Friday, October 23, 2009

The Media, War, and Obama's Broken Promises

The following article helps explain why President Obama, except for the rare bone thrown to his progressive base, has failed to live up to his promises, and why his support has been falling in the polls.

When the Media Is a Big Part of the Problem:
America's real quagmire

The biggest obstacle to reforming the US economy, healthcare or foreign policy isn't Republicans – it's the media

By Mark Weisbrot
Center for Economic and Policy Research, 1611 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20009
Phone: (202) 293-5380, Fax: (202) 588-1356,, Friday 23 October 2009 1

What kind of a public debate can we have on the most vital issues of the day in the United States? A lot depends on the media, which determines how these issues are framed for most people.

Take the war in Afghanistan, which has been subject to major debate here lately, as Barack Obama has to decide whether to take the advice of his commanding officer in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and send tens of thousands more troops there, or heed public opinion, which actually favours an end to the war.

This month, one of America's most important and most-watched TV news programmes, NBC's Meet the Press, took up the issue. The lineup:

Retired General Barry McCaffrey, former army general and drug tsar (under Bill Clinton) turned defence industry lobbyist. In a news article on McCaffrey titled "One man's military-industrial-media complex", the New York Times reported that McCaffrey had "earned at least $500,000 from his work for Veritas Capital, a private equity firm in New York that has grown into a defence industry powerhouse by buying contractors whose profits soared from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." McCaffrey has appeared on NBC more than 1000 times since 11 September 2001.

Retired General Richard Myers, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George Bush (2002-2005). He is currently on the board of directors of Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the largest military contractors in the world, and also of United Technologies Corporation, another large military contractor.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, a pro-war spokesperson that is one of the most regular guests on the Sunday talkshows.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat, was apparently intended to represent the "other side" of the debate. Here is what he said: "Clearly we should keep the number of forces that we have. No one's talking about removing forces."

"No one" in the above sentence refers to the American people, whom Levin understandably sees as nobody in the eyes of the US media and political leaders. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 32% of those polled wanted US troops out of Afghanistan within one year or right now. That was the largest group. Another 24% wants the troops "removed within one to two years". For comparison, the leadership of the Taliban is willing to grant foreign troops 18 months to get out of their country.

In other words, a majority of 56% of Americans wants US troops out of Afghanistan about as soon as is practically feasible or even sooner. Yet Meet the Press – a mainstream network news talkshow since 1947 – does not see fit to find one person to represent that point of view. The other major TV and radio talkshows that the right also labels "liberal" in the US make similar choices almost every day.[Including NPR's frequent and predictable reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.]

When asked whether the US should set a timeline for withdrawal, Levin answered "no".

I know, if you have enough time you can still find an anti-war, public-interest viewpoint and the facts to support it – on the internet and even among some of the news stories in major media publications. But most Americans have other full-time jobs.

If the media's influence stopped there, the damage would be limited. After all, Americans can often still overcome the tutelage of the media's opinion leaders, as the above poll demonstrates. But the media also defines the debate for politicians. And that is where the life-and-death consequences really kick in.

If you want to know why Obama has not fought for a public option for healthcare reform, why he has caved to Wall Street on financial reform, why he has been Awol on the most important labour law reform legislation in 75 years [despite his campaign promises], just look at the major media. Think for a moment of how they would treat him if he did what his voters wanted him to do. You can be sure that Obama has thought it through very carefully.

Obama's whole political persona is based on media strategy, and on not taking any risk that the major media would turn against him. That is how he got where he is today and how he hopes to be re-elected. Many analysts confuse this with a strategy based on public opinion polling. But as we can see, these are often two different things.

Seventy-five percent of Americans support a public option for healthcare reform. (A majority would support expanding Medicare to cover everyone, but over the years the media, insurance and pharmaceutical companies made sure that this option didn't make it to the current debate.)

Obama has the bully pulpit. He could say to the rightwing Democrats in the Senate: "Look, you can vote against my proposals, but if you do not allow your president to even have a vote on this reform, you are not a Democrat." In other words, you can't join the Republicans in blocking the vote procedurally.

He could probably force Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, to join him in enforcing this minimal party discipline that would come naturally to Republicans, which would allow the healthcare bill to pass the Senate even if conservative Democrats voted against it.

But to do that would risk losing some of Obama's post-partisan, non-ideological aura that guarantees his media support. Of course, the media is not the only influence that hobbles healthcare reform. The insurance, pharmaceutical and other business lobbies obviously have more representation in Congress than does the majority of the electorate. But Obama does not feel this direct corporate pressure nearly as much. After all, he was the first president in recent decades to get 48% of his campaign contributions from donations of less than $200 – a very significant change in American politics, made possible though internet organising.

