Supported and Revised
Reflections on Bill Sammon, Bob Herbert, and Thought Control at Fox News and the New York Times
It’s good to have your written work supported and sometimes to have it challenged by future developments. Last February, ZNet published an essay in which I cited the social-psychological theory of cognitive dissonance in arguing that many right wing elites probably don’t believe much of the propagandistic nonsense they put out on the political airwaves, including the preposterous notion that the current centrist, state-capitalist corporate-neoliberal president of the United States, Barack Obama, is a socialist. The gist of my argument was informed by Leon Festinger’s finding more than fifty years ago that peoples’ sense of self esteem does not require them to believe false and ridiculous ideas they propagate when they knowingly profit from the spread of those ideas. People who get nothing or who are harmed by the same activity – the propagation of such ideas – feel more internal pressure to actually believe and internalize false ideas.1
Fox Executive Admits That the Myth of Obama’s “Socialism” Was “Mischievous Speculation”
In a recently discovered recording, the left media watchdog group MediaMatters.org reports, a Fox News executive boasted that he lied repeatedly near the end of the 2008 presidential campaign by speculating on on-air that Barack Obama advocated socialism. Speaking in August 2009 on a Mediterranean cruise sponsored by right-wing Hillsdale College, “Fox Washington managing editor Bill Sammon described his attempts the previous year to link Obama to ‘socialism’ as ‘mischievous speculation.’ Sammon, who is also a Fox News vice president, acknowledged,” MediaMatters.org reports, “that ‘privately’ he had believed that the socialism allegation was ‘rather far-fetched.’”2
Sammon may have found his own “mischievous” Obama-is-a-socialist storyline somewhat bizarre at the time, but this did not stop him from advancing it again and again on air or from sending out an October 2008 e-mail to Fox News staffers highlighting what he called "Obama's references to socialism, liberalism, Marxism and Marxists" in his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father. “Shortly after sending the email,” MediaMatters.org ads “Sammon appeared on two Fox News programs to discuss his research and also wrote a FoxNews.com piece about Obama's "affinity to Marxists." Sammon focused on Obama’s purported “youthful affinity for Marxists, Obama’s longstanding relationship with the leftish preacher Jeremiah Wright, and on the future president’s alleged friendship with the former Sixties radical William Ayers. (Some background for the bizarre bleating from the reptilian Fox News personality and right wing talk show host Sean Hannity on my car radio on election day in 2008: “You’ve got six [five, four, three…] more hours to stop the triumph of socialism and the end of freedom in this great country by voting for John McCain.”) These were themes that continued to drive high Fox ratings and advertising revenue – and the rise of the Tea Party “movement”  - through 2009 and 2010. Sammon had nothing to say, of course, about the “deeply conservative”) Obama’s pro-business/state-capitalist record as a U.S. Senator, Obama’s remarkable success raising record-setting amounts of cash from Wall Street and corporate America (something that would seem rather odd for a socialist presidential candidate!), Obama’s repeated campaign paeans to the leading capitalist hero Ronald Reagan, or the following line in the Obama’s richly centrist 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope:
‘Calvin Coolidge once said that 'the chief business of the American people is business,' and indeed, it would be hard to find a country on earth that’s been more consistently hospitable to the logic of the marketplace…The result of this business culture has been a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history. It takes a trip overseas to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services – electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances – that are still unattainable for most of the world. America may have been blessed with some of the planet’s best real estate, but clearly it’s not just our natural resources that account for our economic success. Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system."7
Sammon went on (in his 2009 cruise-ship talk) to claim that his “mischievous” notion of Obama as a socialist was proven accurate by subsequent Obama policies, including the White House’s “take over of [the] car industry.” But I doubt that Sammon actually believed that. The White House’s auto bailout left managerial prerogatives intact and undertook an assault on workers’ pensions and economic security that was more aggressive than what the big auto firms would have carried out on their own. In the Obama administration’s version of state capitalism as applied to the auto industry, the state was more ruthlessly capitalist than the capitalists themselves, leaving New York Times’ chief financial columnist Floyd Norris to marvel at the spectacle of Obama “teaching capitalism to the carmakers.” Its actions were a far cry from “socialism,” notwithstanding Koch brothers-funded Tea Party diatribes about Obama’s “Marxist takeover of private industry.”The same point holds for the administration’s corporate-friendly health care and financial “reforms,” environmental policies, and much more.9
The hysterical Tea Party and Fox “News” call for the United States to “move away” from “socialism” and “Marxism” is of course preposterous. It is widely documented that big business has long been and remains the most privileged actor in American politics (across Democratic and Republican regimes), and that capitalist business elites dominate the campaign contribution and lobbying processes, exerting their power on officials across the entire U.S. political system and on both parties. I’m pretty sure Sammon knows this fairly well. I wish I could say the same about many of his less privileged viewers and listeners, who too often end up internalizing and even fiercely defending ridiculous propaganda that provides profit and income for the owners and managers of right wing media.
