The Media's Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Campaign Coverage

The most powerful segment of the political right has moved into fringe territory. Why has the press been largely silent on this?


When presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich this weekend floated the idea of arresting federal judges over "activist" decisions, something very strange happened: It was in the papers.

Not on page one, or anything. No "-gate" suffix. No wall-to-wall cable coverage, like for a shark attack or a missing blond. Still, Gingrich's remarks did get a mention, possibly because the scenario he described sounded so gigantically unconstitutional. And unapologetically authoritarian. And just plain scary.

That's the strange thing. Till now in the presidential race, such qualities have seldom constituted newsworthiness. So cowed are the media by the accusation of liberal bias that they've been mainly confined to parsing poll numbers while the candidates for the Republican nomination take to the stump, one after another, with ideas once reserved for militia camps and reactionary pamphleteering. For months and years, the GOP presidential candidates have mimicked the most incendiary and marginal right-wing firebrands of the 1950s and 60s. Yet neither the provocations, nor their eerie echoes, have gone much remarked upon.

For instance, when Rep. Michele Bachmann asserted that public schools "are teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I am here to tell you that is a myth," based perhaps on her objection to the accepted understanding of the Establishment Clause, this raised no great media hew and cry. Maybe because the refrain was so familiar. In 2010, Sarah Palin said as much, too:

"Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant -- they're quite clear -- that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the Ten Commandments." Which, if you were listening carefully, also had a familiar ring. Here is what Wesley Swift had to offer on the subject: "This is a Christian nation. The Supreme Court ruled on separate occasions that this is a Christian nation. And the fact remains that there are many forces that are seeking to destroy Christian civilization."

Wesley Swift being the founder of the Christian Identity movement -- a white supremacist, anti-Semite and convicted domestic terrorist. One of his brothers in paranoia was the so-called "minister of Hate," the Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, founder of the racist and anti-Semitic America First movement. His boogeyman was the United Nations, which he characterized as "the greatest subversive plot and plan in the history of the world for the destruction of the Constitution of the United States and its substitution by a World Government with all our citizens slaves."

Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, shared Smith's black-helicopter vision, asserting that "A part of that plan, of course, is to induce the gradual surrender of American sovereignty, piece by piece and step by step to various international organizations of which the United Nations is the outstanding but far from only example." Oh, and who else has taken a position on the One World Government question? Why, presidential aspirant Ron Paul.

"They are a threat to us," Paul wrote of the U.N. "They would confiscate our guns.... The right of ownership of private property is severely threatened by our own government, but it's going to be a lot worse if the United Nations gets involved.... If the United Nations has their way, there will be a curtailment of our right to practice religion.... Eventually we will not have the United States of America and we will be nothing more than a pawn of the United Nations."

Trying to recall...has this come up in the debates?

Look, this phenomenon isn't entirely mysterious. The left has moved right. The center has moved right. What constitutes a controversial position is a moving target. And in narrating the ebb and flow of political fortunes, the press is indeed supposed to be dispassionate. But that's not the same as deaf, dumb and blind. It never stopped being the media's job to evaluate the world and explain what constitutes news. Is it not very big news that the most powerful and influential segment of the political right, in full view of a largely mute press corps, has veered into Glenn Beck World?

Xenophobia. Demonization of the United Nations and the Federal Reserve. Radical reduction of federal budget and influence. Conflation of federalism with socialism. Cult of states rights. Christian exceptionalism. Return to the gold standard. Not to mention the dismantling, in the name of jobs, of the entire regulatory infrastructure of the nation.

Presented by

Bob Garfield is the co-host of "On the Media," produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR.

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