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It’s not easy to get the President of the United States to provide meaningful answers to questions regarding issues of serious concern to the population. During a Q&A session with Obama put together by YouTube in January, a woman pressed him about her husband’s extended unemployment to which he responded: “send me your husband’s resume” (1) (2). Dodging questions is pretty standard especially when the truth is not going to make you very popular. The jobs issue is central to Obama’s presidency so it’s likely that he could have provided a meaningful albeit depressing answer. Unfortunately, the show has to go on and it did so by ignoring the most popular questions which—remarkably enough—did not have to do with his wedding anniversary or the midnight snacking habits that were discussed, but rather with the War on Drugs (3) (4).
Given his role as the President, one would hope that his public appearances and remarks would serve useful purposes such as providing substantive and honest information regarding policy positions and government activity. His responses during the YouTube Q&A were not totally egregious, but the superficial behavior at these Correspondents’ Dinners is just depressing. Performing skits and telling jokes was the top priority last year while Operation Neptune Spear was being carried out. Again, the show had to go on. The subjects tackled during this year’s Dinner included eating dogs, Young Jeezy, and casual homophobia. The funniest bit, however, was the greasy comment on what he declared to be a great American tradition: “a free press that isn’t afraid to ask questions, to examine and to criticize” (5).
Whether or not those questions get answered, the free press he was referring to is far from traditional. For one thing the spectrum of representative interest is sharply polarized. For example, there are blogs and there are media conglomerates much like there are local coffee shops and there are Starbuckses. Even though both provide similar commodities, the two sides operate in different ways because they exist for different reasons. So even though neither ThinkProgress nor The Wall Street Journal is under any coercion, the latter is still owned by the multibillion dollar News Corporation which exists to make profits for investors. This has two major implications for an outlet like WSJ. Firstly, as a corporate subordinate, its terminal function is to contribute to wealth consolidation. It may not accomplish this explicitly (e.g. “playing politics”), but it would not have been absorbed if it did not contribute to Rupert Murdoch’s bottom line (6). Secondly, its massive financial backing inexorably enables it be ultra-prominent and consequently ultra-powerful. Its elite status will obviously influence its content by filtering out writers with non- or anti-elite sentiments. These principles generalize to other dominant media such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
So just whose views are the big three free press outlets representing? An April report published by FAIR looked into which perspectives were being represented on their op-ed pages during September and October 2011 when the Occupy movement was in full swing: the movement which is now recognized to have dramatically shifted political discourse in the U.S. as recent articles in the Post and in Rolling Stone make clear (7) (8). The report revealed that elites from academia, think tanks, big business, and government institutions made up 84%, 84%, and 73% of the guest column bylines in the Times, the Journal, and the Post respectively. Those proportions aren’t surprising because they’re pretty much taken for granted: you wouldn’t expect anyone else’s opinion to be important enough to be featured. The study also found that op-ed writers were overwhelmingly white males: 80-90%. Furthermore, the Occupy movement was barely discussed in the opinion pages of all three papers. Again, given the structure of American society, it’s not that surprising. However, the connection you’re not supposed to make is the obvious one that contradicts principles of a “free press” (9).
To make this connection, we can start by acknowledging some major domestic concerns which, unsurprisingly, include job creation, Social Security, education, and Medicare (10). The problem is that elites from academia, think tanks, big business, and government are the least burdened by these concerns. The fact remains that there are people that depend on Social Security for survival (11).
Another hot issue involves reproductive rights and the War on Women (12). Male op-ed writers comprised 80%, 84%, and 87% of the NYT, the Post, and the Journal respectively. When the topics include obstetrical sonograms, contraception, abortion, and equal pay/benefits for women, the integrity of the discussion is going to suffer when male perspectives dominate.
The same logic applies to race issues. Latinos make up 16% of the U.S. population, but their voice was confined to less than half a percent of the op-ed bylines which might not bode well for discussions on immigrant rights or border control. Blacks were under-represented too which has frightening implications. (13) Michelle Alexander’s newly popular book The New Jim Crow discusses the scandalous incarceration rate in the United States (highest in the world) that disproportionately targets the black population and supplements a growing “undercaste” (14). She traces it back to the Nixon and Reagan administrations’ schemes to exploit white working class racism and fear to gain political power. It’s a national horror that just so happens to not really involve white elites from academia, business, think tanks, and government or their friends or their families.
