In November 2008, the “historic” importance of Barack Obama’s presidential victory was a relentless theme across the media spectrum. Even the pretence of a mainstream commitment to balanced reporting vanished from sight in deference to the self-evident Truth. The Guardian led the way, gushing almost exactly as it had over Blair in 1997:
“They did it. They really did it. So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world… Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory. Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America’s hope and, in no small way, ours too.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2008/nov/06/barackobama-uselections2008)
The former Europe minister and arch-Blairite, Denis MacShane, sounded a rare, unwitting note of caution:
“I shut my eyes when I listen to this guy [Obama] and it could be Tony. He is doing the same thing that we did in 1997.” (Tom Baldwin, ‘Blair team look in mirror of history,’ The Times, November 8, 2008)
The passing of Obama’s health reform bill on March 23, was again greeted as “historic” across the media. A Guardian leader declared:
“… a piece of history was made on Sunday night, and yesterday Republicans were scrambling to come to terms with it. It is not just that the United States finally has healthcare legislation that will ensure near-universal coverage (although it will take until 2019 to acquire it). America yesterday also woke up to the comparatively new spectacle of a Democratic president who can get things done…” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ 2010/mar/23/united-states-healthcare-barack-obama)
In an Observer article titled, ‘Principled and passionate: how Obama sealed his place in history,’ Henry Porter quoted the Leader of the Free World:
“This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, doggone it, this is exactly why I came here. This is why I got into politics. This is why I got into public service… we are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ 2010/mar/28/barack-obama-healthcare-israel)
Porter commented: “these words represent the highest political endeavour and give the sense of a cause that remains just and noble despite all the compromises he had to make”.
An Independent leader noted:
“The historic importance of Barack Obama’s presidency doubled this weekend. The House of Congress’ approval for comprehensive healthcare reform is on the same plane of significance as the election of the United States’ first African-American President 16 months ago.
“The legislation is far from perfect. The absence of a ‘public option’ health insurer means there is still scope for abuse from private insurance companies and other powerful vested interests in the system.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-an-even-tougher-battle-now-awaits-the-democrats-1925431.html)
Some possible problems remain, then, but a wonderful step nonetheless. It is hard not to be swayed by this kind of rhetoric.
The Daily Mail agreed that this was “the most historic occasion of Barack Obama’s presidency so far.” (Leading article, Daily Mail, March 24, 2010)
As did the Telegraph:
“President Barack Obama will today sign into law the historic reform of the American health care system that has eluded his predecessors for a century.”
As did the Mirror and The Times:
“Barack Obama’s historic victory in Congress teaches us two things. The first is a political leader can make a real difference, to be a force for good. President Obama’s triumph is the gift of care to 32 million destitute Americans.” (Leading article, ‘Obama’s gift,’ The Mirror, March 23, 2010)
“Sunday’s vote in the House of Representatives was historic by any measure. It addressed many questions, among them whether Congress is beyond repair and whether President Obama has the toughness to govern as well as to campaign. He has shown that he has both: he was a consequential candidate and will now be a consequential President.” (Leading article, ‘A Vote for Progress,’ The Times, March 23, 2010)
When money-grubbing media corporations are unanimous on an issue of fiscal policy, you can be sure that all is not as it seems.
An Economic System That Is Truly Evil
Consider, by contrast, the views of Michael Moore, a non-corporate journalist whose documentaries have powerfully challenged the status quo (and therefore been subject to a torrent of abuse). His excellent 2007 film ‘Sicko’ focused specifically on the scandal of US healthcare. Moore described his feelings in an interview with the Democracy Now! website:
“I mean, I’m sorry, I’m just so – I feel so disillusioned. And I sit here on this camera here, and I’m thinking, you know, I’ll try and sound upbeat and positive and optimistic and all this, because people are filled with such despair right now. But I’m sorry, I, too, am filled with that despair.
“And I think that he [Obama] isn’t really going to take on the powers that be. He’s not really going to take on the banks and Wall Street. He cut a deal with the pharmaceutical industry so that they got completely left out. They weren’t even touched by this bill, so they get to go on their merry way of bilking the public out of billions of dollars every year.
“So, no, I’m sorry, I just – I just don’t – you know, and I have felt through most of my life, actually, that sometimes it’s worse to have the kinder, gentler version of the same bad thing than the actual bad thing, because at least when it is that bad thing, you can deal with it, because you know what it is. But if you’ve got, as is often the case with Democrats, this mask over it that looks like a nice mask, it looks like – wow, it looks like one of us…”
“Well, I mean, to me, it all comes back to this issue of an economic system that is truly evil. And the healthcare bill that was passed ultimately will be seen as a victory for capitalism, because it protected the capitalist model of providing healthcare for people. In other words, we’re not to help people unless there’s money to be made from it. That is so patently disgusting and immoral, but that’s the system. That’s where we live.” (http://www.democracynow.org/2010/3/23/ michael_moore_health_care_bill_a)
And it is interesting to compare what the American people, rather than elite British and American politicians and journalists, wanted from health reform. In a 2006 Gallup Poll, 69 percent of Americans thought it was the responsibility of the federal government to provide health coverage to all US citizens (Gallup Poll, 2006). A January 2009 CBS/New York Times poll found that 59 percent of Americans supported a single-payer health insurance system. In a “single-payer” system health insurance is paid by a single government source and extended to all citizens. In April 2008, Annals of Internal Medicine reported that 59 percent of doctors also backed a single-payer system.
