Wayne M. O’Leary

Strangling Democracy

Corporate power and influence in America, as former Senator John Edwards regularly pointed out in his populist run for president, has established a “stranglehold” on our democracy. There are many ways in which this is true: the overwhelming dominance of corporate money in our political campaigns, the distortion of our legislative process by ubiquitous corporate lobbies, the inordinate role of corporate think tanks in setting our public-policy agenda.

Most Americans are aware, to one degree or another, of these examples of corporate sway over what purports to be a democratic system of government. But there is one other example that is so all-pervasive most of us don’t even recognize it or, if we do, take it for granted. What I’m speaking of here are the corporate mass media, more often referred to as the mainstream media, an inclusive phrase that confers undeserved legitimacy. It is the consolidated corporate media, the collection of television and radio networks, nationwide newspaper chains, and mass-circulation news magazines that, by dominating the communications scene, are truly shaping America’s political discourse in presidential-election years, including 2008.

It is the media that preselect the candidates, vet them to their satisfaction, eliminate those found wanting, and set the political agenda in terms of what can and should be discussed in the course of the campaign. Who and what political reporters and pundits, not the public, are interested in is the measuring stick for coverage. In New Hampshire, Democratic voters said (through polls) that the economy was their main concern; ABC News said terrorism and the surge were more important, so those topics were the focus of its primary debate. Media representatives push the ideas and candidates they (or their superiors) deem acceptable or relevant. Messages and messengers failing to fit the corporate parameters for consideration are officially judged beyond the pale and treated accordingly.

The process of deselection begins with the so-called money primary. Serious candidates for president, the media have decided, must command serious amounts of campaign cash; they must either have it to begin with, through independent wealth, or have the ability to raise huge amounts of it quickly. The more campaign funds on hand, the higher up the rankings the prospective candidate climbs. For 2008, this has produced the disturbing spectacle of a competition among millionaires.

If they can’t fund their own campaigns à la a Mitt Romney, the candidates must be able to scramble successfully for dollars, and unlimited corporate money (strings attached, of course) is available through PACs or through networks of “bundlers” easily able to circumvent individual campaign-funding limits. Some, like John Edwards (trial-lawyer donations and public matching funds), can stay in the game for a time with lesser corporate offerings, but if they fall below a certain dollar threshold, perceptions of their seriousness suffer. Others, who either can’t generate massive funding or won’t suffer the requisite indignities to do so, are soon consigned to the campaign’s bottom tier, the purgatory of the process.

Once over the money hurdle, approved candidates must next meet the message requirement. At this point, one’s acceptability to the corporate establishment is evaluated, and if the test is failed, favorable press coverage evaporates and access to the all-important corporate- sponsored debates is seriously hindered. Two Democratic candidates, Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, chose to enter the 2008 hustings voicing frankly populist, anti-corporate themes; they suffered the consequences. Kucinich was belittled by reporters and marginalized in the early debates by being seldom acknowledged. He was eventually excluded altogether. Edwards finished second in the Iowa caucuses, but was ignored (almost blacklisted) by the corporate media in their single-minded pursuit of the Clinton-Obama narrative. After his respectable third-place finish in New Hampshire, media pressure began to build for his eventual withdrawal. He was, commentators said, “too angry.”

Message control extends to the topics candidates are permitted to discuss, particularly during corporate televised debates. This is achieved either by limiting the range of questions, or by limiting participation to those with safe opinions. It’s not a foolproof system, and anti-establishment views are occasionally aired, but in general subjects the corporate media find uncomfortable are conveniently avoided. In 2008, these include the single-payer health-care option, free trade and the offshoring of jobs, globalization generally, disappearing pensions, rising energy prices, and the privatization of entitlement programs. On the other hand, topics with the potential to distract attention from the economic plight of working, middle-class Americans (abortion, homeland security, drivers’ licenses for illegal aliens, educational testing for schoolchildren, gay marriage) have a way of becoming front and center.

This analysis implies that reporters, pundits, and media people generally are deliberately biased. They are, but not universally and mostly on television, where media’s heavy hand is at its heaviest. There is a corporate agenda, but those serving its ends often do so subconsciously and without being told. To some extent, they share the opinions of corporate management because they’re of, or aspire to, the same socioeconomic class. This might explain ABC anchor Charles Gibson’s concern during the last New Hampshire Democratic primary debate for “middle-class” Americans earning $100,000 to $200,000 a year. Mainstream journalists of the early 21st century are a privileged group, and it shows.

There’s no doubt that what gets reported in the political realm and how it’s presented is an expression of bias, whether conscious or not. Saturation coverage of “the scream” in 2004 eliminated Howard Dean, and the media establishment wanted him eliminated. Saturation coverage of “the cry” in 2008 saved Hillary Clinton, and the media seems to have favored her survival. Saturation coverage of the $400 haircut hobbled John Edwards from the start, and the media wanted his scalp, so to speak. Saturation coverage of Dennis Kucinich’s reported UFO sighting gave his struggling campaign the coup de grace, and the media wanted him gone.

The only way, it appears, for truly reformist candidates to reach the finish line is for the corporate media to misjudge their intentions and give them a pass. This could be happening with current media darling Barack Obama, whose pleasant demeanor may mask an inner populist waiting to emerge. If so, the apparently unthreatening liberal might become, in the very best sense, a dangerous man.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2008

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