03.05.10 9:05 PM ET
Thanks to the 2006 and 2008 elections, conservatives no longer control the American government. They do, however, continue to essentially control the American media. As a case in point, you've probably heard that part of the Obama administration's plan to pass health reform is to use the budget reconciliation process. The reason you've probably heard is that the press has been obsessed with the topic, repeatedly labeling it a "controversial" move that would " ram" legislation via an end-run around the normal legislative process."
In fact, though most bills do not go through the reconciliation process—typically because their subject matter makes them ineligible—the process has been invoked frequently since 1980. And the reason it's remained obscure until 2010 is that until the health-care debate, the press never saw fit to go into conniptions over congressional procedure. Indeed, as Jamison Foser has painstakingly documented the use of the budget reconciliation process to pass George W. Bush's 2003 tax cuts on a 51-50 vote (Dick Cheney broke the tie, three Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting no) passed the press with no comment. Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran a hypocritical and dishonest op-ed from Senator Orrin Hatch denouncing the use of reconciliation, part of the paper's overall breathless coverage of this "controversial" move. But back in May 2003, as Bush's tax cuts were being passed, not a single Post article so much as mentioned the word.
The larger issue is that control of the storyline has been controlled by the right. The mere fact that press outlets are covering the reconciliation debate constitutes a victory for the right.
Similarly, ABC, CBS, and NBC combined to mention reconciliation zero times during the 2003 tax cut debate. CNN featured Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) mention it in passing, once, but certainly never did a segment in which its propriety was debated.
Some of the mainstream media coverage of the reconciliation issue has been bad. Some of it, like this excellent NPR story, has been good. But whether or not any individual journalist or journalistic outlet has been biased toward the right, the larger issue is that control of the storyline has been controlled by the right. The mere fact that press outlets are covering the debate constitutes a victory for the right. Both because it shows the right's ability to set the media's agenda, and also because it's now actually become true as a consequence of media coverage that reconciliation is a "controversial" tactic, which is exactly the message the right wants the public to hear.
There's nothing new about this. It was just a few years ago that Time's Mark Halperin (also co-author of the best-selling political book Game Change) and Politico Editor in Chief John Harris said that "Drudge rules our world", referring not just to themselves but the rest of the elite press.
It's not just Drudge. The left has built up a nice set of niche media on the Internet and on MSNBC's weeknight primetime coverage. But it's dwarfed in comparison to the juggernaut composed of Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh & a dozen lesser radio talkers, the 24/7 presence of Fox News, and even former GOP Rep Joe Scarborough's hours-long MSNBC morning show. This conservative media machine not only carries a potent message directly to its audience, but serves as a conveyor belt that shows a consistent ability to set the agenda for the mainstream press.
Consequently, if Sarah Palin wants to write on her Facebook page about how Obama is launching death panels, then the health-care conversation becomes about whether or not Obama is launching death panels. If Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen wants to launch the absurd argument that Obama is somehow killing too many terrorists when he should be torturing them, this becomes a Washington Post article. Similarly, when Liz Cheney decided to launch an insane McCarthyite attack on Justice Department lawyers who'd served as attorneys for al Qaeda suspects, Wolf Blitzer did a segment teased with a "Department of Jihad?" chyron.
Obviously, to be even entertaining a debate about whether or the Department of Justice is really a "Department of Jihad" is a huge loss for Obama, for Attorney General Eric Holder, and for the men and women of the federal law enforcement community. But as long as the media lets the right control the conversation, they have every incentive to keep thinking creatively of nonsensical allegations to bring forward. And the press will never find the bandwidth explain to people what's actually happening.
Matthew Yglesias is a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.