Monday, April 16, 2007

Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, Today's Walter Cronkites?

New rule: Now that liberals have taken back the word liberal, they also have to take back the word "elite." By now you've heard the constant right-wing attacks on the "elite," or as it's otherwise known, "hating." They've had it up to their red necks with the "elite media." The "liberal elite." Who may or may not be part of the "Washington elite." A subset of the "East Coast elite." Which is influenced by "the Hollywood elite." So basically, unless you're a shitkicker from Kansas, you're with the terrorists. If you played a drinking game in which you did a shot every time Rush Limbaugh attacked someone for being "elite" you'd almost be as wasted as Rush Limbaugh.
- Bill Maher during his "New Rules" segment of "Real Time With Bill Maher" that aired for the first time on April 13, 2007

A well-publicized recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that only 69 percent of respondents could identify the current vice president (too much time in the undisclosed location?), 66 percent could name their state’s governor, and a paltry 15 percent could identify Harry Reid (time for the Senate Majority Leader to get a publicist, I think). More people could identify Peyton Manning (62 percent) than Barack Obama (61 percent).

Let’s face it: Unless the subject matter is pop singers, the American electorate tends to be lazy and unengaged. And, it’s clear that President Bush not only knows this to be true, but he is counting on it.

Bush has stayed on message ever since the House and Senate passed Iraq funding bills that contained timetables for troop withdrawals, casting the Democrats as opponents of the troops, while he claims to be their great supporter. To hear Bush tell it, the Democrats in Congress are sitting in the corner, plotting ways to hurt the troops while passing around a joint, making love beads and tie-dying shirts.

It is a message that worked before the November 2006 elections, and Bush obviously thinks the strategy still has legs. To stay on message despite recent news events, he has to believe that the American electorate is completely checked out. After all, it was just days ago that the administration announced it was extending the tours of soldiers in Iraq to 15 months, just the latest in a line of slaps in the faces of the troops by the administration. But, the Democrats, who are trying to get the troops out of Iraq are the ones not protecting them?

Bush was quoted saying in an Associated Press article, "
Listen, I understand Republicans and Democrats in Washington have differences over the best course in Iraq. That's healthy. That's normal, and we should debate those differences. But our troops should not be caught in the middle." But the question is, who is putting the troops in the middle? Bush's attitude is, "We can talk, but do what I say, or else you are not supporting the troops." Why should the Democrats give in to his view? The electorate told them in November 2006 not to cave. And, as importantly, has Bush earned any respect for his running of the war based on his performance so far? Hardly. If anyone is putting the troops in the middle, it's the Decider in Chief.

Bush could not even keep up the appearance that he believed in the right to exchange ideas. He went on to say in the AP article,
"That's what we're supposed to do — we're supposed to talk out our differences. I'm looking forward to the meeting. I hope the Democratic leadership will drop their unreasonable demands for a precipitous withdrawal." "Unreasonable"? Again, he pays lip service to the separation of powers, only to reveal his true colors in the end. It's an old move of his, one that has brought him great success. Remember in 2000 when he was a "compassionate conservative"? Americans ate that one up. Only, it turned out he was only compassionate to oil companies, extremist Christians and his circle of cronies. There was no compassion for the poor, primarily African-American people in New Orleans hit by Katrina, and certainly none for the largely minority and working class members of the U.S. military.

But, Bush is sticking to the play book. The idea is, tell the Americans that its the Democrats that are threatening the safety of the troops, and they will eventually buy it, no matter how many times the Bush administration fails. Sure, Walter Reed was a mess, the Veterans Administration was unequipped for the surge of wounded, tours were extended, National Guard and Reserve units are being kept for open-ended call-ups in a backdoor draft, troop training is being cut (according to Bill Maher, Iraq-related training has dropped from four weeks to 10 days), and soldiers still don't have nearly enough bomb-resistant vehicles (even though IEDs are the overwhelmingly leading cause of deaths of soldiers in Iraq). None of that matters if the public is not paying attention. And, if you believe the Pew survey, too many are not.

