The right-wing cottage industry that makes its living by unearthing “liberal bias” in news media loves to cart out the fact that traditionally there have been more Democrats than Republicans in newsrooms across the land. But the tarring of Jeremiah Wright Jr. and his best-known congregant, Barack Obama, is an object lesson in how spectacularly beside the point that really is when it comes to understanding the day-to-day machinations of the chat cycle.
Why is Wright pilloried while the equally quotable fire-and-brimstone salesmen in the GOP’s prayer corner are spared? It isn’t because the Parsleys and Hagees of the world are any less “anti-American” in their judgments, as Glenn Greenwald notes at Salon:
“The statement of Wright’s which seems to be causing the most upset… is his suggestion that there is a causal link between (a) America’s constant bombings of and other interference with Middle Eastern countries and (b) the willingness of some Middle Eastern fanatics to attack the U.S. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, we’ve been told that positing any such causal connection is a sign of vicious anti-Americanism and that all decent people find such questions despicable. This week we learned that no respectable person would subject his children to a pastor who espouses such hateful ideas.
“But the idea that America deserves terrorist attacks and other horrendous disasters has long been a frequently expressed view among the faction of white evangelical ministers to whom the Republican Party is most inextricably linked. Neither Jerry Falwell nor Pat Robertson ever retracted or denounced their view that America provoked the 9/11 attacks by doing things to anger God. John Hagee continues to believe that the City of New Orleans got what it deserved when Katrina drowned its residents and devastated the lives of thousands of Americans…. By all accounts, George Bush had private conversations with Pat Robertson about matters as weighty as whether to invade Iraq. Isn’t that a big scandal — that the President is consulting with an American-hating minister — someone who believes God allowed the 9/11 attacks as punishment for our evil country — about vital foreign policy decisions? No, it wasn’t controversial at all.”
Whence the differential treatment? It’s patently not a question of ripe soundbites or “anti-American” sentiments, since the preachers in McCain’s camp offer both in abundance. The answer lies largely in the color of Wright’s skin and the implacability of his anger. Besides underlining how little white America knows, or wants to know, about the attitudes of black Americans at street level, the wide public airing of Wright’s incendiary sermons challenges white America’s most cherished presumptions about race: that racism and skin privilege are old stories, battles already won by the forces of good–because, for heaven’s sake, who among us has not learned to be embarrassed and offended when someone utters a racial slur? To quote the plaint of white liberals in the 1960s: What do these people want? Woe be unto any black person who suggests that white people have more to do in solving the problems of race in America than using polite language and applauding the advancement of a real but still quite small black middle class.
But to think the Wright episode speaks only about race misses a more contemporaneous lesson in the political economy of media. Let’s try a thought exercise. Suppose that a white Democratic candidate were associated with a white, left-populist social gospel preacher in the same ideological ballpark as Wright. (And if the social gospel movement is mainly a creature of the black church, it has always had a smattering of white practitioners.) Would the media response to Candidate X’s preacher problem versus John McCain’s preacher problems be as disproportionate as in the instance of Wright and Obama?
Probably so. It would spark less palpable outrage owing to the absence of race from the equation, but the essential dynamics of media play would be the same. The right owns the big media chat cycle more thoroughly than ever, and not just because the media are owned by beneficiaries of Republican policies on taxes and markets. Not all professional media are big media, after all, yet a vast and dispiriting majority of journalists who pretend to “objectivity” find themselves dancing to a tune composed by the right: Even if they are defending Barack Obama in the Wright affair, directly or by implication, they are thinking and talking about what voices on the right want them to think and talk about. This is all that any shrewd propagandist wants in the end.
So: An apparently forged document in a CBS TV report puts an end to inquiries into George W. Bush’s AWOL status through much of his term in the Texas Air National Guard, while the free-form slanders of the Swiftboaters against John Kerry never get debunked. John McCain can sing an impromptu rendition of “Bomb Iran” to the tune of “Barbara Ann” without causing a fuss, while an idiotic-sounding war whoop by the doomed Howard Dean plays in a loop for days.
How did we get here? The short answer is, cash and sweat equity. Starting on the eve of the age of Reagan, ideologues of the right have devoted more than a quarter-century’s worth of hard work and sustained financial investment to the construction of right-wing talking points factories that not only tell journalists what to think about but make a point of savaging any apostates. Their efforts have gotten them so far inside the heads of working reporters as to create a relationship that Pavlov or BF Skinner would recognize immediately: A bell is rung and a pack of hounds start slobbering and baying.