Perhaps you have to be a visitor, as I am from the UK, to register the astonishing media revolution currently underway in the United States – and the threat it constitutes to the country’s progressive press.
Once upon a time the New York Times backed the Iraq War, published phoney reportage on WMD and supported an [unsuccessful] coup against Venezuela’s elected leader. Some of its star columnists – with super-jingo Thomas Friedman heading the list – purveyed market fundamentalism. As for the US cable networks, their chauvinism and demagogy is a by-word.
Yet suddenly I’m living in a parallel universe where Newsweek’s cover declares ‘We Are All Socialists Now’, and the New York Times outflanks the Nation, the Comedy channel turns deadly serious and MSNBC mocks the consensus.
Instead of neo-liberal triumphalism the New York Times finds space to cover some real issues. Safire and Kristol have been dropped and in their place a steady drumbeat from Krugman and Dowd urges Obama to nationalize the banks and lock up miscreant CEOs. Recently a detailed op-ed explained that the administration’s foreclosure policy – giving tiny loans to help mortgagees make their interest payments – was useless. What had to be done was for Treasury to pony up serious money to pay down principal on mortgage debt. Another outlined ‘How to Leave Afghanistan’. On March 14 Evo Morales explained to Times readers that the campaign to criminalise the chewing of coca, ‘a healthy indigenous past-time’, was cruel and unjust. And in the Business section Gretchen Morgensohn’s exposé of the Pharaonic scale of the public indulgence of AIG and the zombie banks was picked up and endorsed by the main section.
Meanwhile the most circulated item on Facebook is Jon Stewart’s Daily Show interview with Jim Cramer of CNBC’s ‘Mad Money’, in which he took the strident share-booster to the cleaners, complete with deadly clips showing Cramer advocating scams he now claims to disavow. Stewart previously denounced Israeli slaughter in Gaza when the rest of the US media and political world preferred to look the other way.
The new openness of the Times no doubt reflects a new conjuncture – the voters’ pain at depression hits, anger at bail-outs for the rich and greedy, a creeping paralysis which the White House fails to address, and, close to home, the purchase of the paper’s stock by Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire – not forgetting the specter of an end to print newspapers. Likewise the Daily Show is occupying new territory at a time when Rachel Maddow of MSNBC is refreshing the tired recipes of cable news by imitating alternative network stars like Amy Goodman and Laura Flanders.
Obama’s Plan A – inviting those who created the catastrophe to fix it – is foundering before our eyes, so it is good that some are working on Plan B. The trouble is Plan B needs a lot of work if it is not to collapse like a credit default swap issued by Lehman Brothers. Indeed what is really needed is Plan C.
Thus nationalizing the banks is a good starting point if the aim is to construct a public utility finance system. But if the aim is simply to return the banks to the private sector as soon as possible – as Krugman urges – their lending policy will not help investment and small businesses on the scale now needed. Likewise ‘withdrawal’ from Iraq and Afghanistan is fine, but should not mean leaving behind huge military bases bulging with US troops.
All those pieces comparing Obama with Roosevelt alert us to a problem. Then the president had to reckon with a surging labor movement. And he could mobilise a strategic detail of red experts when he gave $40 billion to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to build five hundred giant plants, taking a strategic stake in all the corporations which need these facilities. By 1945 the US government owned large chunks of Lockheed, Boeing and GM, but red scares led to the closing of the RFC.
The TVA and RFC were examples of the sort of bold public enterprise now needed but where are those needed to staff them? Some of those laid-off bankers might serve as useful foot-soldiers but they will need competent commanders and planners.
Of course there is a dream-like quality to media radicalization. Friedman’s effort in the Times of March 18 brought me back to reality. Apparently we all have to rally behind an even larger bail-out of the very same banks that have been rescued at such cost several times before. Forget nationalization. Instead US households who have lost about $12 trillion (so far) must foot the bill for ‘bank healing’ which requires ‘another big, broad taxpayers’ safety net’.
The media revolution may be exhausted but if the president follows this advice it could be street barricades and bank occupations next.
ROBIN BLACKBURN writes for New Left Review and is a visiting professor at the New School in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org