One of the hallmarks of propaganda is selective outrage. Fox News generally defends the superwealthy (the “job-creators”) and their tax cuts, but is outraged by one particular billionaire: Democratic-donor George Soros. At MSNBC, there is outrage over rich rightwing donors and Russian oligarchs, but not so much over powerful U.S. oligarchs, especially if they lean Democratic.
Another hallmark of propaganda is selective facts. Fox News cherry-picks video clips and factoids to portray President Biden as a weakling who is captive of his party’s left wing or the Chinese Communist Party, or both. He’s not. On MSNBC, he’s portrayed as a transformative agent of change, sometimes as the second coming of FDR. He’s not that either.
To credulous news consumers who reside snugly in the bubble of corporate liberal media (from the New York Times and Washington Post to MSNBC and CNN to “public” broadcasting), the Biden administration has racked up powerful, even historic, legislative achievements on behalf of the public. Which makes it hard for many of these liberal news consumers to fathom why the public seems unaware of Biden’s great accomplishments, with his approval rating at 39 percent in the latest CNN poll.
Is it possible that those glued to corporate liberal media – a demographic that skews older and richer than those who tune out the news – are being propagandized and oversold on Biden? Today, pro-Biden outlets report almost daily on how the president has confronted the climate crisis through the Inflation Reduction Act, a small step forward aimed at spurring investment in renewables. This is where selective facts enter the picture. These same outlets keep marginalizing Biden’s recent reversals that are worsening the crisis – and summer 2023 was “the hottest season the world has ever seen.”
Here’s how Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) summarized those reversals in an online Washington Post interview that received little mainstream media pick-up: “The Biden administration has reverted to an all-of-the-above strategy. They are green-lighting one fossil project after another, more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, a new LNG export facility in Alaska, a massive North Sea drilling operation called the Willow Project, the Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline. And they've failed to absolutely educate Americans about the immediacy of the challenge and how dramatically we need to operate in order to take it on."
Sen. Merkley mentioned that Washington needs to secure agreements with other countries to stop new fossil fuel projects: “But how can the U.S. ask for that when we’re approving a whole lot more fossil projects here at home.” The senator concluded: “On this most important issue facing humanity, Team Biden is failing.”
Despite massive pressure from environmentalists that began in 2021, including from young activists who’ll be needed for Democrats to defeat GOP neo-fascism in 2024, Biden has stubbornly refused to declare a climate emergency. Such a declaration would give him broader powers to act – to move forward instead of in reverse.
On the issue of student loan debt, Biden stubbornly resisted lobbying that began in early 2021 from grassroots groups (and even from Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer) to go big and rely on the Higher Education Act of 1965 to cancel up to $50,000 in debt per person. Even though student debt falls hardest on Black women, Biden opposed cancellation by disingenuously claiming that he didn’t want to help rich Ivy Leaguers. After 19 months of pressure from the Democratic base, Biden yielded and his administration cancelled some student debt based on COVID emergency legislation – a move ultimately blocked by the reactionary Supreme Court.
Advocates for universal healthcare are also fully aware of Biden’s stubbornness; they remember his stunning comment during the 2020 campaign that if Congress somehow passed Medicare for All, he might actually veto it as president. Candidate Biden did promise to lower the age of Medicare eligibility to 60, a change that would materially improve the lives of millions. But he took no action.
The cost of healthcare – which causes most bankruptcies in our country – is one of those inequality crises that smothers millions of Americans, most of whom don’t consume MSNBC or corporate liberal media. Major reforms would be noticed even by these low-news consumers. If you’re inside the liberal news media bubble, you’ve been told regularly how Team Biden and the Inflation Reduction Act are lowering the cost of Insulin and ten other widely-used medications. It’s an important step forward. But it’s dwarfed by the enormity of the healthcare crisis and has not yet impacted enough voters. (More federal funds would be available for healthcare and other domestic needs if Biden and Congress didn’t keep enlarging the already-bloated military budget – a topic that gets little scrutiny or criticism from corporate liberal outlets.)
Which brings us to why many MSNBC viewers are bewildered by the lack of public support for a president who they see hailed nightly for his grand achievements. In last week’s national poll showing Biden at 39 percent approval, one of the more disturbing numbers is that 58 percent said the president’s policies have worsened economic conditions. Sure, some of those naysayers are getting disinformed daily by rightwing propaganda from Fox News and elsewhere. But most aren’t inside the rightwing media bubble.
As prices rise and working-class and middle-class people struggle to pay bills, Biden has been unable to persuade many of them that he’s “on their side.” While progressives like Bernie Sanders have spent almost two years spotlighting howcorporate greed has fueled inflation (with proposals to address “greedflation”), that populist message is not one Biden is able or willing to convey. And it’s certainly not a message you’ll hear in liberal outlets owned by giant corporations or billionaires.
Given the quasi-fascist threat represented by Trump and the MAGA movement, it’s understandable that many who care about democracy feel the need to rally around Biden. But it’s long past time for progressives and Democrats to yank their heads out of the sand and quit being pacified by pro-Biden adulation on MSNBC or CNN and their 24/7 all-Trump/all-indictments coverage. These indictments may not stop Trump.
Trump and Trumpism need to be defeated at the ballot box, and we need to confront the fact that Biden would be a weak candidate next year. Putting aside his age, he’s weak because he appears incapable of addressing the crises people are experiencing. And his reelection team seems clueless about the issues that persuadable voters care about (as shown by their recent Ukraine ad). Most of the public doesn’t want Biden to run for reelection. Most Democratic-leaning voters don’t want him to run again either – especially those not propagandized nightly by MSNBC.
After a wide-open presidential primary process in 2020, Democrats and progressives came together to defeat Trump. We may need that open process again in 2024 to defeat Trump or Trumpism. For that to happen, Joe Biden would have tostep aside. The sooner the better.
Jeff Cohen is co-founder of RootsAction.org, a retired journalism professor at Ithaca College and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.” In 1986, he founded the media watch group FAIR.