On the ZNet website, Paul Street cited these figures, commenting:
“In a remarkable CBS-New York Times poll conducted in late September of 2009, 65 percent of more than 1,000 Americans randomly surveyed by CBS and the Times responded affirmatively to the following question: ‘Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and over get – that would compete with private health insurance plans?'” (http://www.zcommunications.org/health-reform-theirs-and-ours-by-paul-street)
Moore explained his objections to Obama’s bill:
“I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody… This bill was never about universal healthcare. It, you know, did a couple of good things that could have been done anytime, I guess, like ending the pre-existing condition rule for children. It doesn’t end it for adults for four years, so you can rack up another, you know, probably 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in the meantime from people who otherwise would have received help had we truly gotten rid of the pre-existing condition thing for all citizens.”
He added of Obama:
“I don’t think he really cared about a public option. I don’t think he really believes in true universal healthcare that’s managed by we the people. He was the number one recipient of health industry money in the Senate and when he was running for president, so I’m not surprised that he had very little interest in doing any of that…”
Indeed, even the idea of universal single-payer healthcare was banished from much discussion on the bill. Bruce A. Dixon, managing editor of Black Agenda Report, comments:
“Persistent and single-minded interventions of the White House and its minions in the Senate and House Democratic leadership have relentlessly censored and excluded single payer viewpoints from the public conversation and pushed the actual legislation further and further in the directions the insurance companies, the drug companies, and the biggest medical providers desired.”
In a Media Lens search (March 29) of the LexisNexis media database, we found just three articles containing the words ‘Obama’, ‘Health’ and ‘Single payer’ (or ‘Single-payer’) in the UK national press over the last month. We found a single mention of Michael Moore’s view of Obama’s health bill in a single sentence in the entire UK press.
Street noted that, in an interview with Fox News, Obama had said of his health bill:
“Now, we can fix this in a way that is sensible, that is centrist. I have rejected a whole bunch of provisions that the left wanted that are – you know, they were very adamant about because I thought it would be too disruptive to the system.” (Street, op. cit.)
“Never mind that these sane and sensible ‘Left’ measures were supported by most Americans. They had to be demonized by the President and his fellow noble ‘centrists’ as too dangerous and radical because big insurance and drug companies and their Wall Street backers hate such policies – for obvious reasons.”
As Noam Chomsky has joked, such measures “didn’t have ‘political support,’ just the support of the majority of the population, which apparently is not political support in our dysfunctional democracy.” (Ibid.)
Dissident journalist Chris Hedges is also damning of the reform:
“The bill is about increasing corporate profit at taxpayer expense. It is the health care industry’s version of the Wall Street bailout. It lavishes hundreds of billions in government subsidies on insurance and drug companies. The some 3,000 health care lobbyists in Washington, whose dirty little hands are all over the bill, have once more betrayed the American people for money. The bill is another example of why change will never come from within the Democratic Party. The party is owned and managed by corporations.”
Hedges added that the bill “will do nothing to ameliorate the suffering of many Americans, will force tens of millions of people to fork over a lot of money for a defective product and, in the end, will add to the ranks of our uninsured… Chalk this up as yet another victory for our feudal overlords and a defeat for the serfs.”
Dixon, points to an ugly truth that is all but unthinkable to mainstream US and British journalists:
“A much better health care bill could have been passed at mid-year 2009, and a less good, but still somewhat better one was possible at year’s end. But the Obama administration was convinced that still more could be given to Big Insurance and Big Pharma, and so delayed the bill into 2010.
“In health care, as in war and peace, as in the environment and education, as in the rights of women and immigrants, the First Black President’s historic role is clear. His job is to smile and speechify and neutralize the left on every front, while taking the country further to the right than his white Republican predecessor would ever have been able.” (Dixon, op. cit.)
Pure Blairism, in other words.
Almost none of this principled opposition exists for the mainstream. Instead, analysis of the debate is falsely restricted to a struggle between Obama ‘liberals’ and ‘Tea Party’ Republicans opposed to his reforms. Henry Porter, for example, writes in the Observer:
“The Tea Party protest swelled with a strident, inchoate panic about un-American policies, a reflex that Lincoln and Johnson would both have recognised because this kind of allergic reaction was the measure of the changes they promulgated.” (Porter, op. cit.)
This was also a central feature of Blairism: big business-driven “astroturf” protests (artificial grassroots activism) are cited to prove the radicalism of what in fact are corporate-friendly “centrist” politics. The whinings of “loony lefties” like Moore, Street, Hedges, Dixon, Chomsky and much of the American people, can then be safely ignored.
But why, one might ask would a corporate media be so blind to the depredations of the corporate system and to honest dissidents opposing them?
An unsubtle hint was provided by news that Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, is in advanced talks to run budget airline easyJet. Mark Kleinman commented for Sky News:
“It will be intriguing to hear the explanation of Sir Mike Rake, easyJet’s chairman, for the recruitment of McCall, since at first glance there are few obvious similarities between the worlds of media and aviation.
“I would expect that Sir Mike will point out that both easyJet and GMG are consumer-facing businesses in industries in which the internet is becoming an increasingly important distribution platform.”
Are we suggesting some kind of corporate conspiracy? Not at all. David Yelland, former editor of the Sun newspaper, was asked this week whether his ex-boss Rupert Murdoch had attempted to interfere in his editorship. No doubt to the chagrin of former colleagues, Yelland, post-rehab, has joined the human race. He answered:
“All Murdoch editors, what they do is this: they go on a journey where they end up agreeing with everything Rupert says. But you don’t admit to yourself that you’re being influenced. Most Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has happened and think, ‘What would Rupert think about this?’ It’s like a mantra inside your head. It’s like a prism. You look at the world through Rupert’s eyes.” (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23819883-david-yelland-rupert-murdoch-is-a-closet-liberal.do)
It is like a prism. Or, indeed, a lens.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Henry Porter
Email: [email protected]
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]
Roger Alton, editor of the Independent
Email: [email protected]
Please also send a copy of your emails to us
Email: [email protected]