I’ve been involved in the media reform movement since 2004. One thing I have been writing about lately is how the national corporate media make up narratives and frames to control how we think about candidates and issues. For example, this year for the 2014 mid-terms one media narrative was (1) the senate was going to be taken over by the GOP because (2) the GOP “establishment” had taken back control from the tea party and was becoming moderate again (obviously not true). The media narrative locked them in to a script that prevented authentic discussion of several tea party candidates’ extremist views, including Joni Ernst. It is not just me saying it. You can also read about this real, terrible phenomenon in Salon.com and observe it for yourself.
This article is an excellent case study of how the corporate media can use a made up narrative/story line to marginalize and ostracize any candidate, reporter or issue. Howard Dean is just one example but there are others: Keith Olbermann, Phil Donahue, Dan Rather. I believe the corporate media has already begun testing narratives about Hillary Clinton. Right now they are floating the “she’s too old.”
I revisit the 2004 Howard Dean campaign today, not just for sentimental value or to rehash the past but in the hope that those who are skeptical may possibly be persuaded to adopt media reform as a top activist priority.
There were many theories and speculations about why and how Dean lost the Democratic primary in 2004 but I’ve always believed this was the underlying cause. The article below outlines the events of the campaign starting with Dean’s statement on Hardball to Chris Matthews about breaking up the media. I have a clear memory of that show, was actually watching at thte time and when Dean said it, I had a visceral reaction of “no, don’t say that!” even though I had no idea of what was going to happen as a result. I have never heard Dean himself acknowledge that the subsequent media driven takedown happened. Smart and also humble, whenever he is asked about his 2004 presidential run , he will usually just own that his campaign made mistakes. Nevertheless, this did also happen.
Why The Corporate Media Killed Dean’s Campaign
By David Podvin
On December 1, 2003, Howard Dean was ahead by twenty points in the polls when he appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews and said, “We’re going to break up the giant media enterprises.” This pronouncement went far beyond the governor’s previous public musings about possibly re-regulating the communications industry, and amounted to a declaration of war on the corporations that administer the flow of information in the United States.
It was an extraordinarily noble and dangerous thing to do: when he advocated a truly free press, Dr. Dean was provoking the corrupt media conglomerates that control what most Americans see and hear and read, and thereby control what most Americans think.
The media giants quickly responded by crushing his high-flying campaign with the greatest of ease. This time, they didn’t even have to invent a scandal in order to achieve the desired result; merely by chanting the word “unelectable” at maximum volume, the mainstream media maneuvered Democratic voters into switching their support to someone who poses no threat to the status quo.
John Kerry is a member in good standing of the feeble Daschle/Biden/Feinstein wing of the Democratic Party, a group of politicians whose disagreements with the mercantile elite tend to be merely rhetorical. Any doubts about Kerry’s level of commitment to his stated progressive beliefs were conclusively answered in 1994 when he proclaimed himself “delighted” with the Republican takeover of Congress. The media oligarchy knows that a general election race between Kerry and George W. Bush will insure a continuation of its monopoly, regardless of who wins.
The news cartel had always been hostile to Dean; independent surveys revealed that he had received the most negative coverage of any candidate except Dennis Kucinich (the only other contender who strongly favors mandatory media divestment). But after his statement on Hardball, reporting about Dean abruptly came to an end and was replaced by supposition. The existing conjecture in political circles about his ability to win was transformed into a thunderous media mantra that drowned out all other issues
By mid-December, the news divisions of the four major television networks were reporting as fact that Dean was unelectable. The print media echoed the theme; on December 17, the Washington Post printed a front-page story that posited Dean could not win the presidency. The Post quickly followed up with an onslaught of articles and editorials reasserting that claim. Before the month was over, Dean’s lack of electability had been highlighted in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and every other major paper in the United States.
As 2004 began, Time and Newsweek simultaneously ran cover stories emphasizing that Dean was unelectable. In the weeks before the Iowa caucus, the ongoing topic of discussion on the political panel shows was that Dean was unelectable. National talk radio shows repeatedly stressed that Dean was unelectable. The corporate Internet declared that Dean was unelectable. And the mainstream media continued with the storyline that Dean was unelectable right up until Iowans attended their caucuses. Iowa Democrats could not watch a television or listen to a radio or read a newspaper or go online without learning that Howard Dean was unelectable.
It was the classic Big Lie. Through the power of repetition, the corporate media ñ which has been wrong about who would win the popular vote in two of the last three presidential elections ñ inculcated the public with the message that Dean could not win. Pollster John Zogby wrote, “Howard Dean was the man of the year, but that was 2003. In 2004, electability has become the issue and John Kerry has benefited.”
The unexamined factor is how electability became “the issue”. It had never before been the dominant consideration in Democratic primaries, because voters had focused on policy rather than crystal ball gazing. Electability was this campaign’s version of “Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet”: it was a media contrivance that was used to manipulate voters.
On January 19, Democratic caucus goers in Iowa ñ who were the initial intended audience for this propaganda disguised as reportage ñ overwhelmingly repudiated Dean, telling pollsters they believed he was unelectable. Later that evening, Dean yelled encouragement to his supporters at a pep rally, an incident that provided the pretext for the coup de gr,ce.