The race issue is particularly egregious. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate that is comparatively appalling and often for petty drug crimes such as marijuana possession. In prison, they’re basically free (slave) labor. When they get out they are disenfranchised, barred from juries, and struggle to find employment and therefore healthcare. The fiscal consequences of the War on Drugs or the ethics of incarceration versus treatment are topics that are usually discussed in the papers (15) (16). Lucid commentary on the grave human damage does come out, but infrequently (17) which is remarkable because the issue is so deeply offensive to principles of compassion and liberty that it ought to be making headlines.
Incidentally the major assertions made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow are not groundbreaking or radical. The trajectory of the War on Drugs and its disproportionate affect on the black population had already been figured out by the mid-90s but mainstream discourse was just not ready for that kind of information (18) (19). Alexander’s study, which is deeply researched and excellently delivered, just came out at the right time. (Actually it took two years for it to get popular). This reveals a great deal about the nature of our press.
Well if the press’ function is to inform the public mind so as to facilitate democratic participation and influence political discourse, what can we expect to hear from elected and appointed officials? Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy gave a talk a few days ago on drug policy reform at the Center for American Progress (20). I work in the same building and I happened to walk by him on the way in: I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. Even with prodding by the Center’s president Neera Tanden to address incarceration, Kerlikowske managed to avoid talking about drug war casualties by focusing strictly on drug abuse treatment. In this capacity, he labeled the Affordable Care Act “revolutionary” for its requiring insurers to treat drug addiction like any other disease. There was barely any mention of the incarceration disaster and absolutely no mention of the effects on the black population.
His lauding of the AFA, however, is interesting. Obama’s health plan and his drug control strategy are similar in their ostensibly liberal motivations. Furthermore, these superficialities are reinforced by the White House and the press. Obamacare expands coverage which helps the poor and sick so therefore it must be populist, liberal, and benign and so on (21) (22). Similarly, the drug control strategy will treat addiction and help ex-convicts find housing and not relapse so therefore it’s humane and progressive (23).
Unfortunately, the sinister and anemic properties of either are rarely addressed. Obamacare’s expanded coverage is a blessing to the very entities that are responsible for the health crisis: it funnels billions to private insurers and pharmaceutical companies (24). Similarly, targeting addiction is not an answer to the incarceration problem nor does it confront the damage to black communities (25).
But for the White House to highlight the hidden problems would irritate investors that influence campaigns through lobbying. Private correction corporations such as CCA and GEO profit off of taxpayer funded incarceration. Studies have shown private prison population grew in the last decade as their lobbying dollars increased (26). A Boston Phoenix article reads: “Despite clear racial, economic, and cultural disparities, cries from constituents fell on deaf ears while law-enforcement lobbyists successfully cajoled and frightened congressional leaders” (27). Operating through outfits like ALEC, they push for legislation that harshen sentencing for crimes (28).
Health insurance and pharmaceutical companies similarly influence the Affordable Care Act and thus the rhetoric available to Obama. (29) (30).
Given that vast sectors of the American population hang in the balance in all of these issues, you might assume that the “great American free press” that isn’t afraid to question or criticize would actually ask questions or speak critically in regards to these discrepancies. But the lives and careers of politicians, business executives, and elite journalists are so intertwined and symbiotic that the public has to be marginalized. The reason is simple, their interests are opposed. Furthermore, the public mind is clouded by superficial dichotomies such as Democrats vs. Republicans, pro-life vs. pro-choice, drug treatment vs. overpolicing, etc. For an elite journalist, these topics are perfectly valid on intellectual and professional levels. For a politician, they serve invaluable rhetorical purposes. Forgotten, suppressed, and marginalized, however, are the issues pertinent to the millions that personally have to worry about food, rent, healthcare, education, transportation, debt, and retirement. That’s the real skit. That’s the funniest joke.
Ravi Katari works for a health law firm in Washington D.C. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.