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Political Animal

Bought Off

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/7/2005

Pretty soon you won’t be able to believe anything you read, anywhere. Years ago this columnist bemoaned the creeping politicization of everything, be it ice cream (right-wing mocking of Ben and Jerry’s), ketchup (the campaign against Heinz due to John Kerry’s wife), religion (the fundamentalists trying to enlist the Catholic Church in condemnation of pro-choice politicians), toys (who can forget poor Tinky Winky?), or the news business.

Much of this is the goal of the Right—if you can’t discern what is fact and what isn’t, with no objective source of reality to steer by, Americans will retreat into nihilism. Corrupt administrations (like this one) will steer contracts to their friends, manipulate scientific decisions, gerrymander congressional districts, overrule nonpartisan commissions, and virtually eliminate government oversight. Then again, they’ve been doing that already for quite a few years now, so perhaps this discussion is moot.

The Los Angeles Times stunned the country last week by reporting that the U.S. military has been paying the Iraqi media to run positive, pro-American stories, while at the same time ostensibly teaching those same Iraqis about true Western-style “honest” journalism. What could be more legitimate than the way Western-style journalism has been practiced in the United States for the last five years? A right-wing-sponsored former gay “escort” was credentialed to the White House press pool specifically to toss softball questions and give the press secretary a safe harbor when the questioning got too fierce. Paid flunkies like Armstrong Williams have disseminated administration talking points within his commentaries both in print and on TV and radio. Administration Medicare “news,” complete with faux reporter Karen Ryan, has been packaged and sold to local TV stations across the country. When the Government Accountability Office said the reports were illegal, the Bush administration’s lawyers essentially said, “So what?”

When press secretary Scott McClellan was asked about the reports of paid pro-U.S. stories landing in the Iraqi press, he played stupid: “We are very concerned about the reports. We have asked the Department of Defense for more information. General [Peter] Pace has asked people to look into the matter and get the facts, and so we want to see what those facts are.” When it comes to positive reports about the administration, such as economic or unemployment figures that are regularly revised for the worse later on, McClellan needs no further confirmation to trumpet them. But when a report based on actual documents comes out saying that the U.S. is paying for news in Iraq, well, suddenly McClellan wants the Pentagon to turn over every rock to make sure. Sadly for McClellan, the U.S. military command in Baghdad quickly admitted to the pay-for-play scheme, while, of course, stating that there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the other side of the media equation, our compliant if not conservative-leaning mass media bends over backward to favor the right wing and Republicans. Currently, the Senate majority leader, the House majority leader, and the president’s chief political adviser are under investigation. The vice president’s top aide resigned due to indictment. A top Republican congressman, who was a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, admitted taking bribes from defense contractors and resigned. At least one other congressman, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, is tied into the corruption investigation of Republican fixer Jack Abramoff, with the possibility of other names to come. The GOP controls the House, the Senate, the executive branch, and the Supreme Court—all the power, and therefore the opportunity for corruption—and the mainstream media says, “Oh, there’s corruption on both sides,” pointing out the investigation of a single Democrat, Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana.

This false equanimity is the current Republican talking point, and the so-called liberal media is soaking it up. In the third paragraph of the Nov. 30 New York Times story on the Bush administration’s response to the resignation of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, the writers, John Broder and Carl Hulse, included this phrase—“Though some Republican officials said Democrats in Congress were equally guilty of questionable behavior”—without naming names or backing up the charges. The web site of media watchdog the Columbia Journalism Review asks, are some Democrats involved in “questionable behavior”? Of that, we have little doubt. Are they as “equally guilty” as Republicans? According to recent history, not even close. After including the “some Republicans” paraphrase up top, painting Democrats with the same broad brush as Republicans in trouble, much of the rest of the Times piece is dedicated to chronicling the misdeeds of various Republicans in ethical or legal hot water. Those dang Democrats never show up in the litany of politicos with legal woes.

Similar false equivalence showed up across the media last week, showing the effectiveness of the GOP talking point obviously designed to muddy the waters. But the American public can’t be fooled for that long, even though, like in Iraq, the news they’re getting appears to be the best that money can buy.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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