Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Newt Continues His Reign: Eric Boehlert on Mainstream Media's Reliance on Gingrich for Catholic Stories

In my assessments of President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame this past weekend, I noted that the mainstream media continued its usual pimping job for the right in its coverage of this story. I also proposed that there is tremendous fear on the part of those who determine the slant of mainstream media coverage about letting the public know of the considerable support the president enjoys among a majority of Catholic voters.

My postings on this theme note that “the mainstream media have given a voice to a handful of extremists who receive attention out of all proportion to their numbers, attention that their tactics and positions do not warrant.” As I observed the reporting on the Notre Dame events, I concluded, “It's . . . clear that the owners of the mainstream media are going to keep on doing all they can to suggest to the public at large that American religious groups lean overwhelmingly right and resist movements for social justice and progressive change.”

In light of what I wrote about Obama and Notre Dame, I’m interested to read Eric Boehlert’s article today at Alternet, focusing on the mainstream media’s continued lionization of Newt Gingrich. As Boehlert points out, Gingrich is still quoted as gospel in the mainstream media, despite the fact that he has no constituency and no position of leadership in a major organization, was forced out of office ten years ago, has dreadful public approval numbers, and has not been re-elected to office.

Why, then, Boehlert asks, did the New York Times, UPI, and the Christian Science Monitor all turn to Newt Gingrich during the Notre Dame events for soundbytes about Mr. Obama’s purported betrayal of Catholic values? Why invent a story that wasn’t even there, of embattled Catholics at the barricades fighting Notre Dame over its choice to honor the president in its commencement ceremonies?

Well, part of the answer to that question, it’s clear, is that Newt Gingrich got the ball rolling on the manufactured Notre Dame “controversy” back in March. Within days after Notre Dame’s announcement that it had invited the president to campus, Mr. Gingrich tweeted, “It is sad to see notre dame invite president obama to give the commencement address Since his policies are so anti catholic values.”

And that’s the tweet that got the ball rolling, the tweet that framed the invitation as a show-down between the president and Catholic values. It was clear to me at the time this tweet went out that Mr. Gingrich, who is ever the political animal and careful in his calculations as he undertakes any strategy, was acting in collaboration with many others on the religious and political right, who had decided to use the Notre Dame events as one in a series of test cases of the new president’s strength and level of support.

Well-organized, well-funded, and powerfully connected cabals of those bitterly opposed to the new president are casting about for any way possible to expose a weakness in the president’s flank of political support. The Notre Dame events probed the president’s support among Catholics, and found it continuing to be strong—as it was on election day.

They also probed the continuing usefulness of abortion as the wedge issue that can most be counted on to move voters to the right. In my view, the reaction to the bizarre, over-the-top protests at Notre Dame have proven that most American voters—including and perhaps especially those at the center—are beyond weary of the nasty baby-killer rhetoric, and of the claims of men of the ilk of Randall Terry to represent the best in contemporary Christianity or contemporary Catholicism or contemporary anything.

This being the case, why do the mainstream media continue to fawn over Mr. Gingrich and to give a voice to the likes of Mr. Terry? Why do they allow those who can clearly no longer declare that they represent the prevailing viewpoint of their own religious communion to lay claim to the right to speak on behalf of that communion?

What hidden channels of money and powerful influence keep compelling our mainstream media, with their pretense to stand for objectivity and the pursuit of truth at all costs, to continue collaborating with the far right in the production of non-stories about non-events? Well, perhaps the channels are not so hidden, and that is surely part of the answer to this question. As my previous postings (here and here) on the thick ties between the Catholic right and various right-wing political groups demonstrate, in the final decades of the 20th century, the American Catholic right and its political allies worked hard (and adroitly) to corner the media market and gain control of media coverage of Catholic stories.

They did so by establishing a virtual media empire throughout the United States, buying up telecommunications organizations and establishing those organizations as “the” Catholic voice, always kindly at hand when the mainstream media need a Catholic soundbyte. These Catholic media outlets work hand in hand with the numerous, well-funded think tanks of the political right, many of them concentrated in the Beltway area, to assure that, when a story touches on Catholic issues, the media will call someone within their network for “the” Catholic position on whatever is being discussed.

The mainstream media—which have not always been conscientious about refusing lavish dinners, trips to “retreats” in exotic places, and other perks (aka bribes) from such think tanks—is now so thoroughly enmeshed in the network of interests and commitments represented by those think tanks, that it cannot easily extricate itself from their control. If we expect better coverage of many issues—including the interface of religion and politics—at this point in our history, we are going to have to turn to citizen bloggers for that coverage.

Which is to say, ourselves . . . . When a story can prove the dominant discourse so glaringly wrong as the reception of Mr. Obama at Notre Dame this weekend proved the religious and political right—and its mainstream media shills—wrong, we have no choice except to develop alternative channels of communication to get accurate information to the public. Particularly when the mainstream media are willing to stoop to the Newts of the world for “religious” news . . . .