I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Blogs and media narratives

(updated below)

From Newsweek's BlogWatch item this week (emphasis added; h/t McJoan via e-mail):

Angered by the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, prominent right-wing blogger calls for "Five ropes, five robes, five trees. Some assembly required." Classy.

I wouldn't say that the principal problem with right-wing calls for Supreme Court justices to be hanged is that they lack "class," but this is certainly better than nothing. Projects get accomplished by baby steps. As treason accusations and calls for the imprisonment of journalists become ever more common among Bush supporters, I think journalists are going to have a hard time continuing to ignore these sentiments.

This is as important an election issue as any other. One of the primary reasons why checks and balances are so vital is because they are a unique safeguard against extremism. They force compromise and ensure that no political faction can operate without limits. By contrast, the type of one-party rule to which we've been subjected for the past four years -- and it's really been rule by the most radical strain of that party -- breeds extremism and corruption.

Precisely because of this lack of checks and restraints, the Bush movement has become nothing if not extremist. They have violated multiple laws because they claim that the President has the right to do so. While they have our military sitting in the middle of a true disaster in the Middle East, they're toying with the idea of still more wars in that region. They have spent the country into extraordinary deficits. And they have come to equate political opposition with treason, including open discussions about -- and the laying of the groundwork for -- imprisoning journalists because of stories they write about the Bush administration's legally dubious behavior carried out in secret.

The more that extremism is discussed and publicized, the better off the country is in multiple ways, including with respect to the November elections and the glaring need for some balance and limits to be imposed finally on this administration. George Bush campaigned as a "compassionate conservative" in 2000 precisely because GOP strategists know that the country recoils from the type of hate-mongering rhetoric and radical impulses that exist in many of the most extremist precincts on the right. Bill Clinton's most potent weapon was the sheer ugliness of the fanatics who most obsessively opposed him.

But those fanatics haven't gone anywhere. They are the backbone of the Bush movement. Karl Rove has successfully engineered a face lift of the Bush-led Republicans to obscure many of the sentiments which truly fuel it, but its real heart and soul is this radical underbelly - the type who believes that the Leader has the right to act above the law because he is good; that journalists who publish stories embarrassing to the Commander-in-Chief are criminals; that those who are opposed to the war in Iraq are seditious extremists, even though most Americans hold that view; and whose rage and inadequacies drive them to seek more and more war as the only solution they desire or recognize to every external and even domestic conflict.

Bloggers and others spend a lot of time discussing the influence of the blogosphere. I think that the real impact blogs can have is to affect what Peter Daou refers to as media narratives -- how issues are discussed not by blogs but by media outlets, which issues they emphasize, how they understand the matters on which they are reporting. Very few (if any) blogs yet have enough readers, by themselves, to have a meaningful impact on that basis alone. The cumulative number of blog readers makes blogs a real collective force, but what matters beyond the number of people who are reading blogs is who is reading them.

Blogs have become a primary source of information, analysis and original stories for many reporters, pundits, news producers, congressional staffers, even high-level political officials. The influence of blogs is, in many ways, more indirect than direct. Blogs increasingly influence the way in which stories are reported, what stories are emphasized and what issues are given political attention.

Several months ago, blogs were one of the very few venues where discussion could be found of the radical theories of executive power, and the outright lawlessness, which characterize the Bush administration. Now, those issues are discussed prominently on an almost daily basis in the most prominent media outlets. Either directly (through their own readership) or indirectly (by those in the media and political power circles), blogs played at least a significant role, if not the predominant role, in forcing those issues into the open. Blogs have had a similar effect with regard to a host of other issues, because that is one of the things which blogs do best: relentlessly compile evidence and document claims so that they cannot be ignored or dismissed any longer.

The extremism and dangerous rhetoric on which the Bush movement so heavily relies is quite blatant and easy to see. The more it is documented and highlighted, the more it will seep into the narratives promoted by the national media. The reason the Bush presidency has become so extreme is because those who compose it and support it, in large part, are themselves extremists. Far greater media examination of that dynamic is warranted, and one thing which blogs can do is force those issues to be examined.

UPDATE: Tom Tomorrow writes an open letter to a contact of his at The New York Times, reporter David Carr, explaining why media coverage of the extremism in the right-wing blogosphere is long overdue:

The thing is, David, that while your colleagues focus on the occasional swear word or internecine pissing match on left wing blogs, they mostly ignore what’s happening on the right half of the blogosphere. And it’s a fever swamp over there, it really is. Accusations of treason, made in utter seriousness, are routinely levelled against journalists who have the audacity to report the facts, and against Democratic Senators who have the temerity to oppose the president.

To their credit, Newsweek’s Blogwatch column this week notes a prominent right-wing blogger responding to the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision with the comment “Five ropes, five robes, five trees. Some assembly required.” (A similar sentiment, aimed at journalists, can be found on the site of a t-shirt company that frequently advertises on right-wing blogs.) Here’s one question: if such rhetoric can be laughed off by your colleagues as mere hyperbole — particularly when they are frequently the suggested target — why on earth do they get so worked up over a few allegedly foul-mouthed liberals?

Tom's whole letter is highly worth reading, particularly if you are a journalist.

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