Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy

On March 10, 2004, when speaking to AFL-CIO union workers in Chicago, John Kerry said in what he thought was an off-mike comment: “Let me tell you — we’re just beginning to fight here. These guys are the most crooked, lying group of people I’ve ever seen.” Although Kerry was savaged by the Republican attack apparatus for this comment, in retrospect, he was quite correct. It is well documented that the Bush-Cheney administration has governed with lies and deception (Conason 2003; Corn 2003; Dean 2004; Waldman 2004). As I indicate in Kellner 2005 (Chapters 5 and 6), ‘Big, Bold, and Brazen Lies’ characterized the distinctive discourse and strategy of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign.1

In a New York Times op-ed piece, “The Dishonesty Thing,” Paul Krugman wrote that the key election issue was a “pattern of lies… on policy issues, from global warming to the war in Iraq.” Krugman recounts how years ago when he began questioning Bush administration figures on tax cuts, the deficit, and other economic issues, he and other critics were denounced as “shrill.” Citing a variety of establishment economic figures and reports, Krugman says that these documents reveal that he and other Bush critics were right and that the Bush administration was lying about their economic policies, using “fuzzy math” and fake figures to clothe the dubious results of their policies. Worrying that Bush’s economic policies might create a disaster and that, so far, the Bush administration has not begun to indicate solutions for economic problems they’ve created, such as the skyrocketing deficit, Krugman concluded: “Some not usually shrill people think that Mr. Bush will simply refuse to face reality until it comes crashing in: Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, says there’s a 75 percent chance of a financial crisis in the next five years. Nobody knows what Mr. Bush would really do about taxes and spending in a second term. What we do know is that on this, as on many matters, he won’t tell the truth.”2

For Bob Herbert of the New York Times, Bush’s Big Lie was the war on Iraq, a disastrous policy that has now killed more than 1,000 young Americans and placed the United States in a Vietnamesque quagmire. Seething with anger, Herbert cited the previous day’s Times, which published photos of the first 1,000 who died: “They were sent off by a president who ran and hid when he was a young man and his country was at war. They fought bravely and died honorably. But as in Vietnam, no amount of valor or heroism can conceal the fact that they were sent off under false pretenses to fight a war that is unwinnable. How many thousands more will have to die before we acknowledge that President Bush’s obsession with Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for the United States?”3

In retrospect, the smears on Kerry by the Republican attack apparatus and Bush-Cheney’s systematic lying throughout the campaign represent a low point in U.S. electoral politics. The studies in Kellner 2005 suggest that the conjuncture of corporate media which privilege entertainment and spectacle, the rise of a rightwing Republican media attack apparatus, and the systematic deployment of a politics of lying by the Bush administration has produced a crisis of democracy in the United States. I suggest that three convergent trends have seriously undermined U.S. democracy: the corporate control of mainstream media, which biases dominant media toward conservativism and profit; an implosion of information and entertainment and rise of a culture of media spectacle, which makes politics a form of entertainment and spectacle; and the rise of a right-wing Republican media propaganda and attack apparatus, which systematically deploys lies and deception to advance the agenda of conservative groups and interests.

An ever-growing right-wing Republican media machine, ranging from the Wall Street Journal and the conservative press to the Rupert Murdoch–owned Fox TV, talk radio, and the extreme right sector on the Internet, all disseminate propaganda of a scope and virulence never before seen in U.S. history.4 Expanding significantly since the 1980s, the Republican propaganda machine has cultivated a group of ideological storm troopers who loudly support Bush-Cheney policies and attack those who criticize them. These extremists are impervious to argument, ignore facts and analysis, and demonize as unpatriotic anyone who challenges Bush-Cheney policies. Groomed on Fox TV and right-wing talk radio, they verbally assault anyone who does not march in lockstep with the administration and wage ideological war against the heathens, liberals, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other dissenters. These rightwing ideological warriors allow no disparagement of Bush and Cheney and refuse civil dialogue, preferring denunciation and invective.

