Jan 1 2008

Are People a ‘Special Interest’?

Media language equates citizens and money

We are raised on the notion that people are paramount in democracy–that it’s all about citizens who, through public discussion, campaigns and elections, decide who will lead and which policies will be pursued. But that notion is often undermined by political reporting and commentary, which often seems designed to get people out of the process and into a spectator role. One way this happens is when media use labels that disparage popular political involvement, while often giving corporate and moneyed political players a pass.

In the media’s lexicon of political pejoratives, “pander” and “special interests” are in common usage. Examining how these terms are employed–who are the panderers, the pandered to, and who belongs to a “special interest” group–sheds light on the media view of who belongs in the political arena and who doesn’t.

To illustrate this, FAIR examined five months (6/1/07-10/31/07) of political and campaign coverage to analyze how these terms are used in reporting and commentary in three of the country’s most important newspapers–the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. We looked at every occurrence of the two terms in political stories, including use of the terms by reporters, political columnists and commentators, as well as by their sources.

The term “to pander,” meaning to appeal to lower instincts, is commonly used as a criticism of politicians or parties. But its use also implicitly disparages those who are being pandered to; after all, it’s their lower instincts that are appealed to.

FAIR’s survey found 76 instances in which some form of the word “pander” was used. The term was applied to candidates of both major parties, with a greater frequency toward Republicans: They were deemed panderers in 32 out of 54 stories in which partisan individuals or parties were named, versus 22 for Democrats.

Groups of varied partisan and ideological stripes were described as being pandered to; what the vast majority of these groups had in common was that they were composed of people: citizens, activists, voters, public interest groups–the very stuff that democracy is supposed to be made of. When a target of pandering was identified, 91 percent of the time (53 out of 58) it was a constituency composed of or representing people, whereas only five times was “pandering” said to be directed to a corporate or moneyed interest.

The groups pandered to ranged from right to left, including, among others, anti-war activists, anti-immigration groups, unions, the NRA, environmentalists and the religious right. In some cases, entire ethnic groups were among those pandered to. “Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), the opening act, went with the naked Latino pander,” wrote Washington Post reporter and columnist Dana Milbank in a reported piece (10/4/07), “He greeted the crowd with ‘buenos dias,’ and departed with ‘Si se puede!'”

In others, whole classes were pandered to. “Many politicians pander, as Edwards does with gusto, to Americans’ current penchant for self-pity,” wrote Washington Post columnist George Will (10/17/07). “Hence the incessant talk about ‘the forgotten middle class.'”

In a New York Times “Editorial Observer” column (6/7/07) Lawrence Downes suggested that Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was pandering to anti-immigration voters: “At Tuesday night’s Republican debate, Mr. Romney had a perfect opportunity to respond to the charge that he has been pandering for votes while offering no solution other than doing nothing. Check the transcript: Mr. Romney had no rebuttal.”

Corporate interests, on the other hand, were rarely described as the targets of pandering, even when there was clear opportunity. For instance, when Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson made separate appearances before the Club for Growth in October (New York Times, 10/18/07), the former New York mayor told the pro-business, anti-tax group that he liked the idea of a flat tax and opposed raising taxes as part of Social Security reform–or for any other reason. Even though these were reversals of his previously held positions, no article appearing in the Nexis database referred to the Giuliani or the other GOP hopefuls appear before the groups as “pandering.”

It’s not as though it’s impossible for politicians to “pander” to constituencies made up of people–appeals to citizen groups can of course be made on a deceptive or self-serving basis. But the infrequency with which corporations or other moneyed parties are seen as targets of such underhanded appeals suggests that the political press has some odd assumptions about who is and isn’t a legitimate participant in the democratic process.

“Special interests” as a term of political opprobrium has a history going back at least a century in American politics. Now as then, the term implies that those designated as “special interest groups” have something other than the larger public or national interest at heart as they organize or lobby. What has changed in the last hundred years, though, is just who is tagged with the special interest label.

FAIR’s survey found 178 uses of the term over the five-month period studied. In nearly half the cases (81) where reporters, commentators, editorialists and sources used the term, the special interest groups in question were unspecified. For instance, a Los Angeles Times column (10/23/07) referring to “the notorious stranglehold of special interests on Sacramento,” but fails to mention who the special interests are–whether they are developers, unions, etc.

In another 28 instances, the term was used to refer to both moneyed interests or corporations and groups made up of or representing people. A New York Times report (9/18/07) referring to “special interests” [CHK] affecting the healthcare debate, “including business, labor, consumer advocates and hospitals.” Such usages help to normalize the notion that the moneyed groups and popular groups are of equal value in the democratic discussion–as if seeking votes and seeking money were equally valid (or invalid) parts of the democratic process.

In the 68 cases in which one group or the other was named, groups made up of or representing people were pejoratively dubbed “special interests” a little less often than corporations or moneyed interests–31 vs. 37 instances. While seemingly roughly balanced, the most interesting aspect of this data is how it marks a departure from the historical meaning of the term in U.S. politics.

A hundred years ago, the term “special interests” was reserved for big corporations (e.g., “big oil” and “big steel”), the lobbying clout and political power that moneyed interests wielded.

As Republican reformer Theodore Roosevelt spelled out in his 1910 speech “The New Nationalism”:

One of the fundamental necessities in a representative government such as ours is to make certain that the men to whom the people delegate their power shall serve the people by whom they are elected, and not the special interests. I believe that every national officer, elected or appointed, should be forbidden to perform any service or receive any compensation, directly or indirectly, from interstate corporations; and a similar provision could not fail to be useful within the States.

As late as the 1950s, when Eisenhower was warning of the emerging “military industrial complex,” he used the term “special interests” to describe the weapons industry: “Under the spur of profit potential, powerful lobbies spring up to argue for even far larger munitions expenditures…. And the web of special interests grows.”

Thus, in reading the newspapers, one learns that politicians often “pander” to groups made up of or representing people, but seldom pander to corporations; and that “special interests”–groups disparaged in political reporting and commentary–are almost as likely to be groups representing people as moneyed or corporate interests.

As the FAIR survey shows, media rhetoric suggests that the likes of unions, gun rights advocates, environmentalists or even entire ethnic groups are at odds with the national interest, and candidates who seek their votes are often appealing to their baser instincts. This is not abnormal in a media culture that often treats the public as the great unwashed, incapable of making prudent or magnanimous decisions in the interest of the nation at large. Journalists often, for instance, call for winnowing the number of candidates allowed into debates, taking it upon themselves to decide who should be on the ballot before the people have had a chance to be heard (Extra!, 9=10/03).

But more than media efforts to winnow debate panels or apply terms that raise suspicions about the motives of citizen groups, there is a rich tradition of journalists actively demeaning, disparaging or dismissing the public on any number of issues. In the debate over NAFTA, going back to 1994 when the policy was implemented, journalists have dismissed “free trade” opponents as, in the words of NPR commentator Cokie Roberts (Morning Edition, 1/8/07), “essentially on the wrong side of history.”

The large majority of Americans who favor withdrawal from Iraq have been rendered bystanders by an elite media debate that precludes withdrawal as an option (Extra!, 11-12/07); while the majority that favors healthcare for all was recently disappeared in a New York Times editorial (11/26/07) which described universal healthcare as having “limited political support.” That editorial is emblematic of much mainstream media thinking on the subject.

While debate continues about the state of democracy in the United States, in light of the disdain U.S. media often show for the public, perhaps it’s time to debate the degree to which we have a democratic media.

Research assistance: Jamie Cunningham