02 Dec Episode 125: Obama-Era Media Failures We Shouldn’t Rehash Under Biden (Part I)
Citations Needed | December 2, 2020 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am a Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: President-elect Joe Biden has promised what he calls a return to “decency” and “unity”, and American media has broadly characterized his victory over Donald Trump as, in the words of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, “The Third Term of the Obama Presidency.” Many of the same holdovers — Samantha Power, Antony Blinken, Michèle Flournoy, Bob McDonald, Jake Sullivan, Susan Rice, Sally Yates, John Kerry and many in the revolving think tank, consulting outfits, marketing firms, undersecretary advisor world are expected to be back into the White House come January 20, 2021.
Adam: While they have many obvious superficial differences, the Obama and Biden White Houses will more or less borrow from the same playbook: slick, marketing-focused, technocratic, centrist, hawkish maintainers of the neoliberal status quo. As such, many lessons can be learned from the media’s coverage of the Obama White house and what mistakes not to repeat again.
Nima: From Obama’s prosecution of foreign occupations to directing dirty wars, supporting the destruction of Yemen to running a drone strike regime, pushing austerity dogma to continue the brutal war on drugs, inhumane immigration enforcement to many routine cruel and violent policies — because they lacked the partisan hook and sadistic fervor of Trump — were largely ignored, downplayed, or soft pedaled by U.S. media from 2009 to the beginning of 2017.
Adam: On this two-part episode, we’re going to break down these “media mistakes,” running through ten major areas the American press failed to hold the most powerful person in the world to account, as to provide a blueprint of what we may expect under the upcoming Biden administration and how activists can get ahead of these media failures before they inevitably manifest.
Nima: On today’s show, we’ll be joined by Peter Hart, National Communications Manager for Food & Water Watch. Previously, he was the Activism Director for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for 15 years, as well as the co-producer and co-host of FAIR’s weekly radio show CounterSpin.
Peter Hart: One of the most important boxes for the media back then was can Obama bridge the gap with Republicans and pass something that the Republican Party will endorse or at least enough of them will vote for to give it the sheen of bipartisanship? That failed, obviously, and it became a mark against Obama from the very beginning. So the David Broder, chin-stroking kind of DC pundits were disappointed with Obama that he was not able to magically force the Republican Party to come along with him. I think the same thing is going to be true for Biden, the difference, of course, is that Biden’s a known quantity. So he is supposed to know how to get Republicans to do things that perhaps they don’t want to do. In reality, he gets Republicans to do things that they want to do and that, I guess, certainly the Democratic Party base doesn’t want.
Nima: Next time we’ll speak with Roberto Lovato, educator, journalist and author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas.
Roberto Lovato: Instead of looking at the different positions of different political parties, this is largely a waste of time when you really look at the core principles and policies and practices and institutional foundations for immigration policy, legal foundations included, you need to look at the core of it at that level, there’s not that big a difference, this neofascist entity that is Homeland Security.
Adam: So yeah, these are going to be 10 areas that we believe the media failed under Obama. The reason why we think they’re worth re-litigating is because of the similarities both in terms of the general ideology or disposition and the White House’s, and perspective White House’s, relationship with the media, which we’re going to argue under Obama was largely fawning or unskeptical, at least when it came to things that were part of the centrist bipartisan consensus. Now, of course, when he, you know, he wore a tan suit, that may have been a story, but when he was drone striking 16 year olds, it was less so and so we think it’s a useful guide looking forward because I think especially now, Nima, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the constant terror show of Trump every day, the sort of vulgarity, the horrific policies, the overt racism, that now the instinct is to want to sort of take a breath and kick back and take a breath and be like, ‘Thank god, we’re back to normal.’
Nima: Right. That not every day do you need some kind of scandal or horrible breaking news related to the president. That maybe we can all sort of take a deep breath and that’s not going to lead the news every single day.
Adam: On one level I can understand that, or rather I understand the instinct. Unfortunately, our job is to be buzzkill assholes. That’s sort of what we do here. And I do think that there was something similar under Bush. People forget the trauma of Bush, we were just relieved to not have Bush, right? And I think that that can lull people into a place of complacency and you have to sort of recalibrate for what are new things that are going to be dangerous and of course, to some extent, you have to hold Democrats to a much higher standard, since they solicit your votes under the auspices of being progressive, whereas no such pretense existed with Trump, right?
Nima: Well, yeah. You know, and I think that there’s a real parallel here, I don’t want to equate, but I think that there is a rhyming here of coming off of the Bush years, which were incredibly horrific. I think a lot of folks forget how horrific those years were. I happened to already be an adult during those years, and they fucking sucked. The idea of pining for the Bush years, while living during the Trump years, you know, always kind of elicits a side-eye from me at least, and I think it should because those were not good. I don’t think we need to then, you know, do like a hierarchy of horrors, but it was terrible and so coming off of the Bush years with Obama’s win, inauguration, and then that administration, again, you can see this idea of like, ‘Oh, okay, maybe there’s some sort of relief, we can start to undo the horrendous shit that had been done,’ but what gets missed, and I think what we’re going to see again with the similar kind of thought process coming out of Trump into Biden and Kamala Harris’ administration, to undo the horrors of what we have been suffering through, the occupations don’t stop, right? The systemic oppression doesn’t stop, the structural racism doesn’t stop. Those are all constants, and so the kind of relief and the deep breath that we’re able to take with Bush out of office or now with Trump leaving office, we need to remember that those need to be short-lived or maybe not happen at all, unfortunately, because there is so much that is still happening, that needs to be reckoned with, and needs to be worked on to make more just or to completely revolutionize and change and dismantle and I think that what we see in the media is just the relief part and then they go back to being like, ‘Oh, right, our neoliberal, imperial consensus can continue,’ without the same kind of scrutiny without the same level of attention being paid all the time, because it’s not this everyday clown show where American “prestige,” quote-unquote, is getting dragged through the mud. And that’s really what I think so much of the establishment media really cares about more than anything it’s the perception of American nobility and dominance that has really taken a hit for the past four years that they’re going to really look to reclaim in the next four.
Adam: Right. So let’s go down the list here. The first one is the only one that’s not an actual topic, it’s more of a stylistic critique, and that was, there was a focus on what we view as being fawning coverage, uncritical coverage under Obama, that I think will mimic in many ways old Uncle Joe, from supposedly hard-hitting news outlets. So one of the articles I wrote on this in 2016 was focusing on BuzzFeed. Now this is BuzzFeed News, which is nominated for Pulitzers, views itself as a serious news organization, you may hear BuzzFeed and kind of roll your eyes, but BuzzFeed is a serious news organization with tons of money backing it, hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital backing it, it is a serious news outlet, and I noticed a sort of trend — and this is not on BuzzFeed the normal website this is BuzzFeed News — the extensively respectable Russiagate-obsessed news outlet.
Nima: Not the ‘Which ’90s TV character are you?’ listicle, the actual investigative side.
Adam: Yeah, levity is what you expect. So, in the summer of 2016, I did an article focusing on the last one hundred articles that covered Barack Obama.
Nima: It’s about four months of coverage.
Adam: And I found that of the hundred articles, only one was critical of Obama, 65 were positive, 34 were neutral.
Nima: And neutral winds up being kind of positive.
Adam: Yeah and here are some of the headlines we got from BuzzFeed News, the serious news organization, from March of 2016, “Can You Look at These Photos of Trudeau and Obama Without Getting All Hot?” From March of 2016, “Lin-Manuel Miranda Freestyled at the White House With Obama’s Help.” Also from March 2016, “The First Family Gave Us Family Goals as They Walked Through Old Havana.” April 2016, “Steph Curry Being Mentored by Obama Will Give You Squad Goals.” April 2016, “Prince George Met the Obamas in His PJs and It’s Too Much.” May 4, 2016, “Obama Drinks Flint Water, Tells Residents ‘I’ve Got Your Back.’” By the way, within that article, and another Vox article, people forget a month prior Governor Snyder drank the water and they all dismissed it as a publicity stunt but when Obama did it it was a gesture of solidarity. Not sure what the difference is.
Adam: June 2016, “Obama’s Powerful Tribute to Muhammad Ali Is One for the History Books.” June 2016, “President Obama Killed It When He Slow-Jammed the News With Jimmy Fallon,” we’ll get into that one later, that was him doing a commercial for the TPP, another disastrous anti-labor quote unquote “free trade” deal. Another headline from June 2016, “These Kids Wishing Obama a Happy Father’s Day Are So Cute.” And then the following week, they ranked the hottest US presidents and Obama Of course, was number one, which may be objectively true, and this from an inside source at BuzzFeed — who shall remain nameless — this article was actually shared around BuzzFeed and kind of was seen as a source of embarrassment, which doesn’t happen a lot in media criticism, you don’t usually get and I’m not tooting my own horn here — I guess I am — but you don’t usually get feedback like that but imagine if this was RT or Chinese Media, if they did this kind of coverage.