Although the mainstream corporate media are vilified as “liberal” by the right-wing attack machine, in fact, mainstream journalists are easily intimidated when the right-wing army e-mails, calls, writes, and harasses any corporate media source that goes too far in criticizing the Bush-Cheney regime. The mainstream corporate media are largely subservient to corporate interests, follow the sensation of the moment, and rarely engage in the sort of investigative journalism that was once the ideal and that now takes place largely in the alternative sphere. Corporate media increasingly promote entertainment over news and information, like the tabloids framed by codes of media spectacle (Kellner 2003).

As an example of Bush administration intimidation of corporate media, Ryan Lizza dissected the Bush-Cheney closing strategy and how they targeted for attack specific media that strongly criticized them:

The White House has always relied on the press to convey Bush’s message to readers and viewers in a relatively unmediated fashion. That has proved more difficult this year due to a surge in coverage that fact-checks what the candidates are saying. This development has hurt Bush more than Kerry because the president’s strategy is to destroy his opponent’s credibility, a tactic that, ironically enough, has relied disproportionately on false statements. The Bushies have become so frustrated by the fact-checking of the president’s statements that a spokesman told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, “The Bush campaign should be able to make an argument without having it reflexively dismissed as distorted or inaccurate by the biggest papers in the country.”

In response to the media’s new obsession with truth-squading the candidates, the Republican National Committee’s opposition research department has started to do something remarkable: going negative on the press. “RNC Research Briefings,” e-mailed to hundreds of reporters, now regularly target members of the media. On October 6, the RNC put Hardball host Chris Matthews, a former staffer for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, in its sights. “Democrat Chris Matthews’ Selective ‘Analysis,'” read the headline on a three-page press release that accused Matthews of erroneously claiming Cheney had contradicted himself during the debate when he denied tying September 11 to Saddam Hussein. Accompanying the release, the RNC posted a video online attacking Matthews. A few days later, Republicans took issue with the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller’s accurate statement that, despite Bush’s claims, Kerry “essentially voted for one large tax increase, the Clinton tax bill of 1993.” “The New York Times Shades the Truth,” read the headline of a press release the RNC quickly put out. Next up was Ron Suskind, who wrote a critical piece in the New York Times Magazine. “Liberal Democrat Suskind Has Creativity but Not Facts,” the RNC noted. A few days later Paul Krugman became the RNC’s target. In Suskind’s and Krugman’s cases, the oppo was unusually personal and included unflattering pictures of the men, the kind that candidates dig up of their opponents, not of journalists.

The fact that the RNC is now devoting a good deal of its time to attacking reporters speaks volumes about how much Bush is relying on negative, unchecked distortions to secure a second term. And that means that, in its own way, the Ashley Faulkner ad — with its warm and fuzzy image of Bush — ultimately leaves voters with as false an impression as the Willie Horton ad did in 1988.5

The Bush administration had indeed been ruthless throughout their reign against media voices who had spoken out against them. Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and other Bush operatives had relentlessly browbeat any reporter who dared criticize the Bush administration. Few critics noticed that the Bush administration had carried through a paradigm shift in presidential and media politics. Previously, the media and the administration in power had engaged in a complex courtship ritual with both sides trying to seduce and manipulate the other. The mainstream media needed sources and material, and the administration needed the media to get across its messages.

All this had changed with the Bush administration, which viciously attacked any reporters who contested its statements or positions. If a media institution broadcast or published material deemed hostile by the Bush team, their shock troops bombarded the offending institution with e-mails, phones call, and letters, attacking them for exhibiting “bias” against Bush. This helps explain why the mainstream corporate media were so reluctant to contradict Bush campaign distortions and lies and why they did not do more serious investigative reporting into the scandalous backgrounds of Bush and Cheney and the striking failures of their administration. The cowardly mainstream media, for the most part concerned with reputation and profits, mainly submitted to the Bush-Cheney-Rove Gang coercion, and sacrificed their journalistic integrity by rarely refuting their lies except in the mildest possible terms. As a result, few administrations had ever so successfully controlled the media.

