If the Truth Be Known…
One of the great unknowns of this year's presidential campaign is the impact the newer online media will have on the narratives that define Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as on the dynamics of the race itself.
Historically, the traditional media – the print media until the middle of the 20th Century, and then increasingly the electronic media – has enjoyed more or less exclusive control over the shaping of the image of a political figure. But this has been changing in recent years, and the rate of change has been accelerating.
Over the last decade or so, most of the narrative-shaping has been performed by an increasingly elitist and out-of-touch punditry based in Washington. With a small handful of notable exceptions – Keith Olbermann of MSNBC is the main one – the D.C. pundit class rarely strays from a very narrow range of acceptable "debate." Here conservative viewpoints are afforded all kinds of respectful deference, even when they're completely wrongheaded (as we saw during the run-up in 2002-03 to the Iraq War), while the featured "liberals" on cable news spend at least as much time criticizing Democrats as they do Republicans.
Truly progressive viewpoints are routinely excluded from the discussion. To those who advance the Big Lie that we have a "liberal" media – why is Mr. Olbermann the exception in TV news, rather than the rule?
Most readers of this column – indeed, most consumers of the traditional media – have never heard of Chris Bowers, or Matt Stoller, or David Sirota, or Jane Hamsher, or Josh Marshall, or Glenn Greenwald. These young (some not-so-young) people, and many others like them, are among the most brilliant political analysts of our generation. There's no need to take my word for it – they're online, on their websites, offering commentary and insight that puts the D.C. punditocracy to shame. They're all just a click away.
But they're rarely invited to join in the discourse as defined by the traditional media. Why? Because they're liberals, and they don't apologize for it. And that's simply not allowed in the traditional media, where the "liberal" slots are occupied by the likes of David Broder and Bill Press, who direct most of their fire not at the right, but at the left.
It is virtually a requirement in our media that featured "liberals" spend half their words wringing their hands over the "acceptability" of their ideas. But progressive, online writers will have none of that – they’re liberals, and they're damn proud of it. We don't kiss up to conservatives. We don't need their approval.
So, there's an entire space of the political spectrum that's going almost completely unfilled in the traditional media. Why is this an important point to note? Because it is in this broken, decrepit traditional media space that false narratives take root and propagate. And the traditional media's coverage of John McCain is a textbook case study in this phenomenon.
To read and watch traditional media outlets, one would think that John McCain is this tough, resolute "maverick," who somehow never wavers on a decision, and who's noted for "straight talk." He's a Republican war hero, and as such he can never be questioned on anything, including his qualifications for the presidency, because, well, he's a Republican war hero. The media rules are different for Democratic war heroes, as John Kerry found out.
One would think that McCain is not as far to the right as President George W. Bush, and that he's courageously stood up to him on critical issues. One would think that he's this honest, respectable family man, and a "clean" politician who would never consort with lobbyists. One would think that he's this stalwart defender of the Constitution.
The problem is that all of those components of John McCain's media image are demonstrably and patently false. Though you'd never know it from the traditional media, John McCain has flip-flopped like a dolphin on countless issues, notably taxes, Social Security privatization, torture, and veterans' benefits.
The aforementioned "liberal" David Broder recently wrote a column saying McCain's flip-flopping didn't matter because he had an "aura" about him. I'm not making that up. David Broder actually got paid to write that.
Senator McCain just claimed credit for the passage of a GI Bill he vehemently opposed – a tactic so transparently dishonest that one figures that he did it because he knew his buddies in the media wouldn't call him on it.
The murky circumstances surrounding this "family man's" dissolution of his first marriage, and subsequent pairing with a rich heiress, demand at least as much examination as was given to John Kerry. His knee-deep ties to Washington lobbyists inspire no confidence in his integrity, and his psychological problems – including his temper issues – absolutely require media scrutiny, given that this man wants to have his finger on the button.
The good news is that there is a good, strong, internet-based media that is shining the magnifying glass on John McCain that his shills on CNN (Wolf Blitzer, I'm looking at you) would never dream of deploying. As more and more Americans, dissatisfied with the traditional media, turn to the online media for information, the counter-narratives on Senator McCain have a chance to gain traction.
And YouTube, which wasn't around in 2004, is a powerful weapon for the truth. It used to be that the traditional media could cover for John McCain's many flip-flops and mistakes by simply ignoring tapes and video-clips that went against their preferred McCain narrative. But YouTube can present McCain's own words, unfiltered, to the general public. And the closer the voters look at him, the less they like him – under that media-created "maverick" veneer lies a duplicitous phony.
This is not to say that the Internet media's increased importance will guarantee a Barack Obama victory. Far from it. It remains an open question as to how powerful the Internet is in shaping candidate images. Indeed, that is one of the questions that this campaign will answer. And Senator Obama needs to trust his instincts more and D.C. consultants less.
But progressives now have many more weapons at their disposal than they've ever had before in striking down Washington elite-media narratives. The 2008 election will be a good barometer on how effective they are at this point.