But, the playing field is different now. The Democrats now control Congress, and for a reason I will file under the "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" heading, they are standing firm in supporting their electoral mandate from the midterm elections. Reid was quoted saying in the AP article that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "
refuse to listen or acknowledge the other voices. They are isolated in their thinking, and are failing our troops and our country." He added that the Democrats will stand firm when meeting Bush, saying that their offer is that "the president sign the bill" Congress passed with the timetable.

Then again, only 15 percent of the people apparently know who Reid is. So, while he may have the facts on his side, the question is if anyone is listening.

Of course, there are some trends in the Pew data that might disturb Bush. Apparently, respondents with the highest scores tended to watch "The Daily Show" and the "Colbert Report" while those with the lowest scores watched the White House's Propaganda Network (a.k.a. Fox News).

I have to admit, though, that my traditional views on the nature of the American electorate have been rocked a bit. It always amused me that higher and higher percentages of citizens, especially younger people, listed comedy programs like "The Daily Show" as their primary news source. I remember a 2004 survey found that fact in the run-up to the election. I was never sure if it was more of an indictment of the traditional media for not doing its job, or of the people for taking the easy way out.

After watching the latest episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher," I have no doubt that the media has to take more of the share of the blame. During his final "New Rule" of the night, Maher talked about how
Monica Goodling, who was the number three person at the Justice Department before she resigned as part of the U.S. Attorney scandal, was 33 and had no prosecutorial experience, even though she was charged with overseeing the performance of the more than 90 U.S. Attorneys around the country (who, in turn, had thousands of attorneys under them). Maher went on to say that Goodling attended college at Messiah College, which is not only Pat Robertson's university, but ranked in the last tier of schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. But, the real kicker, was that Maher reported that since 2001, 150 Messiah graduates have been hired by the Bush administration.

I was outraged, on three levels: First, I was outraged that the government, which is supposed to be secular (I know Bush finds the Constitution annoying, but it's still in effect, at least as of my last check of, is hiring so many religiously driven employees. Second, before you jump down my throat and list the many fine institutions that have religious sponsors, I was outraged that the employees came from a university that lacked the pedigree and academic respect of schools like Georgetown or Notre Dame. Clearly, religiously sponsored universities make up a good chunk of the best schools in the country, but they all share the academic independence and freedom of their seculary sponsored counterparts. I am not an expert on Messiah University, but I feel safe in assuming that it does not share the academic freedoms found at Georgetown.

[NOTE: After reading this blog entry, a friend of mine emailed me the following details of Goodling's academic background, as reported in a wire article by Ron Hutcheson of McClatchy Newspapers: Goodling graduated from Messiah College, which describes itself as "committed to an embracing evangelical spirit,"and she went to law school at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson and says its mission is "to produce Christian leaders who will make a difference, who will change the world."]

And, in any event, Messiah is not a top school. It's not even a middle school. As Maher alluded to in his "rule" quoted above, shouldn't the government be recruiting from average schools at the very least?

But, most of all, I was outraged that the first I have ever heard of Messiah University was on "Real Time With Bill Maher." Why hasn't the mainstream media covered this story? I know the answer. I understand that Anna Nicole Smith and Don Imus make for better ratings. But, how has this story slipped under the radar, to the point that I had to learn about it on a comedy show? I think it is a glaring, living, breathing example of how the flow of information to the electorate has been compromised by the ratings-driven nature of the news business.

I did a Google search of "justice department Pat Robertson," and only one of the first 10 hits came from a traditional news outlet (the Boston Globe). The rest were blogs and online publications (a Slate story was the first entry). When I got more specific and searched "Messiah College justice department," the results were no better. Only the Washington Post came up in the first ten results. The rest were blogs, online publications and, of course, in first place, the Messiah College website.

What will it take, short of putting a fake arrow through Brian Williams's head, asking Charles Gibson to read the news in clown makeup or replacing Katie Couric with one of the Naked News anchors, to allow important information about our government to make its way to the electorate? Or, put another way, to get the electorate to seek out these facts?

I guess in the end, it's better to get your news from Maher than not get it at all. At least you can get a laugh, and see a Republican (like Scott McClelland in this episode) squirm as Maher lays out the ugly facts. But, you are left to wonder, didn't we used to count on journalists to challenge the party line of politicians? As much as I like Maher, I would trade him for Walter Cronkite in a minute. And, I'm sure, Maher would take that trade, too.