Tragedy & Farce: How The American Media Sells Wars, Spins Elections, and Destroy Democracy

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Free Press co-founders John Nichols and Robert McChesney have teamed up again to write another critique of how the news media in the US fails citizens in promoting democracy. Like many of their previous books, this one critiques major events in recent years, particularly the US War in Iraq and the 2004 Elections. Nothing new was really provided in these sections, but they provide a useful overview and hit on the important aspects of US coverage of these major events in the past 3 years. Much of what they argue is laid out in the first few chapters which looks at some of the main problems confronting modern journalism. The areas they identify as most problematic are the notions of professional journalism, official sources, lack of context and the corporate consolidation of media ownership. These are the standards which they apply to the war and election coverage.

In the election coverage they spent more time on the media campaign to discredit Howard Dean than I would have, but the important point that they make is that even for the media Dean did not fit into the category of being a “viable” candidate, which means even for the media Dean did not represent the privileged point of view. This is one of the norms of professional journalism, according to Nichols and McChesney, the internalizing and promotion of elite viewpoints. we can see this both in terms of how news people themselves have become celebrities, but also due to the fact that their salaries are equivalent to that of the top ten percent of Americans.

Where the book falls short is in the concluding chapter which looks at the media reform movement. The do provide a nice overview of what the movement represents and even identifying the specific challenges to making media more democratic in this country. As with many books there was not enough in this section, either looking at many recent victories in the media reform movement or best practices being employed by groups around the country. It left me wanting more details about what groups are doing in their communities and how they are using media issues as an organizing opportunity.

John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy, (The New Press, 2005).

Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

If you still think that the only viable means to challenge the current policies of the Bush administration is to vote Democrats into office, please read this book. Joshua Frank has written an important work, one that should force those who consider themselves liberals or progressives to confront the real path that the Democratic party has taken. With substantial documentation, Frank uses the 2004 election cycle as a window to look at how the Democratic Party has basically taken the same political stance on most major issues since the Clinton era began.

Whether it is the USA Patriot Act, trade policy, welfare reform, prison building, corporate plunder of the environmental, tele-com policy, or foreign policy the Democrats under Clinton have either paved for current Bush administration policies or embraced them. The record is pretty stark: Clinton passed the Crime Bill and post Oklahoma City bombing legislation that was just a precursor to the Patriot Act; the Welfare Reform Act helped the current climate of wage cuts and further criminalization of the poor; NAFTA was not challenged by most of the Democrats, nor the other IMF, World Bank, WTO policies of the late 90’s nor those of the Bush administration; the Kyoto Protocol, old growth logging, plunder of wetlands – all began at their current pace under Clinton; the largest increase in US prison population under Clinton; and the current war on terrorism is not much different than the US bombing of Yugoslavia, Sudan, or Iraq under Clinton. All of these policy similarities are woven throughout the book, but Frank begins by looking at the most recent Democratic Party savior Howard Dean.

The first half of he book is devoted to the rise and fall of Dean and what was really happening within the Democratic Party to deal with this supposed “progressive.” Frank looks at the record of Howard Dean, both as Governor of Vermont and as Presidential candidate in a way that no journalist really did in the last race for the White House. The author demonstrates that Dean was more right of center on most issues, whether it was environmental policy or corporate benefits, Dean presided over the structural adjustment of Vermont. Cut taxes for the rich and social services for the poor. Sound familiar? So if this was the case why did the Democratic Party feel threatened by Dean? What Frank shows readers is that the Party was not afraid of Dean, but the Dean supporters who believed that the Party needed to get back to policies that represented working people, women’s rights and an anti-war perspective. The decline of Dean in the Presidential race transitioned into a let’s get all these voters in line by having their candidate of choice embrace the party platform. Frank suggests what started out in 2003 as Anybody But Bush, really came down to No One But Kerry. The Deaniacs, the Kucinich supporters, Al Sharpton’s backers and anyone who even thought about voting for Nader were quickly told to get in line or you were a traitor. Not only were people told this, but the Democrats spent more money to keep Nader off the ballot in several states than they did one paying people to organize for Kerry.

Frank basically demonstrates that the strategy of out righting the Republicans doesn’t work and hasn’t work for years. The Democrats lost control of the House and Senate under Clinton and have continued a slow decline in elections ever since. While Frank does not spend anytime talking about the need for movement building as the more important direction for those of us in this country, he provides more than adequate support for the reasons why we shouldn’t make electoral politics the focus of our efforts.

Joshua Frank, Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, (Common Courage Press, 2005).

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

It has been said that the definition of good writing is, “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” If that is true, then I submit Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It as an example of excellent writing.

The question Wallis poses at the opening of the book is, “How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?” The basic thesis of the book is that true Christianity is none of these things.

Of course Wallis is not the first person to point this out. It doesn’t take a trained theologian to realize that the right has long been twisting the message of Christianity for its own benefit. As Wallis notes in his book, even non-Christians often realize the basic message of Christianity has been twisted by politicians.

But it is a pleasure to see a trained theologian systematically and thoroughly dismantle the ideological base that the religious right has been using for years. There’s not a lot of new material in this book. If you’ve been following the newspapers, you won’t read anything that will surprise you. But Wallis is able to weave all of his material into a masterful case against religious right.

