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The controversy over Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination illustrates a fundamental problem with how mass media supposedly “inform” the American public about salient events. To stir up interest (in themselves, mostly), media invite predictable opponents of any nominee to high office to attack that nominee.
Deep thinker Ann Coulter went on TV to call Sotomayor a racist. Revered statesman Newt Gingrich texted that same sentiment to various folk. Media seemed less interested in his (typically mean and shallow) message than the fact that the old bozo had figured out how to text. Resident network intellectual Pat Buchanan declared Sotomayor – Princeton summa cum laude and Yale law review – “not that smart.”
University of Utah dropout Karl Rove opined that there are lots of “stupid” Ivy League graduates. Most people presume his long association with the Yale and Harvard alum George W. Bush taught him that. Michael Goldfarb and other National Review types offered their carefully reasoned opposition. Goldfarb objected to the way the Supreme Court nominee pronounces her own name, saying that “It Sticks In My Craw.”
Failed Republican presidential nominee Mike Huckabee called Sotomayor a nominee of the “far left.” Of course he also referred to her as “Maria,” throwing his own judgment into question. And how about Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, who did not rule out a filibuster of the nomination, even before he learned who the nominee was?
The problem is not simply that media offer conduits to amplify the uninformed opinions of mindless political hacks, attention junkies so thoroughly unqualified to discuss Sotomayor’s legal history and philosophy that they must resort to racist, sexist name-calling. There is seldom any effort to engage the blatant inaccuracy and stupidity of these unwelcome, all-too-familiar “critics.”
Coulter asked why liberals did not show the same empathy for the black Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas as they seem to demonstrate for the Latina Sonia Sotomayor. No talking head pointed out that Sotomayor has decades of judicial experience while Thomas had none. His was a cynical nomination by George H.W. Bush, as a less-than-mediocre right-wing replacement for the great jurist, Thurgood Marshall, simply because he was black. Thomas also stood accused of sexual harassment, a charge he never refuted. Instead he blamed the victim and shifted the debate to be about what he called a “high-tech lynching,” then wormed his way into lifetime office, past red-faced wishy-washy liberals including Kennedy and Biden.
Part of the problem is that most media-ready conservative spokespersons possess no substantive knowledge or moral credibility. They are merely dependable attack dogs, foaming at the mouth. Coulter routinely calls people fags and racists; Gingrich is a political thug who resigned in disgrace and profaned his marriages; Rove made a dishonorable career as an unprincipled scumbag. We should demand accountability from the networks and print media who enable these vermin to spew their poison.
Rupert Murdoch deserves particular opprobrium. He provides Rove’s venomous bile outlets in The Wall Street Journal and on Fox News, where Rove joins Hannity, O’Reilly, Beck and other numbskulls, whose vitriol and histrionics substitute for reasoned discourse. Murdoch’s media empire has done more to distort, degrade and dumb down the American democratic process than Tom DeLay, Lee Harvey Oswald and Rush Limbaugh put together. Any sense of civic responsibility mass media ever displayed toward the national political conversation has long since been superceded by a meretricious urge to peddle outrage for profit, no matter how tasteless or untrue.
The dimunition of the Republican Party – which staked all on its radical right wing – and the impoverishment of political discourse in our country have fed each other’s decline. The spectacle of politicians sacrificing political ideals for personal ambition is neither new nor surprising. But Rove and Cheney have taken that to new levels, trashing not only all Republican ideals, but Constitutional principles and human decency as well, routinely debasing language and governance with lies and character assassination to maintain their power. They now have the chutzpah to use the complaisant whorish media to condemn the petty sins of the Obama administration. They should answer for their transgressions in a court of law, not on Fox News Sunday.
TV has long been trapped in an oppositional format. Conflict makes for drama. Actual intelligent discussion is too boring. If somebody is not shot or defamed every thirty seconds the audience may turn the channel. It’s amazing that millions of human beings still tune into this trash. But Murdoch and his ilk are not merely polluters. They are perverts, deforming issues and reputations for money. Already a billionaire, Murdoch, 78, clearly cares nothing about the cultural and political damage he wreaks, or the devastation he will leave behind. His straw dogs, on and off his payroll – all trashy bark and no substance – will continue to provide the lowest common denominator for political discussion in our country until we have the will to turn them off.
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.