Friday, May 28, 2010

GOP Hypocrisy Has Been Exposed by the BP Oil Disaster

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

As I read about President Obama's press conference yesterday addressing the government's plans for the cleanup of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I was reminded of two of the major ills affecting our modern democracy.

The first has to do with the political blame game. For the 16 months, the Republicans (aided by their loyal ally, the right-wing propaganda machine) has engaged in a cynical, anti-patriotic campaign to demonize the president and his policies through lies. (To be clear, opposing the president is not, in itself, unpatriotic. Honest opposition to work towards the best policy for all Americans is patriotic. But, in this case, the GOP was looking out for its own political fortunes ahead of the best interests of the country, and was dishonest in its approach.) What made this plan of action particularly disturbing is that not only was Obama tasked with trying to address major problems he inherited when he assumed office (a failing financial system and economy, two wars, a massive deficit, etc.), but these problems were created in large part by an incompetent and reckless Republican president, aided and abetted by a capitulating Republican-controlled congress.

So, all for political gain, the Republicans engaged in more than a year of lies and distortions, from creating "death panels" to trying to convince the American people that the president was an extremist, a socialist on the fringes of American political ideology, while offering no solutions to address the existing overwhelming problems (no, more tax cuts for the rich will not help create jobs). That doesn't even include the Tea Party types who told the world, often via complimentary right wing media, that the president was a Hitler-like, Communist/Nazi Kenyan Muslim seeking to destroy the United States of America from within.

The GOP strategy might be successful in November, but when a real tragedy happens, like the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the hypocrisy of this kind of approach becomes apparent. Many of the same right-wingers who tell tall tales of Obama wanting to initiate a government takeover of American industry now criticize the president for not pushing aside BP and overseeing the efforts to stop the flow of oil flooding the gulf. Many of the same conservatives who chanted "Drill baby, drill" are now using the BP oil spill to score political points, accusing the president of Katrina-like incompetence.

(As an aside: It is sad our mainstream news system has become so ineffectual that nobody seems able to point out the simple factual differences between the BP oil disaster and Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was an act of nature with no responsible party--although the government did nothing in advance to ensure the levees could handle the flooding, and what was required--search and rescue, humanitarian aid and rebuilding--was firmly under the traditional banner of government action. But Bush did next to nothing. Meanwhile, the BP oil disaster was caused by a corporate entity, who bears the responsibility of addressing the situation, and the action that needs to be taken is of a technological and industry-specific nature not generally thought of as being within the expertise of the government. I guess it's easier for ratings-seeking news outlets to simply play up the political rhetoric, since, they believe, conflict sells. To be clear, I'm not saying that the Obama administration's response to the BP oil disaster was unassailable. But it would be hard for any objective party to compare the government's responsibility and failures in the two situations and say there were in any way equivalent.)

Put another way, if the president had stepped in a few days after the explosion and announced that the government was leading the operation to stop the flow of oil, Republicans would have undoubtedly screamed "Another government takeover!" to anyone who would listen. GOP complaints of government inaction reek of hypocrisy.

The second aspect of this story that I find disturbing is the cowardice of the right in failing to take any responsibility for its positions. During the 2008 election season, it sometimes felt like the GOP platform had one plank: "Drill baby, drill!" Despite the flawed math in play (the amount of oil to be gained from Arctic or offshore drilling represents a tiny fraction of the amount of oil we import from foreign countries), Republicans advocated for increased drilling as if this would solve the nation's energy problems. So when there is a huge oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, do we get any kind of mea culpa from the right? Hardly. We get Republicans blaming the president and Rush Limbaugh blaming the Sierra Club (seriously?).

I see the oil disaster not as a unique example of this problem, but as just the latest symptom of the disease. Americans seem to lack any short-term memory. The 2008 financial crisis led to a prolonged recession, and yet Republicans opposed financial reform, and the final bill that made it out of the Senate was so toothless, Wall Street was said to breathe "a sigh of relief." I understand why the GOP, whose reason for being is to protect corporate and wealthy interests over those of the majority of Americans, would oppose fixing a system that the party not only defended, but which delivered huge amounts of profit to its wealthy base. But what I don't understand is why there is no political price to pay for these actions. How can nearly every Republican vote against the bill, but those decisions seem to have no effect on public opinion? We are surrounded by casualties of Wall Street recklessness, from out-of-work neighbors to foreclosed houses, and yet Republicans and banking lobbyists win the day in Congress? This is unfathomable to me.

What is it going to take for people to wake up to the need for real financial regulation? We've had a crisis that led to a recession. Do we need a collapse that leads to a depression? I hope not.