Nima: Oh, they would be rightly slammed for it. That’s the thing.
Adam: This is the most powerful person in the world and he’s treated like a Jonas brother and I think it’s this kind of puffy coverage in new media sites, without doing a totally comprehensive analysis of all media sites, I think with Obama because, you know, he seemed like a nice guy, for all intents and purposes, a great family man, was very charismatic, was very nice to reporters.
Nima: Had good comedic timing.
Adam: Yeah but like the idea that the most powerful person in the world is not your friend, he’s not a celebrity, and quite frankly, celebrities shouldn’t be your friends either, but this is I think going to be a serious risk this kind of puffy, middlebrow, new media, HuffPo, Vox, puff pieces to sort of build the image of these presidents as our buddies.
Nima: I think that there’s a real thing here about coolness, there’s this idea that Obama was cool. Trump is deeply uncool. If you’re acting like a child, sitting in the front of a firetruck thinking that’s neat, you’re foolish, and you’re deeply uncool and I think what we’re gonna see a little bit with Biden, but certainly with Kamala Harris, is a real kind of racialized notion of coolness, which I think the media did with Obama in unspoken, but in a way, overt manners, and I think we’re going to see that with Kamala too, the gifs of her dancing. There’s just this idea that “culturally,” quote-unquote, for American culture, the appropriation of Black style, Black coolness, could be put on Obama, and obviously can be put on Kamala and I think we’re going to see a lot more of that moving forward, which kind of, again, is all about style, nothing about substance, nothing about the ideology or the actual policies of these unbelievably powerful people maintaining an infrastructure that, in many ways is so oppressive, except, instead, we’re just going to see a lot of the quote-unquote “coolness.”
Adam: Yeah, it’s going to be a lot of aesthetic bullshit, which, you know, I mean, to some extent that was done even for George Bush, a lot of the centrist media loves that, they love to kind of humanize presidents.
Nima: It’s like the ‘Guy you want a beer with,’ right?
Adam: Well, it’s the instinct of a child. It’s the way a child views politics, that we’re all friends or that he’s, you know, my buddy, and that we’re all cool. Thank god, we didn’t really do that under Trump, because he’s such a grotesque human being.
Nima: Right. I mean, he’s just so boorish, it’s hard to do that.
Adam: But we really don’t need to bring that back, not to put too fine a note on it.
Nima: There is one other aspect of this, which is less kind of twee, that we’re seeing already, you know, a lot of this we’re just sort of thinking about what to anticipate. I think one of the things that we’ve seen already, just during the transition period, is how the media is treating the announced Biden appointees, right? So who is going to kind of fill out the cabinet, who are his advisors and I think that the way that these are reported on, again, is all about this kind of aesthetic, rah, rah, glass ceiling breaking, these are historic appointments, nothing about substance and then when there are questions about ‘Oh, well, who are these people? What is their record?’ It gets tossed aside, ‘You know, don’t you remember what it was like for the past four years?’
Nima: Can you just stop coming up with these minor things?’ So for instance, we have a headline in The New York Times recently, this quote, “Biden Will Nominate First Women to Lead Treasury and Intelligence, and First Latino to Run Homeland Security,” and then the subhead is, “John Kerry, the former secretary of state, will be the international climate czar, according to the Biden transition team.” End quote. So, again, you see here, the “First Latino to run Homeland Security.” Oh, thank god! I can’t wait until the first Iranian starts running the Biden sanctions regime. That’ll be progress.
Adam: Yeah and the head of the DHS, sorry, his pick for the DHS, he’s not head yet, the new head of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, we’re supposed to celebrate that he’s Latino. He was born in Cuba, he’s of Cuban descent. His father left Cuba in 1960 after the revolution, as the Washington Post mentioned that when Mayorkas visited Cuba, he quote, “drove by the steel wool factory his father once owned, a business he lost in the chaos of the Castro revolution.” So yeah, this is our favorite form of Latino, which is the person who fled Castro, whose father had to give up his steel wool factory. So yeah, this is kind of cynical, because obviously, the movement to abolish ICE and criticize DHS, it’s pretty savvy from a PR standpoint, to want to put a Latino in charge of an organization that’s primarily about deporting, dividing families and destroying the lives of Latinos. That kind of identifies it a little bit, I suppose, sort of like putting a woman in charge of the DoD.
Nima: Right, exactly, you indemnify by tokenizing.
Adam: And so that’s what we’re in store for for the last four years. The number two trope we want to talk about is something that happened under Obama, which is the sort of disappearance or the marketing veneer, where people acted like the war on drugs was over when it absolutely was not. Now, it’s true that the Obama administration made a rhetorical decision to shift away from war on drugs language, but in many ways the war on drugs maintained the same and in other ways it ramped up, so I’m going to read some headlines. This is Ryan Gabrielson of ProPublica, he wrote, “Historically clemency used to heal national wounds after war. Obama is doing it after the war on drugs.” This is also ProPublica, “DEA seeks prosecutors to fight opioid crisis. Critics fear return of the war on drugs.”
Nima: You can’t return to something that’s still happening.
Adam: Right. The ACLU, “Jeff Sessions wants to resurrect the failed War on Drugs, which destroyed families. We won’t go back.” Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker had a headline, “A Drawdown in the War on Drugs.” So, I don’t know if anyone knows this, but the war on drugs never stopped.
Nima: Yeah, it was very much alive and destroying plenty of lives during the Obama years.
Adam: This is the problem with rhetoric and superficial PR, because Obama says, ‘I’m not using the word drugs language anymore.’ That does not make it end.
Nima: So in 2009, Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that he would no longer refer to the quote-unquote “war on drugs” underscoring this quote, “We’re not at war with people in this country,” end quote. However, writer Michelle Alexander, who wrote The New Jim Crow, warned in 2010:
“Kerlikowske insists that the shift is not purely rhetorical, and in a certain respect he’s right. More money is being channeled into drug treatment. But here’s the rub: as the overall drug control budget continues to grow, the ratio between treatment and prevention (36 percent) and interdiction and enforcement (64 percent) remains the same as that found in the Bush administration budget in fiscal year 2009. Expenditures for ‘lock ’em up’ approaches continue to climb.”
So in reality, overall incarceration rates at the federal level did not meaningfully decline during the Obama years, the incarceration rates for drugs did not drop precipitously, as one would imagine, based on what we heard about how the Obama administration was prosecuting what they used to call the war on drugs. So, you know, the campaign promises and the rhetoric did not — shockingly — match reality. If you look at incarceration rates through Obama’s presidency, they’re fairly stagnant, replicating effectively what happened during the Bush years, and yet we heard that there was this big shift.
Adam: Yeah, so the federal incarceration rate for people there on drug offenses, when Obama came in the office was just under 100,000, they briefly went above 100,000, and by the time he left it was about 80,000. Once the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 came into practice, which scrapped the hundred to one ratio for crack cocaine offenses, but then brought it back down to eighteen to one. But then another way is it’s important that the war on drugs was ramped up simultaneously, specifically in the context of opioids and one of the ways they did this, during the Obama years there was a surge in what’s called quote “drug induced homicide” charges as a response to the mounting overdose crisis. Obama’s quote-unquote “heroin strategy” involved charging people for murder who sell drugs to people. On the federal level this was a huge avenue of increased sentences and severe prosecution. Drug induced homicide convictions went from 120 in 2012 to 1,000 by the time Obama left office in 2017. In 2012, Rolling Stone ran an article about how the Obama administration had quietly unleashed a multi agency crackdown on medical cannabis that went far beyond George W. Bush’s policy. Quote:
“The feds are busting growers who operate in full compliance with state laws, vowing to seize the property of anyone who dares to even rent to legal pot dispensaries, and threatening to imprison state employees responsible for regulating medical marijuana. With more than 100 raids on pot dispensaries during his first three years, Obama is now on pace to exceed Bush’s record for medical-marijuana busts.”
So, the ramped up use of drug induced homicides to fight the opioid war was a major source of imprisonment on a federal level. Now, a few things did change. In fairness, there was way more money for treatment but that money for treatment was not really handed out in parallel with a meaningful draw down of the so-called war on drugs and at the very least, we can all agree that the war on drugs never ended. The drugs are still illegal. The federal government routinely prosecutes drugs and drug dealers and drug usage in tens of thousands of cases a year.
