stories that do not. In the process, they make incessant yet baseless claims that other news outlets are “liberal”, intimidating them into accepting this conservative viewpoint for fear of being further vilified. And in “pack mentality” news with fierce ratings competition, the result is a media establishment that now forsakes its watchdog role in a tectonic ideological shift to the right.
As the next election nears, honest reporters and editors do a disservice to the public by accepting this manipulation. Americans deserve Woodward and Bernstein journalism not O’Reilly and Hannity propaganda. We need our media to have the guts to tell us when, why, and how our government is misleading us on the nation’s most pressing issues. Otherwise, our democracy suffers as Americans go to the polls without the knowledge required to cast an informed vote.