After the first Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015, Donald Trump, a former reality television star, made a joke about the moderator's menstrual cycle. Trump also spoke of how he wants to build a $6.4 billion security wall along the border and charge the bill to the Mexican government (which is understandably befuddled by the candidate's "enormous ignorance"). At the second GOP debate on September 16, Dr. Ben Carson answered a question about his flat-tax proposal that made it painfully clear he does not understand the difference between progressive taxation and socialism. Using Carson's criteria, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were both socialist presidents.
These kinds of ironies abound in the Republican candidates' latest crusade against the media. The Republicans took issue with several of the moderator's questions in the October 28, 2015, GOP presidential debate in Colorado. Since then a wave of Republican anger has erupted over the way "the media" handles the presidential debates. The crux of the argument is that CNBC - and the rest of the media - have what Carson calls "a political agenda" to discredit the Republican candidates. The issue has dominated the news cycle, led some candidates to make a list of demands for future debates and prompted some high-profile candidates to support suspending future debates on NBC platforms.
There is no doubt that presidential debates in America, for both parties, are deeply flawed and lacking in substance. The politicians and the media all share in the blame for this. But the Republicans' latest campaign is not an effort to solve this problem but rather an effort to scare the public into believing that the mainstream media are conspiring to advance a leftist agenda.
If one looks beyond the GOP's alarmist rhetoric, however, a different reality emerges. The truth is that CNBC's coverage is extremely hostile to the left and embraces the GOP's worldview in many ways. Further, the relationship between its parent company, Comcast, and the Republican Party, is just one example of just how the corporate media and the GOP have many shared interests. This latest anti-media blitz following the CNBC debate is merely a disingenuous act of political theater.
"Too Ludicrous to Discuss": The Politics of CNBC's Coverage
The right has tried to paint the mainstream media as a propaganda machine for the left for decades. The strategy has had some success. It has helped conservatives dismiss unfavorable stories as "agenda driven," while at the same time making their base more militant and skeptical of anyone outside of their own echo chamber.
Consider Mitt Romney's infamous remarks on video about "the 47 percent" from September 2012. The comments painted half the country as dependent freeloaders and were a shocking revelation just weeks before the presidential election. So, like the rest of the national media, the New York Times reported on the developing story, making updates on their campaign blog, the Caucus.
"The idea that CNBC has a leftwing agenda is too ludicrous to discuss," said Noam Chomsky.
Of course, there was no disputing the accuracy of the video - Romney's comments were there for all to see. So conservative websites, such as Breitbart.com, dismissed the story as "another textbook example of media bias" that was "dripping with left-wing spin." These recent outrage about the media are just the latest manifestation of this time-tested strategy, with similar reactions from the right-wing media.
But the Republicans' decision to paint CNBC as the poster boy for liberal media bias is especially curious. While conservative websites like Breitbart and Hot Air were buying these allegations of bias, they are almost impossible to take seriously.
"The idea that CNBC has a leftwing agenda is too ludicrous to discuss," said Noam Chomsky in an email to Truthout.
CNBC is in no way liberal in its disposition; in fact, as a channel, it basically devotes itself to celebrating our capitalist economy as if it were a sport. It has a relatively small audience, but it is the wealthiest audience of any cable network in the country. In a leaked internal memo CNBC President Mark Hoffman bragged that "CNBC is a network for the wealthy, and those who aspire to be wealthy." CNBC is effectively the cable news network for the 1 percent.
Its hosts and guests' reverence for "free" market capitalism is so absolute that it is almost religious in nature. They speak of capitalism and freedom as if one cannot exist without the other.
"If you're not a capitalist, you're not really an American," said one CNBC contributor on Larry Kudlow's show, when discussing the Occupy Wall Street protests from 2011. He added, "Some people just like to break windows."
These kinds of comments are the norm on CNBC. In fact, much of the commentary and analysis on CNBC - on all sorts of issues, not limited to finance - is almost identical to the rhetoric used by the same Republican candidates who are now cursing CNBC.
Consider Donald Trump's racist attacks on immigrants as dangerous criminal and rapists. In September, 2015, CNBC published a story defending Trump on its website with the headline "Are Immigrants Really Freeloaders? New Study backs Trump's Attacks."
The network has also amplified the common (and nonsensical) Republican notion that "the President is a socialist," as Peter Schiff, the CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, said on a CNBC broadcast.
