Barack Obama’s May 6 triumph was a victory over a wall that pretends to be a fly on the wall.
For a long time, the nation’s body politic has been shoved up against that wall. It’s known as the news media.
Despite all its cracks and gaps, what cements the wall is mostly a series of repetition-compulsion disorders. Whether the media attention is on Pastor Wright, the words “bitter” and “cling,” or an absent flag lapel pin, the wall’s surfaces are more rigid when they’re less relevant to common human needs and shared dreams.
“We’ve already seen it,” Obama said during his victory speech in North Carolina. “The same names and labels they always pin on everyone who doesn’t agree with all their ideas, the same efforts to distract us from the issues that affect our lives, by pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake controversy, in the hopes that the media will play along.”
And oh, how they’ve played along. From the front pages of “quality” dailies to the reportage of NPR’s drive-time news to the blather-driven handicapping on cable television, the ways that media structures have functioned in recent weeks tell us—yet again—how fleeting any media attention to substance can be.
News outlets spun out—”pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake controversy”—as media Obama-mania about a long shot candidate morphed into Obama-phobia toward the candidate most likely to become the Democratic presidential nominee. The man who could do little wrong became a man who could do little right. The lines of attack were spurious and protracted enough to be jaw-dropping.
But how often can we be truly shocked by such media patterns? Perennial corporate structures are reinforcing the narrow boundaries.
If this sounds like an old complaint, it is. Institutional dynamics—fueled and steered by ownership, advertising, underwriting and undue government influence—repeat themselves with endless permutations. Dominant media routinely focus on counterfeit issues, often ignoring or trashing progressive options in the process.
From George McGovern to Gary Hart to Michael Dukakis to Al Gore to Howard Dean to John Kerry, a long line of Democratic contenders with a chance to become president have been whipsawed by cartoonish images or bogus “issues,” incubated by the right wing and fully hatched by the mass media. The slightest progressive wrinkles of even the starchiest corporate Democrats have been ironed out by media steamrollers.
In recent months, as Barack Obama went from underdog to frontrunner, the news media became stainless-steel accessories to the “kitchen sink” politics of smear and fear.
The media pretense of being a fly on the wall has often been preposterous. In the real world of politics, where power brokers and manipulators proceed with the cynical axiom that perception is reality, the fly on the wall is the wall. The political press corps is not observing reality as much as redefining it while obstructing outlooks and constraining public perceptions.
Yet in North Carolina and Indiana, voters had more votes than all the pundits did. Pundits lost. Voters came out ahead. So did Obama. And so did the body politic.
We’re still up against the media wall. But when dawn broke on Wednesday, that wall wasn’t quite as high or mighty. And the nation might be able to see a little more clearly beyond it.
West Marin writer Norman Solomon is an elected Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention. His books include ‘War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.’