In addition to cultivating right-wing media that broadcast their messages of the day and intimidating the mainstream corporate media, the Bush administration has created fake media and bought conservative commentators to push their policies. During the 2004 debate on Medicare, the Bush administration created simulated video news releases (VNRs) featuring Karen Ryan “reporting” on Medicare; it later came out that Ryan was a U.S. government employee simulating a television reporter. The U.S. General Accounting Office ruled that the VNRs violated bans on government-funded “publicity and propaganda.”6

In 2005, it was revealed that the Bush administration paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote its No Child Left Behind Act, and had paid two conservative commentators to promote its family policy.

But most astonishing of all, the Bush administration provided press credentials to a fake journalist who worked for Talon News service that was barely a front for conservative propaganda. The Bush White House provided a press pass to avowed conservative partisan “Jeff Gannon” who was a regular in the White House Briefing Room, where he was frequently called upon by Bush administration press secretary Scott McClellan whenever the questions from the press corps got too hot for comfort. After he manufactured quotes by Senators Clinton and Reid in White House press conferences, bloggers found out that his real name was “James Guckert” and that he also ran gay porn sites and worked as a gay escort. As another example of the collapse of the investigative functions of the mainstream media, although “Gannon” was a frequent presence lobbing softball questions in the White House briefing room, his press colleagues never questioned his credentials, leaving investigative reporting to bloggers that the mainstream media was apparently to lazy and incompetent to do themselves.

Over the past decade or more, the investigative function of traditional journalism has largely fallen to alternative media and the Internet. The only way that a democratic social order can be maintained is for the mainstream media to assume their democratic function of critically discussing all issues of public concern and social problems from a variety of viewpoints and fostering spirited public debate, accompanied by the development of vigorous and competent investigative and alternative media. The democratic imperative that the mainstream corporate press and broadcasting provide a variety of views on issues of public interest and controversy has been increasingly sacrificed, as has their responsibility to serve as a check against excessive government or corporate power and corruption.

Democracy, however, requires informed citizens and access to information and thus the viability of democracy is dependent on citizens seeking out crucial information, having the ability to access and appraise it, and to engage in public conversations about issues of importance. Democratic media reform and alternative media are thus crucial to revitalizing and even preserving the democratic project in the face of powerful corporate and political forces. How media can be democratized and what alternative media can be developed will of course be different in various parts of the world, but without democratic media politics and alternative media, democracy itself cannot survive in a vigorous form, nor will a wide range of social problems be engaged or even addressed.

This text is excerpted from Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy just published by Paradigm Press.
Paul Krugman, “The Dishonesty Thing,” New York Times 10 September 2004.
Bob Herbert, “How Many Deaths Will It Take?” New York Times 10 September 2004.
The rise and growing influence of a right-wing Republican media propaganda and attack apparatus has been well documented in Alterman (2000 and 2003); Brock (2004); Conason (2003); Miller (2004); and Waldman (2004). In Kellner 2005, I update and expand my critique of right-wing and corporate media and show how they have relentlessly promoted the agenda of the Bush administration.
Ryan Lizza, “Backward,” New Republic 01 November 1 2004.
See Laura Miller, “The 2004 Falsies Awards,” AlterNet, 30 December 2004.


Alterman, Eric. Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2000.

—. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Brock, David. The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004.

Conason, Joe. Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003.

Corn, David. The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. New York: Crown, 2003.

Dean, John. Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

—. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm, 2005.

—. Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Westview, 1990.

Miller, Mark Crispin. Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order. New York: Norton, 2004.

Waldman, Paul. Fraud. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2004.

Douglas Kellner’s Home Page
Republican National Committee
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Fox News

Please feel free to comment.


  • I’m not sure what’s more disappointing … the fact that such a rabidly partisan operative like Jeff Gannon/James Guckert can get into the White House Press Corp and ask openly skewed questions, or that it takes the leftist bloggers sitting at home — and not the mainstream journalists sitting in the same room — to discover that he’s been admitted to deflect questions.

    Of course the Feds (FBI/Secret Service) knew Gannon/Guckert’s identity! There is ample documentation proving that this administration goes to great lengths to ensure the security and friendly composition of Bush’s audiences. Unfortunately, this “stacking the deck” strategy is no different for our Press Corp. (Yes, you, me, OUR press corp.) And this is what’s most unsettling about this particular lapse in mainstream journalism. The White House Press Corp should operate as the first line of defense for citizens against an unscrupulous government. (Kellner and other critics have argued that the news media is our forth pillar of democracy.) Yet this administration gets little-to-no pressure from the popular press for its wanton manipulation of its own rank and file. Why not? Are they too embarrassed to admit their collective oversight? Do they not want to ask questions that will get them moved to the back of the room (ala Helen Thomas)?