Nima: And Biden does not support decriminalization. So, I mean, what we saw this past election is everywhere that drugs and mostly marijuana decriminalization or some sort of legalization was on the ballot, but in Oregon, it was decriminalizing all drugs, everywhere that that was on the ballot this past election, it won. Yet still, Joe Biden does not support decriminalization, and his vice president is a former prosecutor. We forget that, you know, I mean, there’s so much talk about the 1994 Crime Bill, of course, and Biden’s role in it and yes, people can evolve. Absolutely. It is also important to remember how fundamentally involved in creating the destructive war on drugs Joe Biden was. So for instance, as Abraham Gutman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “In 1986, Biden introduced the legislation that became known as the Crack House Statute, extending criminal liability to the owners of property where drug activity occurred.” So, that’s the same law that’s actually being used in Philadelphia to argue against creating supervised consumption sites, which are, you know, places where people can do needle exchanges, and there are nurses or other medical staff, other also mental health help and support on site. Really, they’re overdose prevention places, but the Trump administration is arguing against this, using a law that Biden introduced to make the case. As a Senator, Joe Biden also was all about, as we know, really stiff penalties for people suffering from addiction, and argued also that the death penalty be applied to people who sold drugs. So, there’s this also from Gutman:
“During a 1989 address on drug legislation, Biden told the audience of the National Press Club: ‘There are almost a million [cocaine] addicts running around out there. Already hooked. Already under. Already robbing you. Already breaking into your homes. And there is no answer for those folks but to put them in jail permanently.’ In a 1991 remark on the Senate floor, Biden lamented that the George H.W. Bush administration rarely used the death penalty for people who sold drugs.”
So, again, what are we going to see from now the president whose son suffers from addiction, yet he’s referred to as Joe Biden’s beautiful son, right? But for other people’s kids, Joe Biden has long advocated very, very harsh penalties and so what are we going to see? How is the media going to cover this?
Adam: Yeah, look, if Joe Biden wants to continue pursuing the war on drugs, and basically keep all the same policies with some vaguely progressive stuff around the margins, which is what I predict he’ll do, I think he has to throw some kind of bone to the prison reform/Black Lives Matter worlds. He’ll probably throw something, it’ll probably be superficial. Again, this is someone who refuses to support legalized marijuana, which is completely, I mean, I just can’t begin to say how out of whack that is, with both reality and the base of the party. That’s fine. Let’s just not act like the war on drugs is over, because it’s never been over and we have to make sure that we’re not confusing rhetoric and increased funding to treatment with an actual ending of a war because a war still sending tens of thousands of people to jail under federal prosecutions and doing medical marijuana raids and doing these death by proxy cruel convictions where they throw people in jail for five, six years, who are also drug abusers or drug users, because they sold $20 worth of drugs to their friend who ended up dying, if that’s an end to the war on drugs, then I don’t know what an actual end would even look like. So like, one of the things to look out for is this idea of rhetoric and superficial token, which can again, this is sort of the crux of much of the problems with reformist or Democratic politics, which is that you don’t want to downplay some of the reforms because they can improve people’s lives.
Nima: Because they can be good, right? Yeah.
Adam: Yeah but it’s super important that if they’re going to make those reforms, we don’t mistake that with ending a war on drugs because there is a zero percent chance, in my opinion, we’re not going to end the war on drugs. So let’s not act like it’s gone. Let’s keep using the term and talk about how it’s still morally urgent that we end this human tragedy of locking people in cages because, you know, it’s super trendy now to say it’s a medical or health crisis, not a criminal one, but the policies don’t change. The policies don’t change, we still have all these hot shot federal prosecutors lining their primrose path to political success by locking people away for drugs and until that incentive scheme ends by punishing people for engaging in that nothing will change. So the war on drugs did not end in 2009 and it’s certainly not over now and Trump did not bring it back, he simply escalated it.
Nima: The third trope that we know we’re gonna see because we’re already seeing it is the fetishization of quote-unquote “bipartisanship”, and what the incoming administration needs to do to reach across the aisle and especially provide no kind of accountability for the previous Republican criminals who were in office before on things from — I don’t know — during the Obama era it was torture, mass domestic surveillance systems, as well as committing the supreme international crime of starting an aggressive war. One perfect example of this was seen on election night 2008 in NPR, in an article written by Linton Weeks. This came out around 9pm election night, November 4, 2008, and once it was clear that Obama was going to win, was going to beat John McCain, this article comes out, and it suggests this, quote:
“The key word for Obama during the transitional period is ‘consult,’ says John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. As the president-elect, Obama ‘should consult economic experts, the congressional leadership, business leaders.’
“And, Pitney says, ‘If Obama does not get a filibuster-proof majority, he may consult the Senate Republicans.’” End quote.
The article goes on, to suggest that, quote:
“Obama needs to make a handful of appointments that are ‘astutely bipartisan or non-partisan,’ says Paul C. Light.
“And many of the new Democratic senators and representatives will come from traditionally Republican states and districts, Light says. ‘They’ll tend to vote more Republican than the safe-seat Democrats.’
“That will make things difficult for Obama in building majorities, Light says, and ‘the last thing Obama needs is increased polarization of Congress.’”
So, we saw this literally on election night, it was saying ‘Obama needs to reach out to others, don’t worry about what put you in office, you need to reach across the aisle to your political enemies who are sworn to destroy everything that you’ve done.’ And I think we’re going to see that again, you know, we’re already seeing the Biden transition team, putting people in these positions of power, who won’t be offensive to Senate Republicans, right? In the same way that maybe having non Obama alums come in would set off different kinds of alarm bells, and may potentially not cruise to Senate confirmation, you know, and so therefore, there are these kind of career officials being put back in place, the revolving door is very much intact and so this kind of obsession with bipartisanship and making sure that when a new Democratic administration comes into office, what always needs to happen is there needs to be no accountability for the previous Republican criminal acts that had been perpetrated.
Adam: Then we have David Broder, who was known as the Dean of the Washington press corps, which is to say that he’s the insider’s insider, inoffensive, the ultimate arbiter of centricism, who was very influential back in the day for you Zoomers who don’t know, and in April of 2009, he wrote, “Stop scapegoating why Obama should stick to his guns on torture prosecutions.” I guess David Broder didn’t want to see all his friends get prosecuted. The article would say, quote, “If there was ever a time for President Obama to trust his instincts and stick to his guns, that time is now, when he is being pressured to change his mind about closing the books on the ‘torture’ policies of the past.” He later goes on to euphemistically refer to torture as, quote, “forms of painful coercion,” and as quote, “one of the darkest chapters in American history.” He really doesn’t think Obama should do anything about it. He said Obama was right to quote “declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the US government,” which I guess that makes it by definition legal.
Nima: Exactly. ‘Hey, it was just the policy, man.’
Adam: Right. Broder says that those who want quote, “accountability,” or dare we say justice are mainly looking for, quote, “the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps or at least careers and reputations,” unquote. So Biden has already signaled that he will not do any Trump or rather he signaled that he likely will not do any Trump prosecutions. I think that’s going to be up to the states, attorneys general of the states, district attorneys of various jurisdictions, counties, for myriad crimes, crimes against humanity and so the reason why people rush of course, to say, ‘Well, we can’t prosecute crimes for previous administrations,’ they always give this vaguely racist excuse that it would ‘turn us into a third world, this what third world dictatorships, they prosecute.’ It is because they plan on committing crimes themselves, as Obama did, and they don’t want to be prosecuted, right? Obama, for example, warrantless wiretapping under NSA, and the same thing goes for Wall Street forgiveness and Wall Street immunity, which is, they know very well that they’re going to run for election in four years, in eight years, and they need all the Wall Street money, which Obama got in 2008, you know, he got more Wall Street money than McCain, Biden got more Wall Street money than Trump because that’s why they’re going to signal that, you know, we’re gonna look forwards not backwards, which is, by the way, a mantra only used for crimes committed by the powerful and rich.
Nima: Because all criminal prosecution is about things that already happened, otherwise, it’s pre-crime, Minority Report stuff. So, one of the best of the genre, I think, was this from The New York Times in January 2009, just nine days before Obama’s inauguration. This is January 11, in The Times written by David Johnston and Charlie Savage, and it’s about Obama’s reluctance to quote-unquote “look back” at the Bush programs, and it includes this quote:
“But his administration will face competing demands: pressure from liberals who want wide-ranging criminal investigations, and the need to establish trust among the country’s intelligence agencies. At the Central Intelligence Agency, in particular, many officers flatly oppose any further review and may protest the prospect of a broad inquiry into their past conduct.”
