The mess that is America in 2011. We have an absolutely polarized American electorate. We have a void of leadership that same electorate sent to Washington, D.C. The federal credit rating is diminished. So, how did we get here? How did we move from widespread visions of hope and change in 2008 to equally widespread fear and discontent in 2011? How did "We, the People" become "We, the angry masses"? How did this happen, America?
According to an essay written by Val E. Limburg for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, it's a long, long story, one that begins with President Ronald Reagan and a former policy of the Federal Communications Commission called the "Fairness Doctrine". According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the Fairness Doctrine was a policy begun in 1949 meant to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by broadcasters was fair and balanced since broadcasters were viewed as "public trustees" given the limited number of broadcast frequencies available at the time and the massive number of people who could be reached (and influenced) despite the scarcity of those frequencies. The doctrine wasn't a law, however, although the Supreme Court sanctioned it in 1969 when it ruled in favor of the FCC in the case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC. Despite its intent, the doctrine upset many who considered it a violation of First Amendment rights of free speech and free press through which the freedom to make stories as balanced or unbalanced as reporters saw fit should be granted to the media. Lacking that freedom to slant coverage, some reporters avoided certain controversial issues simply to avoid the FCC's requirement to find alternate points of view.
The doctrine remained in effect until the 1980s, according to Limburg, at which point two things changed: Ronald Reagan became President and cable television began to spread across the nation. Reagan, a champion of smaller government and federal deregulation, noted that the consideration of broadcasters as "public trustees" due to the scarcity of broadcast resources was rendered moot since the proliferation of cable systems meant that diverse opinions on controversial topics would be readily available to viewers, and Mark Fowler, the new Chairman of the FCC as appointed by President Reagan, publicly vowed to end the doctrine. In 1985, the FCC, still under the control of the Reagan administration, issued its Fairness Report in which it validated earlier concerns about the doctrine's constitutionality and its effect on reducing the press coverage given to controversial topics. In 1987, the case of Meredith Corp. v. FCC saw the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit verify that the Fairness Doctrine was not law, but policy, and as such the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it. The FCC dissolved the doctrine in August of that year.
The end of the doctrine allowed pervasive demagoguery, religious dogma, political affiliation, and other ideological biases to flourish within journalistic efforts. Broadcasters with liberal or conservative agendas were given free rein to present stories and address issues without regard to alternative points of view. Whatever journalistic integrity that ever existed was reduced or completely destroyed in order to both satisfy the demands of the First Amendment and leverage its perceived allowance for single-sided reporting even if that single side was not only inaccurate, but a complete falsehood. Then again, that which is "the truth" is often subjective, and the cause-and-effect behind a given event to a liberal could be one thing, but to a conservative it could be another thing entirely. Both sides see their chosen sequence of events as unassailable fact, as incontestable truth, but in reality there is but one sequence of events that forms "the truth".
With the above as background knowledge, we fast-forward now to 2008. A war-weary, financially distressed America selected a young, Kennedy-esque Senator from Illinois as its chief executive following eight painful years of the buffoonery and warmongering deception that marked the presidency of George W. Bush. The Senator won the top office in culmination of a presidential run that saw him outlast a wide field of mudslinging candidates. Through it all, the man we now refer to as President Barack Hussein Obama did not fire back in like manner, and it seemed that he intentionally opted to let his calm demeanor and effective communication serve as counterpoints in his defense. The relatively young intellectual was ushered into the White House with the good will of the majority of Americans and a mandate to do that which was required to correct the disastrous course President Bush had set for the nation, righten the sliding economy, stop the illegal war in Iraq, and fix America's inefficient, high-cost healthcare system with one modeled after the universal healthcare then in place in several other countries. Finally, after eight years of skirt chasing and scandal in the Clinton administration, and after eight more years of decisions based on religious dogma and a blind adherence to conservative ideology, America had chosen a brave, intellectual visionary of change to pull the nation out of its downward spiral and send it soaring again above all others.
Too bad it didn't work out that way.
Barack Obama faced an uphill climb from the very moment he announced his candidacy for president. First, Hillary Clinton and Democrats loyal to former President Bill "Slick Willie" Clinton attacked him on the basis of his presumed inexperience and fired allegations that he would be inattentive or unprepared during a crisis. Additionally, and as noted In an article written in 2007 for Time magazine titled "Is Obama Black Enough?" by writer Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, Obama faced criticism from members of the so-called "black leadership" who had the absolute temerity to assail the well-groomed, well-spoken, bi-racial candidate as not being "black enough" to deserve the votes of the black community. After surviving a punishing battle for the Democratic nod, Obama faced off against America's sentimental favorite Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona; McCain's chosen running mate, the seemingly vacuous utterer of inane comments, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska; and the collective might of the entire conservative broadcast elite.
"Socialist". "Anti-American". "Muslim". "Foreigner". Spearheaded by the legions of right-wing pundits within Fox News, Obama was labeled as such and more by conservative commentators across the nation. And it wasn't mere resistance to his candidacy and proposed reforms they offered, but the most repugnant of vitriolic opposition couched in terms meant to impassion nationalist sentiment and stir racial fears. That the allegations levied against Barack Obama were patently false had no bearing on Fox News' talking heads since they were long free of the restraints formerly imposed by the Fairness Doctrine, and they assailed his character, his allegiance, his intelligence, and every other facet of his being with impunity on a daily basis, and time and again Barack Obama did not fire back in like manner.
