– Few phrases in American politics have more negative connotations than
"inside the Beltway." In this rarified and unreal zone, we often
assume, the activities of politicians and bureaucrats are disconnected from the
main concerns of most Americans. But it would be a mistake to forget that the
tenor of national news coverage is largely responsible for the political climate
in the nation’s capital.
passes for media wisdom in Washington truly does surpass understanding. Big-name
journalists may disparage the self-absorbed mania that prevails along
Pennsylvania Avenue — but they rarely challenge the fixations of Washington’s
movers and shakers.
summer, countless members of the national press corps have put the marriage of
Bill and Hillary on the media couch. The unending analysis may fascinate, amuse
or entertain — but it’s pretty much irrelevant to the crucial policy issues
facing this country.
those issues are on the media agenda, the odds of substantive discourse are
generally slim. Categories tend to be rigid. Debates happen inside tight boxes.
Labels are everywhere.
definitions are apt to be imposed on the entire country. For instance, when
C-SPAN viewers call in to voice their opinions on the air, they’re identified as
being on the "liberal line," "moderate line" or
"conservative line." But what about those of us who aren’t comfortable
with any of those three labels? C-SPAN has not yet instituted a
the Beltway, the most influential media outlet — The Washington Post –
commands great respect among government officials and policy-makers. Networks
and wire services take their cues from the Post on a daily basis. And it’s not
just a matter of the paper’s news reporting. The Post’s opinion pages routinely
give great aid and comfort to the corporate establishment.
last month ended with a ludicrous but all-too-serious column by George Will –
who proclaimed that George W. Bush’s presidential campaign war chest of $40
million is "evidence of democratic vitality" and "participatory
politics." Will wrote that we shouldn’t worry about the dominant role of
big bucks in the elections process: "Money embodies time spent working;
money is congealed labor."
Wall Street Journal has observed that Will is "perhaps the most powerful
journalist in America." He certainly does not rock corporate boats.
commentators have proliferated in Washington, polishing their reputations with
glib remarks and cool complacency about extreme economic inequities that persist
in our midst. The deadening spirit of the nation’s capital owes much to pundits
like National Journal editor Michael Kelly, who declared in a Post column on
Aug. 4 that "the reform of the welfare system is a great triumph of social
for him to say. Kelly and many other affluent journalists are thrilled to see
women and children losing welfare benefits, as mothers end up in low-pay jobs
that keep them away from their children. The media fixations match those of
President Clinton — who, in Kelly’s words, "justifiably boasted" in
early August that the welfare rolls "have been cut in half since
from the maddening media crowd in Washington, a professor of social policy at
the University of Massachusetts in Boston read Kelly’s column with disgust and
incredulity. Ann Withorn, co-editor of "For Crying Out Loud: Women’s
Poverty in the U.S.," has studied the effects of changes in federal welfare
policies. Her conclusions are distinctly outside the Beltway.
welfare reform has proven," she told me, "is that national social
policy can significantly worsen the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor
families, and confuse the public so much with the numbers that people don’t see
what has happened to the security of all of us. We have all been tricked when
the president can proclaim increased misery and loss of hope among the poorest
children to be a ‘victory.’"
Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."