CNBC hosts are also infamous for their contempt for poor people. In early 2009, efforts were underway in Washington to help homeowners who were struggling to keep their houses in the aftermath of the housing bubble bursting (though ultimately these efforts did not end well). The idea of providing help to struggling families who were victims of a financial crash they didn't cause, drove CNBC host Rick Santelli mad. "Do we really want to subsidize these losers?" he asked angrily. "Or do we at least want to buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people who might have a chance to prosper down the road." This diatribe has been credited by many, including the New York Times' Paul Krugman, with having "launched the Tea Party Movement."
While CNBC helped launch at least one conservative movement, it did everything in its power to mock, smear and vilify the Occupy movement, which was exposing the inherent cruelty of the capitalist system they view as gospel. When Occupy protesters appeared on Wall Street in 2011, CNBC mocked them endlessly. One compilation of some the station's commentary of Occupy shows some highlights of their smear campaign: the protesters were "anti-Americans" who "miss the 60s and love to grow their hair and let their freak flags fly ... some people just like to break windows."
This commentary is almost identical to the Republican talking points on the protests. Mitt Romney, who was running for president when the protests began, called the protests"dangerous ... class warfare."
CNBC does what the Republicans do: It advocates policies and worldviews that benefit the richest Americans, while ignoring the working class, most of whom do not have a stake in the stock market.
It is hard to find a single issue on which CNBC doesn't take the favored right-wing position. Larry Kudlow, who for years was one of the most recognizable hosts on the network, has called the food stamp program an "outrage" that needs to be slashed and pushed for major (and totally needless) cuts to Social Security, to mostly agreeable guests. The network constantly calls for "serious government austerity," and is critical of government stimulus. It also shares the Republicans irrational obsession with inflation and, like much of the corporate media, is critical of even modest forms of monetary stimulus, like quantitative easing.
The financial news network does not limit its conservative positions to economic issues. For instance, when Larry Kudlow led a panel on Edward Snowden's revelations on the government's vast surveillance program, every single guest chastised Edward Snowden. Even former Bill Clinton aide Keith Boykin - who was supposed to be the token liberal on the panel - described Snowden as being "sanctimonious" and having a "messianic complex." CNBC's commentary on Obamacare, net neutrality and climate change all take a similarly one-sided approach.
MSNBC and the Limitations of "Progressive" Corporate Media
While Republicans' anger has mostly been directed specifically at CNBC, they have expressed distrust of any NBC affiliate. This, of course, includes MSNBC, which unlike CNBC, does have many hosts and guests who are critical of Republicans.
But the argument that MSNBC is a radical left-wing network is wildly overstated. Many of the station's shows (like the Rachel Maddow Show and the Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell) are indeed hosted by partisan Democrats who are critical of Republicans. But even when the station is advancing the interests of the Democrats, those featured on its shows rarely espouse an actual "left-wing" agenda.
Instead, the network generally favors one elite group of power brokers (the Democrats) over another competing group of elite power brokers (the Republicans). In doing this, the network often serves to defend the Democrats' more hawkish and regressive policies.
GOP allegations of a left-wing media are not only ludicrous, they are impossible: The heads of these massive corporations simply would not allow a pro-labor, anti-corporate agenda to transpire on their watch.
For instance, when Obama engaged in a bombing campaign against Libya without congressional approval, not a single liberal host at MSNBC at the time(Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O'Donnell and Cenk Uygur)opposed the intervention. (For more on the limits of corporate owned "progressive media" see "MSNBC's Flawed Coverage of Libya, the Economy," a Truthout news analysis from 2011.)
Media Ownership: The Elephant in the (Board) Room
The fact is, MSNBC's progressive leanings are extremely limited by the institutional structure of its parent company, Comcast. This limitation is also the biggest (and most overlooked) weakness of the GOP's broader allegations of media bias: it completely ignores the matter of ownership.
The mass media in the United States are not run by worker's collectives, guerilla insurgents or even progressive nonprofits. These outlets are owned by titans of American capital - an increasingly small and powerful handful of corporate conglomerates. The primary decision-makers for these entities are CEOs and large shareholders -immensely wealthy businessmen and investors who are legally bound to put their profit above all else, even the public good.
