Two of the best marketers in the U.S. teamed up for a three-state weekend extravaganza of vapid, substance-devoid entertainment posing as presidential politics. Oprah Winfrey – a certified genius of self-salesmanship – and the faux progressive, fraudulent anti-war candidate Barack Obama wowed crowds in South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire in a mega-media celebration of celebrity, itself. Political theater has devolved to theater without politics. Corporate “journalists” behave like sports “color” commentators, minus real stats and facts. Next stop: Broadway – if the world doesn’t explode before curtain-time.
We North Americans are the best entertained and the least informed people on this planet. Most of us are fully up to speed on Britney Spears’ last several breakdowns, the bios of our favorite "American Idol" and "Dancing With The Stars" contestants. We’re conversant with details of Anna Nicole Smith’s death and knowledgeable about Angelina Jolie’s latest tattoos and the odds on the New England Patriots going undefeated this season. But more than a quarter of U.S. young adults can’t find the Pacific Ocean on a map. Perhaps one in five of their parents can identify their state senator, and fewer than one in a dozen can name a sitting member of the local school board.
Media determine our pubic consciousness. America’s billionaire-owned media maintain a nearly seamless bubble of false reality in which we are invited to live large parts of our lives. Resources devoted to journalism and news coverage have radically shrunk, so that the corporate-created culture of celebrity has come to dominate our daily discourse.
Inside the bubble, corporate resources devoted to newsgathering have been relentlessly shaved, so that far fewer journalists are at work today than a generation ago. Inconvenient and unprofitable news operations have been trimmed, often replaced with no notice to audiences with corporate PR print, audio and multimedia productions, and infected by the passive celebrity worship that permeates the rest of our mediascape.
Air time devoted to political news in election years, according to the Pew Center, actually drops in many cases, obliging candidates for office to purchase expensive commercial slots to be assured of getting their messages out to voters.
The Obama campaign is heavy on symbolism, and long on vague catch phrases like "new leadership," "new ideas," "a politics of hope," and "let’s dream America again" calculated to appeal to millions of disaffected Americans without actually meaning much of anything. Corporate media actively bill Obama as "the candidate of hope," and anointed representative of the "Joshua generation." There are good reasons campaign placards at Obama rallies say "change we can believe in" instead of "stop the war — vote Obama" or "repeal NAFTA – Barack in ’08." The first set of messages are hopeful and vague. The second are popular demands among the voters Obama needs against which his past, present and future performance may be checked. When the comparison is made, the results are dismaying to many who want to support Barack Obama.
An audience question at recent New Hampshire candidate forum exposed the depth of antiwar hypocrisy on the part of Obama and other leading Democratic presidential candidates. They were all asked to pledge that U.S. troops would be out of Iraq not in 60 days or 6 months, but by the end of their first presidential term in January 2013. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Christopher Dodd, and Joe Biden demurred, effectively conveying their intention to continue the failed policies of the administration they pretend to oppose. Needless to say, this didn’t get much coverage in the mainstream press.
By comparison, the entry of Oprah Winfrey into the presidential fray has been the big news for more than a week. Speculation is rife about whether the supposed "Oprah effect" will carry Barack Obama to victory in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. But sadly, mainstream journalism is no likelier to fact check Oprah than it is to report and discuss the actual stands of candidates on war, peace, heath care or housing.
"Over the years," Oprah told her mostly white Iowa audience Dec. 9, "I’ve voted for as many Republicans as I have Democrats." A smart marketer, Winfrey knows her audience. Working from the same script before an overwhelmingly black South Carolina crowd two days later she wisely dropped that line, and like Hillary Clinton in front of an African American audience, Oprah shifted into a noticeably blacker cadence than the one used in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Long before it was the popular thing to do," declared Oprah in each city, Obama "stood with with clarity and conviction against this war in Iraq." It was the biggest applause line in her speech up to that point and good one. Trouble is, it just wasn’t true.