During the week leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the media obsessed about Dean’s “bizarre” rally incident, adding “un-presidential” and “emotionally unstable” to its descriptions of the governor. The unified message was that Dean had self-destructed. When he finished a distant second in New Hampshire, journalists and pundits hailed the defeat as confirmation of their premise that Dean had always been unelectable.
Yet there had been no tangible basis for that assertion. At the beginning of 2004, a poll conducted by Time magazine showed that Dean trailed Bush by only six points. That was a smaller deficit than Gore faced shortly before the general election in 2000, and he wound up getting the most popular votes. Undaunted by this evidence to the contrary, reporters adhered to the motif that Dean had absolutely no chance.
Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times is one of the many deceitful corporate scribes who obediently supplemented the “Dean is unelectable” message with its companion lie, “Dean is emotionally unstable”, although she was a little slow on the uptake. In a report she authored the night of the pep rally, Gold wrote, “We will not give up!” (Dean) declared, his gravelly voice barely audible over the din of applause inside the ’70s-style disco hall. “We will not quit, now or ever! We want our country back!”
But twenty-four hours later, when it had become clear that the official corporate media version of events was to be Dean had gone berserk, Gold omitted all reference to the noise over which the Democrat had been shouting: “Dean leapt onto the stage, tore off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. His face beet-red, he punched his fists in the air and spoke in a near-guttoral (sic) roar. The frenetic response to his poor showing struck many as inappropriate.”
Gold’s colleague at the Times, Ronald Brownstein, joined the chorus of supposedly objective journalists who expressed relief after witnessing Dean’s apparent demise. Brownstein has written that it is “reassuring” to see Democrats abandon Dean. And to whom is it reassuring? It is reassuring to Brownstein’s employers at the Tribune Company, which recently reported record earnings as a result of media deregulation implemented by Bush.
Howard Fineman, the author of the Newsweek attack on Dean, has now written an analysis of why Dean fell so far, so fast. One of the reasons Fineman cites is that Dean has been too “defiant”. And whom has the former governor of Vermont been defying? When Dean advocated breaking up the media giants, he was defying Fineman’s employers at the Washington Post Company, which recently reported record earnings as a result of media deregulation implemented by Bush.
Those Democrats who have been hoodwinked into believing Dean self-destructed by yelling at a pep rally should recall how the major media handled Bush’s drunk-driving arrest that a small Maine newspaper revealed right before the 2000 election. It was an incident that on the surface seemed as though it should have been politically fatal ñ the candidate who had based his campaign on the vow that “I will restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office” was proven to have lied about drunkenly driving off a road.
Demonstrably, it is never what a politician does that creates a scandal; it is always whether the television networks and major metropolitan newspapers respond to the incident with saturation coverage. When a presidential candidate who was committed to deregulating the corporate media got caught lying about breaking the law, the importance of the event was minimized. When a presidential candidate who was committed to breaking up the corporate media got caught shouting at a pep rally, the importance of the event was maximized.
The scream that had the greatest impact on the Democratic presidential campaign was not Dean’s gonzo yell in Iowa, but the deafening roar of deceit that emanated from Corporate America’s media subsidiaries. The downfall of the Democratic frontrunner was not self-induced; it was self-defense. Dean had threatened to mess with General Electric, Viacom, Disney, the New York Times Company, the Washington Post Company, et al., so they messed with him first.
Such corporate vigilance is inconsistent with the principles of American democracy, but welcome to the real world. In a dictatorship, the tiny minority of well-armed people maintains absolute power by intimidating the vast majority of unarmed people. In a democracy that is populated by citizens who get their information from a few greedy companies, the tiny minority of well-informed people maintains absolute power by manipulating the vast majority of misinformed people. When you control what people think, there is no need to point a gun at them.
In recent years, corporations have dramatically increased their power at the expense of the average citizen (and with the apathetic complicity of the average citizen). Big Business has evolved from merely being a vital part of society into being master of both the political system and the means of communication. As a result, the boundaries of the national debate are now defined by the interests of the Fortune 500, and the malefactors of great wealth have become increasingly brazen. Americans used to laugh at banana republics, where the ruling elites are so shamelessly debauched that judges go on duck hunting trips with the politicians whose cases they are scheduled to review, but it doesn’t seem quite so funny anymore.
After the last presidential election, the corporate functionaries on the Supreme Court overrode the will of the people by empowering the man who had lost. It was an awkward procedure, so the process has been refined. In 2004, the mainstream media is rapidly disqualifying all the candidates who fail to honor the business agenda, thus eliminating the need for another controversial judicial intervention.
Howard Dean’s campaign now lies in ruins because he chose to confront the multinational conglomerates that run this country. If Dean is so resilient that he fights his way back into contention, the Fourth Estate will be ready to batter him again. In the United States of America, people who pose a threat to the reigning corporate establishment are destroyed. Or, as the Soviets used to put it, emotionally unstable individuals who deviate from the party line are guilty of engaging in “self-destruction”.