    For me, the most curious element the Gannon/Guckert story is his alternative identity as a gay escort and pornographer. Leftist blogs and even some mainstream news sites appear to revel in highlighting the obvious disparity between the man and his political affiliation (i.e., as a lying, conservative homosexual republican). However, I wonder if his identity as a gay escort is itself a rhetorical distraction? Asked another way, is the obsession with his homosexuality a political red herring? The blame has been placed squarely on his “aberrant” shoulders, thereby excusing and absolving the administration that let him in the door. The popular rhetoric would have us believe that he, James Guckert is the amoral lone wolf, and not Scott McClellan or the deceptive administration that issued him a press pass and gave him a good seat.

  • Allison Perlman

    so what is the answer?

    Kellner ably documents the current crisis in the media and its peril for a functioning democracy. No doubt, we have a serious problem. And he suggests that a reliance on alternative media and the Internet are, in the end, insufficient fixes: we need to reform the mainstream media, not just find outposts somewhere else.

    So how do we do this? Bring back the Fairness Doctrine? That idea has been batted around on this site lately, and there seems to be a growing consensus that this action would not be an adequate solution–sort of like putting band-aid on a head wound.

    Kellner’s focus on the corporate structures of the media indicate that an appeal to journalistic integrity is beside the point. Would increased federal regulation address the problem (at least in the US)? Should we try to reverse the trend of deregulation? The FCC, back in 1949, held hearings on the news practices of 3 radio stations owned by G.A. Richards to determine if he had intentionally presented slanted news stories (his staff claimed that he insisted that Henry Wallace be referred to as a “pinhead” or “pig-boy”, that the Roosevelt family be derided, that Jews be conflated with communists, etc.). Richards died before the end of the hearings, but on the table–at least hypothetically–was that he could lose his licenses if the charges had merit. Perhaps such action is unreasonable these days, but certainly heavy fines for unscrupulous reporting could be a possible option.

    Or, if nothing else, the left needs to mobilize the way that the right has. The current indecency fines that loom over the heads of broadcasters resulted from well-organized and loud conservative voices. If we really want media reform, perhaps we could learn a tactic or two from the right.

  • The president isn’t the only problem.

    While I do agree that media has traded facts for spectacle and democracy is in crisis, I think it is much bigger than just a campaign issue. The problem is in the information apparatus itself.

    Whenever anything becomes REALLY big business it becomes a political force and anything political has to choose sides. The corporate media giants probably decided to pool together for Bush because they saw more promise for returns in the republican population, so they decided not to expose him. I don’t think anyone would be shocked to find out that politicians lie.

    The bigger threat to democracy is the media giants themselves as the major source for information to the general population. As you said, democracy requires an informed population, and that is because the population makes it’s decisions (most of the time) based on information. People didn’t support the war because they were republicans, they supported it because they felt that was the answer given the information they had, and because of the RNC and everything you mentioned the information was crooked. That’s where the bloggers have made their break: filling the information gap between the population and the politically-driven media giants.

    However, that’s not a better situation to be in.

    There is now a crisis facing the battle for information the same way there is a crisis facing the military. The American army could easily beat any other army on earth, but the enemy now is not an army. The media giants could easily wipe out or “acquire” any company that goes against it, but now its individuals that are doing the damage. You can’t call the insurgency in Iraq a military, and you can’t call the bloggers journalists. America now seems to have only one source of non-RNC media and it’s coming from a source with zero credibility. They are the insurgents of American information; we don’t know whose side they’re on or what their goal might be.

    So we’ve lost faith in mainstream media and we’re starting to put our faith in individual information vigilantes. The problem isn’t that only “one side” of information is getting through, the trouble is that ALL information coming in is being spun so hard in opposite directions that the population decides to stick to people (ie: Bush) rather than facts.

    When the truth becomes a partisan-political issue, all of society, not just democracy, is at risk.

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