Konformist: SPINNING POPULISM IN AMERICAN NEWS MEDIA
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Thursday, October 28, 1999
SPINNING POPULISM IN AMERICAN NEWS MEDIA
By Norman Solomon / Creators Syndicate
A specter is haunting America -- the specter of populism.
Now that Patrick Buchanan has left the Republican fold to seek the Reform
Party's presidential nomination, a lot of journalists will be analyzing his
denunciations of the bipartisan establishment. In the months ahead, many
pundits are going to throw brickbats in his direction.
But Buchanan is largely a media creation. During the last two decades, he
gained wide visibility and national clout through the good graces of CNN
and other television networks. Despite his vehement biases against gays,
blacks and non-European immigrants, Buchanan's colleagues on the chat shows
did little to challenge his assorted bigotries.
While arguing with Buchanan on CNN's "Crossfire" one day in 1988, I had no
doubt that I was sitting next to someone with pro-fascist inclinations. But
through the years, his laudatory comments about such dictators as Spain's
Francisco Franco and Chile's Augusto Pinochet seemed to raise few media
On Feb. 16, 1995, when Buchanan revealed that he was leaving TV punditry
to prepare his '96 campaign for the GOP presidential nod, he made the
announcement on "Crossfire." Fellow co-host Michael Kinsley, supposedly on
the program as a counterbalance, responded by helping Buchanan to hold up a
sign showing his campaign's 800-number. With the toll-free number displayed
on the screen, the moment symbolized how members of the punditocracy have
enabled Buchanan to attain national prominence.
In early 1996, Buchanan's "populist" campaign gained strength in the
opening GOP primaries. George Will and some other pro-Republican
commentators -- fearful that Buchanan's momentum threatened the party's
prospects -- suddenly objected that he seemed to have a soft spot in his
heart for fascism.
Even then, Buchanan could rely on plenty of unfiltered air time and print
space to make his case. "The truth is, I've gotten fairer, more
comprehensive coverage of my ideas than I ever imagined I would receive,"
Buchanan acknowledged in March 1996. He added: "I've gotten balanced
coverage and broad coverage -- all we could have asked."
When he conceded defeat at the 1996 Republican convention, a big media
seat was waiting. In the midst of a live interview with the vanquished
candidate, Larry King relayed an invitation from CNN president Tom Johnson,
asking Buchanan to return: "It's official -- he wants you back on
From corporate America's vantage point, Buchanan is just about ideal as a
national candidate waving the populist banner. Buchanan is hobbled by heavy
far-right baggage -- which he grips with white-knuckled defiance as he
equivocates about Nazi Germany and routinely denigrates people for failure
to be white, heterosexual, and Christian (as he defines Christian).
Meanwhile, Buchanan mouths anti-corporate rhetoric but doesn't support
basic union rights of American workers. Significantly, he opposes a raise
in the minimum wage. And he scorns the environmental movement as an affront
to holiness. "Easter's gone," Buchanan declared angrily a few years ago.
"Now it's Earth Day. We can all go out and worship dirt."
Buchanan's brand of populism has never had much difficulty getting access
to mass media. But progressive populism -- stressing labor solidarity and
human rights for everyone while challenging corporate power -- is a very
different story. Mostly excluded from the media frame are populist
advocates who explicitly reject scapegoating and directly confront the
undemocratic power wielded by large corporations.
Of course, there's a glut of media commentators who support the gist of
Democratic and Republican party policies without seriously questioning
economic globalization, pacts such as NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization.
Overall, mass media are offering the public either mainstream pundits who
differ on how to shore up the status quo, or right-wing demagogues like
Buchanan. The narrow range of discourse, from the near left to the far
right, gives the impression that there are basically two positions worthy
of consideration -- either the two-party establishment or Buchanan-type
populism. It often seems that strong anti-corporate political views are
only deemed fit for wide media distribution if they're laced with a
It's not quite true, however, that you have to be on the far right to
garner sustained media attention as a "populist." Exceptions are made: Many
news outlets have gone crazy for the occasional pseudo-populist billionaire.
In 1992, Ross Perot basked in a great deal of favorable media coverage for
several months, until evidence of his wackiness became too weighty to
ignore. Now the billionaire developer Donald Trump is the bogus populist of
It's enough to give populism a bad name. And that's a real shame.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."