The media landscape is obviously vastly different than it was a decade ago. Talk radio, blogs and Fox News have made it much easier for diverse political opinions to be heard, but one exchange on a late night “comedy” show this week reinforced my belief that the leaps and bounds conservatives have made are only tiny first steps in the overall goal of media and communications parity.
Recently a reader emailed me the following question, “When the media will print nothing positive for the President, how do we get the message out?”
The truth is that the message problems Republican Presidents, as well as Republican candidates and conservatives in general, face is actually much worse than the media not running any positive news about them. Not only have positive stories about the economy and Iraq been scarce (even when there has been good news to report), but an outright hostility for Republicans permeates outlets far beyond the traditional news media.
In the past a major problem Republicans faced was getting the news reported in a balanced fashion and getting some stories reported at all. Today with talk radio, blogs and Fox News, those previously unreported stories are now available to the public, but the communications/message war is no longer fought primarily on traditional news programs. Along with alternative sources of information like the internet and cable news television, news (or some facsimile thereof) is now communicated more than ever before through entertainment programming.
Even those who don’t read newspapers or watch television news programs get a dose of news on shows such as Good Morning America, The View, Oprah Winfrey and the Late Show with David Letterman. Fictional dramas such as Law and Order, and even some situation comedies, routinely reference items from the news and politics as well.
In many cases the information viewers receive through non-news shows is more influential and persuasive than that received on traditional news programming because it is generally presented as a matter of fact with little, if any, presentation of an opposing viewpoint. Polls show the public is increasingly distrustful of journalists, but viewers of entertainment programs are not in the same skeptical mode they might be in when viewing a news program. Performers on non-news programs are not held to the same level of scrutiny that journalists on news shows are held. A prime example could be seen this week on David Letterman’s late night CBS show.
Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan appeared on the David Letterman show Wednesday night to promote his new book, What Happened. In the “interview” McClellan nodded his head in agreement and chuckled at every insult Letterman hurled at the President and Vice President including the question “Is Cheney a goon?”
Nowhere in the exchange was animosity for the administration and a lack of any objectivity seen more than at the end of the segment when Letterman asked McClellan the following: “My feeling about Cheney, and also Bush, but especially Cheney, is that he just couldn’t care less about Americans. And the same is true with George Bush and all they really want to do is kiss up to the oil people so they can get some great annuity when they are out of office. Here ya go Dick, nice job” [Audience applause]. “Here’s a couple of billion for your trouble. I mean he pretty much put Halliburton in business and the outsourcing the military, ah, ah, resources to private mercenary groups and so forth. Is there any humanity in either of these guys?”
McClellan responded, “Look I still have personal affection for the President. I can’t speak to the Vice President’s thinking that well because he is someone that keeps things to himself and he believes in doing it his way and he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He’s going to do it the way he feels is best and that’s not always what’s in the best interest of this country, as we’ve seen.”
Letterman: “Well, you told me backstage that you thought he was a goon.”
McClellan: “Ha, ha.”
Letterman never questioned anything that McClellan said, or even expressed the tiniest gesture of skepticism (not even a raised eyebrow). McClellan didn’t challenge Letterman’s absurd notion that Bush and Cheney would need to “kiss up to the oil people” for money when they left office or that the Bush administration put Halliburton in business. The discussion of Iraq included no mention of recent progress there.
No one would expect any of that though. Letterman is supposed to be a comedian, not a journalist. Most would not expect him to know, much less point out, that Halliburton was very much in business during the Clinton administration with government contracts for work in Kosovo and Haiti and elsewhere. Letterman makes his living playing the dope, but McClellan surely knows something about Halliburton during the Clinton years and about progress in Iraq. Bush bashing is what is selling his book though and that is his primary goal right now, not what’s in the best interest of this country, which would be presenting the truth.
McClellan’s big bombshell accusation against the President and Vice President is his claim that they did not present the whole truth about the threat posed by Iraq. Now McClellan sells his book by not presenting the whole truth – if the subject of the book were not so serious that would be quite comical.
Why would Letterman be expected to question anything McClellan said on some late night chuckles show – even if the questions were pretty darn obvious? The goal is to get laughs, not impart knowledge, after all. That hasn’t kept Letterman from grilling previous guests though when he disagreed with them. I guess when the guest says things the comedian already believes are true, there is not much reason for him to question them.
This is how millions of Americans get their “news.” The Rush Limbaugh Show is the most influential radio show in America. Fox News is the number one rated cable news network (in spite of the fact they are not carried in many hotels or airports or other public places where viewers are held captive). Blogs and websites like the Drudge Report now ensure the public has access to stories traditional media outlets have ignored. But until there is conservative equivalence in the non-news entertainment media, Republicans will continue to lag far behind in the communications war.
When there is a conservative counterpart in the movie industry as well known to the public as Michael Moore or Oliver Stone, and when there is a conservative equivalent of Oprah Winfrey on the daytime talk scene, and as many Ben Steins and Tom Sellecks and Wayne Newtons as there are Susan Sarandons and George Clooneys and Barbara Streisands then conservatives will at least stand a chance. But on the bright side, between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris and Jack Bauer, conservatives pretty much have the market cornered on butt-kicking action heroes. When it comes to television and movie actors and producers, daytime talk personalities and comedians (to quote a liberal fake television newscaster) – not so much.