Well, yeah, criminals don’t want you to investigate or prosecute them. That is, I’m sure, fairly fucking obvious but the article sets up the poor CIA, who needs to know that they are trusted by the new Commander-In-Chief and vice versa, against the quote-unquote “liberals” who want wide ranging — so it’s all out of whack, it’s not even focused — wide ranging criminal investigations.
Adam: By far the laziest version of this, which is Peggy Noonan, who’s kind of just like, you know, ‘Maybe let’s not worry about it?’ Let’s listen to this clip from 2009.
Peggy Noonan: Oh, I have reservations about all this, you know, it’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, ‘Oh, much good will come of that.’ Sometimes in life, you want to just keep walking. History has changed, it does change, we have a new administration, a new way. Sometimes I think just keep walking, don’t always be issuing papers and reports.
Man: Let people walk who should be held accountable? Let people walk who may have committed a crime?
Woman: But stop it, but stop the techniques. I mean, you know.
Peggy Noonan: But some of life has to be mysterious.
Adam: So this idea that, it’s okay, we’ve stopped the techniques, which presumably are being stopped because there were new guidelines or laws, but they broke the previous guidelines and laws. I mean, granted, they had John Yoo and a team of lawyers change the guidelines, I guess?
Nima: Right. Torture was already illegal.
Adam: But we’re not supposed to follow guidelines, we’re supposed to follow laws. That’s why they’re called laws. They’re not suggestions or internal policy, they’re laws, which theoretically matter, and so, obviously, the reason why this is relevant, is because Trump’s a little different. Trump is not in, I think it’s fair to say that Trump is not really in the club as much as Bush was, the media lathes him more than they loved Bush and the media did love Bush. I know it’s a broad generalized statement, but much of what we do here is generalized in case you have noticed, and this is a little different, I think there may be, but I think the same kind of like let’s move on, no reason to litigate the past exists for a reason which is the precedent of one administration prosecuting another is still not one I think people want to violate or to cross because once you cross that line then everyone’s fair game and then all the kind of shady elite back dealing rule breaking, tomorrow if we’re attacked by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, whatever and then we need to go back to torturing or people need to go back to eavesdropping, wiretapping, well they never stopped doing it but let’s say they want to do more of it.
Nima: You can’t have a revolving door career from academia, Silicon Valley and government if after your government service, since you committed crimes, you went to jail. You don’t get to do the other stuff after that which I think is frustrating to a lot of people.
Adam: Even when it comes to Trump, that’s still a line that can’t be crossed. So this idea that people are like, ‘Oh, Trump’s gonna get arrested, he’s gonna go to jail.’ Not gonna happen. Even if there is a sort of careerist, rogue prosecutor on a state level, like I said, an attorney general or a district attorney who is not federal, because no one in the federal government’s going to touch fucking Trump, it is just not going to happen.
Nima: Well, that’s the thing, because Biden is not going to be in favor of this or push for it and the media is gonna line up behind that idea of, as Peggy Noonan said, “just keep walking.”
Adam: And there’s nothing people have more in 2009, for those of you don’t remember referencing, I mean, casually Chuck Todd, Brian Williams, they all did this, the most patriotic moment is when Ford pardoned Nixon because it let the country heal and move on and don’t worry, we have an episode on healing coming. We’re talking about healing in a couple weeks.
Nima: But moving on. Number four trope is the idea that we need to continue to investigate and potentially embark on the quote-unquote “reform” of Social Security and the pushing in general of the austerity ideology and we see this obviously manifest in political statements, but definitely often pushed through by the press.
Adam: Yeah. So there was a religion around austerity and religion that Obama endorsed. If anyone remembers his infamous “tighten your belts” during the recession. The reason why the initial stimulus package was not nearly big enough was that the Republicans and to some extent, Obama, bought into this idea that it had to be deficit neutral or had to have a way of paying back the deficit ideology completely owned Washington. Now that’s changed a little bit. I think there’s less of a rigor there but Biden has indicated on several occasions that he is a deficit hawk, that he is an austerity school, as we know, Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat other than Biden right now, as we’ve talked about at nauseam on the show, is a paygo person, is an austerity scold, Pete Peterson accolade. Now, Biden has surrounded himself with economic advisors who’ve expressed austerity, Janet Yellen, who’s the new Treasury Secretary has expressed austerity ideology in the past but has of late done money go brrr, which is different, to be fair, but there is no reason to think that the magical mysterious ideology of austerity will come back when we talk about post-COVID or late COVID economic stimulus, debt relief, free college, things that will sort of be needed to quote-unquote “stimulate” the economy on the demand side, that will mysteriously reappear I’ve no doubt about it but the way it took over the discourse around Obama is pretty sinister.
Nima: One example of this that we saw in 2008, again, back to the NPR article written on election night, by Linton Weeks, there’s one section of it called “Limiting the Agenda,” and this is all about what Obama should be doing when he enters office. One of the things it does is it does the kind of, you know, Republican best friend thing by quoting former Representative Bill Frenzel from Minnesota, who said that as soon as Obama gets into office, “he must shore up the economy,” and Frenzel has this quote, “Whatever stimulus packages are still needed will make him look like a Santa Claus.” He said this from a perch at — where else? — Brookings Institution. But then here’s the next thing, quote, “But then Obama will have to do a most unpopular thing — present a budget. During the campaign, Obama promised to go through the budget, line by line, and strike off programs that don’t work.” And here is Frenzel again, quote, “He will find that the cupboard is not quite bare, but he will also find insufficient resources to do many or most of the things his constituencies expect him to do. Nobody will mind a deficit of from half a trillion to $1 trillion in the first year, but if it doesn’t decline in the out-years, he’s got trouble. He will have particular trouble funding his healthcare program.” End quote.
Adam: Now, I want you to keep that line in mind about the cupboard being bare. Here’s former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, a key Biden economic advisor, in August of this year, Wall Street Journal was interviewing him and he said, quote, “When we get in the pantry is going to be bare,” said Mr. Kaufman, who is leading Mr. Biden’s transition team. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit… forget about COVID-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.” Unquote. So mysteriously, the cupboard is bare again.
Nima: Right. Whenever Democrats come in the cupboard is bare and their agenda must be limited, which really means: don’t do the things that you were saying on the campaign trail that made the Black and brown voters vote for you.
Adam: When Biden was given an interview during the primary and he was asked point blank ‘If Medicare for All was on your desk’ — so you can’t do the whole we can’t pass it because it’s not feasible, Republicans would stop it — they said ‘If Medicare for All was on your desk, if it passed through Congress, would you sign it?’ And he said ‘I wouldn’t sign it if I didn’t know how we’re gonna pay for it,’ which is to say, deficit scolding. So here you go, this is going to be a thing again.
Adam: And Jake Tapper made a career off of this gambit. By the way for kids at home, if you want to succeed in journalism, there’s two things you can do that will always make you succeed, assuming you have no soul or you don’t really want to change anything, but you won’t have a good career, you want to make a lot of money. Number one, attach your brand to the troops, go do some embedded reporting, write a bunch of books about the troops, do troop fundraisers, attach yourself to the troops.
Nima: Oh, yeah, be like a major part of the USO and then write a novel about SEAL teams.
Adam: The second thing you can do is deficit scold. It is the ultimate way of getting a job at ABC News, CBS working your way up from the rag that was Salon, which is where Jake Tapper came from. So he did this all the time. We’re gonna play one clip, which I think we played on the show before in our deficits episode, Episode 11. But I want to listen to this clip real quick. This was Jake Tapper scolding Obama for their stimulus package, which was already, again, already very limited. So let’s listen to that right now.
Jake Tapper: So let’s try it with numbers more easily understood. Removing eight zeros from all the numbers. So say the $3.8 trillion dollar budget is actually $38,000 like a family budget. This budget would have our American family spending $38,000, while only taking in $29,000. So our family is racking up $9,000 in new debt. And keep in mind, our family already owes $153,000 in credit card debt. Turning back to real numbers, that’s a $15 trillion national debt, a number which keeps going up year after year after year.
Nima: Yeah. So again, this kind of austerity scolding will be seen, I think, throughout the Biden years, for sure. It is always convenient to talk about the debt and to talk about the deficit, and the family budget of our national priorities and always, it seems like there’s plenty of money to keep the occupations and the invasions going, there’s plenty of money to keep the border militarized, but what there’s not money for, are doing things that will substantially improve the lives of actual human beings in the form of healthcare or education or employment or other public goods that actually save people’s lives. We’re gonna see a lot of that, I believe, moving forward.
