Mar 1 2009

Decoding the Media’s Ideological Spin

‘Bipartisan’ warnings and ‘pragmatic’ praise

President Barack Obama--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

President Barack Obama–Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even before Barack Obama won the November elections, Newsweek (10/27/08) was warning, “America remains a center-right nation—a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril.” (See FAIR Blog, 10/19/08.) If Obama reads corporate media, that’s a warning he won’t likely forget.

The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib—one of’s “25 Most Influential Liberals in Media” (1/22/09; FAIR Blog, 1/24/09)—lectured Obama right after the election:

Some Democrats, seeing the margins of victory they have rolled up, doubtless now will start pushing for new economic policies, new financial regulatory structures, new government plans for healthcare and a new strategy for dealing with the lingering war in Iraq, built solely on Democratic terms. Yet history provides warning signs in front of such thinking.

No new economic, healthcare, regulatory or Iraq policies—got it. But how exactly does history warn against such things? Seib cited the example of Bill Clinton, who “did, in fact, reach across the aisle to Republicans initially to balance the budget and promote free trade—policies that had durable and lasting support precisely because they had a bipartisan foundation.” But when Clinton ignored Republicans when pushing for healthcare reform, wrote Seib, “the backlash was instant, and painful.”

It’s strange to present Clinton’s budget-balancing as having a “bipartisan foundation,” since the tax hikes that balanced the budget passed the House without a single Republican vote (New York Times, 8/6/93). And NAFTA (which was voted on after Clinton presented his healthcare plan) is generally much less popular than universal healthcare, despite this “durable and lasting support.”

Political pundits kept offering these fractured fairy tales. Right after the inauguration, Politico’s Jim Vandehei and John F. Harris (1/21/09) questioned whether Obama was really “willing to challenge Democratic special interest groups”:

In fact, there are few examples of him making decisions during the campaign or the transition that offended his own party’s constituencies, or using rhetoric that challenged his own supporters to rethink assumptions or yield on a favored cause. Has Obama ever delivered a “Sister Souljah speech”? Ever stood up to organized labor in the way that Clinton did in passing North American Free Trade Agreement?

This version of history, in which Clinton’s push for NAFTA was the key to his political success, is a peculiar fixation of corporate media pundits. In the real world, the corporate-friendly trade bill was a political disaster; post-election polling in 1994 revealed that a major reason that Democratic voters stayed home and gave control of Congress to the Republicans was that they were “upset about NAFTA’s passage and specifically about local representatives’ support of NAFTA” (Huffington Post, 9/21/07; FAIR Media Advisory, 11/7/08).

Obama got praise as well as warnings from corporate media; as Newsweek’s Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas wrote (1/19/09), “Obama has already shown a prudent willingness to bend or abandon his more sweeping campaign rhetoric.”

“Sweeping” in this sense means “progressive”—just as “pragmatic” means “centrist” and “ideological” means “left.” Thus New York Times reporter David Sanger (11/22/08) demonstrated the correct media usage: “Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.”

Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty (11/13/08) likewise praised Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as “a win-at-any-cost partisan but not an ideologue; in his earlier White House stint as a top aide to Clinton, he was a key figure in shepherding through the North American Free Trade Agreement, a crime bill and welfare reform—none of them popular with the Democratic Party’s liberal base.” NAFTA was not particularly popular, period, nor was it very successful as an economic strategy (Extra!, 9-10/97, 5-6/04). But supporting it nevertheless moves you from the “ideologue” to the “pragmatist” camp.

Obama’s economic team—led by Robert Rubin proteges Larry Summers and Tim Geithner—came in for similar approbation. USA Today’s Richard Wolf (11/25/08) labeled the two centrists “pragmatists” who represent “practicality over ideology.” The Wall Street Journal agreed (11/24/08): “The records of Messrs. Geithner and Summers suggest views more pragmatic than ideological, on a range of issues that they will likely confront after Mr. Obama takes office in January.” Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (11/21/08) called their selection “superb,” saying, “They are not ideological.”

After joining the administration, one of Summers and Geithner’s first public acts was to make clear their opposition to bank nationalization (Washington Post, 1/28/09), which some economists have suggested would be the most effective response to the financial crisis. “We have a financial system that is run by private shareholders, managed by private institutions, and we’d like to do our best to preserve that system,” Geithner declared (New York Times, 1/29/09). By thus establishing their devotion to free-market ideology, Obama’s top economic advisers demonstrated that they were non-ideological pragmatists—in the topsy-turvy world of media punditry.