As indicated by the title, however, the book is not simply a polemic against the Right. Wallis goes after the left at times as well. Wallis alleges that the Left has sabotaged itself by alienating people of faith, and in this way missed the opportunity to create a coalition with many people who would otherwise have been sympathetic to the goals of the left.

The most divisive issue in the religious wars is of course abortion. Wallis claims that the Left has helped to create the polarization of this issue by demonizing the pro-life movement as anti-feminist, instead of acknowledging that there were legitimate concerns represented.

“There are literally millions of votes at stake in this liberal miscalculation,” Wallis claims. And then later, “Republicans literally win elections on the basis of their anti-abortion position and then proceed to ignore the issue…by doing nothing to reduce the number of abortions.” Wallis claims that if the Left and the Right were to focus less on the legal battle surrounding abortions, but instead work together to reduce the need for abortion, many voters would be more comfortable voting Democratic. Admittedly Wallis is talking about bourgeois electoral politics here, as he is in most areas of the book, but the points he makes can spill over into activism and organizing as well.

A large section of the book is devoted to the Iraq War, in which Wallis convincingly makes the case that since the only two options in Christian theology are pacifism and the just war theory, Christians cannot support the Iraq War. Wallis’ arguments on this point are flawless, but unfortunately the book suffers from stylistic problems here. Wallis apparently feels that, given today’s political climate, he cannot mention Saddam’s name without taking a brief break from whatever he is talking about to remind us that he knows full well Saddam was a bad man. That should be assumed, and even if it is not mentioning it once should be sufficient. But, Wallis is apparently worried that if he even once criticizes the Iraq War without simultaneously condemning Saddam, he will be accused of being a Baathist apologist. Given the debating tactics of the Right, this might be a legitimate fear, but it is stylistically tiresome.

It is hard to imagine a Christian continuing to defend the Iraq War and the Bush administration after reading Wallis’ book. The question is, however, how many of the religious right will be able to pull themselves away from Fox news or AM radio long enough to hear out Wallis’s arguments? The tragedy of this book is that the people who need to read it the most probably won’t touch it. Wallis may well end up preaching to the choir.

Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, (Harper San Francisco, 2004).

Misstating the State of the Union: Right-wing Media Distortions about the Clinton and Bush Presidencies

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Each day researchers involved with Media Matters for America, operators of mediamatters.org, watch, listen, and read the corporate media in order to monitor the content and identify “conservative misinformation” from the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Fox News, and other rightwing pundits and organizations. The effort is quite admirable–a host of writers contributing nearly up-to-the minute analysis of the latest conservative lies and corrections to the oft-fabricated information conservative pundits use to support their claims. Misstating the State of the Union: Right-Wing Media Distortions About the Clinton and Bush Presidencies is a product of this research as it collects rightwing distortions about the Clinton and Bush presidencies and uses them to reveal the larger rightwing biases of the corporate media.

Given its short length at only 146 pages, Misstating the State of the Union organizes a surprisingly large number of distortions by conservatives in the media into broad categories–social security, the environment, family values, the economy, and many more–using them as the basis for analyzing how conservatives present a view of the United States that is at odds with reality. These broad themes work well as it is easy to flip through the short book and understand that conservative position major issues on omnipresent in the US media. However, the organization within the chapters leaves much to be desired. Each chapter generally follows the same formula with subsections featuring quotes from conservative columnists and an explanation of how they are wrong, often citing one or two articles with opposing information. These subsections are written to refute a specific quote from a conservative, and frequently, to prove that the position of the Democratic Party and the Clinton administration is preferable to that of the Bush administration. As such, there is little systemic analysis and the book frequently functions as a simple Democratic Party rebuttal to the positions of Republicans presented daily in the media. There is no discussion of how conservatives get their message into the media; not once do the authors mention conservative public relations, media consolidation, or the networks of rightwing think-tanks and consulting firms.

While mediamatters.org is a useful resource, Misstating the State of the Union contributes relatively little to an understanding of how conservatives use the media and how the corporate media functions, instead reading like the Democratic opposition presented on shows such as Crossfire and Hannity and Colmes. Rather than delve into a more worthwhile analysis of how conservatives are able to use the media with such success, Misstating the State of the Union simply repeats their assertions and provides a couple of facts refuting each quote while claiming that things were better during the Clinton administration. The book is so partisan that in the brief sections of “analysis,” the reader often encounters phrases straight out of John Kerry’s presidential campaign speeches and petty insults–rather than a comprehensive and well-researched examination of how the conservative public relations system works. Readers seeking to understand how conservatives use the media should read Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America Into a One-Party State, as Misstating the State of the Union will provide them with little more than an almost endless litany of poorly reasoned arguments about why life was better during the Clinton administration than it is under Bush. Fans of Alan Colmes should take note of this book, but the rest of us should look elsewhere to understand the how conservatives use the media.

Mediamatters.org, Misstating the State of the Union: Right-Wing Media Distortions About the Clinton and Bush Presidencies, (Akashic Books, 2004).