THE TRIANGLE: Matthews, Moore, Murtha, and the Media

01/25/2006 12:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's the common thread running through the past half-decade of Bush's presidency? What's the nexus between the Swift-boating of Kerry, the Swift-boating of Murtha, and the guilt-by-association between Democrats and terrorists? Why has a seemingly endless string of administration scandals faded into oblivion? Why do Democrats keep losing elections? It's this: the traditional media, the trusted media, the "neutral" media, have become the chief delivery mechanism of potent anti-Democratic and pro-Bush storylines. And the Democratic establishment appears to be either ignorant of this political quandary or unwilling to fight it.

There's a critical distinction to be made here: individual reporters may lean left, isolated news stories may be slanted against the administration. What I'm describing is the wholesale peddling by the "neutral" press of deep-seated narratives, memes, and soundbites: simple, targeted talking points that paint a picture of reality for the American public that favors the right and tarnishes the left.

You've heard the narratives: Bush is likable, Bush is a regular guy, Bush is firm, Bush is a religious man, Bush relishes a fight, Democrats are muddled, Democrats have no message, national security is Bush's strength, terror attacks and terror threats help Bush (even though he presided over the worst attack ever on American soil), Democrats are weak on security, Democrats need to learn how to talk about values, Republicans favor a "strict interpretation" of the Constitution, and on and on.

A single storyline is more effective than a thousand stories. And a single storyline delivered by a "neutral" reporter is a hundred times more dangerous than a storyline delivered by an avowed partisan. Rightwingers can attack the media for criticizing Bush, can slam the New York Times for being liberal, but when the Times and the Post and CNN and MSNBC echo the 'Bush stands firm' mantra, it adds one more brick to a powerful pro-Bush edifice.

These narratives are woven so deeply into the fabric of news coverage that they have become second nature and have permeated the public psyche and are regurgitated in polls. (The polls are then used to strengthen the narratives.) They are delivered as affirmative statements, interrogatives, hypotheticals; they are discussed as fact and accepted as conventional wisdom; they are twisted, turned, shaped, reshaped, and fed to the American public in millions of little soundbites, captions, articles, editorials, news stories, and opinion pieces. They are inserted into the national dialogue as contagious memes that imprint the idea of Bush=strong/Dems=weak. And they are false.

What's so dumbfounding to progressive netroots activists, who clearly see the role of the traditional media in perpetuating these storylines - and are taking concrete action to remedy the problem - is that Democratic politicians, strategists, and surrogates have internalized these narratives and play into them, publicly wringing their hands over how to fix their "muddled" message, how to deal with Bush's "strength" on national security, how to talk about "values." It's become a self-fulfilling cycle, with Democrats reinforcing anti-Dem myths because they can't imagine any other explanation for the apparent lack of resonance of their message. Out of desperation, they resort to hackneyed, focus-grouped slogans in a vain attempt to break through the filter.

It's simple: if your core values and beliefs and positions, no matter how reasonable, how mainstream, how correct, how ethical, are filtered to the public through the lens of a media that has inoculated the public against your message, and if the media is the public's primary source of information, then NOTHING you say is going to break through and change that dynamic. Which explains, in large measure, the Dems' sorry electoral failures.

There are a number of reasons why Democrats allow the media problem to fester. First, the "liberal" media mantra has been so pervasive that it is still accepted as fact by many beltway insiders. Republicans have mastered the art of institutional rage against the media, Democrats have not. Second, Democratic strategists haven't learned how to distinguish between stories and storylines. (The insidious effect of infectious narratives, the power of inoculation techniques, the concept of memetics and the role of the Internet, are alien to the Democratic establishment. And I say that having been in the belly of that establishment during the 2004 election). Third, "blame the media" feels like a cop-out.

But this isn't about "blaming the media" or excusing other strategic mistakes on the part of Democrats, it's about understanding what happens when skillfully-crafted pro-GOP storylines are injected into the American bloodstream by the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Paula Zahn, Dana Milbank, Kyra Phillips, Cokie Roberts, Tom Brokaw, Jim VandeHei, Bob Schieffer, Bill Schneider, Tim Russert, Howard Fineman, Norah O'Donnell, Elizabeth Bumiller, Adam Nagourney, Bob Woodward, and their ilk, not to mention rabid partisans like Limbaugh, Coulter, and Hannity.

To understand the methodology of the story-telling media, look no further than two situations currently occupying the energy of netroots activists: Chris Matthews' equating of bin Laden and Michael Moore and Tim Russert's racially-tinged, guilt-by-association line of questioning in a recent interview with Barack Obama. In each instance, the meta-theme is that Democrats are terrorist-lite traitors, and the subtext is that Bush and Republicans are the true patriots. But while the netroots is blasting away at Matthews and Russert, the Democratic establishment is petrified at the thought of offending the Gang of 500. So far, only John Kerry and Louise Slaughter have weighed in on either scandal.

"Flip-flop" took hold as an anti-Kerry theme because it was repeated ad nauseum in the press. And mind you, reporters are far too sophisticated to simply deliver the meme as an accusation; they frame it as a question, they toss it in as an offhanded remark, they run a caption that says it for them, they use the language of Democratic duality and Republican unity, they use polls for cover, they play false equivalency games, they allow Republicans to repeat the narrative unhindered, and so on. This despite the fact that Bush contradicted himself on major policy issues and was a master 'flip-flopper' himself. Had the media fact-checked the assertion every time it popped up and had they called Bush a flip-flopper with the same brutal, methodical intensity, the race might have ended differently. One of the few chances Americans got to test the flip-flop meme was the debates, and we all know how those turned out.

The same holds true for the Swift-boat sliming of Kerry: much has been made of the Kerry campaign's response or lack thereof, but there's another angle less discussed: the story was a cable staple for days and weeks, unchecked. Had the cable nets and other media outlets covered that story with more balance, more dignity, more judiciousness, more responsibility, it would have been a sideshow. And this has nothing to do with deflecting blame - the Kerry campaign should have known that their enemy wasn't a vindictive crackpot like John O'Neill, but the many 'journalists' and media outlets who rammed the story down our collective gullets.

Similarly, the media helped reframe John Murtha's call for a dramatic shift in strategy in Iraq as a policy of "cut and run" versus Bush's "steadfastness." Once again, the storyline trumps the story.

To illustrate the power of the media to shape public opinion, simply imagine what would happen if the cable nets and the print media and the elite punditocracy treated the warrantless spying scandal with the same round-the-clock intensity as the Swift-boating of Kerry or the Natalee Holloway disappearance. Suppose Lewinsky-style headlines blared about impeachment and presidential law-breaking. Suppose the question of the day on every cable net was, "Should Bush be impeached for violating the Constitution?" The media can create a crisis -- and can squelch one. The media can deliver narratives, they can frame events, they can shape the way Americans see the political landscape. A disproportionate amount of power is wielded by a handful of opinion-shapers, and when these individuals tell America a story that favors the right and marginalizes the left, the remedies are few.

Progressive bloggers and the millions of online activists whose conversations they shepherd are fighting to close the triangle. Sadly, Democrats will resist, out of fear. And the press will fight back, hard. Not to mention the anticipated wrath of the rightwing machine, built on the "liberal media" myth. Still, the latent power of the netroots is ignored at the political and media establishment's peril.