Why the D.C. Media Bubble Is So Dangerous to Democracy

As Iraq implodes, as the White House looks to bury even deeper the scandals surrounding the VA and (still) Benghazi, and as the country begins to contemplate the presidency of someone (Hillary Clinton) who has been at the center of Washington since 1993, the gulf between the American public and the D.C. permanent ruling class grows dangerously deeper. The most recent Economist/YouGov poll has Congress’s approval rating at just 10 percent (it’s getting to be a stale joke to ask who in the world those 10 percent could be), while President Obama’s hovers in the low 40s.

Yet Washington itself remains insouciantly, defiantly self-obsessed and self-satisfied. Yes, individual congressmen, like Eric Cantor, can get knocked off by their constituents, but as a corporate body, Washington is invulnerable and impermeable to change. It forestalls any threats to its real power (fiscal extraction) by continually expanding the scope of its powers, far beyond what the Founding Fathers intended. The form of American democracy may remain intact, but its functioning is increasingly disconnected from the will of the people. From Washington’s perspective, business is great: Income is up, credit is limitless, and the customer base is growing. There can and will be no reform coming from inside Washington because that is manifestly not in Washington’s interest or in the interest of those who benefit from its largesse.

One of the main reasons for this lack of accountability is the advocacy of the D.C.- and New York-based media. It simply is undeniable that an uninformed public cannot make responsible choices at the polling place or hold public officials accountable for their behavior. The degree to which the American public actually wants to be informed and active in the political process is a different matter, but to some degree it cannot be expected to do so when reality is so shaped by such a self-interested and advocacy-driven press. Even the New York Times’ ombudsman decried the “culture of like minds” that pushes a progressive world view through almost every news story. That is not to say that every progressive goal is bad, nor that every libertarian goal is good. Rather, we are dangerously moving away from any expectation of objectivity or that language reflects reality, as George Orwell pointed out decades ago.

A reminder of the current state of affairs comes from the insider Washington publication the Hill yesterday, in an article entitled “Is Obama Done with Washington?” It’s yet another attempt to portray the president as a regular person frustrated by D.C. politics and yearning to return to his simple down-to-earth roots. It may well be that Barack Obama is fed up with Washington; he would join millions of Americans in being so. Yet the hagiographic and uncritical reporting of the piece is a perfect example of the Beltway bubble’s self-pitying regard, which so deeply warps the public’s understanding of those in power.

Starting with the unremarkable (yet for D.C., remarkable) news that President Obama went out last week to Starbucks for coffee. This is supposed to represent a yearning for normalcy in response to his “resignation against ‘this town.’”

The article segues into a psychological portrait of a good man worn down by a recalcitrant opposition. One Democratic “strategist” reminds us that Obama’s “never really made it a secret that he’s not a fan of this place.” The first point to note is that the president’s resignation is not that shared by the American public over Washington’s failings, but rather the disappointment that his personal agenda has run into so many problems. One might assume he would be a fan of Washington if it gave him everything he wanted. One example of Obama’s frustration given by the reporters is the failure to enact more gun-control legislation, quoting the malign influence of the NRA with nary a mention of the opposition of the top Democrat in Congress, Senator Harry Reid.

But the article hits its inside-the-Beltway stride when trying to prove how normal the president is. Thus, we are offered a quote by another “strategist” that “before he became president, he was an ordinary guy paying off his student loans who came out of nowhere.” The Hill’s reporters might have questioned this bit of historical revisionism by noting that after his 2004 DNC speech that vaulted him into the national spotlight, Obama signed a $1.9 million book deal and received another $1.1 million in royalties and further advances. At the same time, Michelle Obama was making nearly $122,000 a year as an executive director of the University of Chicago Medical Center, which would put her salary alone in the top 10 percent of American earners. In 2005, just when her husband was becoming nationally prominent, she was promoted to a vice president of the medical center, earning $317,000, which made her a top 1 percent earner. No one should begrudge the Obamas their good fortune, but it is misleading to portray them as average working Joes.

Yet to show that riches have not changed him, the reporters take pains to stress that “Obama also seems to savor interactions with . . . people whom he sees as being part of the real world rather than the rarified Washington sphere.” Again, the story would be just a bit more credible if it noted that the Obamas have become the ultimate A-list celebrities, with numerous stories about their White House parties and regular interaction with Hollywood and New York elites, and their multimillion dollar vacations in Hawaii, Africa, or Europe when Camp David is always available. Again, presidents can live in both worlds, as Ronald Reagan did and Bill Clinton clearly loved, but it is the one-sided nature of the reporting that so distorts the reality of power today in America.

The issue of more honest and accurate reporting is not a partisan one, though the liberal proclivities of the mainstream media make it a particular challenge for conservatives. It is, however, a fundamental issue for the health of our democracy. The press’s uncritical acceptance of, or support for, political spin (“relocating” U.S. Embassy personnel in Baghdad instead of evacuating; the entire Obamacare-rollout debacle) has unquestionably degraded our political discourse for years now. The media’s hyper-partisanship usually cuts only in one direction (think Katrina coverage), magnifying and distorting the shortcomings of GOP leaders so that an entire national discourse can be waged on the heartlessness of the conservative agenda, but allows for an almost complete exculpation of the failings of liberal policies.

Those inside the D.C.-New York-Hollywood bubble may think such misrepresentation is appropriate and even true. But they are playing with fire by deepening the rifts in American society and by increasingly misinforming the people, who will continue to be unaware of how power is actually exercised, untutored in what is being done by their elected leaders, and yet becoming ever more resentful at the failings of government.

Michael Auslin — Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues.