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Peacock Problem

Peacock Problem

By Steven Stark - September 11, 2008

When Campaign 2008 began, few would have predicted that distrust of the mainstream media -- especially NBC -- might end up as one of the defining issues of the election. But it seems that the Peacock Network has unwisely painted itself into a corner, and that could actually hurt Barack Obama.

A recent Rasmussen Report poll shows that about half the country thinks the press is out to get Sarah Palin, with a full quarter saying this makes it likelier they'll vote Republican. If that trend continues, it could have huge consequences.

Keith Olbermann and MSNBC are commonly recognized as the leaders of the pro-Barack Obama movement in the mainstream media (through no fault of Obama's, by the way). It seems odd that a cable TV host, on a network with a relatively small audience, could help swing an election. And yes, NBC moved this week to rein him in, taking Olbermann and Chris Matthews off their hosting duties for live political events, including Election Night and the debates. And yes again, Olbermann's self-declared enemy, Fox News, is often every bit as partisan as he is.

But in the age of YouTube and the Internet, even a cable host can have a large, instant impact, magnified by his critics. And what Olbermann and MSNBC are still doing may be helping the Republicans and many of the old supporters of Hillary Clinton unite in a common cause against an old target of populism: the press.

From its birth as an American political movement in the late 19th century, populism was loosely linked to the Democratic Party -- the traditional home of the working classes -- and party rhetoric and policy still assume that this state of affairs exists. But since the 1960s, the Democrats' identification with the multiple rights revolutions -- and with big government supported by high taxes -- has allowed it to be increasingly portrayed as a defender of cultural elites, not the common man.

As populists drifted away from the Dems, distrust of the mainstream media became one of the movement's strongest rallying cries, often overriding even distrust of government and large corporations. But while the Democratic Party was reliving its past glories, the Republicans heard this anti-media cry, and used it to their advantage.

The ploy has its roots in the 1964 GOP convention, when delegates shouted insults at the network anchors in the booths above (a move repeated this year at the Republican convention in St. Paul). Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew then developed it into an art form with their attacks on the press several years later. Almost 40 years hence, this conservative populist movement is still gaining momentum -- thanks to the rise of niche talk radio, the Internet, and the collapse of traditional journalism -- which many in the masses on the right take as a sign that history is on their side.

Fair and Barack

One of the secrets of the success of Fox News is the way it has tapped into all this discontent with the mainstream media -- portraying itself as "fair and balanced" and "populist," all while stationing itself in New York (the elite media capital) and adopting its own partial take on the news. This development, naturally, has horrified the media establishment, which was bound, sooner or later, to develop an anti-Fox alternative -- if only for commercial reasons. Hence, MSNBC's transformation into the Obama News Network, with Olbermann as its Master of Ceremonies.

But MSNBC isn't exactly the mirror image of Fox, and therein lies the problem. First, Fox at least claims to be "fair and balanced" (even if it often is not). Though MSNBC -- a cousin of NBC, which is supposed to be above all this -- features the work of NBC reporters, it usually makes no such pretensions of objectivity in its prime-time coverage. Instead, MSNBC wears its "bias" proudly on its sleeve, a daily dose of positive proof that the media really is in the tank -- a conservative conspiracy-theorist's dream come true. McCain doesn't even need to rally his forces this fall or remind them that cultural interests trump economic ones -- he's got a whole network led by Olbermann doing it for him, 24 hours a day.

Equally important, while Fox may favor Republicans over Democrats, it generally treats all Republicans equally. In contrast, it's hard to make the case that MSNBC didn't fall all over itself in the primary campaign boosting one Democrat over another, namely Obama over Clinton.

This has had the effect of converting a good many Clinton supporters and women of all stripes into populists of their own, now convinced that the media is out to get them, too. On the heels of sexist critiques of Clinton during the primaries, the perception that the press has gone after Palin has only cemented these impressions. Thus, it should be no surprise if large numbers of working-class women are thinking about joining forces with all those Republican populists who long ago decided that the overriding enemy in the culture is the mainstream media.

MSNBC has put the GOP in position to form a rather formidable coalition. Unfortunately for the Democrats, if it does assemble, it will do so on the other side of the aisle. MSNBC may be a relative commercial success. But for the Democrats this year, that network's devotion to Obama -- again, through no fault of his -- has the potential to turn into an electoral disaster.

To read the "Stark Ravings" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/starkravings.

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