Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 January 2017

Losing Our Republic: A Media Coup

[For a recent post on MLK Day 2017, click here. For a recent post on benchmarking Trump’s presidency, click here. For a recent, very popular post opposing Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as AG, click here. For a popular recent post about Russia and our policy toward it, click here.]

In banana-republic revolutions, the first thing insurgents do is take over the main television station. Last year, it happened in Turkey. The coup plotters took over the main TV station in Istanbul. Strongman Erdogan survived only by flying into another city from abroad and pulling strings from there.

This week something similar happened here in America. There were no bullets or immediate casualties. It was a bloodless media coup. Yet the “BBC of America,” our Public Broadcasting System (PBS), fell under control of right-wing insurgents as surely and suddenly as if taken in war. Unlike their counterparts in Turkey, the insurgents here won—both the media coup and the electoral insurgency that preceded it.

The coup involved a two-hour “special” bearing the name “Divided States of America.” It also bore the brand of “Frontline,” once the gold standard of investigative television reporting. But its thrust was to blame President Obama for the racism that rose like a tidal wave against him, and for the polarization that has gripped the nation since the day after his first inauguration.

Remember that day? Then Mitch McConnell, following Rush Limbaugh, declared the GOP’s primary objective making the new president fail.

The program didn’t stop with blaming Obama for creating racism, obstructionism and original sin. It also subtly blamed him for: (1) failing to achieve a bipartisan “consensus” on health insurance, (2) passing “Obamacare” with no Republican votes, (3) creating the Tea Party through his own intransigence (as if deliberate GOP “death panel” propaganda and massive lies about Obama himself had nothing to do with it), (4) thereby engineering his own party’s defeat in the House in 2010, and (5) generally foisting an unwanted and unworkable health “care” bill on a reluctant and helpless nation, and doing so virtually single-handedly. On the way to these multiple blamings, the broadcast presented the Tea Party as a natural and legitimate popular response to President Obama’s alleged overreaching.

Why is this program so important? After all, it’s only one show.

It’s important because it sets viewers’ basic attitudes toward Barack Obama and everything he did as president. It doesn’t matter whether the policy at issue is “Obamacare,” phasing out our most planet-warming and polluting fuel (coal), or letting law-abiding, undocumented kids who’ve never known any home but America stay here. If you think Obama is a racist, uncompromising, a tyrant, and a deeply flawed president, you’re not going to support that policy, or even keep an open mind.

That’s precisely the goal of demonizing Obama in this broadcast: to provide a basis in popular skepticism, anger and resentment, with strong racial overtones, to repeal everything he did. Apparently, the GOP is getting nervous as it slowly dawns on millions of people—including many who voted for Trump—that repealing “Obamacare” will deprive them of access to modern medicine and may even sicken or kill them.

Much, if not all, of this show used video clips and voice-overs from a similar piece of propaganda broadcast by “Frontline” in 2012. That broadcast came a month before the 2012 presidential election. I reviewed it in depth in a 2012 post entitled “Has PBS Turned to the Dark Side?”

The show’s bias is not always obvious. It’s a matter of selecting the clips, of picking the people and quotes for interviews and voice-overs, and creating a cumulative effect of video and audio all pointing in a single direction. It’s as subtle and smooth as poisoned silk.

This may be the single cleverest and most diabolical piece of propaganda that I have witnessed in America in my 71 years. As I watched it, both now and in 2012, I imagined all the great demagogues of human history—Hitler, Geobbels, Lenin, Stalin, Molotov, McCarthy, Huey Long, Karl Rove, Vladimir Putin, and (now) Donald Trump—all standing up and cheering.

Unlike its commercial competitors, PBS has a well-deserved reputation for providing honest and accurate journalism consistently. So why did it air such a corrosive piece of propaganda not once, but twice—once a month before a key presidential election, and once about two months after our most recent one?

The only answer that makes sense is the simplest: the executives and producers at PBS want to save their jobs and PBS’ budget, a significant part of which comes from our federal government. In 2012, they imagined or feared that Romney might win and wanted to bend over backwards to appease those pols and Fox-like media commentators who insist that PBS has a liberal bias. This time, after Trump has already won, they wanted to preserve their jobs and federal support for the PBS budget against what may become an all-out GOP and government assault against PBS.

Think about that. The GOP made a successful media coup just days before Trump takes over the federal executive. How much independence will PBS have after the takeover is complete, let alone after our right-wing Congress, which is even more extreme than Trump himself, begins to throw its weight around?

The most bone-chilling thing about this sudden media coup is not its implications for truth and journalism, which the Internet and “fake news” already have driven near to death. It’s what the coup says about the GOP’s plans for our democracy and the chances of it surviving beyond the next generation.

PBS’ devilish propaganda piece paints the extremism of the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus as a natural and rational response to President Obama’s alleged inept leadership and overreaching. It breathes not a word of all the GOP lies and propaganda that made ordinary voters hate him and his signature legislation. Among many other things, they called him a non-citizen, a Kenyan, terrorist, a socialist, a fascist, a Muslim and an extremist, and they lied that “Obamacare” was a government takeover of all of health care (not even just insurance) that would put “death panels” in charge of grandma’s survival.

With its incessant propaganda, the GOP created the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus as surely as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster. The GOP fueled its monster not with lightning, like Dr. Frankenstein, but with manic and irrational anger against progressives and beneficial government programs. It went so far as to cause one deluded senior to scream, “keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

But here’s the thing. Just like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the Tea Party got out of hand. It precipitated several shutdowns of our federal government. It nearly precipitated a national default, the economic equivalent of a nuclear holocaust. It ended John Boehner’s political career. It and its successor, the so-called “Freedom caucus,” wiped out all the “establishment” GOP presidential candidates and gave the GOP and all us Yanks Trump as president-elect.

