Who’s Driving This Train?

Part of a Series



Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

"Who’s Driving This Train?"

Go down the Iraq laundry list; no WMD’s found, bogus intelligence claims, American GIs dying at the clip of at least one-a-day, a billion a week just for security, while Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden still roam the landscape. So what’d the press do last week when covering the war? Blame the Democrats, of course.

We don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression right off the bat here. This column will not be in the business of flacking for the Democrats, with whom we have many problems and differences, as will become evident in weeks ahead. What we hope to identify here is a dreaded media malady we seek to christen “Ontheonehandism.” This is how the So-Called Liberal Media (SCLM) demonstrates their alleged even-handedness by finding ways to criticize Democrats and liberals even when they’re right, no matter how trivial or wrong-headed the critique.

The backdrop this time was the Congressional vote on the Bush administration’s request for $87 billion to rebuild and secure Iraq. A month ago, the vote was a sure-thing. But as Bush’s poll numbers continued to fall, and opposition across the country to the big bill rose, even Republicans became nervous about the White House plans for Iraq’s future.

But it was all of the Democrats’ fault. They didn’t hatch the war plan, didn’t plan it, and they didn’t launch it. They didn’t lie and they didn’t screw up the occupation, infuriate the rest of the world, or create a situation where U.S. taxpayers will need to fork over hundreds of billions for years on-end, without any currently credible plan to make the U.S. or the world any safer. Remember, they don’t have access to the levers of power in the House, Senate, or White House, so they can’t effectively fix the quagmire. And even conservative Republican Chuck Hagel is worried that Congress gave President Bush too much latitude in conducting foreign policy after the Sept. 11. Still, the pundits demand they refrain even from questioning who’s going to pay for it, how much, and where the money’s going.

Try to follow the logic of Time’s Joe Klein, who skewers Democrats for opposing the monstrous bill, created by a bungled foreign policy. He calls the vote “an embarrassment” for Democrats. Upfront Klein concedes, “Bush was playing politics” by refusing to break out the funding into one for the military operation, and one for the rebuilding. And Klein admits, “The original casus belli was, at the very least, oversold. The post-Saddam period has been marked by American arrogance and incompetence. The prognosis for Iraq is grave. It is not even clear that the three main ethnic and religious groups — the Kurds, Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims — can be knitted into a coherent country.”

But then, turning his eye towards Democrats, Klein — in a view that was echoed over the weekend by Chris Matthews on NBC, Brit Hume and Tony Snow on Fox, and many others – insists, “These are not plausible reasons to oppose the $87 billion.”

Huh? What would be a plausible reason to oppose it then? The pundits’ position is that America needs to start dumping as much money as possible into Iraq, for however long it takes, as long as the Bush White House is asking for the dollars. Why bother having two parties?

The best part is Klein has to confess that “the polls say a solid majority of Americans are against spending more money in Iraq.” That’d be Gallup, CBS/New York Times, and ABC News, which all show a strong, bipartisan majority of voters are opposed to the massive spending bill.

So you think when Sen. John Kerry voted against the $87 billion it might have been because there’s a good chance 70 percent of Massachusetts voters opposed the bill? How are Democrats representing their constituencies views in the tradition of um, representative democracy, with regard to our Iraq policy, “an embarrassment,” as Klein calls it?

No matter, a Washington Post editorial called the Dems’ position of trying to apply the brakes to a run-away foreign policy disaster to be “illogical” and “shameful.” While the New York Times labeled the Dems’ Senate plan (joined by eight Republicans) to turn $10 billion of the Iraqi spending into a loan, “a terrible idea."

Times columnist David Brooks went even further, “Saddam Hussein would be jubilant in Pelosi’s Iraq. …If the Pelosi Democrats had won yesterday’s vote, the Saddam Doctrine would be enshrined in every terrorist cave and dictator’s palace around the world: kill some Americans and watch the empire buckle.” And The New Republic smacked Dems too, over their “confusion” for not falling in line fast enough behind the quick-sand plans of the White House: “Now that Bush is again asking for their support, their primary message is: Screw you, Mr. President. That may make them feel better. But it isn’t much of a foreign policy vision.”