When Barack Obama was a state legislator running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 2003 opposition to the war in Iraq was extremely popular in African American communities and among the progressive voters he needed in order to win. Brother Obama was on the case, doing what he had to do to sew up that vote early, showing up at local antiwar meetings and rallies, and making speeches like the one opposing "a dumb war" which is now trotted out as evidence of his fervent and prescient antiwar stand.
Bush invaded Iraq in March 2003, and by late May declared "mission accomplished" and victory in "the battle of Iraq" from the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. With the president riding high in national polls, this reporter checked Obama’s campaign web site and noted that all the evidence of and references to candidate Obama’s prior opposition to the invasion of Iraq had been deleted. The visionary Barack Obama appeared to be leaning rightward with the prevailing wind, distancing himself from his prior opposition to the war.
After calls to Obama’s campaign office yielded no satisfactory answers, we published an article in the June 5, 2003 issue of Black Commentator effectively calling Barack Obama out. We drew attention to the disappearance of any indication that U.S. Senate candidate Obama opposed the Iraq war at all from his web site and public statements. We noted with consternation that the Democratic Leadership Council, the right wing Trojan Horse inside the Democratic party, had apparently vetted and approved Obama, naming him as one of its "100 to Watch" that season. This is what real journalists are supposed to do — fact check candidates, investigate the facts, tell the truth to audiences and hold the little clay feet of politicians and corporations to the fire.
Facing the possible erosion of his base among progressive Democrats in Illinois, Obama contacted us. We printed his response in Black Commentator’s June 19 issue and queried the candidate on three "bright line" issues that clearly distinguish between corporate-funded DLC Democrats and authentic progressives. We concluded the dialog by printing Obama’s response on June 26, 2003. For the convenience of our readers in 2007, all three of these articles can be found here.
Four years after senatorial candidate Barack Obama had to be summoned back into open opposition to the war in Iraq, scant weeks after his admission that he would not bring the troops home before the end of 2013, and in the face of dozens of public statements between 2003 and the present advocating an extra hundred thousand bodies to the Army and Marines, a higher Pentagon budget than even Bush is asking for, and the bombing of Iran and Pakistan, history has been rewritten to make Obama an early, consistent and principled voice for peace. This history is written, of course, by the same media that sold us the lies which enabled the war to begin with.
After years of dishing out celebrity gossip and advice on relationships, decorating, cuisine, fashion and what books to read, Oprah fits nicely into the corporate PR juggernaut behind the Obama campaign. Winfrey didn’t become a billionaire by speaking truth to power. She is a master marketer whose skill is assembling and influencing vast audiences on behalf of her corporate sponsors. She knows how to stick to a script, or if need be how to write one. Oprah skillfully employs fake controversies such as Obama’s alleged "lack of experience" to draw attention away from questions of real import, like her candidate’s serial equivocations on war, peace, health care and NAFTA. She helps create the illusion of difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when the two are, on almost every issue closer than Siamese twins.
Winfrey and Obama work well together. Both are accomplished manipulators of narratives and symbols with immense emotional value in the minds of their audiences. Barack can claim to Blacks that he represents the "Joshua generation" out of one side of his mouth, while telling whites that "there is no Black America" out of the other. Oprah can put on her best girlfriend-churchlady persona and come "stepping out of my pew" to declare Obama’s election is the ultimate fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.
In the absence of independent media with broad reach, without real old-fashioned fact-checking, non-partisan adversarial journalism, the corporate PR messages of co-celebrities Oprah and Obama may be the only ones that reach many ears, including many black ones. At this time, Obama appears certain to have earned the number one or two spot on any Democratic ticket. Democratic voters, who turned out in record numbers in 2006 and voted to end the war will once again be compelled to choose between a pro-war Republican presidential ticket and a pro-war Democratic presidential ticket including Barack Obama.
What his media-generated and corporate-funded ascendancy will mean for Black aspirations, and for the future of Black leadership is uncertain.