In 1983, Ben Bagdikian published his groundbreaking book, The Media Monopoly, which revealed that just 50 corporations owned 90 percent of the media. Now, more than 90 percent of the media is owned by just six companies: Viacom, Time Warner, News Corporation, Comcast, Disney and CBS Corporation. This type of consolidation was accelerated greatly when President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lessened restrictions on cross-ownership.
Media consolidation has been devastating to democracy. When 90 percent of the media are owned by massive corporations, it is only logical that the media would be greatly influenced by the interests of these institutions.
"This tight control by the giant firms has profound political and social consequences," said Bagdikian on his website. "It has been a major factor in the country's political shift toward the far right."
Amid this environment, the GOP allegations of a left-wing media are not only ludicrous, they are impossible: The heads of these massive corporations simply would not allow a pro-labor, anti-corporate agenda to transpire on their watch. Any news director who tried to pursue a radical left agenda aimed at increasing the taxes and labor costs of their parent company would be replaced 30 seconds into the next board meeting.
Comcast and the GOP: A Symbiotic Relationship
The Republican's insistence that NBC is on an ideological mission to discredit the party is made all the more dubious when you consider that the GOP's political relationship with its parent company, Comcast.
As Politico reported of Comcast in March 2014, "The Philadelphia cable giant historically has been a major Beltway player." The company was especially active when, in February 2014, it requested approval for a proposed 45.2 billion merger with Time Warner. But, as Politico reports, "Comcast even in normal years is a major political donor … the company spent more than $3.5 million during 2011 and 2012 on a slew of Democratic and Republican candidates."
According to Open Secrets, which tracks political donations, Comcast provided over $5 million dollars in political donations in the 2014 election cycle. The top three recipients were the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and then Speaker of the House John Boehner.
To be sure, Comcast plays both sides of the fence. When it was pushing for the merger (which ultimately was abandoned), "the cable giant has donated in some way to 32 of the 39 members of the House Judiciary Committee," Politico reported. "And Comcast has canvassed the two congressional panels that chiefly regulate cable, broadband and other telecom issues, donating to practically every lawmaker there."
So far in the 2016 election cycle Republicans have got the majority of Comcast's donations, but historically the company plays both sides of the fence and donates comparable amounts to both parties. But clearly, the media giant is not interested in making enemies of either of the major political parties.
In addition to its political donations, Comcast also has what The Wall Street Journal called an influential "lobbying machine."
"Comcast boasts one of the biggest corporate lobbying operations in Washington, spending $17 million in 2014, second only to Google Inc.," the Journal reported in January 2015.
Open Secrets records shows Comcast spent more than $35 million in lobbying in 2014 election cycle and the records show that Comcast's annual donations have increased significantly since they purchased NBC from General Electric in 2009.
Comcast has a large stake in some of the more important political battles coming up over how to regulate the Internet, and Comcast wants friends in Washington, not enemies.
It is also notable that media companies have already got a nice return on their investments in Washington since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2009 gave free reign for Super PACs to raise money and buy political ads. In the words of the Associated Press, Citizens United effectively constituted a "stimulus package" for broadcast and cable media companies.
During the 2012 presidential election cycle $3.1 billion dollars were spent on political ads, almost double of the spending the 2008 presidential election which preceded Citizens United. Many in the media industry expect this record to break again in the 2016 election cycle.
Fiction and Fear in US Politics
In 1964, Harpers published Richard Hofstadter's classic piece of political writing, "The Paranoid Style of American Politics." In it he wrote the following:
American Politics have often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.
The Republican's latest effort to turn a bunch of fairly docile debate questions into a war against the media and its "left-wing agenda," is exactly the kind of politics of fear Hofstadter referenced. These conspiracies about the media being "anti-business, pro-big government, anti-family and anti-religion" and working to "promote a socialist agenda" are clearly delusional.
But the Republicans don't need to prove the merits of their accusations of the media - they just need to convince a few "angry minds" that the media is out to get them. It is the fear and skepticism that these stories create within the increasingly radicalized right-wing base that serves the ends of the Republicans. These talking points that are so fundamentally untrue and so easy to disprove become the talking points of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Soon they become core beliefs for an increasingly militant and irrational right wing base that can actually influence policy.
In this "arena for angry minds," fear often matters more than the truth. And this is at the root of the Republican's latest performance - a manufactured war against the media.