Jan
21
1999

Only Some Commentators Are Ready For Prime Time

On network television, some pundits are always ready for prime time. After the president's State of the Union speech, they were all over the airwaves — smooth and glib — mostly lauding Bill Clinton's boffo performance.

But many commentators are never eligible for prime time. Political analysts outside the conventional range of media wisdom are rarely on the TV networks.

The always-ready-for-prime-time pundits are good at sounding quite savvy. Their hats tip to the nation's top politicians, especially the ones who excel at winning. Coverage may focus on character flaws and malfeasance, but the underlying esteem for Washington's power brokers is usually luminous.

In the mass media, discussions of politics are so constricted that we don't expect wide-ranging debate. If it existed in fact as well as in pretense, some very different voices would have been included in the national media discourse after the State of the Union address.

The speech was masterful at "appropriating every patriotic symbol" and "pushing every emotional button," said former ABC News producer Danny Schechter, author of a book titled "The More You Watch, The Less You Know." He pointed out that "virtually every one of Clinton's `initiatives' deserves scrutiny — but a media obsessed with personality doesn't have time to really debate policy, to examine their implications and impacts."

I also asked for comment from Gary Webb, another reporter whose integrity has clashed with mainstream journalism. His revealing book "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion" was published last year.

Webb observed that the State of the Union speech was "typical Clintonesque sleight-of-hand." The president "goes on forever about spending a billion here and there on some feel-good social or environmental program and then glosses over his most insidious proposals — boosting defense spending and giving the police new high-tech devices and expanded powers to snoop on American citizens — without providing even the tiniest detail."

Journalists from such establishment magazines as The Weekly Standard and The New Republic are often on national broadcasts. The spectrum that extends from the likes of Trent Lott to Bill Clinton is well-represented. But the editor of The Progressive, Matthew Rothschild, is elsewhere.

"Clinton wants to start down the slippery slope of investing some Social Security funds in the stock market," Rothschild said, "a move which could quickly tumble into massive privatization." That serves "not the public good but the private interests of Wall Street."

The president "says he wants to help people out with their long-term health care, but all that he proposes is a $1,000 tax break, which won't nearly cover the costs and which won't apply to anyone making less than $30,000 a year," Rothschild added. "He talks about the huge problem of our economy — the income gap — as being a function of a skills gap, and so he offers more money for job training." However, "the problem with our economy is not a skills gap but a finite supply of high-paying jobs."

On military issues, Rothschild said, Clinton "proposed increasing defense spending by an amount that comes to $112 billion over the next six years — back to Cold War levels, even though the Cold War is over, and the risks to our nation are greatly diminished. This is not government for the common good. This is government for the good of Boeing and Lockheed Martin."

Jason Vest, who reports from Washington for The Village Voice, called the presidential speech a "mash note to the Pentagon and its myriad contractors." The message was "revolting" — but "not surprising, given Clinton's pattern of co-opting Republican positions. It seems only fitting that he would move to claim the Star Wars mantle of the Reagan years."

Analysts critical of lucrative militarism were certainly available. But the media echo chamber has reverberated with Clinton's call to jack up the Pentagon budget.

"The poorly housed, poorly trained, poorly paid American soldier has kind of become the poster child for the so-called `readiness crisis,'" said Miriam Pemberton, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies. But the spending boosts for "modernization" will mainly enrich contractors selling weapons systems, such as new fighter aircraft projects with a staggering price tag — close to $500 billion.

When I spoke with her after the State of the Union oratory, Pemberton disputed the assumption that "we need three new attack- fighter aircraft programs when our current fighters are already the best in the world." With an attitude like that, she'll never be ready for prime time.