The ability of Republicans who supported offshore drilling to act as though they have no responsibility for the BP disaster is not unusual. Like the amnesia related to financial regulation, it is just another instance of GOP hypocrisy.

Clearly, the existence of a right-wing media machine that lies and distorts to create its own set of "facts" has been instrumental in allowing the lines to blur. But, ultimately, if democracy is going to work, citizens have to fight through the propaganda to learn the facts. If not, they get what they deserve (like, for example, re-electing Bush in 2004).

For me, a lesson to be learned from the politics of the BP oil disaster is that the Republicans have spent 16 months attacking the president with lies and distortions, and now that he has to address a real crisis, the GOP rhetoric is smashing into the face of reality. The Republicans are standing knee-deep in hypocrisy, and their true priorities (their political interests) have been laid bare. While I'm not optimistic, I hope Americans learn this important lesson before casting ballots in November.

Monday, May 3, 2010

It Seems Fitting that as Palin Lies Again, ABC News Cuts a Quarter of Its Staff

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

While the attempted SUV bombing in Times Square was the big news this weekend (rightfully so), two smaller stories, taken together, highlight another risk to our democracy.

On Sunday, Geoffrey Dunn discussed on HuffPo the latest lie to come from the Sarah Palin camp, as she claimed her ethics issues in Alaska were "a sinister 'partisan' conspiracy directed by Obama's White House against her."

The day before, the New York Times reported that ABC News laid off nearly 400 workers, representing about a quarter of the total staff.

What do these stories have to do with each other? And why should we care?

Simply put, as political scientists Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter wrote: "Political information is to democratic politics what money is to economics: it is the currency of citizenship.” And right now, our democracy is operating with a dangerously low bank balance.

We are living in a time of revolutionary upheaval in the way Americans get their news. In 1980, more than 50 million viewers watched the network evening newscasts. For the week ending April 19, 2010, that number had plummeted to less than 20 million. Even accounting for cable news, the drop-off is astounding. (There is also the issue of the changing nature of network news, namely the evolution from a public-service-oriented presentation of facts to a profit-motivated outlet for infotainment and human interest stories.)

With network news and newspapers struggling, the two pillars of traditional hard news are slowly disappearing from American lives. Yes, many people now turn to the Internet to get their news, but this raises two main concerns. First, we are in a transitional era, in which the old media (broadcast and print) are supporting the free news content online. That model can't last, and we have yet to see a financial model emerge that would allow news content to be funded in an online future. Second, many online media sources (like cable news outlets) are partisan (while we know HuffPo is an excellent source of fact-based news, its progressive instincts can be used against it, as I will discuss in a minute).

What this means is that when Sarah Palin (or Rush Limbaugh, or anyone at Fox News, or a Republican officeholder) lies, the traditional mainstream media is not in a position anymore to expose the lies for what they are. I understand (and greatly appreciate) the great work done at HuffPo and other sites like Media Matters in making sure that right-wing lies are identified, publicized and rebutted. These sites are doing work that is essential and valuable to our democracy. But there is a qualitative difference between challenges from progressive-oriented sources and the traditional mainstream objective media. The fact that such media are dying allows the lies to gain traction in some quarters.

For our democracy to function, there has to be real debate on issues. Citizens won't always agree on what policies or even which priorities and values should prevail, but they have to at least agree on the basic facts of what is happening in the country. With the emergence of a right-wing media structure (Fox News, conservative talk radio, etc.) that prioritizes whipping up its base over telling the truth, the right has now constructed its own set of "facts" for its faithful. In this world, President Obama is a terrorist-loving Muslim socialist born in Kenya who seeks to have the government take over American businesses while stripping Americans of all of their freedoms. How can you reasonably debate policy when there are two different sets of "facts"?

This weekend's Palin and ABC News stories remind us that the sources of our shared facts are all but gone. And who wins as a result? Those who would seek to create lies to further political goals.

So the HuffPos and Media Matters of the world have to keep doing what they do, fighting the good fight to expose right-wing lies. And we all have to be vigilant to do what we can to keep the right-wing lies from gaining traction in society. But all of our work is made harder by the demise of traditional hard news sources. ABC News no longer does the work it did when news was considered the networks' public obligation in exchange for the free public resource of transmission rights. Nevertheless, when ABC News loses a quarter of its staff, our democracy loses some of its ability to sift the lies from the facts.

Or to go back to Delli Carpini and Keeter's analogy, if political information is the currency of democracy, there are a lot of counterfeit bills floating around our citizenry. And there are fewer Treasury agents in the field trying to catch the counterfeiters.