Monday, January 24, 2005

The 'Victims' in Power

Plucking heartstrings with the Victim-in-Chief
Jennifer Buckendorff stokes the ongoing debate over progressive message control, writing in Salon that liberals need to learn from Oprah Winfrey if they hope to instill their beliefs in the hearts and minds of red-meat America.

The key to Oprah's success, according to Buckendorff, is her ability to win over an audience not by cold recitation of facts, but by plucking at their heartstrings with weepy anecdotes about victimization and Scarlett O'Hara-styled perseverance. Buckendorff adds that the right media has played the victim card well, casting the big, bad "liberal elite" as villain:
On right-wing media outlets like Fox News, personal tales of victimization -- by "liberal elites," professional academics and Hollywood libertines -- abound. Witness the many network news segments that have profiled Christian teens ‘shut out’ of their high schools, unable to conduct public prayer meetings . . .The right spins these stories, making big agenda issues absolutely personal, and garnering empathy for presumed victims.
One of the most outspoken "victims" on the right side of the dial is the Wall Street Journal's Madame DeFarge, Peggy Noonan, who frequently has told a tale of meek right-wing causes besieged by a media monopoly of "a relatively small group of a few hundred liberals who worked and mostly lived on an island off the continent [aka Manhattan]."

But the tides are shifting, Noonan writes:
Charolette O'Hara on the Hudson
. . .in the past decade the liberals lost their monopoly. What broke it? We all know. Rush Limbaugh did, cable news did, the antimonolith journalists who rose with Reagan did, the internet did, technology did, talk radio did, Fox News did, the Washington Times did. When the people of America got options, they took them. Conservative arguments rose, and liberal hegemony fell.

And to think that Peggy and her "people" had been victimized for so long. This from a media figure who received $75,000 to help write speeches for "victimized" Enron executive Kenneth Lay; who served as a speechwriter for "victimized" Republican presidents Reagan and Bush I, and who lives out her victimization as arguably the most read editorialists at the world's most influential business paper -- just a short limo ride from her multi-million-dollar home in Brooklyn Heights (Tara on the East River).

Besieged by Northern 'Liberals'
Despite all that, Noonan has mastered the craft of framing her pet causes as stories of oppression at the hands of the "liberal establishment." Buckendorff at Salon argues that the left needs to frame their social issues in the same way -- by telling stories that enable Oprah America to weep for their oppressed.

Buckendorff has a good point. But in order for these stories to be told, progressives need to find a sympathetic ear with the gatekeeper to the masses: mainstream media. And therein lies a bigger problem.

We live in an environment where media moguls and marquee journalists have joined the political and moneyed elite that they, as the Fourth Estate, are supposed to challenge on behalf of the disenfranchised. Right wing ranters like to think that the "liberal establishment" -- represented by Hollywood on the left coast and New York media and Ivy Leaguers on the right coast -- is all powerful. And that they, the conservatives, are the underdogs in a system that is hard-wired to favor a "liberal agenda."

Last time I checked, though, most real power (Fortune 500 corporations, financial institutions and the branches of gov't -- legislative, judicial and executive) rests in the hands of those that hold a center right to far right perspective. And that a commercial media system, which depends on favorable rule making and friendly corporate advertisers to protect its elevated status and bottom line, is leaning rightwards -- towards the powerful -- as a result.

Buckendorff's call for the left to tell heart rending, human-interest stories about the social issues they want to influence -- for example, homophobia, racism, war and xenophobia -- will go nowhere with a mainstream media that has becomed blinkered to the plight of real victims.

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