Jul 1 1998

Doublethink on the Editorial Page

Editorials preach compassion, push austerity

If a newspaper has a political agenda, presumably it would be most visible on its editorial page. Examination of editorials in some of the most prominent dailies–the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today–on a range of economic and social issues shows that they tend to articulate the same centrist-to-right perspective that informs the rest of their reporting, preaching the social austerity and “free trade” policies popular with corporate elites and downplaying questions of systemic injustice and inequality not on the official agenda.

The New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and USA Today don’t always take identical editorial positions, of course. But on issue after issue, their editorials reveal similar arguments, similar priorities, sometimes even the same catchphrases, providing further proof of the narrowness of mainstream media policy debates.

Punish Iraq…

Economic considerations seem to underpin mainstream papers’ editorial line on foreign, as well as social, policy. The major dailies took a determinedly hawkish stand on the Gulf War (see Extra!, 5/91) and they continue to talk tough about continuing economic sanctions on Iraq. “Hang Tough on Saddam,” advised USA Today (8/28/95); “he responds only to tough talk and harsh action.” “The basic facts can’t justify an end to sanctions,” the Washington Post stated this January (1/13/98), having previously explained (11/23/97) that sanctions’ “indefinite continuance” is “critical leverage” for the U.S. And hardship aside, the New York Times says (3/30/98), “Washington cannot afford to relax its vigilance.”

Estimates are that 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions (Lancet, 12/1/95). The papers sometimes noted the human suffering, but frankly cautioned against letting such considerations weaken U.S. resolve. In “Relief for Iraq?” the Washington Post acknowledged that the harm done has been “severe in the extreme,” but still argued for delaying an initiative to expand humanitarian aid in order to “keep a tight focus on the arms” (2/4/98). At one point (8/18/95), the L.A. Times forthrightly acknowledged the suffering as the whole point. A primary reason “for keeping the pressure of sanctions on is that increasingly desperate conditions in Iraq seem inexorably to be sapping the regime’s staying power,” they applauded–in August 1995. Two years later, with conditions still more “desperate,” the paper remained unmoved: “The fate of the criminally misled people prompts pity,” they stated (11/21/97). “The fate of all those who are potential victims of Hussein’s terror weapons—Americans included—must take precedence.”

The rightness of a tough line on sanctions was often explained with a little history lesson. In the words of the Washington Post (11/13/97), “it’s worth recalling how we got to this point.” But then those histories invariably begin with, in the Post‘s repeated phrase, Iraq “swallowing” Kuwait. USA Today‘s admission (11/4/97) that the U.S. “failed to make clear its intolerance of such aggression,” is as close as anyone gets to mentioning the Bush administration’s coziness with Iraq prior to its Kuwait invasion, let alone the years of U.S. support for Hussein. The Washington Post (10/31/97) referred to Saddam’s “long-established, internationally certified record of menace and deception,” with no mention of the U.S.’s role in helping him achieve it.

Certain other countries, on the other hand, did have something to answer for. When Saddam tried to bar Americans from U.N. inspections teams, the Post (11/4/97) accused Security Council members France and Russia, “whose soft policies quite possibly helped encourage Saddam Hussein’s defiance.” Motivated quite possibly by “greed for oil profits” (1/13/98), “Iraq’s friendly alibi-makers” were “dazzled by the lures of commerce or influence with Iraq” (11/11/97).

The Post was hardly alone; it was obvious to all that France and Russia are interested only in “lucrative oil contracts” (New York Times, 10/29/97), or “lucrative commercial contracts” (L.A. Times 4/13/95) or “the lucrative smell of Iraqi oil” (USA Today, 11/13/97). (With unconscious racism, the New York Times–12/29/97–did allow that “Arab countries” may be “legitimately concerned about the sufferings of the Iraqi people.”)

…”Engage” China

The major dailies agreed on another thing as well: Utterly unlike Russia and France, who cynically seek trade relations with Iraq despite the moral repugnance of dealing with a dictator, when it comes to “most favored nation” trading status for China, the U.S. is “sensible” to disassociate trade relationships from ethical matters like human rights.

