Private Accounts, Personal Attacks

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With Social Security privatization looming as the Bush administration's primary weapon of mass deception for 2005, right-wing partisans in the press have recently begun rolling out a fresh batch of talking points with which to smear its opponents. This new initiative will, alas, strike many as familiar.

As with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the administration is currently softening up its base with a high-powered scare campaign to convince Americans that Social Security is on the verge of crumbling. As the Christian Science Monitor recently reported, "The White House, along with allies such as the Club for Growth, is planning a PR blitz to promote Social Security reform…The campaign will include presidential speeches, broadcast and print media, and rallies. Bush's goal is not to set the specifics for reform, but to create the political space necessary for Congress to present him with a plan that meets his broad outlines and that he can sign."

According to conservative blogger, Brian c= Anderson, the degeneration of our political culture is exclusively attributable to the "habit of left-liberal political argument to use such invective to dismiss conservative beliefs as if they don't deserve an argument and to redefine mainstream conservative arguments as extremism and bigotry." But it would take an even better reporter than Sy Hersh to find a way to blame liberals in the Social Security debate.

According to a recent report by Reuters report, the Club for Growth is planning on laying out $15 million as part of this pro-privatization campaign, while the conservative Cato Institute is slated to distribute 25,000 Social Security guides to "help" community leaders shape public opinion for the president. While the right wing ratchets up support for the president's plan by throwing millions of dollars at the issue, they have also begun to float some trial balloons in the apparent hope of muddling the substantive debate with personal invective. The first victim in this cynical game appears to be the AARP, who has publicly come out against the president's privatization plan.

Just a day before the AARP was to announce a $5 million two-week anti-privatization ad campaign to coincide with the start of the new Congress, the right struck back. On December 29th, the editor of the far right Accuracy in Media's "AIM Report," Cliff Kincaid, wrote "From Pot to Porn to AARP," a piece where he exhumed the "curious background" of AARP The Magazine's editor Ed Dwyer, slamming Dwyer for having written for High Times, Playboy and Penthouse earlier in his career. Like the complaints of a certain group of disgruntled vets this past summer however, we find that Dwyer's tenure at High Times took place almost three decades ago, during the early 1970s. Apparently, conservative outrage knows a long shelf life. (Readers should be aware that Accuracy in Media bears roughly the same relationship to actual accuracy in media as the Holy Roman Empire did to holiness, Rome, and empires.)

Kincaid criticized the AARP for hiring "veterans of the counter-culture and using seniors in a deceptive campaign to peddle dope," (in reference to a recent AARP poll that found a majority of seniors favor medical marijuana) while trying to tie Dwyer to High Times founder Tom Facade's nuttier statements about his affection for Kim Il Sung and Hitler. But creating controversies where none exists while relying on personal attacks has long been a trademark of conservative critics. Consider the meme currently being floated by the right about the death of "old media" and the ascendancy of the blogosphere since their alleged victory over Dan Rather this past fall. As Corey Pein points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, what stands as the "Boston Tea Party" for conservative bloggers isn't as cut and dry as has been presented in most media reports. He finds that "Much of the bloggers' vaunted fact-checking was seriously warped. Their driving assumptions were often drawn from flawed information or based on faulty logic. Personal attacks passed for analysis."

As with the Iraq debate, we can see conservatives employing this tactic almost write large. Hugh Hewitt recently penned an article in the Weekly Standard that is a cookie-cutter example of this new approach to journalism. According to him, "center-right" blogs and FOX News have decimated the mainstream press, and today the media is little more than a "self-replicating echo chamber of left and further-left scribblers and talkers and self-reinforcing head nodders who [are] overwhelmingly anti-Republican, anti-Christian, anti-military, anti-wealth, anti-business, and even anti-middle class." These tendencies are apparently so obvious to the objective observer that Hewitt declines to provide any evidence. Hewitt continues on to propose reform measures designed to improve media coverage to conform to his diagnosis. These include forcing reporters and producers to publish answers to questions like: "For whom did the reporter vote for president in the past five elections? Do they attend church regularly and if so, in which denomination? Do they believe that the late-term abortion procedure known as partial-birth abortion should be legal? Do they believe same sex marriage ought to be legal? Did they support the invasion of Iraq? Do they support drilling in ANWR?" Could Joe McCarthy have designed a better questionnaire?

The right wing media has shown, never more so than now in its moment of triumph, that rather than answer critics with factual rebuttals, they instead prefer to confuse the issue with slander, innuendo, and personal attacks. Let's hope the nation's system of savings does not go the way of honest and accurate debate over what to do about the containment of Iraq.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.

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Eric Alterman

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