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As Long as We Remember...

May 12, 2005

Democrats and the New Media

Edward Lulie III

When something works we tend to take it for granted and Democrats - for more than 40 years - have taken it for granted that television, newspapers and radio would operate as the political action wing of their party.

The support was a natural result of the limited numbers of decision makers in the elite media and their shared world view with the FDR Democrats. The political talking points simply flowed from the halls of Congress into our living rooms and were the "news" of the day. Democrats approached every political fight with the complacent certainty that the men who controlled the media were part of the world of correct thinking and, over all, would report the "news" accordingly.

Yet that long held advantage is vanishing, and frustrated Democrats are now shocked to have their message challenged for accuracy and are in denial that their sense of legitimacy no longer exclusively frames the issues. Instead of admiring reporters, they have to deal with Fox News and a new media less friendly, if not openly skeptical, to their talking points of the day and which is willing to listen to other truth tellers.

Republicans used to be intimidated and cowed by the major media. They lived in fear because they knew from decades of experience that the media would follow the Democrats lead and cast Republicans in their traditional roles of "mean," "greedy" and "cruel."

The beginning of the end of this media tyranny began under Ronald Reagan. President Reagan could, with a smile, sneak his message past the media despite their best efforts to stop him. He remains one of the most popular presidents ever - except within the old media; which continues to snarl whenever the name Reagan is mentioned.

Then along came Rush Limbaugh, who spent his radio hours dissecting major media stories and taking the opposite side. He scared liberals of the day because he showed what could happen if the media was used against Democrats instead of for them.

The largest blow to the monolithic media came when Fox News arrived; clearly Fox was off the left's reservation and enjoyed redefining what was acceptable as news. Then came Matt Drudge and the Internet revolution; changes came so fast and were so extensive that Democrats are still reeling in denial.

Primarily their problem is that they can not grasp the concept that their product - leftist political news - is already overstocked and consumers want other choices. The arrival of Fox News was like opening a Wal-Mart in Communist Moscow; consumers wasted little time in voting with their feet as they ran to a newer and less biased media.

When you take something for granted there can be considerable consequences, especially when the ground shifts under your feet. For Democrats, the frustration comes daily as they find they have lost the flexibility to change their stands - move too far from orthodoxy and they lose the "Deaniacs;" stay where they are and they lose too many elections.

Many Democrats seek to avoid the dilemma by standing still while waving their arms and talking very loudly, just to keep their talking points in play. Worse still is that now there is real competition as Republicans are starting to get their messages out unfiltered by the animosity of the old guard such as Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite. It's a whole new media world, but Democrats seem more eager to spend their energy yelling and screaming at Rush Limbaugh and Fox News than to find ways to adapt and survive.

You have to wonder how long can they maintain their outrage; is it just a question of anger over losing something taken for granted for so long?

Or is it a desperate clinging to the old days when they knew that anyone who mattered agreed with their values. It may just be that many Democrats are convinced that the old media of Dan Rather was "fair" and "balanced." After all, he agreed with their point of view and it is so easy to distrust those in the new media who do not participate in the consensus world view of the Democrats.

Those who are not for the self-appointed people's party must be unreasonable and mean spirited and unfair. Easier to believe that the "new" media is totally in the control of Tom DeLay and the Republicans; the alternative is that the Democrats really are lost in a world they did not make.

Better to blame the messenger and ignore reality; that the old media has crumbled and that with it goes a major supporting branch of their party. Denial is the uniform of the day. The Democratic Party under Howard Dean faces a choice. Solving the problem is really a question of reality versus delusion.

Do Democrats recognize that a new media exists? Or will they continue to drift down the river of denial, ever hopeful that the old media gunboats of Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite will somehow magically reappear so that Democrats can once again rely on their favorite political tool to carry the day?

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