Despite Barack Obama’s victory and polls showing strong support for a progressive agenda, the traditional media is “staying the course” in presenting the news. While the blogosphere pokes fun at the FOX News-created “tea parties” on April 15, CNN and other media are giving wide coverage to these fake protests, ignoring legitimate protests and rallies for universal health care, immigrant rights, and other progressive causes. In fact, national coverage of progressive activism appears harder to get than ever, despite the changed political climate.
Meanwhile, the election of an African-American president has not changed the “whites only” policy for hosting national news shows. MSNBC’s Olberman-Maddow combo makes it a progressive favorite, but when given the chance to diversify, it instead added new shows for Ed Schultz, a wonderful radio talk show host who does nothing to change the network’s all white lineup, and for Chuck Todd, NBC’s Political Director. Latino or African-American hosts remain no more common than in the 1950s, and it is hard to tell the difference between the media world of 2009 — both philosophically and demographically — and that of the Eisenhower era.
Not having watched cable news shows for a few weeks, I confess to being surprised at how much their coverage differed from newspapers and the blogosphere. One day last week alone had CNN’s Wolf Blitzer discussing a Republican attack ad criticizing President Obama for allegedly “bowing” to the Saudi royal family, the network’s Lou Dobbs using his prime-time “news” show to repeat his false litany of anti-immigrant attacks, and “progressive” MSNBC interviewing former Clinton aide Lannie Davis about the Employee Free Choice Act without once mentioning that two of Davis’s clients — Whole Foods and Starbucks — are among the nation’s most virulently anti-union employers.
That latter interview occurred during the new Ed Schultz show, MSNBC’s latest effort to expand progressive hosts. Unfortunately, the network ignores the critical role that African-Americans and Latinos play in the progressive movement, bypassing these communities while adding still another white male host to its roster of David Shuster, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, David Gregory, and Tom Brokaw.
And just yesterday, MSNBC announced it would give Chuck Todd his own weekend politics show. If not for the lesbian Rachel Maddow, our allegedly “progressive” cable network would have the same demographics as the Republican-controlled Fox News!
Ignoring progressive hosts of color will not endear MSNBC to the left.
While African-American representation on cable news shows has clearly increased, there is no African-American host of a prime time or Sunday cable news show. Latinos remain nearly invisible anywhere on cable news, despite their key role in securing Barack Obama’s winning the previously red states of Nevada, Florida, New Mexico, and Colorado.
This lack of minority representation frequently results in misleading and unfair coverage. Consider the cable media’s handling of President Obama’s announcement last week that he would soon introduce a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform.
CNN’s Dobbs' oriented his entire show around attacking the legalization, as the network continues to give a prime-time platform to a racist, anti-immigrant zealot. And no CNN host even tries to contradict Dobbs, so intimidated are they about questioning their strongly opinionated colleague (Dobbs's so-called "news" show also avoids any guests challenging the host's anti-immigrant stance, reflecting a bias that CNN would not accept on a non-Latino issue).
MSNBC described the immigration issue as a renewal of the “culture wars,” as if opposing legalization could be a religious or moral-based position. Overall, the most progressive network spends scant time on the problems facing millions of undocumented immigrants, something which clearly would change if a progressive Latino activist hosted a show.
Creating False Controversies
It’s not only the demographics of those reporting the news that are largely unchanged; the nature of coverage fails to reflect the new political environment.
Throughout 2008, the cable networks drew record ratings by playing up the real conflicts in the Democratic Presidential primary and then the general election. But since Obama’s election, and polls consistently showing broad support for the president’s agenda, the media feels compelled to invent controversies, regardless of how nonsensical.
This explains why CNN’s top newscast highlighted Republican charges that Obama had disgraced the nation by bowing to the Saudi Arabian royal family. Wolf Blitzer prefaced the discussion by noting that the “controversy” — which CNN was itself creating — seemed much ado about nothing, yet Blitzer spent scarce air time having a debate about it.
From the Obamas’ conduct toward Queen Elizabeth, to the “crisis” of Somali pirates, to the constant framing of government actions for their impact on the 2010 elections, the cable news media invent “controversies” that divert attention from the concerns of most Americans. And impart surprisingly little relevant information, which is supposedly their goal.
Conservatives Get at Least Equal Time
After Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting was founded in 1986, it conducted studies showing that television news shows disproportionately featured political conservatives. The media countered that most shows featured top government officials, and given that Republicans held the Presidency through 1992, and then from 2001-08, that it was understandable that conservatives would get more interviews.
Why then is Newt Gingrich, who has not held public office in over 10 years, so commonly featured on cable and traditional television news shows? And why are progressives still rarely given prominent interview slots, despite holding more political power than Gingrich’s Republican right?
One answer is the media’s pro-corporate bias. But another is likely this: the media does not know how to respond to the political shift that emerged with Obama’s election, and is applying a “stay the course” approach. This is the same failed strategy used by newspapers in confronting the rise of the Internet, and by the Republican Party in the last two national elections.
Just as newspapers continue to target a declining older white readership while ignoring the desires of younger people of color — consider the San Francisco Chronicle’s recent rerunning of decades-old Herb Caen columns, which does nothing to expand its base — so is the television news division stuck in a pre-Obama mindset. And as those interested in politics increase their reliance on the Internet — and DailyKos TV and YouTube makes actually watching live television news shows increasingly unnecessary — cable news will see the same viewership declines that have brought severe crisis to the newspaper business.
And, given its anti-progressive slant and lack of diversity, that may be a good thing.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)