Adam: So there’s a parallel feature to this, which is our fifth trope, which we’re going to throw to our guests and talk about with him, which is the rise of Bircherism 3.0 or the right-wing rebranding, post-deeply unpopular president. Again, I know that they’re not exactly the same, but there are parallels. Bush was very unpopular but Trump is now very unpopular. They’re going to attempt to rebrand and one of the ways they’re going to rebrand is by trying to attach themselves to this kind of what we’re called Bircherism or kind of faux populist right-wingism and this was very popular. The level of credulity the Press afforded this Republican rebranding effort is worth noting, so we’ll read an article. This is from March of 2010 by Kate Zernike, the headline read, quote, “Tea Party Avoids Divisive Social Issues.”
“For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infuses conservatism with new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion.”
Now, later that fall, when the Tea Party movement ushered in a Republican Congress, the first thing they did, as you may recall, is try to pass abortion laws on a state by state level and even on a federal level and they didn’t care about deficits. As we also note in the previous episode, of the 31 remaining members of Congress who were ushered in under the Tea Party banner in 2010, every single one of them, every single one of them, every one of them voted for Trump’s tax cuts, which increased the deficit by $1.7 trillion.
Nima: You mean it might not actually be about that?
Adam: You know, yes, surprisingly enough, they didn’t really care about deficits. Turns out, that was just a fig leaf, you’ll be shocked to learn and I suspect that some version of that, I think from the kind of J.D. Vance, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, who’s again, suddenly the heart bleeds for the working man, there may be another attempt to kind of outflank the deficit conversation. I’m interested to hear Peter Hart’s theories on this, I know that it’s a different environment, people hopefully won’t lose the football again, now for the third time, because again, they also did this with Bush in their early years, too. There was all this deficit hawkery and then they all, you know, Paul Ryan voted for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Medicare Part D. So this is now, I think, this would be the third time they tried this in recent history and so we’ll see if it works, and then to figure out the sort of strategy to kind of figure out how we can predict some of these media tropes under Biden I think it’s worth dissecting the early Obama years and for that I’m excited to talk to Peter Hart.
Nima: So we’ll be joined in just a moment by Peter Hart, National Communications Manager for Food & Water Watch. Peter was previously the Activism Director for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for fifteen years, where he was the co-producer and co-host of FAIR’s weekly radio show CounterSpin. Peter will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Peter Hart. Peter, it is so great to have you finally on Citations Needed.
Peter Hart: It’s my pleasure.
Adam: So yeah, when we were doing a kind of retrospective of the Obama years, especially the early Obama years, we kept copying and pasting, citing, referencing articles you had written and so I figured, why not just get him here to talk about it himself? To paraphrase Kramer, ‘Why don’t you just tell me the name of the movie you wish to see?’ So I want to do that, I want to start a start off for those, especially for our Zoomer listeners who don’t remember, because I think what we’re sort of trying to do is relitigate the past in a way that is constructive and not just dunking on things that are 12 years old, like we did when we did an episode about the West Wing where we hated on a show that went off the air 14 years ago. What we are trying to do is make it relevant to today. So, reading one of your old articles during the I guess, early Obama years especially, at least to me, a kind of dual theme emerges, which is number one, there’s this constant head padding of Obama as he drifts more and more to the center in DC consensus and starts to use language that signals to the DC consensus that the quote-unquote “polarization” under the Bush years, which is to say that the moral and intellectually coherent response to a very far right-wing president and the emotions and the vitriol that that would naturally and ought to solicit was going to be kind of papered over by this sort of post-racial, post-ideological placeholder candidate and especially when it came to things like social security cuts, which we’ll get into later. The second was this kind of, we argue, kind of pathological credulity for Republicans and Tea Party deficit hawks who mysteriously emerged on January 20, 2009. I want to start by talking about the ladder. Outlets from CNN to New York Times, as we discussed in the intro of the show, they really kind of bought into this Bircherism 2.0 in a way that was bordering on depraved indifference. It’s not sure if it was credulity or cynicism, it’s never quite clear, but I want to begin by talking about the credulity with respect to the Tea Party/Republican deficit hawkery, and whether or not you think a similar Bircherism 3.0 or I guess maybe we’re even on 4.0, where everyone mysteriously cares about deficits, do you think that’s gonna fly again or have people kind of finally caught onto the scam?
Peter Hart: I think intellectually, the argument probably holds less weight now than it ever did. That doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work, obviously, and there will certainly be the same forces arrayed that were around 12 years ago. I don’t know that it’s going to change all that much. I think those needs among the sort of establishment punditry are still there, I think they understand that the arguments might need to be tweaked a little bit. It is remarkable looking back at that period and thinking about right now, for your Zoomer listeners, that a new president came into office facing this abrupt, horrific, global recession and immediately the first task was how do we put together a stimulus package that kind of checks all the boxes, and one of the most important boxes for the media back then was, can Obama bridge the gap with Republicans and pass something that the Republican Party will endorse, or at least enough of them will vote for to give it the sheen of bipartisanship? That failed, obviously, and it became a mark against Obama from the very beginning. So the David Broder, chin stroking kind of DC pundits were disappointed with Obama, that he was not able to magically force the Republican Party to come along with him. I think the same thing is going to be true for Biden, the difference, of course, is that Biden’s a known quantity. So he is supposed to know how to get Republicans to do things that perhaps they don’t want to do. In reality, he gets Republicans to do things that they want to do and that, I guess, certainly the Democratic Party base doesn’t want. So I think the political dynamics are very different. The appeal of Obama then, and you know, you guys went back and were reading the things and so was I and I could hardly remember some of the things that happened. But Obama really was thematically three or four things all at once. He was this transcendental candidate who was also a moderate, who had unknown quantities that could make him threatening in certain ways and he was also someone who was profoundly out of touch with core American values, while simultaneously representing the best of what we wish the United States to project into the universe. So it was a very strange time and there was this Rorschach quality to Obama that I think even he was aware of as a candidate and certainly as a president and the media kind of filled in the colors as they saw fit.
Adam: I mean, that’s sort of one of the appeals of Biden, in some sense, or at least one of the benefits is that unlike Obama, he doesn’t even really gesture towards the progressive rhetoric. When other centrist like Buttigieg and Harris entered the primary, they tried to sort of play it both ways, they kind of vaguely supported single payer health care, then they later changed their minds. Biden came in there, he’s like, ‘Fuck single payer, fuck that. I’m gonna veto it even if it comes to my desk. This is who I am,’ and it’s like, okay, you know, there’s something to be said for that. There’s something to be said for sort of being overtly conservative. So maybe that’s one of the major differences.
Peter Hart: Yeah. You know, remember when the candidates were kind of, during the primary this year, trying to figure out how to deal with this resurgent youth climate movement, right?
Peter Hart: You saw half of them kind of tiptoe toward the left, some of them rather dramatically and in ways that didn’t seem even plausible. Biden was just telling people on the rope lines or whatever, ‘Hey, if you don’t want me, vote for someone else,’ and I think, you know, I don’t think there’s anybody in the media that would come out and say, ‘Well, that’s refreshing,’ but clearly, that’s the kind of approach that they like that. Here’s a guy who said, ‘No, I’m absolutely not with the movement, not not one bit,’ and the fact that he emerged victorious, I think it was very comforting to these people.
Nima: Yeah. I mean, I remember the Obama campaign, late 2007 and then throughout 2008, until eventually he locked up the nomination in early June, but what’s kind of amazing to me is that, at the time, Obama wasn’t running as a progressive. You could actually see all the policies, he was pretty transparent and yet, liberals, Democratic voters, people who had been also so traumatized by the Bush years — understandably so — and the media fell in line behind this idea that he was this progressive candidate, and ‘it’s fine, he’s just saying what he needs to say, but, actually, it’s going to be really, really progressive once he gets into office.’ I think that it’s interesting anytime Obama vaguely gestured toward anything left-wing, even just rhetorically, it wasn’t in the policy platform, there was always, from the media, a full on meltdown. ‘How is he going to pass this stuff? What does he represent?’ But then, as he always did, you know, went back toward the Washington center consensus, and got all the softball media coverage. So, one thing that we’re really kind of looking for, in terms of how this plays out with Biden, is I think, something that oftentimes in our campaign media culture gets short shrift, which is foreign policy, right? So, Biden has even expressed policies far more hawkish already than Obama did 12 years ago. How do you expect the obscuring and ignoring of the more subtle liberal imperialism will continue to play out as the Biden/Harris administration takes office or do you think that voices against this permanent war are stronger now than they were in 2008 — remembering that that was coming right off of George W. Bush?
