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Think Again: The Power of Un-Reality

NRA rally

SOURCE: AP/Seth Perlman

Illinois gun owners and supporters fill out NRA applications while participating in an Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day convention before marching to the Illinois State Capitol, Wednesday, March 7, 2012, in Springfield, Illinois.

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Naturally, last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, has inspired a revival of America’s attempts to discuss the problem of gun control. What many people fail to consider when the nation is faced with such soul-searching tragedies (or natural catastrophes) is how much of our debate is predetermined by the ability of powerful interests—whether they be interest groups, corporate lobbyists, or the newly expanding category of government and contract public relations workers—to shape what we see, read, and hear. As the number of people practicing honest journalism has shrunk precipitously in the past decade, we are, as a nation, more and more vulnerable to this manipulation and distortion of information.

The problem is particularly significant regarding gun control. As Nicholas Confessore, Michael Cooper, and Michael Luo report in The New York Times, the National Rifle Association has proven expert in deploying its considerable power and influence to shut down all discussion of even minimal regulation of dangerous firearms in recent times. The NRA temporarily shut down its website and Twitter feed for the moment, but as the authors report, “It wields one of the biggest sticks in politics: A $300 million budget, millions of members around the country and virtually unmatched ferocity in advancing its political and legislative interests.”

That ferocity, over time, has succeeded in transforming the nation’s understanding of the Constitution’s second amendment. As Jeffrey Toobin noted in The New Yorker, for more than 100 years, the second amendment was interpreted merely to confer “on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.” But, Toobin explains, beginning in the late 1970s, following a right-wing “coup d’etat” within the organization, what was once an apolitical group devoted to gun safety and the like began to push for a new interpretation of the amendment—one that interpreted it to apply to individuals and hence significantly restricted Congress’s ability to pass gun-control legislation. (Right-wing, anti-gun-control organizations outspend their opponents by an approximately 19-1 ratio.)

Toobin harps on the hypocrisy of this stance:

Conservatives often embrace “originalism,” the idea that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed when it was ratified, in 1787. They mock the so-called liberal idea of a “living” constitution, whose meaning changes with the values of the country at large. But there is no better example of the living Constitution than the conservative re-casting of the Second Amendment in the last few decades of the twentieth century.

But my interest here (for the purposes of this column, at least) is not so much in the issue of gun control but in the ability of a decidedly self-interested—and in historical context, quite radical—organization to redefine reality. Regarding so-called “gun rights,” Toobin tells the story of the NRA manufacturing phony knowledge, “commissioning academic studies aimed at proving” the amendment said what few if any believed it did at the time, and eventually “an outré constitutional theory, rejected even by the establishment of the Republican Party, evolved, through brute political force, into the conservative conventional wisdom” and “became the law of the land.” “The battle over gun control,” Toobin rightly notes, is one of a “continuing clash of ideas, backed by political power.”

One cannot help but be impressed by this achievement in what the late writer and political commentator Walter Lippmann once called “the manufacture of consent,” but it is hardly unique in present-day discussion, especially since the current resurgence of the radical right began around the time of the NRA takeover. But it was never put quite so cogently until the summer of 2002, in a conversation the journalist Ron Suskind described having with an aide to President George W. Bush:

The aide said guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

And study we must. A remarkable series recently published by Reuters called “The Unequal State of America” recently featured a detailed study of the manner in which “the federal government has emerged as one of the most potent factors driving income inequality in the United States – especially in the nation’s capital.”

A big reason for this is that “changes to government policy are benefiting the affluent more than other Americans. The tax cuts were a major contributor to an increase in the nation’s inequality in the 2000s.” The study also noted that since 1989:

  • Income inequality has increased in 49 of 50 states
  • The poverty rate has increased in 43 states
  • 28 states have seen an increase in income inequality and the poverty rate, as well as a decrease in median household income
  • In all 50 states, the richest 20 percent of households made far greater income gains than any other quintile—up 12 percent nationally
  • Income for the median household—in the very middle—fell in 28 states

Yet so many in our media continue to treat the federal government as if it were an engine of redistribution downward, only giving to the people who need a hand just to make ends meet. One reason for this is that poor people don’t have lobbyists. Meanwhile, as Reuters notes:

Nearly 13,000 lobbyists registered with the government last year and reported $3.3 billion in fees, or about $260,000 per lobbyist. That’s 22 percent more lobbyists and 37 percent more inflation-adjusted revenue per lobbyist than in 1998. …

The number of organizations with a political presence in Washington – that maintain an office or are represented by lobbyists or lawyers – more than doubled between 1981 and 2006 to nearly 14,000 … [and] more than half the groups were devoted to furthering the interests of businesses. The next closest were state and local governments, at 12 percent. The rest were fragmented into single-digit shares among divergent interests. Second to last on the list, just above unions, were groups advocating for the poor, at 0.9 percent.

This is true almost everywhere you look. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of corporate lobbyists devoted to climate change rose by more than 400 percent between 2003 and 2010 to a total of 2,810—giving lobbyists a 5-to-1 advantage over the combined membership of the House and Senate. (This is in contrast to an estimated 138 lobbyists working on behalf of alternative forms of energy.)

One aspect of these questions of which many Americans are unaware is the fact that reporters, more often than not, get their information from lobbyists—not from elected representatives and their staffs—and hence the reality of the effects of the legislation voted upon almost always remains hidden. What’s more, many of these lobbyists’ success results in the fact of nothing happening.

Frank Baumgartner, University of North Carolina professor and co-author of the book Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why, says: “The real outcome of most lobbying—in fact, its greatest success—is the achievement of nothing, the maintenance of the status quo. Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens. … what we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs.” And as former Republican senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen told Charlie Rose in August 2010, the pressure put on candidates for Congress by lobbyists is “obscene.” He continued, “If the American people saw what legislators go through, [with lobbyists saying,] ‘Don’t forget we supported you in your campaign,’ I think the American public would finally turn against that.”

But they rarely do.

Of course, working hand-in-glove with the lobbyists are the public relations specialists of these same interests. Corporate PR has long exercised significant power to define what Lippmann called “the pictures in our heads,” but the problem has grown both significantly worse and more complex in recent times owing both to the fracturing of so many of our most important media institutions and the explosion of newly sophisticated means of public manipulation.

Writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune, for instance, Christopher Cadelago recently reported on the surge of government and private contract communicators that has been allowed to fill the void left by the declining ranks of major media institutions. He notes:

Nationwide, the number of government PR workers more than doubled from 2003 to 2011 while the number of reporters and correspondents fell by a quarter, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There used to be one government PR specialist for every four reporters in America; now the relationship is almost 1-to-1.

And these numbers do not count the government’s extensive use of PR contractors. Ironically—or perhaps sadly—many of these new PR officers are former reporters, downsized in the endless tsunami of personnel cuts at virtually every significant media institution in the nation.

“If we see a further diminishment of independent sources of news and become too reliant on corporate-fed or government-fed news, then voters and the public lose the ability to really be able to understand the issues that are at hand,” Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, told Caledego. Caledego also spoke with Rebekah Wilce, a reporter at the Center for Media and Democracy, who added:

In general I am concerned and I think all participants in our democracy should be concerned when news is coming through filters that we aren’t aware of — that it’s being published as news when it’s coming from whatever mouthpiece whether it’s governmental or corporate.

This is, indeed, “the way the world really works” today. Corporations, interest groups, and government agencies “create [their] own reality,” and simply overwhelm both journalists and citizens with their self-interested propaganda. And if that means that we as a society fail to prepare ourselves for predictable catastrophes that destroy both lives and our natural environment, well, that’s our problem, not theirs.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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