Not since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party has there been such a loose cannon in American politics. But establishment Republicans quickly crushed Teddy’s Bull Moose. In contrast, today’s Republican establishment, slowly and spasmodically, has come to accept, work with, and incorporate the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus and Donald Trump. You have only to look at the smug and bemused smile on Mitch McConnell’s normally catatonic face to know that some establishment Republicans—if not most—view the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and Donald Trump as their political saviors and secret weapons.

Why is that? Isn’t the answer obvious? However irrational and incompetent, even crazy, these loose cannons may be, they are stepping stones to power. Get the power first, then figure out what to do with it and how to tie down the loose cannons. That’s the GOP’s credo, as it has been for some time.

John Boehner, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, fiscal prudence, even sacred religious orthodoxy—all are “collateral damage” in the mad dash to power. Even neocon hawks and the military-industrial complex, which have been steady GOP constituents for a generation, can be thrown under the bus as the president-elect cozies up to Russia and Putin, while the American people tire of three endless wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.)

So does the GOP of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan stand for anything? You bet. It stands for cutting taxes, primarily on its rich donors, and cutting regulation that hampers their freedom of action. “Small government” is just a means to that end: the smaller the government, the smaller its expenses, the lower the taxes it must levy, and the fewer resources it has to regulate anything.

That’s the essence of the so-called “right wing”: a political philosophy of “bossism,” especially in our South. You do what the boss wants because he pays and employs you. It’s all just a modern version of feudalism, which reigns supreme in non-union factories, especially those in which terrified, undocumented immigrants cower from “La Migra.”

Thus the right wing is a simple tribal patriarchy. (Even female right-wingers are inveterate anti-feminists because bosses have traditionally been men, and bossism lends itself to tradition.) The bogus quest for “small government” is just a way of saying that no other social structure, let alone a democratic government, can get in the way of your serving the bosses who control your job or float your enterprise, which in the GOP’s case are its big donors.

Once you see these points, you can ken why the GOP House voted to repeal Obamacare over fifty times, and why Donald Trump (the quintessential boss) still wants to realize that goal. It’s not that GOP pols really think it’s better for us, the people, to suffer and die than to have decent insurance that gives us access to America’s advanced medicine. It’s not that they have anything against the working poor, who will inevitably do most of the suffering and dying.

It’s just that they know and fervently believe two things. First, every government program that makes people’s lives easier and happier, such as Social Security and Medicare, makes people more comfortable with government and less comfortable with kneeling like serfs before their bosses. Second, every such government program requires money, part of which ultimately will come out of their rich donors’ pockets. And as it collects and distributes more money, government becomes more popular and powerful, maybe (eventually) enough to compete with and dethrone the bosses and their lackeys.

Sounds cynical? Believe it or not, this is precisely what GOP theorists and strategists have said themselves for about a generation. This is precisely why they fought Obamacare tooth and nail and why, after 80 years opposing it, they want to abolish or privatize Social Security. You can read some of their key remarks and find links to sources here.

Anyway, just think about it. Does it make any rational sense to rail and propagandize relentlessly against a program that gives over 20 million people the benefits of modern medicine? It only makes sense if you believe, as the Republicans do, that allowing such a program to exist will eventually reduce or extinguish their power and the power of the bosses that support them.

Just watch. In the coming Trump Administration, the neocon-hawks, the arms industry and even the military-industrial complex may fall victim to the right wing’s prime directive: keeping power at all costs. If keeping power means throwing them under the bus, they will be looking up at the wheels and axles from below. After all, the GOP is as practical as it is (falsely) ideological.

Obamacare, too, is in for a rough ride. Unless public protest is overwhelming, no popular complaints or laments will forestall its repeal, whether with or without a fig leaf of “replacement” that leaves millions with no health insurance.

The GOP doesn’t care about the substance of fair and affordable insurance. It doesn’t want to “solve the problem.” It wants just the opposite. It wants dependent and desperate people who know that their only salvation from want and ill health is the corporate employers who provide whatever benefits they deign to provide.

The most the GOP will tolerate is the appearance of a solution. Justice in health insurance will become permanent only when and if the public becomes so righteously incensed as to turn the tables and achieve an electoral three-branch sweep for progressives like that which the GOP now has in its grasp.

What dims the long-term prospects for continued democracy in America, let alone progressivism, is the Fourth Estate’s likely fate. If PBS dies or becomes subverted, there will be plenty of media to carry the right-wing cudgel. Fox is the by far most powerful, and it depends not one whit upon government. Then there’s the private radio empire (practically all but NPR), which dominates many big cities and backs the likes of Rush.

If the light of the Enlightenment goes out at PBS, it’s lights out for progressive America. Then the Enlightenment’s last chance, as I’ve analyzed before, will shift to Germany, France and England, and perhaps to the smaller English-speaking democracies.

So the apparent media coup at PBS is no small thing. It’s something worth fighting against, as is the repeal of Obamacare. But don’t expect to win without the roughest, toughest political battle since our Civil War or the War in Vietnam. Truly the bell tolls in Frontline’s “Divided States of America,” and it tolls for you.

Footnote: According to its audited financial statement for 2015, the federal government gave $445 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Affiliate. CPB is a non-profit corporation that federal statutes designate as the federal funding vehicle for PBS and National Public Radio (NPR), among other less important media. According to a blog post by an executive of WGBH (a PBS affiliate in Boston), this subsidy amounts to about 17% of PBS’ total revenue. A precise accounting is difficult, if not impossible, however, because what viewers see as “PBS” comprises some 350 independent TV stations in the fifty states and U.S. Territories (as reported in Wikipedia).



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