Friday, August 14, 2009

Timing Is.... Difficult

In relation to the anti-healthcare reform propaganda campaign, Paul Krugman writes,
So far, at least, the Obama administration’s response to the outpouring of hate on the right has had a deer-in-the-headlights quality. It’s as if officials still can’t wrap their minds around the fact that things like this can happen to people who aren’t named Clinton, as if they keep expecting the nonsense to just go away.

What, then, should Mr. Obama do? It would certainly help if he gave clearer and more concise explanations of his health care plan. To be fair, he’s gotten much better at that over the past couple of weeks.

What’s still missing, however, is a sense of passion and outrage — passion for the goal of ensuring that every American gets the health care he or she needs, outrage at the lies and fear-mongering that are being used to block that goal.
Personally, I think it's a bit silly to suggest (as many do) that Obama can somehow make a speech or hold a press conference and transform the moment. From what I can see, we have a two-fold problem:
  • Irresponsible politicians who are willing to lie to a gullible public, to create an atmosphere of fear, anger and uncertainty about reform; and

  • A media that fans the flames, presents false equivalence rather than debunking the lies, or engages in the type of meta-analysis Krugman offers.

In fairness to Krugman (and to myself) there's room for meta-analysis. His column could be viewed as a commentary on President Obama and his critics, not a commentary on healthcare reform. This post is about the weaknesses of our nation's media and its effect on politics, not about healthcare reform. It seems that that the two competing media themes right now are the advancement of anti-reform lies versus "This is a referendum on Obama so he needs to find a solution - all by himself." Except that latter theme is a right-wing talking point, not in any sense a valid approach to the issues or to Obama. (But boy, the media loves the "referendum on Obama" theme.)

People who were watching this phenomenon develop, such as Robert Reich, pushed hard for a vote before the August recess. I don't think that anybody estimated the amount of astroturfing, fear mongering, and lying - not just by professional hysterics like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, or astroturfoing organizations and lobbyists such as Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity, but by prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin and Michael Steele. The amount of media attention on the failure of the Republican Party to stamp out the lies? Next to nothing. Is deliberate lying now an accepted part of party politics, such that it isn't worthy of media attention? Is it "objective" to fail to call out a liar, instead putting on a "he said, she said" show and pretending not to know who's telling the truth? Or deferring to Obama to magically save the day?

What does Obama have to do? He has to line up enough votes to get an acceptable reform package through, then worry about fixing it in future years. Just as happened (and continues to happen) with programs like Social Security and Medicare. Does it make sense for him to launch his massive effort right now in the face of the deliberate, willful lying of the Republican Party coupled with a media more interested in the outrage the lies inspire than in their truth? I suspect we will receive a solid speech from Obama, addressing healthcare reform, as we get closer to a vote. Offering such a speech now would, in my opinion, be followed by a blitz of right-wing distortion and misrepresentation, with the media again taking primary interest in "whose message is winning" rather than who was presenting better policy or even telling the truth.

Some are comparing the present right-wing propaganda campaign to the Swift Boat Liars attacks on John Kerry. There are parallels: People are coming forth with misrepresentations and lies, the target of those lies seems slow to respond, the media is happy to make it the target's responsibility to debunk the lies rather than its own, and the media focus is on "whose message is winning" instead of "whose message is true." So I can understand supporters of healthcare reform being concerned that Obama may "lose control of the message" and be unable to recover the momentum needed to get healthcare passed... never mind that if he had that momentum we would have had a vote before the August recess.

But there's an important difference. Obama isn't trying to win a primary or an election. He's trying to get enough votes to pass a bill. If he gets those votes it doesn't matter if Sarah Palin and Micheal Steel have successfully convinced a third of America that Obama will personally preside over death panels to kill their grandmothers and children - it will have passed, and those lies will be betrayed by history. Seriously, what would Obama's speech accomplish right now - will he change one mind among those who eagerly embrace every insane lie of a Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin or Michelle Malkin? Will those right-wing commentators suddenly become contrite, apologize and tell the truth? Get real. He's not going to win over people who believe - and who are encouraged to believe - that this is a "government takeover of Medicare". To the extent that some "independents" are wavering, due to the extent of the propaganda and their ignorance of the issues, his best bet to win them back is probably not to start a personal campaign right now, but to let the gun-toting nut jobs undermine their own credibility, then to step in at a more crucial juncture with his explanation of the reform bill.

When Congress resumes session, I expect Obama and his team will do a lot of arm-twisting to get votes on board, and to keep votes already committed, and that Howard Dean wasn't just speaking for himself when he fired this shot across the bow of the "Blue Dogs" - "I do think there will be primaries as the result of all this, if the bill doesn't pass with a public option". And Obama has to give enough of a speech to let the country know, in advance of the vote (and after the present round of childish, Beck/Limbaugh-fueled, astroturf driven hysterics are "old news") that their Member of Congress has done the right thing.

Update: I came across a Mencken quote that highlights both that the problem with our news "elites" is far from new:
A good reporter used to make as much as a bartender or a police sergeant; he now makes as much as the average doctor or lawyer. ... His view of the world he lives in has thus changed. He is no longer a free-lance in human society, thumbing his nose at its dignitaries; he has got a secure lodgment in a definite stratum. ... The highest sordid aspiration that any reporter had, in my time, was to own two complete suits of clothes. Today they have dinner coats, and some of them even own plug hats.
Mencken saw some rotten apples in the barrel, but nobody took them out and now.... Actually, I think the problem is more than the celebrity journalist who now, more than anything else, strives to advance his social status - it's that they've been joined, perhaps supplanted, by a class of pundits and commentators who do the same thing, but do no actual reporting (and in many cases never did).

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