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By David Podvin

In the Soviet Union, when someone would make a public statement that deviated from the Party Line, they were disciplined by being dehumanized. Sometimes they were exiled to the gulag, but usually the punishment was more subtle - they became invisible. They stopped appearing in public forums. Their opinions just disappeared. They lived, but they did not officially exist.

They became non-people.

The government’s intention was to use intimidation in order to preemptively censor every word that was said. The ideal situation for those who want to stifle dissent is to create an environment of fear so that active oppression is unnecessary. If everyone knows the bitter consequences of saying something “inappropriate”, then it will rarely be necessary to formally slap them down.

This effective but immoral approach can be seen in America by watching any television show that features a political pundit. Although freedom of speech is the stated American standard, the range of political debate on network and cable TV is strictly limited to a narrow deviation from the corporate mean. Simply put, a pundit who wants to be invited back knows very well what can and cannot be said, and this limits debate as surely as if a commissar with a saber were standing offstage.

The Public Broadcasting System used to be a haven for viewers who craved an exchange of diverse ideas. However, with P.B.S. increasingly dependent for its funding upon the kindness of petro-strangers, it is now a tragic example of just how limited televised political discourse has become in this country.

Every Friday night, the P.B.S. NewsHour hosts a review of the week’s political events. The conservative viewpoint is represented by Paul Gigot, who is the editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Gigot is an articulate and aggressive advocate for the right wing agenda. He ably presents the case that rioting is better than vote counting, that Bill Clinton is the Antichrist, and that the only thing wrong with the American economy is that our nation’s wealthiest citizens do not have a big enough piece of the national pie. His views fall well within the mainstream orthodoxy of the Republican Party.

His counterpart is usually syndicated columnist Mark Shields. Shields is there ostensibly to represent the views of people who believe that vote counting is better than rioting, that Bill Clinton is not the Antichrist, and that it’s okay for Americans who are not already wealthy to have some money. In his newspaper column, he has aggressively criticized George W. Bush and the Republican Party for lacking integrity and for policies that run counter to the interests of average Americans. At times his column has been harshly condemnatory, even occasionally veering dangerously close to suggesting that Mr. Bush might have difficulty telling the truth.

Shields the liberal columnist does not appear on the NewsHour. While he is playing TV pundit, Shields carefully toes the invisible but very real line that separates those who will be welcome guests in the future from those who are “inappropriate”. When he is on TV, his role is to be a Democrat who deeply respects Republicans, and he rarely strays from the script. This was especially obvious when a Shields column lambasting Bush for breaking one campaign promise after another was followed later that week by a Shields appearance on the Newshour during which his major criticism was that Bush was just too goddamn likeable.

The disconnect between Shields the critical columnist and Shields the television toady came into focus this week because of his absence from the show. While he is on vacation, his stand-in is syndicated columnist Thomas Oliphant. On August 28, Oliphant had written a column that accused Bush of being a liar. The words that columnist Oliphant attached to Bush included “fiction”, “false”, and “fraud”. He wrote that lack of credibility is a “Bush tradition”.

Ten days later, there was Tom Oliphant in the Shields chair for the weak and browbeaten. The new representative of the liberal point of view also deferred to Gigot’s bombastic conservative fantasies. Gigot blamed the Democrats for the bad economy. Oliphant’s response to this deceit, which he had aggressively condemned in his column just days before, consisted of chuckling. When Gigot lavished tribute on the economic genius of Phil Gramm, who was the congressional architect of America’s massive budget deficits, Oliphant cheerily failed to dissent. As always on the NewsHour, it was a debate between a predatory right winger and a guy who smiled a lot.

It was as though Mark Shields was still there.

Different face.

Different voice.

Same submissive liberal pundit.

The implicitly assigned roles are also seen on This Week with Sam and Cokie. George Will plays the Paul Gigot part of the go-for-the-jugular partisan assailant. Like Shields and Oliphant, George Stephanopoulos fills the role of the grinning piñata. Like them, he fights fire with unconditional surrender. Resistance on their part is not futile. It is nonexistent.