Peter Hart: I think the voices are strong, they’re not very well represented in the press. I think every Republican or every conservative media critic says that the media are in the tank for the Democratic nominee, whoever that person may be, and then there was this sort of post-post-left take that Biden was escaping scrutiny, this time around, particularly on foreign policy and it’s not wrong, there wasn’t any serious discussion of Biden’s history on this, I think is one of the advantages of running against a truly demented incumbent candidate that you didn’t really need to lay out any kind of vision for foreign policy, because you just had to point to the other guy and say, ‘Look at him.’
Peter Hart: The unfortunate thing is that the way we saw this play out once there was this gradual acceptance in most corners that Biden was the next president of the United States, Trump’s kind of bluster and his legal maneuvering to nullify the results of the election was folded into, this was of course over a couple of days, was folded into his new found enthusiasm for withdrawing from Afghanistan. So, if you’re watching the media around that time, you’re watching CNN, it was, ‘This idiot is still unable to accept the results of the election and what’s even worse, he wants to pull our troops out of Afghanistan!’ They became two sides of the same coin and if that’s where their heads are at, then yes, anything that looks remotely like a course correction or change in foreign policy is going to be viewed with some skepticism. So look at what we’re already seeing about Biden’s probable next Secretary of State. He’s a consensus builder. He’s non ideological. ‘He’s going to put the United States back on the world stage.’ All of these things you know, Fareed Zakaria has written eighty five columns lamenting the death of US leadership and credibility in the world and they what they mean, people like him, what he means is that the ability to project military force and power and make other countries submit to your will, that was lost, to their minds, under Trump and it’s going to return under Biden. It’s not even so much that it’s going to be a lack of difficult, tough questioning of Biden’s credibility or his credentials or his history, it’s going to be this sense of relief that the grown ups are in charge, and we can get back to things like the NATO intervention in Libya, or Biden’s Iraq policy. Those were successful because they put the United States at the center of the story.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, you know, something that I think has been incredible to see play out over the past four or five years is this narrative also that Trump is the non-interventionist president, right? He was the non-interventionist candidate, then they became the non-interventionist president, even though absolutely no foreign wars were ended, drone strikes continued, civilian casualties went up, but I don’t think anyone was paying as much attention because there was the reality show of the domestic Trump administration every day and so that stuff got kind of shunted to the side, whereas Obama came in as the anti-Iraq war candidate, regardless of his actual feelings about “foreign intervention,” quote-unquote, and so because of that, I think there was more scrutiny. It didn’t change what John Brennan or Leon Panetta or Barack Obama did, but there was a little more scrutiny in the media during the Obama years about, say, the drone program, you could actually read about it and there are hardly any articles about Trump doing similar things and I just think it’s because of where the attention was kind of placed based on how those two leaders had campaigned previously and so what everyone was kind of looking for.
Peter Hart: Right, and even some of the coverage when Obama won, or when he was about to win the election, the sort of endorsements from the Washington Post and those kind of outlets, voiced real concern about his Iraq policy, ‘We think this guy is a better presidential candidate but we have real concerns over whether or not he means what he says about Iraq.’ Remember, Obama was running against McCain, somebody who many people in the media also had extreme fondness for for somewhat different reasons. So the dynamic in that election was kind of unusual. It wasn’t anything like it is now where you had this steady hand, guy-who’s-been-in-the-Senate-for-forty-years versus a man who vomits up a series of lies every day. You don’t have to be a Newsmax reader to think that the media were gunning for Donald Trump, they were and probably I think, for good reason.
Adam: Yeah, it’s like we always say that the media’s biased against Trump, but the media is also biased against cancer, like there is some justification. It’s true, like when people say, Oh, the media is not biased against Trump, I’m like, come on, do you read the Washington Post? That’s obviously not true.
Peter Hart: Yeah, the strangest thing is, you know, for people who’ve been doing this for a long time, who kind of wished, perhaps naively, for a media that stressed accountability and fact checking and ‘Why don’t they call lies out in real time when people are lying?’ Well, Donald Trump presented the extreme case and I think the press finally said, ‘Okay, this is actually gone too far and this is someone we’re willing to spank in public.’
Adam: But now that’s gonna go away.
Peter Hart: I think so because why wouldn’t it?
Adam: The thing with Trump, Nima, you sort of touched on this, and I want to get into this real quick is that you’re right, that in substance, the policies weren’t much different with respect to foreign policy, the bombings continued, they escalated ethnic cleansing in Palestine, expedited rhetoric against Iran, but what he didn’t do or what he didn’t endorse —
Nima: Not just rhetoric.
Adam: Well, right. I mean, yeah, it’s true, the assassination, yeah, and then, of course, he imposed sanctions on Russia, they funded militias in Ukraine, they bombed the Syrian airbase, granted, it was not a severe bombing, but it did happen. Obama did not do that. But what really bothered him and I think this is the really the key point here and this is what most of the hand wringing was about, it was never about bombings or sanctions or Yemen or this or that or the substance of the policies, it’s about maintaining the fiction, the moral fiction of American moral superiority and because Trump as we’ve talked about on the show at nauseam, because Trump didn’t run through the motions of the human rights discourse and the sort of freedom and democracy rhetoric that neocons and liberal imperialist have adopted with varying degrees of credibility — which is to say mostly none — because he didn’t run to those motions that’s what outraged them. Before he bombs the Syrian airbase he doesn’t have some semi-thin, credible rhetoric about, you know, human rights or before he engages in a sanctions regime he doesn’t talk about freedom and freedom loving people. He didn’t do the kind of Reagan/Bush/Clinton moral leadership, which is really I think what the Fareed Zakarias of the world are talking about.
Nima: Or that when he did, it was clear he didn’t really care.
Adam: Yeah, it was bullshit, right? Or like when pompeyo did it, everyone’s like, ‘Okay, this guy’s not very credible,’ and I think that’s always been the center of what the problem is with Trump, which is to say that he doesn’t engage in the, he doesn’t indulge the moral ecology of American imperialism and that makes people who work in the State Department and Defense Department, whose lives are the perpetuation and promotion of American imperialism, who’ve bought into this, I think it’s largely ideological, you know, you can’t wake up every day and go to, whether you’re a private in the Army or you work at the State Department, you sort of have to fundamentally believe in the moral purpose of American Empire and once that goes away it lowers morale because you’re just sort of a stripped bare of its moral pretenses and I think Trump really, like you said, Trump got rid of that and then it was an existential crisis, which is why, you know, the Fareed Zakarias were obsessed with this concept of the global stage. They never shut the fuck up about the global stage — whatever that means. I guess I’m curious when Biden comes in, it seems like the reassertion of that rhetoric and that moral pretext is going to be central and the policies won’t actually change that much.
Peter Hart: No, I mean, Trump’s reality was that he presented this ghoulish face that never pretended to be anything else, Biden will do a much better job and that is what’s going to give them some comfort. You look back at Obama when he finally, I think, gained credibility, or at least the acceptance of the establishment in Washington and elsewhere, it was because he could do all of these things but he had a Tom Friedman book under his arm as he went golfing with Zakaria or whatever they do, you know, that gave them the sense, the reassurance that he was one of us and he’s, he represents the same values. Biden, there’s absolutely no doubt that he does, he’s a familiar quantity, he’s apparently not as beloved in sort of social circles in Washington but he’s somebody who knows how to play that game and I think he’s friendly enough with enough of the pundits who incredibly are still with us. You know, there’s a New York Times story today about Jon Meacham being kind of an important figure again, and how bizarre it is that a guy who you don’t expect to be hearing much from these days is actually somebody who oddly has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on now as evidenced by the fact that he believes in this kind of moral framework that you’re talking about. He apparently has written some of Biden’s speeches for him. So, this is, I think, the triumph of that middle brow, middle of the road establishment ideology and Biden is going to carry that flag for them very proudly. All of the appointments that we’ve seen, rumored or otherwise, reinforce that, you know, if you’re on the left, we expected bad, but this is probably as bad as we expected and it might get worse, but for establishmentarianism, and that’s who the press mostly consists of, all of this is very reassuring. So, I think the coverage is going to be rather glowing to the extent that it hasn’t been already, because it’s this retrenchment.
