Could FDR have succeeded with the New Deal if he had been operating in a 24-hour continuous news cycle?
The answer is probably not. FDR had plenty of critics, including influential newspapers, conservative Republicans, clerics who railed from pulpits against him as a radical socialist and anti-Semites who called him president "Rosenfeld."
But the force of FDR's personality and the desperation of Americans made the New Deal succeed. Today, we have another charismatic president, desperate economic straits and a public that gives Barack Obama high ratings. But a right-wing campaign is being waged against him, on the Internet, on cable news and on talk radio. These forces can energize large chunks of the population.
I had a call the other day from a friend in Houston, who says that a neighbor is planning to host a house party for a group of people who want Texas to secede from the union.
This woman, my friend said, seemed quite rational and sane, but has apparently been recruited by people who believe that the Texas constitution gives the state the right to secede if it so chooses. My friend argued that no such provision exists, but apparently a lot of people believe that it does.
These folks have been energized by a new group called "We Surround Them" that urges people to set up community meetings to advance a right-wing agenda whose motto is Unite or Die. The group is promoted on the website of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, and people are urged to send in their pictures and put them on the We Surround them website.
The site uses fear mongering to recruit: "Do you watch the direction that America is being taken in and feel powerless to stop it?
"Do you believe that your voice isn't loud enough to be heard above the noise anymore?
"Do you read the headlines everyday and feel an empty pit in your stomach...as if you're completely alone?"
And the group seeks people who are willing to state this credo: "I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life... The family is sacred... My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government... I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable."
FDR had to confront a lot of people who called him a socialist and a "traitor to his class," but these people did not have the Internet and cable to spread their words. Today, you can go to a website called Conservative-stuff.com and get t-shirts and other merchandise that blares "Impeach Obama now" and "Got Socialism?"
More such voices -- and even more sinister ones -- will increase in volume. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that hate groups are growing, fueled by immigration fears, a failing economy and the successful campaign of Barack Obama. "Since 2000, these racist extremist organizations -- neo-nazis, white nationalists, neo-confederates, skinheads and others -- have grown in number by 54%."
This probably means that the media dialogue is going to get uglier. 24-hour cable news is a vast maw, a beast that has to be fed. Trivial maters get blown up into major controversies and any player who can put a negative "spin" on events or issues goes to the head of the line. We are still hearing stories on mainstream cable news about people who charge that Barack Obama is not an American citizen, despite the fact that the Obama campaign put his birth certificate up on its website.
So far, notes Jamison Foser of Media Matters for America, "The news media's coverage of the stimulus debate has consisted largely of repeating false Republican spin and pontificating about which side has been making their arguments more successfully (all the while ignoring the media's own role in aiding the GOP)."
Nowhere is the aphorism good news is no news more applicable than in 24-hour cable. Extravagant claims are often not vetted and facts get lost in the face of hyperbole. The Web, of course has no gatekeepers, and anyone, no matter how nuts, has access to this broad highway.
Cable media reporters have taken up GOP talking points, often asking if the Obama administration's effort to rescue the banks isn't "socialism," They rarely point out that banks are routinely taken over by the government and have been for years, under both Republicans and Democrats. In the 80s, the government took over more than 700 failing Savings and Loan institutions and set up the Resolution Trust Corporation, which stabilized the financial market and even allowed taxpayers to recoup some losses. Some observers, including former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, thinks this is a good model to follow. But to listen to the folks on cable news, you'd think that Karl Marx was knocking at the door.
The Obama administration needs a campaign style "truth squad" to actively combat the nonsense that appears constantly on cable and on the Web. Without it, hyperbole and half-truth could bring down his economic recovery package.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England.)