What’s beneath the anti-media anger?

August 9, 2004

“Your guest must be from Mars.” That’s one of the milder bits of feedback I’ve gotten recently on things I’ve written or said about the politics of the media. It was from a San Francisco Bay-area listener to a talk-radio show I was on. She was unhappy because I suggested that during the 2000 campaign the supposedly liberal news media hadn’t actually been all that kind to Al Gore.

More often, the e-mailers tell me I’m a liar and a source of moral corruption, somebody who doesn’t have any values of his own and despises the values on which this country was built.

It’s getting weird out there. Nowadays, anyone who ventures opinions on political issues is liable to end up drenched in the runoff from a vast reservoir of free-floating anger among the electorate.

A lot of that anger is directed toward the media, which are seen as instruments of manipulation and disinformation. The loudest and best articulated protest comes from the political Right, but the Left is eyeing the media warily as well. They’ve always been apprehensive that the media’s corporate entanglements would encourage a rightward drift, and now they worry that the Right’s nagging will nudge mainstream news toward unduly sympathetic coverage of the Bush re-election bid.

But I want to suggest that the anger is not so much a response to the many faults of the media, as it is an expression of the frustrations of a powerless populace.

Bear with me a moment.

Consider the Democrats’ signature issues. I just got through watching a well-oiled Democratic National Convention, in which attractive, exquisitely coached candidates and acolytes vowed a return to honor, strength and credibility. That was convention boilerplate, though no doubt sincerely felt.

But there were more substantive pledges. And that’s where the doubt begins. Does anybody think the Democrats will — or could — slow, let alone halt, the export of high-quality U.S. jobs? Would a Kerry administration really push through a plan of universal health insurance? Are the Democrats willing to do what it would take to ensure that nobody who works fulltime lives in poverty?

No, no and no. The situation on the political right is similar. I, and others in the media, often marvel about the viciousness of the anger even mild criticism of their totems triggers. Here, I suggest, the frustration arises not from the fact that conservatives are out of power — but that they’re in power and deliver so little to their supporters.

I mean, what gives? Despite the supposedly overwhelming influence of those incessantly liberal media, the Republicans have control of all three branches of the national government: the White House and executive agencies, both houses of Congress, the federal judiciary at practically all levels. They have 28 governorships, and 33 state legislatures.

The Republican leadership that’s running the country takes pains to remind its constituents how strongly it’s fighting on their passionately-felt cultural issues, and what moral reprobates the Democrats are. And as a practical matter, what’s the result? Amazingly little. Almost nothing on abortion rights, prayer in the schools, gun control, gay rights or affirmative action.

And what about the governmental issues dear to traditional conservatives: a balanced budget, federalism, local control of schools — local control of anything for that matter – not to mention stemming the growth of a Big Brother police state? Don’t ask.

Ordinary conservatives, like the ones who send me furious e-mails, are a faction for the Republicans to appease, not a constituency to be heeded. They’re like African-American voters in the Democratic Party, a group to be pumped up and bought off with rhetorical flourishes and vague promises – but whose core demands would be too costly, impractical or politically imprudent to satisfy.

Hence, the anger. It’s a good thing the Clintons could offer that “vast rightwing conspiracy,” just as the Right can install Michael Eisner, CNN and Hollywood, all as a lightning rod to draw away the frustrations created by their own broken pledges.

Not that media organizations aren’t appropriate targets for criticism, and that their silences and excesses shouldn’t be pointed out and either justified or remedied.

But the media don’t force leaders to make promises they’ll never keep.

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