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In the Nation’s Capital, Media Fixations Prevail


Norman Solomon

WASHINGTON

— 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.

What

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.

This

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.

When

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.

Constricting

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

"don’t-label-me" line.

Inside

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.

Typically,

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."

The

Wall Street Journal has observed that Will is "perhaps the most powerful

journalist in America." He certainly does not rock corporate boats.

Wunderkind

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

policy."

Easy

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

1993."

Far

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.

"What

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.’"

___________________

Norman

Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

 

 

 

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