Real Change Will Have to Work its Way From the Bottom Up
Now for a different case – one where subsequent history did not entirely support my writing. In the March 2011 issue of Z Magazine (print), I criticized liberal New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert for failing to accompany their criticism of Obama and the Democrats’ right-center, business friendly politics with any call for the sort of rank and file social movements and popular activism that alone could compel the president and his party to move off center. Neither Krugman nor Herbert “have seen fit,” I wrote, “to call for the building, re-building, and expansion of the sort of genuinely grassroots and oppositional working class movements and politics that would be required to compel business-captive politicians and policymakers to pursue progressive measures.” I quoted the great radical American historian Howard Zinn, who reminded progressives of the following in 2009: “There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”  The absence of Zinn’s basic insight from the writings of the Times’ two leading liberal columnists (“leftists” in the official rhetoric of FOX News and right wing talk radio) was mentioned in my essay as one of many reasons to question the sincerity of the New York Times’ editors’ then recent claim to be upset about the absence of a strong progressive left in the U.S.12
My article was submitted on February 1, 2011. Ten days later, Herbert wrote a Times column titled “When Democracy Weakens.” Herbert worried that the U.S. was “in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only” because the nation’s “levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.” Further: “As if the corporate stranglehold on American democracy were not tight enough, the Supreme Court strengthened it immeasurably with its Citizens United decision, which greatly enhanced the already overwhelming power of corporate money in politics. Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.” These were elementary observations for an American radical. Still, it is uncommon to hear such bold commentary stated in the "mainstream" mass U.S. media.
And then there was this at the end of Herbert’s column: “I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. ‘If there is going to be change,’ he said, ‘real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.’ …I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.” Very soon, Herbert would be able to think of Zinn’s comments again, no doubt, as hundreds of thousands of public sector workers and their supporters hit the streets and occupied the halls of state government in Madison, Wisconsin in a multi-week mass protest against the regressive, anti-union policies of Wisconsin’s right-wing governor Scott Walker.
I am happy to stand somewhat corrected on Herbert. But here’s an interesting follow-up to my correction, one suggesting that my broader take on the Times is as right as ever. Nearly two weeks ago, Herbert wrote his final column for the great corporate newspaper paper that bears the monumentally arrogant slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” across its masthead. It was an eloquent attack on the moral nothingness of a nation (the U.S.) that can “pour… shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home...the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end….”
Herbert’s column ended on a surprising note, abruptly announcing that this was his last Times column and that he was concluding his 18-year career at the paper to “expand my efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society.”  As Gilles d’Amery wrote in regard to Herbert’s goodbye message: “Evidently the so-called liberal paper of record is not the proper venue for such noble aims.”  Exactly right.
