Media 'Con Game': Predetermined Storylines
By Nick Schulz
Tech Central Station
NEW YORK -- Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham is being appropriately mocked for a major pre-GOP-convention boner. In the September issue of his magazine, which has been on newsstands for over a week, Lapham writes about the "Republican propaganda mill" and the GOP convention:
"The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal -- government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden's prayer -- and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn't stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?"
That's right, Lapham wrote about the GOP convention speeches before anyone even stepped to the podium. Lapham has apologized for what he's calling a "rhetorical invention," use of "poetic license," and a "mistake."
But the only "mistake" Lapham made is in revealing for all to see what has long been known by anyone who pays attention to the news: the major media routinely bring to their coverage of significant political events a predetermined storyline -- you might want to call it a "Lapham". Facts that undermine the storyline are ignored or explained away as aberrations to The Truth. For the editor of Harper's and other establishment press figures, it really makes no difference to them what will be said at Madison Square Garden because the Laphams are already set, loaded in the scribblers' word processors and television anchor tele-prompters and ready to go.
We at TCS have seen Laphams at work at a number of gatherings we've covered over the years. At the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg a couple of years ago, the predetermined storyline was that the United States was a menacing global economic hegemon that was exploiting the underdeveloped world and ruining the environment. Enlightened bureaucrats at the UN and intrepid eco-groups, the Lapham went, were all that stood athwart the Red, White, and Blue corporatist menace yelling 'stop'. Little did it matter to major newspapers or the BBC and CNN that leaders in the developing world made common cause with the US at that conference in pushing for freer trade, more economic development and growing economies.
At the recently concluded global AIDS conference in Bangkok, the storyline there advanced by activist groups and parroted by their friends in the press, was a familiar one. The US government, captive to Christian conservatives and American business interests, was undermining the global fight against HIV/AIDS. The truth was much simpler and more uplifting: the US, under President Bush's leadership, has taken charge in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The U.S. has committed more resources to treatment and prevention than all other donor countries and has insisted on quality drugs so resource-poor Africans get the treatments they need without making the AIDS epidemic worse.
Now we have another major political event, the GOP convention in Manhattan this week, and Lewis Lapham has already provided us with a predetermined media storyline: The GOP will advocate limited government and free markets even though doing so is "bizarre" and archaic."
My colleague and TCS host James K. Glassman recently highlighted two other Laphams in a convention preview. Glassman pointed out that the establishment media will portray "Republicans like yahoos and religious fanatics." But what about those high-profile Republicans who share some establishment media values? For example, convention speakers Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani are pro-choice. And John McCain buys into green dogma on global warming and favors restrictions on political speech. For these Republicans, the media will roll out another Lapham to round out the picture. As Glassman puts it, they'll be "portrayed in the media as weird anomalies." (As if on cue, NBC's Tom Brokaw included in his Sunday broadcast the Lapham that the GOP was engaged in a "con game" by having Schwarzenegger, McCain and Giuliani speak.)
In reality, Schwarzenegger and Giuliani do not feel they are in a party of troglodytes. They feel welcome in a party that emphasizes freedom, choice and responsibility. Yes, there are differences among Republicans over issues like abortion, but there's far more tolerance for dissenting views on controversial issues in the GOP than in the Democratic Party (remember former Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey?). And as for supposed anomalies like "maverick" John McCain (with whom TCS has had deep differences on some issues) he embodies the GOP's insistence on peace through military strength and a robust, assertive American foreign policy.
To elite media outlets, facts won't get in the way of a good Lapham. But there's a way to fight back.
The tools of the Internet age enable an intelligent public that is tired of media spin to take an active role in uncovering the truth. To that end, we at TCS want you, our readers, to email us examples you discover of the establishment media trundling out their predetermined convention coverage storylines this week. When you come across Laphams in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet or on TV, alert us by sending an email to the following address:
We will collect your observations and publish the examples of Laphams later in the week. Have fun watching and reading about the convention -- and keeping an eye out for more of those "rhetorical inventions" from the press.