In the case of Stephanopoulos, the duplicity is even more extreme. This is the guy who was reported to be so angry when Bill Clinton strayed from the liberal cause by hiring G.O.P. consultant David Gergen that Stephanopoulos threw a tantrum and threatened to quit. He and Dee Dee Myers were almost in tears because Clinton had “sold out to the establishment”. Yet when he appeared regularly with Gergen on Nightline’s campaign coverage, Stephanopoulos’ most frequently uttered words were, “Ted, David’s absolutely right.”

The pattern repeats on show after show. Pundits who talk, write, and behave like liberals in real life appear on television and become Chia pets for conservatives. The red camera light goes on and, suddenly, they’re Stepford Wives.

It is not a conspiracy. It is the natural order of things as they currently exist in the American media. You would not invite someone who you regarded as insane over to your house to provide you with political commentary. General Electric and Viacom and Disney and FOX and the oil companies that now dictate policy at P.B.S. are not going to invite onto their networks people who spout insane liberal rantings (or insane moderate rantings). There was a time when the law forced them to provide dissenting points of view, but that was before deregulation led to the current state of journalistic market economics, a.k.a. liberals with pride need not apply.

One vignette that illustrates the concept:

Several years ago, a journalist from a leftist alternative paper was invited to be a panelist on Washington Week In Review. When the subject turned to national defense, the four other reporters discussed whether it was best to have the substantial military spending increase that was advocated by the Republicans, or the more moderate hike in military spending that was the Democratic counterproposal.

The alternative journalist joined the debate by saying that, given the Soviet Union had recently dissolved, the basic premise of spending huge sums on defense should be reevaluated. After all, the stated reason for spending so much money was to defeat communism, and now communism was in disrepair. Additionally, the U.S. was spending more on the military than the next twenty largest countries combined, so no one could conceivably present a real threat to America. Wasn’t it time, he asked, to cut the defense budget by half?

The stunned silence that followed was priceless.

Then, the attack began. The other four challenged his facts, but he wasn’t backing down. He was better informed on the subject than they were and, crucially, he wasn’t going to be intimidated. They attempted to ridicule him into retreat by questioning whether they had a K.G.B. mole in their midst. When he refused to be shamed into silence and stood his ground, the moderator quickly changed the subject to, as I recall, what a great guy Ronald Reagan was.

The dissenting reporter deserves entry into Heaven for, if nothing else, providing viewers with the pleasure of seeing on the faces of mainstream journalists the look of extreme discomfort that is usually displayed by someone who is about to pass a kidney stone.

I would like to tell you the alternative journalist’s name, but I can’t remember it. I also can’t remember the name of his paper. I only saw him once, years ago, and he hasn’t been on TV since.

I can’t find anyone else who knows about him, either. That’s the way it used to work in the Soviet Union. When someone made the mistake of expressing the wrong opinion, they disappeared from public view without a trace. They were just gone, and those that remained got the message without having to be told.

As a result of deviating from the Party Line that governs what is appropriate to be said on American TV, the wonderfully reckless alternative journalist became a television non-person. He has been exiled from the airwaves, and so has his point of view.

Most people did not notice his departure, but Mark Shields and Thomas Oliphant and George Stephanopoulos obviously did. Liberal pundits like them are absolutely determined to avoid joining the ranks of the non-people. They know that they cannot keep their television jobs by forcefully presenting the liberal viewpoint, so they will continue to throw the fight. Their conservative counterparts will continue to win the televised American political debate, by default, until the current repressive media establishment suffers the same fate as the Soviet system whose tactics it has adopted.

Ultimately, the real targets of censorship are not the journalists who fail to toe the line. The goal is to silence those whose interests do not coincide with the agenda of big business. By excluding the views of anyone who advocates the rights of the average citizen, the mainstream media and its corporate sponsors are methodically turning the majority of Americans into non-people.

More David Podvin

Podvin, the Series


Last changed: December 13, 2009