This time, however, Obama's stoicism was presented as smug imperiousness by the conservative media. The many modern-day allusions they made to the old "uppity Negro" stereotype began to make their mark within the American psyche, and they were especially successful in shaping the opinions of white Americans already distrustful of Obama due to preexisting cultural factors and a few glaring mistakes made by the candidate and his wife during the campaign. In the end, Obama won the presidency, but he lost the votes of whites, southerners, and elderly Americans panicked over gross misrepresentations of his promised healthcare overhaul.
2008 Presidential Election Demographics
Barack Obama assumed the presidency on January 20th, 2009. Upon entering office, the dynamic young chief executive set about making his promises of "change" a reality. America expected a new administration filled with intellectual giants, business leaders, financial gurus, and other prominent individuals in much the same way that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt surrounded himself with a legendary "Brain Trust" who worked with him to usher in the New Deal. Sure enough, out went the Bush administration lackeys and in came ... the old Clinton administration.
Every day we watched as post after post went to former Clinton-era officials, and with each assignment our hopes for substantive change were dashed on the rocks of bitter reality. If President Obama personally defined "change" as "a reversion to members of the administration that greatly reduced America's military power, reduced America's international surveillance efforts, and failed to retaliate against Osama bin Laden and al-Queda for the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole", then he failed to inform everyone else on Earth. Keep in mind that it's quite possible that President Obama believed the people he empowered were possessed of superior problem-solving abilities and would thus be invaluable in curing the nation's ills. Yes, it was possible, just as it was possible that the candidate who failed to respond appropriately to the charges leveled against him on the road to the White House wasn't being dignified or stoic, but afraid, just as he seemed to be afraid of infusing Washington with fresh, new blood and new ideas through the appointment of true Beltway outsiders. But what would be the source of such fear, if it truly existed? Fear of failure? Fear of controversy? Or could it be that the President of the United States is cowed by the moneyed interests so ably championed by the unrelenting destroyers of truth at Fox News and within the rest of Rupert Murdoch's divisive, racist, rumor-mongering conservative media empire? Perhaps.
It is clear that Republican, Tea Party, and conservative legislators and pundits are like sharks in the water, but these predators smell something sweeter than blood -- they smell weakness. They understand that President Obama has neither the will nor the leadership skills to effectively defend and advance his legislative agenda, and they are absolutely right. Obama spent much of his first year in office trying to build bridges to the GOP despite their blatant contempt for him and his policies instead of aggressively pursuing his agenda at a time when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Obama had the votes. Obama had the power. He just didn't have the will.
One of President Obama's most embarrassing miscalculations occurred when he left the creation of the Health Care Reform bill in the hands of a bipartisan commission. One of the Republicans working on bill, Senator Chuck Grassley of Ohio, went before a raucous town hall meeting in his home state to report on the President's health care initiative and promptly joined other Republicans and conservative pundits in denouncing the very bill he was working on by alleging that it contained provisions for "death panels" that would kill grandmothers. An absurd charge, to be sure, but in stating it, Senator Grassley signaled his allegiance to those who had already begun to spin the lie ad infinitum on Fox News and on other right-wing outlets.
To be fair, the bill was not perfect. Free health care for illegal immigrants, for one, was a provision that needed to die a quick death. However, the rest of the bill would've put America within very close reach of the nationwide health care coverage enjoyed by other countries, and it would've done so without killing grandparents. The final version of the bill was born not through President Obama's leadership, not through an eloquent plea to the people, and not through Obama's control over Congress. No, the final version of the bill came about through a word that has come to define the Obama presidency: compromise.
Fast-forward to the recent battles over the debt ceiling. President Obama, in keeping with his track record of weakness and compromise, refused to unilaterally raise the limit by invoking the powers granted to him through the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, Obama would've become the first president to use those specific powers, but wasn't that the kind of dynamic "change" he was elected to bring? Instead, the GOP and its Tea Party allies nearly succeeded in causing a devastating default while Obama remained as stoic, and as unwilling to lead, as ever. The crisis was averted only when a compromise -- what else? -- was reached and the debt ceiling was raised. Unfortunately for the nation, the compromise agreement did not include any new sources of revenue, and there were too few expenditure cuts to satisfy at least one credit rating agency. The degradation of America's credit rating means that the cost of borrowing money increases for the federal government, and with that increase will likely come corresponding increases in borrowing interest rates. And so, for the first time in the history of this nation, America has a second-rate credit rating, and it is all due to President Obama and Congress.
Or is it?
The Tea Party and the Republicans held this nation hostage, not President Obama and not the Democrats. The right-wing elements of our government acted without regard to the financial security of the nation, choosing instead to wage a rancorous campaign against raising the debt ceiling and against raising the taxes of the higher income earners they represent. They did it by exhibiting every ounce of the smug imperiousness they frequently accuse President Obama of exhibiting, but what empowered them to do so? Yes, they were placed in office as a result of the midterm elections, but being in office and having true power are often two very different things. So, what powers them -- the electorate? The very voters whose trust they have betrayed? Or could it be something else? Could it be that they are counting on something that could impress within the minds of voters that they, the legislators who've so damaged America, are the best hope for the very nation they've betrayed and thus deserve re-election? Could it be that they are counting on some external factor that can lie at will and on their behalf? Could it be that without the long-dead restraints of the Fairness Doctrine, Fox News and its allies are now guiding our nation's destiny?
Think about it.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi Paul. "Is Obama Black Enough? - TIME." Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews - TIME.com. Time, 1 Feb. 2007. Web. 26 Aug. 2011. <http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1584736,00.html>.
Limburg, Val E.. "FAIRNESS DOCTRINE - The Museum of Broadcast Communications." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Aug. 2011. <http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=fairnessdoct>.
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