Indeed, I half-wondered if Herbert was on his way out after reading his February 11 column. In explaining why British intellectual and political culture was not all that superior to that of the Soviet Union, George Orwell once explained (in an unpublished introduction to his anti-Stalinist novel Animal Farm) that the Western press is owned by wealthy men with strong vested interests in certain things not being said.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Here’s a key part of what I wrote: “Do Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, their employer Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire arch-polluters Koch brothers (leading financial backers of ‘the Tea Party’), and Sarah Palin really believe that America is being bankrupted by public family cash assistance and federal worker salaries; that global warming is a radical conspiracy; and that Obama is a left peacenik who has ushered in crippling bureaucratic socialism? They may or may not but they don’t have to in order to internally justify their dissemination of such preposterous notions because those ideas are making them filthy rich. The construction worker who helps undermine his own material well-being by trumpeting the anti-union rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh garners no such ego-inflating external reward and thus feels more pressure to actually adopt the ridiculous ideas Beck and his manipulative ilk believe or pretend to believe.” See Paul Street, “When Facts Don’t Matter: Left Reflections on Backfire, Propaganda, and How to Fight (or Not Fight) the Right,” ZNet, February 17, 2011 at http://www.zcommunications.org/when-facts-don-t-matter-by-paul-street. For the original cognitive dissonance research, see Leon Festinger and J.M. Carlsmith, “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (1959), 58(2), 203–210.
2 Erik Hananoki, “Cruise Ship Confession: Top Fox News Executive Admits Lying on Air About Obama,” MediaMatters For America (March 29, 2011), read at http://mediamatters.org/blog/201103290006. Thanks to Anthony DiMaggio for telling me about this item.
3 Hananoki, “Cruise Ship Confession.”
4 Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, forthcoming in May 2011).
5 “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” the center journalist Larissa MacFarquhar noted in the elitist weekly New Yorker in May of 2007, “Obama is deeply conservative.” Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).
6 Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), 20-36, 96-97.
7 Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Henry Crown, 2006), 149-150.
8 Floyd Norris, “U.S. Teaches Carmakers Capitalism,” New York Times, November 20, 2009. Back “in the bad old days, when supposed capitalists were running Detroit,” Norris wrote, the auto industry relied on expanding volume through price cuts and “sweet lease deals,” all designed to maintain cash flows and preserve market share. But, faced with a powerful union (the UAW), the big three automakers failed in Norris’s view to focus on capitalist profitability, which would have required closing plants and firing workers. The situation was corrected by the Obama administration, falsely accused of “socialism” In Norris’s opinion. “The result,” Norris noted, “was a lot of job cutting, not something you might have expected from an administration elected with union support. The unions lost their generous pay for laid-off workers. To be sure, the union health plans were not treated as harshly as some creditors were, but in the end creditors and workers all paid for the sins of past managements.”
9 See Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). 9-46, from a chapter titled “Business Rule as Usual.”
10 Charles E. Lindblom, Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems (New York: Basic Books, 1977); David Lowery and Holly Brasher, Organized Interests and American Government (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004); Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey M. Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, and Beth L. Leech, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Anthony J. Nownes, Pressure and Power: Organized Interests in American Politics (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001); Darrell M. West and Burdett A. Loomis, The Sound of Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want (New York: Norton, 1998); G. William Domhoff, The Power Elite and the State: How Policy Is Made in America (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1990); Floyd Hunter, Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000); Charles C. Lindblom, “The Market as Prison,” Journal of Politics 44, no. 2 (1982): 324–336.
11 Paul Street, “’No Progressive Champion’: The New York Times Pretends to be Upset About the Weakness of the Left,” Z Magazine, March 2011.
12 “In past economic crises,” the Times editors wrote, “populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty. Now the many who are struggling have no progressive champion. The left have ceded the field to the Tea Party and, in doing so, allowed it to make history. It is building political power by selling the promise of a return to a mythic past.” New York Times editors, “The Repeal Amendment,” New York Times, December 26, 2010.
13 Bob Herbert, “When Democracy Weakens,” New York Times, February 11, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/12/opinion/12herbert.html
14 Bob Herbert, “Losing Our Way,” New York Times, March 25, 2011.
15 Gilles d’Aymery, “Blips # 107: From the Martian Desk,” Swans Commentary (March 28, 2011) athttp://www.swans.com/library/art17/desk107.html