There are other powerful elite groupings, such as the foreign policy establishment – which is more ideologically driven, like the medieval church, than a collection of lobbying interests – that thwart reform on issues of war and peace. But the major media remain one of the biggest challenges to progressive reform in the 21st century. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

[Please see original article at the Guardian (link above) for Weisbrot's embedded links.]

See also:

One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex

Why I disrupted Olmert
Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 23 October 2009

If former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had merely been a diplomat or an academic offering a controversial viewpoint, then interrupting his 15 October speech at University of Chicago's Mandel Hall would certainly have been an attempt to stifle debate (Noah Moskowitz, Meredyth Richards and Lee Solomon, "The importance of open dialogue," Chicago Maroon, 19 October 2009). Indeed, I experienced exactly such attempts when my own appearance at Mandel Hall last January, with Professor John Mearsheimer and Norman Finkelstein, was constantly interrupted by hecklers.

But confronting a political leader suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be viewed the same way.

The report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict last winter, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, found that Israel engaged in willful, widespread and wanton destruction of civilian property and infrastructure, causing deliberate suffering to the civilian population. It found "that the incidents and patterns of events considered in the report are the result of deliberate planning and policy decisions" and that many may amount to "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity." If that proves true, then the individual with primary responsibility is Ehud Olmert, who, as prime minister and the top civilian commander of Israel's armed forces, was involved in virtually every aspect of planning and execution.

The killings of more than 3,000 Palestinians and Lebanese during Olmert's three years in office are not mere differences of opinion to be challenged with a polite question written on a pre-screened note card. They are crimes for which Olmert is accountable before international law and public opinion.

Israel, unlike Hamas (also accused of war crimes by Goldstone), completely refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Mission. Instead of accountability, Olmert is, obscenely, traveling around the United States offering justifications for these appalling crimes, collecting large speaking fees, and being feted as a "courageous" statesman.

In their 20 October email to the University of Chicago community, President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum condemned the "disruptions" during Olmert's speech. "Any stifling of debate," they wrote, "runs counter to the primary values of the University of Chicago and to our long-standing position as an exemplar of academic freedom."

Was it in order to promote debate that the University insisted on pre-screening questions and imposed a recording ban for students and media? In the name of promoting debate, will the University now invite Hamas leader Khaled Meshal -- perhaps by video link -- to lecture on leadership to its students, and offer him a large honorarium? Can we soon expect Sudan's President Omar Bashir to make an appearance at Mandel Hall?

When I and others verbally confronted Olmert, we stood for academic freedom, human rights, and justice, especially for hundreds of thousands of students deprived of those same rights by Olmert's actions.

During Israel's attack on Gaza last winter, schools and universities were among the primary targets. According to the Goldstone report, Israeli military attacks destroyed or damaged at least 280 schools and kindergartens. In total, 164 pupils and 12 teachers were killed, and 454 pupils and five teachers injured.

After the bombing, Olmert and Israel continued their attack on academic freedom, blocking educational supplies from reaching Gaza. Textbooks, notebooks, stationery and computers are among the forbidden items. In September, Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, publicly appealed to Israel to lift its ban on books and other supplies from reaching Gaza's traumatized students.

Israel destroyed buildings at the Islamic University and other universities. According to the Goldstone report, these "were civilian, educational buildings and the Mission did not find any information about their use as a military facility or their contribution to a military effort that might have made them a legitimate target in the eyes of the Israeli armed forces."

Gaza's university students -- 60 percent of them women -- study all the things that students do at the University of Chicago. Their motivations, aspirations, and abilities are just as high, but their lives are suffocated by unimaginable violence, trauma, and Israel's blockade, itself a war crime. Olmert is the person who ordered these acts and must be held accountable.

Crimes against humanity are defined as "crimes that shock the conscience." When the institutions with the moral and legal responsibility to punish and prevent the crimes choose complicit silence -- or, worse, harbor a suspected war criminal, already on trial for corruption in Israel, and present him to students as a paragon of "leadership" -- then disobedience, if that is what it takes to break the silence, is an ethical duty. Instead of condemning them, the University should be proud that its students were among those who had the courage to stand up.

For the first time in recorded history, an Israeli prime minister was publicly confronted with the names of his victims. It was a symbolic crack in the wall of impunity and a foretaste of the public justice victims have a right to receive when Olmert is tried in a court of law.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. This article was originally published in the University of Chicago's Chicago Maroon newspaper and is republished without permission.

See Also:
Citizens arrest and mass disruption of Olmert in San Francisco

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