No vision? Try this, from Ted Kennedy: “A no vote is not a vote against supporting our troops. It is a vote to send the Administration back to the drawing board. It is a vote for a new policy – a policy worthy of the sacrifice our soldiers are making, a policy that restores America as a respected member of the family of nations, a policy that will make it easier, not far more difficult, to win the war against terrorism.”

Of course, like Klein, New Republic had to concede that yes, polls show most Americans oppose the $87 billion spending. Worse apparently, Congressmen were subject to “the hectoring of constituents. Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha says he has ‘never gotten as much mail on any issue’ as he has in opposition to the $87 billion appropriation.”

Wait, it gets worse. Even when it came the disgraceful White House spy scandal, some on the left found a way to scold Democrats. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof lashed his knee-jerk onthehandism while dissecting the White House’s deliberate leak of Valerie Plame’s undercover identity. Obviously the Bush administration was at the center of Kristof’s scorn. But up high in the third graph he made sure to let readers know in a tsk-tsk way that, “My sense is that Democrats exaggerate the damage to [Plame’s] career and to her personal security.”

Dems exaggerated the danger? Here’s what an anonymous, undercover agent told ABC’s “Nightline”: “This is life and death. I don’t know if [Plame] has been provided with any kind of security. You know, her life obviously is in danger.”

Oh and by the way, President Bush threatened to veto the bill if it didn’t come out the way he liked. Nothing irresponsible there.

"I Dreamed I Killed Joe Hill Last Night"

Ever wonder why even in the most liberal elements of the SCLM conservatives rule the roost when it comes to economic issues? NPR and PBS, to say nothing of the networks, are brimming with shows like “Moneyline” and “Market Place." Don’t recall any shows called “Laborline” or “Workers Place.”

When they’re not worrying about stock prices, coverage tends to focus on consumers. Rarely if ever are workers allowed into the story — even, when, get this, they go on strike. Take a look at this Washington Post story about the grocery and municipal strikes in Los Angeles right now. There doesn’t seem to be much mention in the piece, to why the workers might have thought it necessary to strike. Instead we’re supposed to worry about inconvenienced shoppers.

The same criticism can’t be made of these pieces in the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Weekly, however. Pick up those papers and you’d learn that UFCW grocery store workers in Southern California start at the minimum wage of $6.75 an hour for beginning baggers, while Meat cutters’ hourly wage can reach $19.18. The average, according to the union is about $8 per hour. In the current negotiation, the union is asking for a 50 cent raise in the first year of a new contract, to be followed by 45 cents each of the next two years.

Meanwhile late Saturday, the national chains, Safeway’s Vons and Pavilions stores, Albertson’s, Inc=, Kroger Co. and Ralphs, bargaining collectively are demanding, among a total of 50 concessions, that union workers pay health-insurance premiums for themselves and their family members for the first time in more than 50 years. The union adds that they are also attempting to impose a two-tier salary system that would give substantially lower pay and benefits to new workers through their first four years of employment.

In addition, there’s the spectre of Wal-Mart, which plans to open up grocery stores all across California. Wal-Mart does not publicly discuss wages, which vary across the country, and its spokespeople claim that nobody earns minimum wage. But court records in one law suit place the average Wal-Mart wage in 2001 at a mere $8.23 an hour. A Wall Street Journal story recently reported that new hires must wait six months to sign up for benefits, which don’t include many shots and other standard medical practices. Workers can hardly be considered paranoid for seeing Wal-Mart as a clear and present danger to their hard-won living standards, modest as these may appear to many more fortunate Americans.

“Think Again” is a weekly column designed to examine the framing of key issues in the mainstream media. Senior Fellow Eric Alterman is the editor and overseer of this column, but only sometimes its author. Frequently it will be written and researched by a team of media watchers, who will be credited or not, as they prefer.




The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series