Not that pressing China to improve human rights isn’t important; their record is “abysmal” (Washington Post, 4/17/97), a “nightmare” (USA Today, 5/28/93). It’s just that strong sanctions are the “wrong tool” (USA Today, 5/24/94), “an extreme approach” (New York Times, 5/11/97), “not the right vehicle” (L.A. Times 6/25/97), “too blunt an instrument” (Washington Post 5/21/97) for doing it. Although, as USA Today explained (5/28/93), “nothing would feel better than punishing China’s multiple human rights violations by taking away something it desperately wants,” extending MFN was the “less gratifying, but more prudent route”—a “sensible decision, if inglorious” (Washington Post, 12/28/94).

But, the Post assured readers, “‘de-linking’ human rights does not mean downgrading them”; the paper exhorted the administration to “stand up for its goals in other ways”–it could “expand Radio Free Asia broadcasting to China,” for example, or “highlight the issue of Tibet in international forums.” The New York Times (6/7/98) recommends Clinton give Beijing “a blunt speech about the value of freedom and human rights”–and “if Hong Kong is trampled,” the paper suggests (5/11/97), “Secretary of State Madeleine Albright can quietly suggest that a planned exchange of presidential visits will be jeopardized.”

It isn’t that the situations in Iraq and in China call for identical diplomatic responses, but one couldn’t help but be struck by the endless plasticity of the papers’ reasoning, and editorialists’ refusal to acknowledge or explain the inconsistencies.

“Free Trade” Above All

One of the clearest illustrations of how easily any professed social liberalism on the part of mainstream editorialists yields in the face of corporate priorities is their discussion of so-called “free trade” policy.

Corporate media came on strong for NAFTA, and for giving Clinton “fast-track” authority to negotiate ever further reaching pacts (see Extra!, 9-10/97). NAFTA is a “sweet deal economically” (L.A. Times, 6/30/97) that is “good for U.S. workers” (Washington Post, 9/12/97). Dissent from the “free trade” gospel, for these editorialists, is somewhat akin to arguing the earth’s flatness. Critics of the pact were lambasted as “political Luddites” (L.A. Times, 7/1/93) engaging in “needless fears and petty politics” (New York Times, 11/6/97). Environmental groups, along with “unions,” were just “Democratic factions fearful of trade” (USA Today, 9/11/97).

While insisting that “very few Americans actually lose” (New York Times, 9/8/97) under “free trade,” editorials did call, once in a while, for some form of “retraining” and “improved education” for “individual workers [who] lose out” (Washington Post, 4/27/97). But it’s impossible to take such calls seriously, since they almost never seem to make it beyond the parenthetical–as when the Washington Post (11/11/97) exhorts Congress and the president to “rise above the special interests of the losers (while taking into consideration their legitimate needs).” The point is that the editorials demanding ever further trade deals as the road to “global economic prosperity” are loud, clear and often repeated; but editorials devoted to the need for effective job training and educational programs never seem to appear. As much as what they actually say, these omissions tell the real tale on media priorities.

Welfare “Reform”: Having It All Ways

All of the newspapers were editorially opposed to what finally became the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, and pointedly critical of the president for signing it. Sometimes the reasons were lofty: “No Democratic president ought to accept a bill that would tear down the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt,” declared the New York Times (2/2/96). Often they were morally inflected: “No, federal welfare hasn’t won the war on poverty,” said USA Today (2/1/95), “But it has eased the suffering of the poor. And that’s a victory by any humanitarian measure.”

The papers weren’t always so high-minded: The L.A. Times (4/14/94) attacked Congress’ proposal to deny benefits to legal immigrants because “California can’t be saddled with additional costs over which it has no control”; the paper demanded that Congress “take care that California is not savagely punished.”

But whatever their reasons for opposition, the editorials made clear that the major papers had absorbed and accepted key premises of the legislation—above all, the notion that welfare, and not poverty, is the core problem. It was taken as a given that welfare’s expense was a pressing concern. The New York Times referred matter-of-factly to “runaway spending on poverty” (9/2/94), and the L.A. Times warned ominously, “America’s patience is running out” (11/30/94) with voters “weary of the status-quo welfare system” (1/11/96).

Worst of all, these editorials echoed more than they countered the right-wing emphasis on individual character as a primary cause of poverty. Without wanting to endorse “draconian solutions and punishment,” the Washington Post (7/5/97) nonetheless cautioned, “a value-free program that relies exclusively on ‘services’ and material successes but de-emphasizes the importance of self-discipline, character, commitment and responsible personal conduct may do little to address some of the problems that led to dependency in the first place.”