Nima: Oh, totally, I mean, there’s like a big sigh of relief, I think, from the entire media. It’s like, not only is Trump leaving so big sigh of relief — understandably so — but also it’s back to, I mean, not to be hokey about it, but back to business as usual and they know how to write about that and they know how to deal with that. I mean, and I think it kind of comes back to this other trope that we talked about earlier that I’d love to introduce here, which is Biden Harris really represent, you know, again, this return to, we can all kind of come together again, right? We can have bipartisanship in government, we’re so quote-unquote “polarized,” right? So, we’ve seen this, especially with the rise of like the Lincoln Project and other Republican cooption efforts, but the preservation and rebranding of the Republican Party itself post-Trump is going to be a huge story that plays out in the media, just as the rebranding of the GOP post-George W. Bush era was in 2009 and beyond. So can we talk a little bit about this media religion of quote-unquote”bipartisanship” and how it informed coverage of the incoming Obama administration and throughout that, throughout his tenure as president, and how you suspect it will play out in the coming year?
Peter Hart: It’s, you know, it probably goes back to at least Clinton and this absolute need to gesture toward the opposing party. The burden is more on Democrats than Republicans when it comes to this kind of stuff. So when Obama was elected, it was, you know, ‘He should borrow some of the ideas that John McCain was floating,’ sort of a Tom Friedman trope. Every couple of years he writes a piece about the next Democratic president should name a Republican his secretary of state because —
Nima: Yeah, always. Obama kept Robert Gates on.
Peter Hart: Yeah, yeah and that was a big test for Obama early on from the media is he’s going to do this and he actually extended offers to Republicans who felt pressured to rebuff them because the Republican Party doesn’t play by those games. We’ve seen it in climate policy, the perfect climate policy is one that brings Republicans into the fold. Now, a sensible climate policy that does what we have to do doesn’t have any Republican support right now. That’s just truth. But there’s an establishment need to find a way to craft something that some number of Republicans can get on board with. John Kerry is climate Czar, apparently, in the Biden administration.
Adam: Yeah, and Kerry has reached out to John Kasich.
Peter Hart: Yeah, and up to this point, he was running this outfit that I don’t think did anything was called World War Zero and the whole premise of it was, ‘Well, we can have conversations with Republicans about the kind of policies that we need to enact in the future.’ That’s the kind of thing that is absolutely adored by the consensus in Washington and anywhere else. It’s just not functional, there’s no such thing but you put those people in charge and that’s, I think, what’s going to happen. There’s always been this love for this kind of approach. There’s never any examination of what it means, you know, bipartisanship in the realm of foreign policy has been, I think, twenty years of absolute abject disaster because when the parties come together on foreign policy it’s usually the worst ideas in the world have become, I think, palatable to both major parties. So, the difference between what happened under Obama and what’s going to happen under Biden is that under Obama it was a question as to whether or not this relatively unknown quantity could deliver on bipartisanship and that was the number one test for him at all times was, ‘Are you reaching out to the other side? Are they listening? Are you doing enough to engender goodwill among Republicans?’ Biden is going to come into office with the reputation for already being able to do that. Now, will there be media tsking because he’s unsuccessful at it? Of course, because that’s sort of always the game, but he’s someone that there’s no doubt that this is his quote-unquote “brand.”
Adam: But what’s so bizarre about it is that the Republican Party, you know, without being too histrionic about it, has so fundamentally changed even from then, I mean, they were obviously you had your Sarah Palins, you had your Michele Bachmanns and such, but any resemblance of the quote-unquote “reasonable” or moderate Republican, I mean, they’re all Democrats now. They’ve taken over the Democratic Party in many ways. So this idea that Biden is going to build a coalition with QAnon. I mean, it’s just so weird to me.
Nima: Well, then now like the people who were elected during the Tea Party surge midterms, in Obama’s first term, are now, yes, the reasoned adults on the Republican side.
Adam: Which is why he has to dig up the zombie John Kasichs who have absolutely no credibility within the party right now. I mean, that’s the thing, right? You have to sort of keep finding these MSNBC Republicans who have no meaningful constituency and prop them up as the Republican Party, but they’re just not. They’re just not.
Peter Hart: Yeah and I think for those of us who watched probably too much Fox News ten years ago, the Trump presidency was this thought experiment that circulated at the time. ‘Well, what would happen if some Frankenstein version of Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly actually managed to become president? Haha, that can’t happen, but what if it did? That would be a disaster.’ So when Trump became president, the small number of us who had poisoned our brains watching this stuff, could identify everything Trump was doing and say, yeah, that’s, you know, he’s somebody who had a primetime show on Fox from 9pm to 10pm every night. That’s where Trump’s ideology came from and it wasn’t astonishing for those of us who had to spend time thinking about and watching this stuff, to see where he was coming from. I think for establishment-oriented people it was a bit of a shock, right? They didn’t spend a lot of time looking at Fox, and they certainly didn’t imagine that that ideology would take hold and essentially take over a major political party, but it did, and once you accept that, you either draw the conclusion that the party has gone well to the right, or you just can’t believe it and you assume that this guy somehow snuck through and was able to hijack this project for four years and now it will come back. I think they’re going to have, you know, people who believe that are going to have some interest in not rehabilitating the Republican Party, but there’s going to be sort of a form of wish fulfillment, that there must be a Republican Party that existed as I understood it, and to reach that conclusion I think you just have to be blind to much of the reality. I don’t think Mitch McConnell’s going to do anything different. Most of the Republican Party leadership is not going to do anything different but it’ll be an open question as to whether the press is going to try to coax some different version of the Republican Party into being, you know, they’ll find some backbench congressman somewhere and say he’s the future, they’ll find a couple of college Republicans who’ve signed a petition saying that they think climate change is real and ‘This is the future of the Republican Party,’ or ‘This is the present of the Republican Party.’ It’s going to take an awful lot of effort to mainstream the opposition party.
Adam: Right, which is why so much energy goes into, I think, from day one, the Never Trump Republican project, from my perception, was always a Republican branding maintenance thing. It was sort of knowing that they were going to try to ride out the Trump wave, and then come back and reassert a kind of hybrid model, is how I perceive it, which is what Marco Rubio is sort of trying to do, right? Which is you have the sort of trigger the libs, culture war stuff, but you mix it with conventional neoconservative policy, and it seems like that’s what is going to be attempted in 2024 moving forward, and they need to make it just palatable, sort of the Ben Shapiro approach, which is sort of play to the crowd, play to the foaming masses, pander to QAnon, pander to all these nutters, but make it just palatable enough to where it sort of is okay for the National Review. That sort of seems like what the strategy is going to be and the question moving forward is whether or not Joe Biden will help that rebranding project, which I think, I think he will, because, again, they they’re obsessed with this idea of bipartisanship and the center for the center’s sake, because it’s the power base of the party and I think in many ways, when you hire Republicans, which he did, he hired a bunch of Lincoln Project people to sort of take over the messaging of the party, then therefore, then that becomes their primary goal, which is the, to sort of bring back the loyal opposition.
Peter Hart: I think it is core to who Joe Biden is and it plays to that appetite in the press. I think one of the most unusual, and yet revealing things during the campaign, was the focus on fracking in Pennsylvania because it played to all of these, you know, checked every box in a way. Trump wanted to talk about it, because he thought it was his path to victory, the media like to talk about it because it identifies and zeroes in on a policy position, banning fracking or being anti fracking, that they want to exclude from the discussion, or they want to portray as this humongous burden for the Democratic Party. Best example was, I think, in January, The New York Times ran this huge piece, it was an episode of the podcast, a piece in print, Democrats are really threatened by a possibility that they would nominate a candidate who wanted to ban fracking, ‘Its a loser in Pennsylvania, it would be a loser nationally, we can’t do this,’ couldn’t have been anything but a Biden Campaign ad and I know some of the people who were in Pennsylvania when The New York Times came to town to talk to people about this and it was a perfect example of when the media rush out with a narrative and they need to pick and choose the stories that will tell the story that they want to portray already. So we don’t want to talk about people who are anti-fracking, who are winning elections, who are stopping pipelines, who are doing this or that at a grassroots level, that’s not what we want to talk about. We want to talk about how a Democrat would lose if they talked about these positions out loud. Completely at odds with reality but it didn’t matter, that was the story they wanted to tell and that’s the kind of story that persisted over the campaign, even though it’s this marginal issue in the state of Pennsylvania writ large, and certainly the country, but it gave everyone an opportunity to say what they wanted to say, that Trump could lie ten different ways about, you know, ‘There’s a million jobs in Pennsylvania that are under threat from the Biden ban fracking plan’ and Biden can say, ‘I’m not going to ban fracking, what are you talking about?’ And the media can say, you know, ‘Trump is lying again, Biden doesn’t want to do this. Biden doesn’t have a radical position on fossil fuel extraction, don’t worry.’ It served everyone’s interest and that’s why an issue like that, I think, comes to the fore and becomes this kind of totem for everyone, specifically, the press who are sitting in the middle to say, there’s no worry, Biden is not Bernie Sanders, he has made himself very clear on this and Trump’s the one who’s being a jerk, you know, it was half true, but more importantly, it was the kind of story that you wanted to promote that Biden’s got to be careful. He picked a running mate who talked about banning fracking. That’s a big problem for him. So let’s drill into that a little bit more. These are the issues that I think the press keys in on in order to sell the story that they need to sell for, I think, blatantly and nakedly ideological reasons and it’s going to happen during the transition but I think most of what Biden is doing is comforting to them. So, in the sense that the media won their battle, you know, that they flushed out the more progressive challengers to Biden and we’re left with this status quo, return to American greatness but boring kind of administration and that’s, I think, for the press, it’s it’s the best of all possible worlds.
