In the Nation's Capital, Media Fixations Prevail
WASHINGTON -- Few phrases in American politics have more negative connotations than "inside the Beltway." In this rarified and unreal zone, we often assume, the activities of politicians and bureaucrats are disconnected from the main concerns of most Americans. But it would be a mistake to forget that the tenor of national news coverage is largely responsible for the political climate in the nation's capital.
What passes for media wisdom in Washington truly does surpass understanding. Big-name journalists may disparage the self-absorbed mania that prevails along Pennsylvania Avenue -- but they rarely challenge the fixations of Washington's movers and shakers.
This summer, countless members of the national press corps have put the marriage of Bill and Hillary on the media couch. The unending analysis may fascinate, amuse or entertain -- but it's pretty much irrelevant to the crucial policy issues facing this country.
When those issues are on the media agenda, the odds of substantive discourse are generally slim. Categories tend to be rigid. Debates happen inside tight boxes. Labels are everywhere.
Constricting definitions are apt to be imposed on the entire country. For instance, when C-SPAN viewers call in to voice their opinions on the air, they're identified as being on the "liberal line," "moderate line" or "conservative line." But what about those of us who aren't comfortable with any of those three labels? C-SPAN has not yet instituted a "don't-label-me" line.
Inside the Beltway, the most influential media outlet -- The Washington Post -- commands great respect among government officials and policy-makers. Networks and wire services take their cues from the Post on a daily basis. And it's not just a matter of the paper's news reporting. The Post's opinion pages routinely give great aid and comfort to the corporate establishment.
Typically, last month ended with a ludicrous but all-too-serious column by George Will -- who proclaimed that George W. Bush's presidential campaign war chest of $40 million is "evidence of democratic vitality" and "participatory politics." Will wrote that we shouldn't worry about the dominant role of big bucks in the elections process: "Money embodies time spent working; money is congealed labor."
The Wall Street Journal has observed that Will is "perhaps the most powerful journalist in America." He certainly does not rock corporate boats.
Wunderkind commentators have proliferated in Washington, polishing their reputations with glib remarks and cool complacency about extreme economic inequities that persist in our midst. The deadening spirit of the nation's capital owes much to pundits like National Journal editor Michael Kelly, who declared in a Post column on Aug. 4 that "the reform of the welfare system is a great triumph of social policy."
Easy for him to say. Kelly and many other affluent journalists are thrilled to see women and children losing welfare benefits, as mothers end up in low-pay jobs that keep them away from their children. The media fixations match those of President Clinton -- who, in Kelly's words, "justifiably boasted" in early August that the welfare rolls "have been cut in half since 1993."
Far from the maddening media crowd in Washington, a professor of social policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston read Kelly's column with disgust and incredulity. Ann Withorn, co-editor of "For Crying Out Loud: Women's Poverty in the U.S.," has studied the effects of changes in federal welfare policies. Her conclusions are distinctly outside the Beltway.
"What welfare reform has proven," she told me, "is that national social policy can significantly worsen the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor families, and confuse the public so much with the numbers that people don't see what has happened to the security of all of us. We have all been tricked when the president can proclaim increased misery and loss of hope among the poorest children to be a 'victory.'"
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."