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Sweeped Away

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Forget the "liberal media" myth. Political reporters are often criticized, often rightly so, for being well-paid stenographers for those in power. They're also known for being infatuated with, and drawn to, what's new or ascendant. That's human nature. So the GOP gets to set the agenda and control the rhetoric — framing the debate — even more than it did after '94. To the victors go the media spoils.

In '94, Clinton was something of a counterbalance in the White House. But now, how will dissenting voices, opposition voices, public-interest voices, be heard in the mainstream press? It's not as if they were all that common before.

Political reporting often works like this: A top legislator makes some pronouncement. The fact that the president or a senator or congressman speaks out needs to be reported, journalists will say, to establish "the record." That's the top half of a typical wire-service story, which is what most Americans read in newspapers, or see as headlines on CNN or Internet Web sites flashing the latest developments.

But this also is how the "reporting-as-stenography" cycle begins, because the quoted politician has just dictated the topic of the article. Most reporters, seeking "balance" and working on deadline, will then look for an opposing quote, find a quick retort and then write it all up.

That's the way most political reporting is done. Analysis or actually checking the facts behind spins, or historical contextualization, is often left for subsequent pieces, or the editorial pages — if it appears at all. But as any political consultant will say, winning the battle of first impressions is usually what matters most in politics.

Right now, that first-impression advantage will belong to GOP corporate conservatives and their lobbyists — people, priorities and policies that are usually at odds with the public-interest values espoused by liberals, grassroots activists and more often than not, the underrepresented in American politics.

Pundits and editorialists will no doubt opine that now that the GOP controls the Congress and the White House, they'll have to govern with results — not carp from the sidelines — because they have the power to deal with the economy and all areas of public policies. Some will say this may even be good for Democrats in the long run — even as their "sacred" stands on issues are skewered and gutted one by one.

The problem with that analysis, as well as with a Fourth Estate that's likely to be unduly deferential to the White-House-led, pro-corporate conservatism, is that it leaves the most power-hungry administration since Richard Nixon with no balance to its power.

Let's just hope that when the GOP's sweep-induced honeymoon ends, the news media will overcome its deference to those in power and report on the realities behind the debates and "solutions" that will be offered.

The duty of the press is to serve as the public's ombudsman, with independence and skepticism. There may be no other institution in America right now that can offer checks and balances to single-party government. S



Steven Rosenfeld is a commentary editor and audio producer for www.TomPaine.com. This essay appeared first on www.TomPaine.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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