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Skeptimedia

Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Skeptimedia replaces  Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.

Teachable Moment or Media Manipulation?

5 September 2009. "I've had several parents contact me," said Mike, "Telling me that they don't want their kids to hear anything Obama has to say." Mike is pastor in a Catholic parish with an elementary school. He and I were catching up on the golf course. We hadn't seen each other in months and he seemed to want some advice on how to deal with the right-wing Obama haters in his parish, which is located in "Dolittle country." Unfortunately, I didn't understand the exact nature of his concern because I hadn't read the paper that morning and didn't know that the right-wing media and their allies on Facebook and Twitter had found what they perceived to be another chink in President Obama's armor and were exploiting it to the hilt. One example: Mark Steyn told Rush Limbaugh's audience that Obama was trying to create a "cult of personality" akin to that of Kim Jong Il and Sadaam Hussein. The evidence? He claimed Obama was requiring children "to write letters to themselves about things they can do to help the president." I suppose Limbaugh wants children to write letters to themselves explaining why they want the president to fail rather than what they can to do to help the leader of their country succeed in making America a better place to live.

Actually, somebody at the U.S. Department of Education's (DOE) website suggested such an exercise as a potential classroom activity. Obama, I found out, planned to address our nation's schoolchildren next week. The suggested exercise provided the right wing and anti-Obama take-down folks with an excuse to run wild with venomous accusations that the president would abuse his power by promoting his polices under the guise of trying to inspire our nation's children to value their education. After the furor, but way too late to calm the Obama-haters' anger, the website changed the proposed activity to "write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals." I don't think anyone seriously thinks that President Obama micro-manages the DOE's website, but somebody either wasn't thinking very clearly or was intentionally trying to sabotage Obama, when he or she created the assignment to have kids think about ways they can help the president. In a world without right-wing media vultures waiting to pounce on anything Obama says or does, such an assignment would be appropriate. What's wrong with helping the leader of your country? Nothing, especially since the assignment leaves open the possibility of little Joey or Janie writing a letter saying that the best thing I can do to help my president is to disagree with him when I think he's wrong. Such an assignment on that website in these times, however, is wrongheaded but it does not imply that Obama's address to schoolchildren is going to be a political speech. Obama is one of our better politicians (take that any way you want) and would not shoot himself in the head by telling children to go home and tell your parents to support my healthcare plan. [Click here to read the text of his address.]

Now the focus is on whether to show the address to children at school, rather than on the President encouraging our young people to "make your teachers work hard," as George H. W. Bush put it when he gave a national address aimed at schoolchildren. Of course, Democratic party leaders ripped into the president for playing politics, to which Republican leader Newt Gingrich responded by asking "since when is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education?" This time around Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer said he "was absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology."

The political damage to Obama has been done and no speech or press release can undo it. The media loves it, even the so-called liberal media, and continues to focus on the bogus controversy about whether Obama will give a political speech in his address and on the angry parents demanding that educators not show the address. Little attention is paid to more important issues like the value of education and having a leader who can inspire our schoolchildren to aspire to great things. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that the Obama address will focus on student responsibility for doing well in school and parent responsibility to help their children succeed. He also will give a pat on the back to our nations' teachers as "unsung heroes."

Of course, the Obama haters want him to fail and cringe at the thought of having millions of future voters being inspired by a "liberal" Democrat to make the best of their education and their lives. The mainstream media seem very willing to follow the lead of the right-wing media, however. There doesn't seem to be a counter-voice to the propaganda of people like Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck. Consider how the media is covering the town hall meetings on healthcare plans. If you get your news from television, radio, newspapers, or the Internet, you've seen and read and heard about nothing but seething, disruptive in-your-face opposition. You'd think civil discourse is nowhere to be found in this country. A local member of the House of Representatives refused to have a town hall meeting for fear of the abuse she'd have to take (at least that's how the media portrayed it). How do we know what percentage of town hall meetings are occurring where there may be heated but respectful debate? The media distort reality unintentionally by focusing their reports on selective slices of what's going on in the world. Violent crime goes down but media coverage of violent crime goes up, creating the impression that things are getting worse rather than better. So, we might ask the question E. J. Dionne asks: "what if our media-created impression of the [town hall] meetings [on healthcare plans] is wrong?"

Obviously, the media should cover the story of the right wing's concerted effort to disrupt the town hall meetings, but does it have to leave it there? What allegedly happened in Durham, North Carolina, should be part of the story. Rep. David Price claims that a stringer for a local television station was told that his coverage of the town hall meeting "doesn't get covered unless it blows up." The meeting in Durham didn't blow up and it wasn't covered.

All those with political agendas try to manipulate the media and work hard to get the media to promote their agendas. For many years, conservatives and the right wing have done a much better job of controlling the media, including the so-called "liberal" media, than have the so-called liberals in the Democratic party. I refer to right wing as distinct from conservative. When I think of a conservative, I think of Barry Goldwater. Conservatism to me means a philosophy that sees the role of government as primarily that of protector of rights and individual freedom, especially of the rights of the states to be free of federal control as long as the states conform to the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments. Goldwater, for example, thought it was not the government's business to legislate abortion. The right wing has no positive agenda beyond maintaining a bully pulpit to shout down and oppose anything it perceives as "liberal." Conservatives will engage liberals in debate over healthcare, national defense, taxes, education, etc. The right wing attacks and opposes any Democratic or liberal proposal on healthcare, national defense, taxes, education, etc. Conservatives fear federal control over just about anything except national defense. The right wing uses fear to manipulate any liberal proposal as either part of a plot to change America into a socialist dictatorship or the beginning of a slippery slope that will eventually end in socialism. (I'm not sure how either feels about having a federal highway or aviation system, but I would suppose both are in favor of them since they promote commerce and could be used to transport troops in time of need.)

Finally, some dunce needs to be sent to the corner to think about the power of the right-wing media to turn even the most benign event into something to exploit  and hype into national theater starring Obama the socialist dictator.

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