Media Beat, June 2, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Media Elite Prods Clinton Toward Status Quo

Media Elite Prods Clinton Toward Status Quo

For days after the selection of David Gergen to be a top White House adviser [in May 1993], the Washington press corps showered President Clinton's move with near-unanimous praise.

If we had real diversity in national media, tough questions would be widespread. For example: Is it hypocritical for a man who became president by denouncing 12 years of Reagan-Bush trickle-down economics to appoint Gergen, one of the most successful salesmen of Reaganomics?

But such blunt questions were rarely posed -- even after Clinton proclaimed that the Gergen appointment "signals to the American people where I am, what I believe and what I'm going to do."

Far from being diverse or "liberal," the national media have functioned with remarkable uniformity in recent months, pressuring Clinton away from key campaign pledges. Bringing in a former Reagan media strategist was a symbolic white flag hoisted by the current White House -- a gesture of surrender to an establishment press that has pounded at Clinton to avoid serious reform.

The New York Times, which has contributed to the pounding, headlined its report on the Gergen appointment: "An Offering To the Wolves."

The headline had unintended insight. Among the wolves of the media elite, anxiety over the intentions of the first Democratic president in a dozen years has been palpable. They've snarled and snapped at any indication the new man in the White House might actually carry out the populist promises that helped put him there.

On a daily basis during the summer and fall campaign, Clinton condemned policies that favor the rich over people of ordinary means. He attacked the Republicans as captives of corporate lobbyists and contributors. He promised to reform the tax structure, and to invest in job creation as a way of reducing the deficit. He pledged that his inclusionary politics would bring new faces to Washington.

The campaign paid off for Clinton -- especially among women and racial minorities. If only white men had voted, George Bush would still be president.

But from the day Clinton was elected, leading political journalists -- such as Steve Roberts of U.S. News & World Report -- began instructing him on how to break his promises of change, including his pledges for campaign finance reform. A post-election New York Times report stated: "For a politician with as many promises as Mr. Clinton, keeping to a few priorities will require self-restraint."

Journalists are supposed to expose politicians who break promises -- not encourage them, or hail them for "self-restraint."

Mass media also weighed in against Clinton when he sought to fulfill his pledge of looking beyond the Beltway to include fresh faces in his administration. A media furor greeted several such outsider candidates.

President Clinton's continual backpedaling on reform promises -- military cuts, job stimulus, Haitian refugees, gays in the armed forces, etc. -- has alienated key Democratic Party constituencies. Their leaders, whose views about the administration rarely appear in establishment media, say that White House waffling and indecisiveness are largely to blame for Clinton's drop in the polls.

But in recent weeks, many national news outlets have united in blaming Clinton's failures on one main factor: the "lurch to the left." Reports on this theme have ignored basic standards of balanced journalism -- especially the requirement that people from various sides be quoted.

Typical was a "Clinton has veered left" news story in the New York Times a week before the Gergen appointment. Quoting only disgruntled conservative Democrats, the article offered an unrebutted compilation of dubious claims: That Clinton was elected because he campaigned as a conservative. (No evidence was cited.) That liberals dominate Clinton's cabinet -- news that would surprise Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Defense Secretary Les Aspin and others.

The story included the assertion that Clinton has "done everything Jesse Jackson could have asked for." Times reporter Michael Kelly didn't bother quoting Jackson or kindred spirits. If he had, that statement and the whole article would have been rendered absurd. When we called Jackson's office, we were provided a laundry list of (Jackson-supported) progressive measures which Clinton endorsed during the campaign, but abandoned after entering the White House.

Given the media drumbeat about Clinton's supposed "leftward lurch," perhaps it's no surprise that in selecting David Gergen, a compliant president spouted media catchphrases about purging his administration of "a tinge that is too partisan and not connected to the mainstream."

To those who voted for Bill Clinton because of his message of change, these words of contrition might sound disappointingly like "Return to the status quo."

New York Times columnist William Safire, who helped popularize the "lurch to the left" myth, used the Gergen appointment as an opportunity to gloat and declare victory. He concluded his May 31 column by exhorting Clinton to prove his compliance by recognizing that "taxpayer-subsidized health insurance does not fit into the mainstream."

As with most "leftward lurch" propaganda, there was a tiny problem: evidence. In poll after poll conducted by Safire's New York Times, majorities of the public endorse "tax-financed health insurance."

Fitting "into the mainstream" -- as defined by Washington's media elite -- means scorning programs that could benefit most Americans.

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