Editorialists sermonized about the “culture of welfare” (New York Times, 5/2/94) and spoke comfortably of finding the right “mix of carrot and stick” for poor mothers (Washington Post, 7/18/96). Their arguments perfectly tracked conservatives’ invidious distinction between “innocent children” receiving public assistance, and their presumably guilty-as-sin parents. “Do It Right—Don’t Hurt the Children,” pleaded one L.A. Times (3/21/94) headline. That call was echoed elsewhere, as editorials sought the holy grail of a policy that would somehow “deliver a stark message” (New York Times, 6/15/94) to parents on welfare, without harming the families that rely on them.

Along with the distortion of emphasis, media played a kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch: In 1994 (5/23/94), the New York Times‘ editorial support for any reform plan hinged on guaranteed, subsidized jobs for those who couldn’t find work in the private sector. Aid recipients “should not be abandoned if, for no fault of their own, they cannot find unsubsidized work.” As late as 1996 (5/3/96), the Times was still saying that an “ironclad job offer” was crucial to fair reform.

But by the next year, these jobs had unaccountably morphed into “workfare,” in which welfare recipients work in exchange for benefits—not, as is by now painfully obvious, the same thing at all. Making no note of the shift, the Times (4/11/97) now referred to “adults who cannot find private- or public-sector work or a government-provided workfare slot.” (To understand the difference, read USA Today‘s 8/1/97 tirade against giving workfare workers legal rights: “Cowed by labor groups, the Clinton administration has insisted that workfare participants receive all the legal protections that other employees receive.” The paper complained that proponents of the “ridiculous policy” don’t understand that workfare isn’t “regular work,” but a way “to give the public a return for its money.”)

Corporate media’s editorialists tried to have it all ways on the welfare rollback—to get credit for supporting “reform,” while also calling for compassion. Again and again, core economic conflicts were dodged in favor of patronizing talk about the need to “send a message to the next generation before they get hooked.” (L.A. Times, 5/11/94) Even as they decried the intentions and impact of the actual legislation, editorialists continued to gloss that “welfare reform means replacing welfare checks with paychecks” (New York Times, 12/3/96).

And even if the welfare debate did see corporate media make bold editorial statements like “Food Is No Luxury” (L.A. Times, 12/17/97)–a generous thought a week before Christmas–lines like the Washington Post‘s “the current welfare system has no defenders” (7/18/96) hardly seem torn from a liberal primer.

The so-called liberal media couldn’t even manage a hard line against House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s absurd “Boys’ Town” idea. The New York Times (12/12/94) had to agree that “the impulse behind the idealization of orphanages is understandable,” and USA Today (5/23/96) seemingly opposed the idea only because it polled badly.

If it is argued that the corporate press are liberal on some social issues and conservative on economic ones, it’s important to see how–from foreign policy to welfare—economic priorities are allowed to trump all other interests at the end of the day. That’s an editorial philosophy that suits the owners of establishment newspapers, who can claim deep concern for social problems, while still supporting the policies that help create and exacerbate them.


The Social Issue Shuffle

On a handful of social issues, leading papers do take what could be described as a liberal stance (although on many such issues, the “liberal” position reflects U.S. majority opinion). These are rarely straightforward statements of principle, however, often carrying some kind of qualification.

For example, major papers are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion rights. Yet editorials on the subject sometimes come with a grudging, “pox on both houses” tone, as when USA Today (2/28/97) declared that for “abortion factions pro and con…complete and voluntary honesty is evidently slippery and mutable.” When Congress tried to link the payment of back dues to the U.N. with a plan to ban aid to international family planning groups that support abortion rights, the Washington Post (4/30/98) took the occasion to call for “restraint in both the word and deed of international abortion policy by abortion-rights advocates and adversaries alike.”

Similarly, while it’s not wrong to say major papers’ editorials are at times “pro-environment,” the tenor of some of them makes one wonder. The Washington Post clearly takes global warming seriously, but is addressing the matter with a salute to “A Few Brave Firms” (5/14/98) really a pro-environment editorial line? The companies were “brave” because they signed on as “advisers” to a climate change research group, thereby committing “themselves to pragmatic consideration of climate change, and to how they may participate in–and perhaps profit from–solutions.”

A better test might be how staunchly papers’ hold the environmental defense line when it clashes with favored business interests. In their fervent support for trade pacts like NAFTA, for instance, many mainstream dailies have been hostile to environmental concerns and the people expressing them. If these papers announce some “liberal” positions, they announce also the willingness to sacrifice them, when push comes to shove, to economic exigency.