Adam: To me it’s a watchword, I mean, it’s like when Buttigieg was rising in Iowa, and he started talking about how we’re going to pay for things and it was peculiar and then suddenly he becomes the biggest donor for billionaires. It’s sort of a way of signaling. It’s like when Van Halen would go into a small town and do a concert and they would have a or, you know, bands have a rider in their contract that says you have to have all brown M&Ms and then the brown M&Ms simply exist as a signal to make sure you carefully read the contract. The banning fracking story had nothing to do with banning fracking, it was a signal to the wealthy donor class, ‘Don’t worry, we’re basically not going to do anything about climate crisis that’s going to undermine your bottom line.’ I mean, that to me is how I read that, sort of, again, like Pete Buttigieg’s, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ It’s a watchword, it’s a sort of signal to donors, and you’re right to say that it’s not even a real big issue in these states and the fact that everyone just sort of accepted it was, shows how little it’s about issues and more about signaling to certain corporate and private interests and that whole thing was so depressing because there’s not a single climate scientist, or report, ever, I mean, as you know, in your line of work, that says that if we don’t stop extracting fossil fuels tomorrow, or yesterday, nothing else is going to really matter and then so this is a way of saying, ‘We’re going to reject that science and we’re going to run through the motions’ and the extent to which we talk about climate change, which we’ve now learned today is going to be framed as a quote-unquote “national security issue,” e.g. it’s going to be another cash cow for the Pentagon.
Peter Hart: Yeah, and this is another reason that this administration harkens back eight or 12 years, we’re going to talk about fossil fuel extraction as a national security issue, as a wedge for beating up on Russia. These are the people that they’re putting in charge and you know, the interesting thing about Pennsylvania and the thing that we would try to convince reporters of this, mostly to no avail, because it didn’t register that this could possibly be true, that no, there are politicians in Pennsylvania that run adamantly anti-fracking campaigns and they win, you know, they’re in the statehouse, they’re in Harrisburg, you know, some of them are DSA-backed candidates like Summer Lee, who cut their teeth in these local anti-fossil fuel campaigns. But if you accept the dominant storyline that your colleagues in the press have sold over the last ten years it is that people in Pennsylvania love fossil fuel drilling so that if you’re a politician who doesn’t, you might as well just give up now. It’s not the case, it doesn’t line up with reality, but Biden winning I think only reinforces that view in their minds and that’s dangerous.
Nima: Well, right, because there’s never a way to actually check the counterfactual, right? Because we don’t know if Biden would have similarly won in Pennsylvania if he hadn’t done that bullshit pro-fracking thing during the debates. Whereas, all the polling can tell us that would not have been a problem that was not what was gonna tip this but I think you get then this kind of mainstream media, ’See, it’s because he did that stuff, good thing he did that stuff and didn’t go full Bernie, because otherwise he wouldn’t have won Pennsylvania.’ So now, Jake Tapper can really look forward to the Saint John McCain Memorial Joe Biden administration.
Peter Hart: (Laughs.) Yeah, you know, there were candidates in the Philadelphia suburbs who ran against a pipeline there, it’s a very big issue in that part of the state, and they won, and they won in what were Republican areas by running wholeheartedly against this pipeline, because it turns out when people’s neighbor’s water is contaminated or sinkholes on their block, people aren’t generally excited about that. So, it became this very local issue with national or international implications but, you know, it gets back to that idea that you can win in politics if you have strong views that you can explain clearly to people, but it just doesn’t make any sense to a national sort of political class that says, ‘No, you’ve got to trim your sails if you’re a Democrat, and you want to win.’
Nima: Yeah, exactly. I don’t think any of those kinds of anti-fracking messages are actually for Pennsylvania voters. It is total messaging for either donors or potential voters elsewhere who are not actually living with those implications, but think vaguely, something about, you know, ‘Oh, the poor miners,’ you know, that that’s like some compelling narrative but doesn’t actually relate to anyone’s life, like those being targeted with the messages are not the people living those lives.
Peter Hart: Yeah, you know, and we’ve probably lived through a decade of the media buying the notion that these are massive jobs programs in those states and in a state like Pennsylvania, you’re talking tens of thousands of jobs maybe, but if you’re a reporter you’re holding a glossy oil industry report that says 600,000 people work in the fracking industry in the state you’re going to tend to believe like, ‘Well, the truth must be somewhere close to the middle between these two estimates.’ It’s not true but your kind of training suggests that, well, the oil industry exaggerates and the green groups exaggerate so the reality must be in the middle. There are very few people who work in those industries, probably more people work at Penn State than in the oil and gas business in the state of Pennsylvania right now but one is given priority over another and I think it’s entirely for ideological reasons.
Adam: Well, before you go, do you want to tell us what you’re up to or what we can look out for? Do you have anything to promote? What are you working on? Where is the mysterious Peter Hart, who left the media criticism game like J.D. Salinger to go off somewhere, we want to know what you’re up to.
Peter Hart: Working on my novel.
Adam: That could be true.
Peter Hart: The work that we do now is almost entirely focused on fossil fuel expansion and stopping pipelines and power plants and trying to build that movement for 100 percent renewable energy and most importantly, I think, a supply side approach to fossil fuel extraction, that you have to stop all of these things, there’s gonna be an enormous challenge in the Biden administration. But a lot of other issues, you feel a lot more energy on the left then maybe you have in the last twenty years and you think, we don’t know that we can change how The New York Times views the world, Washington Post sees the world, but there are enough of us out there doing work on an array of issues that we constitute, I think, a pretty formidable opposition to the status quo on anything from climate to Medicare for All. So, I’m hopeful that that movement is going to present a real check on Biden even as he inevitably disappoints us on any or all of those issues.
Nima: Well, I think that’s a very uncharacteristically optimistic place for us to leave it. Peter Hart, thank you so much for joining us today. Peter is the National Communications Manager for Food & Water Watch, and for 15 years previously, was the Activism Director for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting or FAIR, was the co-producer and co-host of FAIR’s weekly radio show, CounterSpin, and was certainly someone who helped me learn how to do even the meager attempt of doing this job the way I do it now because of what I read from Peter’s work. So Peter, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Peter Hart: It was my pleasure.
Adam: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that the culture is different. There’s, frankly, more media options, a more diverse media landscape. I’m skeptical it’ll be that rosy but we’ll see. I think it’s important to learn from history, again, it’s not a one to one thing, there are major differences in the contexts, major differences in the candidates, but I do think that many of the same broad ideological and PR components are there and I think that being skeptical early is important, I think, is the primary thing we learned and I think that’s the unfortunate buzzkill-y, scoldy, boring thing we have to do, we have to do that, we can’t just, you know, this idea that we’re going to sort of gently nudge people quote-unquote “to the left,” I have no idea what the fuck that means. I think you have to criticize and we have to be fair, but you know, proportionate, you don’t want to just be a mindless troll, but you have to be aggressive and not let these things slide because they metastasize and become bipartisan consensus really fast.
Nima: And I think the political class and also the kind of obsequious media has an interest in letting it slide, right? With “keep on walking.” It allows these things to perpetuate and the things that they are much more comfortable reporting on, the things that don’t need to change you know, we do a little hand wringing about the victims of the war on drugs, but we don’t actually ever need to change anything. We discover racism, apparently every other day, but don’t have to actually change anything. And we’ll see even more of this on our next episode, where we cover the back half of our top ten tropes to look out for with the incoming Biden/Harris administration and for that episode, we’re going to be speaking with Roberto Lovato, educator, journalist and author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas. So look out for that, but that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, an extra special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartalano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, December 2, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.