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

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

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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.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on the radical Obama administration: "They are socialist. Their policies prove that almost daily. Look, when all the answers emanate from Washington D.C., one size fits all, whether it's education policy or whether it's healthcare policy, that is, on its face, socialism."

Bachmann: "Now we've moved into the realm of gangster government. We have gangster government when the federal government has set up a new cartel.... This is the crown jewel of socialism."

Newt Gingrich: "This is, indeed, a secular-socialist machine." (And on another occasion, reframing campaign-finance reform as ideologically motivated, "The idea that a congressman would be tainted by accepting money from private industry or private sources is essentially a socialist argument.")

On December 16, New York Times columnist and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman called Ron Paul's economic doctrine "madness." Like the Gingrich coverage outbreak, this story, too, was an outlier. Till now, Paul has seldom been asked to defend theories that are long associated with the John Birch Society, Aryan Nation and habitues of tinfoil-hat chat rooms: "I want competition with the Fed. I want to legalize the Constitution. I want to legalize the trading in gold and silver, no taxes, no sales taxes, no capital gains taxes. Private companies can mint their own coins, they just have to be not fraudulent, like our government is fraudulent. "

Apart from the manifest looniness of the arguments, Paul's rhetoric implies economic and political tyranny being foisted on a nation of dupes. Indeed, GOP candidates have not been shy about playing the tyranny card, which -- in view of our nation's founding -- might be considered but one rude bridge from fomenting revolution. Their opponents are characterized not merely as misguided or foolish or cynical or stupid; they are unpatriotic and un-American.

The president of the United States, alleged Rick Santorum, "has a deep-seated antipathy toward American values and traditions."

Bachmann spies enemies in both the legislative and executive branches government, asserting on one occasion, "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?" And on another one: "The federal government will virtually have control over every aspect of lives for the American people," she said. "It is time to stand up and say: We get to choose. We choose liberty, or we choose tyranny -- it's one of the two." As for the overthrow of our way of life by the judiciary, you need only turn to Gingrich -- whose outburst over the weekend wasn't his first of the subject. This was from September:

"I believe the legislative and executive branches have an obligation to defend the constitution against judges who are tyrannical and who seek to impose un-American values on the people of the United States."

It took three months for that statement to generate a controversy. In a healthy journalistic environment -- wherein a politician's utterances are deemed in and of themselves worthy of comment, analysis, due diligence and skepticism -- it should have taken five minutes. (Indeed, this press silence is why Rick Perry was forced a few weeks ago to run his notorious gay-baiting ad aimed at Iowa evangelicals, an ad which for good measure sneered at the constitutional principle of secularism. It was a desperate bid to get noticed, because when he said such things before live audiences, the media simply shrugged.)

So tell me again why debate questions are on cap-and-trade, or on what Mitt Romney did or didn't do with Massachusetts health care in 2006? I propose this instead: "Sir, you have declared America to be a tyranny and your political opponents to be anti-American. Are you proposing an overthrow? And if not, why not?"

I might also turn the question around on the press itself, an institution frozen nearly immobile by the chilling effect of the "liberal bias" meme. Presidential hopefuls have created a vast, breathtaking archive of extremist remarks previously the province of kooks, hatemongers and outlaw militants. Should not these statements be identified, examined, explained and thoroughly interwoven into the narrative of the campaign?

And if not, why not?

Image credit: REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

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

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