The American right wing is achieving its long term goal of becoming the nation’s thought police. They are realizing this goal through the timeless practices of extremists (be they on the right or the left, religious or secular) which are intimidation, slander and harassment. In the past several months conservative outbursts have ruined the careers of journalists, most of whom were of the political center but who were indiscrete enough to say something that ran counter to the right’s version of political correctness.
The latest victim in this on-going campaign is Octavia Nasr who for the last 20 years worked at CNN and, up until July 7, 2010, was the network’s Middle East News Editor. She made the mistake of expressing appreciation for Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a recently deceased and important member of Hezbollah. What she liked about Fadlallah was his stand on women’s rights in the Middle East. That was enough to release the dogs of war on the right. No matter that no one who complained about Nasr knew anything about Fadlallah as a person. His association with Hezbollah was enough. Typically, CNN caved into the attack without a struggle. Almost immediately upon receiving the protests the network executives decided that Nasr’s "credibility" had been destroyed. Nasr herself commented that she had learned "a good lesson on why 140 characters [the length of her statement on Fadlallah] should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East." She misses the point. It is not the length of her comment, which was expressed as a private "tweet," that did her in. It was the fact that she expressed a considered opinion that showed respect for a man the American right, with little or no accurate knowledge, had decided to hate. In truth, it is CNN’s credibility that is called into doubt by this incident. But there is little new about that.
As noted, Nasr is only the latest victim. Last month it was Helen Thomas whose 60 year career as a journalist abruptly ended when she expressed her frustration with Israel. She said that the Israeli Jews ought to go back to Germany and Poland. All hell broke loose on that one. No one seemed to notice that a good many Israeli Jews are in fact going back to Germany and other European countries. Indeed, more Jews are leaving Israel than are coming in. Also, no one dared mention that while Helen Thomas was indulging in wishful thinking, the Israelis have spent the last sixty years in fact making refugees of as many Palestinians as they could. But such facts are of little interest to the right. Helen Thomas was quickly forced into retirement.
Here are the names of some other victims. The details of their cases can be had by following the links provided by Glenn Greenwald’s piece on this same subject posted at Salon.com (July 8, 2010). David Weigel was fired by the Washington Post for expressing scorn for the likes of Rush Limbaugh . Eason Jordon was fired by CNN for publically expressing concern about the U.S. military’s appalling habit of shooting at journalists not officially "embedded." Back in 2003 NBC fired Peter Arnett for remarks on Iraqi TV raising doubts about Bush Jr’s invasion of that country. The right had accused him of treason. MSNBC fired Ashleigh Banfield for suggesting that the American media were all becoming mimics of Fox TV. Even Phil Donahue got axed because he was perceived as being critical of President Bush Jr.’s war. This list of notables is only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows how many non-notables hit the unemployment lines because of the revival of
McCarthyite tactics by the American far right?
Why is the screaming right so effective? Is it merely the volume? No, it is more complicated than that. Here is my explanation:
First the background:
1. In their daily lives the vast majority of Americans are apolitical. They really don’t care about left or right politics because it doesn’t seem to have much to do with their local lives. They are, however, the consumer audience for which the media outlets compete.
2. While inherently apolitical, this audience does not live in an apolitical media environment. In my opinion, there is no "objective media" much less a "liberal" one. The majority of the media outlets are one of two kinds. They are either a) overtly conservative because they are owned by right wing ideologues who are interested in inserting their ultra-conservative worldview into the heads of their audience (the Murdoch/Fox News bunch) or b) they are "politically neutral" media operations (often owned by bigger businesses like Westinghouse and Disney) whose foremost interest is making a profit (CNN and its ilk). You do also have a few left leaning media organizations out there, mostly in print (i.e. The Nation), but they are on the fringe and don’t reach a mass audience.
3. Since the end of World War II leftist ideas have been demonized almost out of existence in the U.S. And, since 9/11, the "commies" have been transformed into Muslims. These simplistic stereotypes set the parameters for correct and patriotic thinking in this country and they are delivered to you at different levels of intensity by both the conservative and "neutral" media systems. No matter how apolitical one might be in one’s daily local life, these notions are in media air, so to speak. You take them in almost by osmosis. They mess with your mind without you realizing it.
1. This situation gives the political right a very big head start when it comes to shaping public opinion and then policing the "neutral" corporate media to make sure it does not step out of line. The right is very good at this because their leaders and spokespeople tend to be bullies and authoritarians. On the other hand, American political liberals are really centrists who are trying to hold together a conglomeration of different groups. That might get them votes when it counts but it doesn’t make for principled backbone. The liberal centrists tend to be accommodating rather than resistant to right-wing bullying.
2. The "neutral" media that is primarily concerned with the bottom line, their owners and bureaucratic operators, readily sacrifice the principles underpinning a free press if they are seen as hurting the company image. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this rule (just remember the Washington Post and Watergate) but they are rare and momentary.
3. So, you put together a for- profit, largely unprincipled "neutral" media with an aggressive political right run by loud mouthed thugs, throw in a liberal political class that has very little backbone, and you get the present day situation.
What I have described here is a general situation that is working at two levels. At the corporate level the right-wing bullies seem to be in charge and regularly force the firing of those who purposefully or inadvertently challenge them. Inside the beltway the same sort of sordid business goes on through the pressures put upon politicians by wrathful special interests. At the popular level the initially apolitical masses get largely right-wing influenced storylines coming through the system described above. Over time, this of course influences their collective worldview.
However, there is another factor to watch for. This propaganda machine can be overwhelmed by events. That is what may be happening when it comes to Middle East policy and perceptions. For instance, the behavior of the Israeli government has been so brutal and uncompromising that it is becoming more difficult for the U.S. media to rationalize it away. Different storylines, coming from pro-Palestinian, Arab-American and Muslim-American movements are catching on among select audiences, such as those on college campuses. These counter- perceptions have the potential of spreading into the public at large. If and when we reach that stage, the "neutral" for-profit media will have to choose between a growing skeptical consumer audience and the bullies on the right.