The Blatant Beast
posted at 5:05 pm on October 16, 2009 by Doctor Zero
In the 16th-century epic poem The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser writes of a monster called the Blatant Beast. which had “a thousand tongues of every kind and quality”, which “poured forth abuse, not caring where or when… speaking hateful things of good and bad alike, of high and low, not even sparing kings or kaisers, but either blotting them with infamy or biting them with baneful teeth.” In one of my favorite books, The Compleat Enchanter by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague deCamp, a pair of modern-day psychologists discover a method for traveling to the worlds of fantasy and literature. When they visit the world of the Faerie Queene, they encounter the Blatant Beast, who demands they tell him a story he hasn’t heard before, in exchange for their lives. The hero of the story responds by reciting an extremely bawdy limerick, the “Ballad of Eskimo Nell,” embarrassing the Beast so much that it slinks off in defeat with its ears burning.
The mainstream media is the modern incarnation of the Blatant Beast, and its defeat calls for the same strategy by conservatives: tell it a story it can’t ignore, then hit it with a punchline it can’t help repeating. Like the Blatant Beast, the media does have a certain capacity for shame… because nothing bothers professional “journalists” more than amateurs besting them at the sacred ritual of reporting news.
The media beast is wounded, but still powerful. It’s hard to measure the full extent of its influence, although it seems to have diminished somewhat with the rise of alternative media, including talk radio and the Internet. The modern style of agenda journalism dates at least as far back as Walter Cronkite and the Tet Offensive, but I’ve always thought it mutated into the form we recognize today during the 1992 elections. The media may have climbed into the tank for Obama to an unprecedented degree, but in ’92 it was driving an armored fighting vehicle for Clinton. 60 Minutes openly provided cover for his infidelity, helping to bury the Gennifer Flowers story. The press was happy to provide all sorts of assistance to the Clinton campaign, including assistance for the ridiculous “worst economy in the last 50 years” campaign slogan, and warping Bush’s polite question about a grocery store bar code scanner into a heavy-handed theme about how “out of touch” he was.
These tactics were effective, in large measure, because Bush allowed them to be. He never got the hang of working around the media. Like Bob Dole and John McCain after him, he seemed trapped in a perpetual state of surprise about how unfairly he was being treated, and spent his re-election campaign waiting for a sympathetic wave of public outrage that never came.
Of course, Bush was working against the real pressure of economic turbulence, and the general public perception that incumbent Presidents – unlike incumbent members of Congress – are responsible for everything bad that happens during their term. If this tempts you to discount the influence of partisan journalists, try to imagine Barack Obama being held to the same standard during his re-election campaign in 2012. It’s likely that he’ll be running under the cloud of an economy at least as bad as the elder Bush’s was, and possibly much worse… but the media will never hang it around his neck, as they did with Bush. The economy of a huge industrialized nation is a complex affair, and you can be sure every possible benefit of the doubt will be given to Obama.
The media’s power to influence the public is not limitless, as we saw during the 2004 election. The wounds of Rathergate run deeper than many journalists like to admit. The 2004 media strove mightily to drag John Kerry across the finish line, but they couldn’t quite pull it off. Kerry’s thudding lack of charisma, and the transparent cynicism of his war-hero routine, were part of the reason, but it was fascinating to watch the media try to work around them. They seemed perplexed over their inability to discredit the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by repeatedly calling them “the discredited Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” Dan Rather still doesn’t understand what happened to him.
The media’s credibility has continued to bleed steadily away. It would be a mistake to believe them powerless, or on the verge of re-discovering the honor of honest, unbiased journalism. No matter how popular a blog like Hot Air becomes, it will never be broadcast in hundreds of airport terminals to a captive audience of weary travelers, like CNN. The newsstands will always contain a sea of conventionally liberal publications, with a few National Reviews and Weekly Standards peeking out.
The media effort to secure the re-election of the Nobel Prize-winning First Black President will be ferocious. The MSM’s control over the popular culture is still formidable – just look at what happened to Rush Limbaugh this week, as media outlets ran with ridiculous fake quotes posted by a few leftist bloggers, and hammered the man’s reputation hard enough to eliminate his position in the group seeking to buy the St. Louis Rams. Rush has a vast audience, and simple common sense would tell anyone who isn’t part of that audience that he could never have gotten away with making the statements attributed to him. The actual rape hoax perpetrated by a vile creature like Al Sharpton is held against him far less than non-existent “racist” comments were held against Limbaugh.
Still, the media will pay a price for the “successful” campaign against Limbaugh. It will never take the form of huge masses of people swearing off the New York Times and CNN all at once. It happens a little bit at a time. The Blatant Beast dies from many small wounds that bleed slowly. This week, all across the country, a number of people watched the Limbaugh debacle and decided they just don’t trust the mainstream media any more, joining the people who reached that conclusion during the savaging of Sarah Palin, the unraveling of the global-warming hoax, and many other incidents, large and small.
The successful conservative candidates of 2010 and 2012 will learn how to speak to these people. More importantly, they will learn how to use their time in the spotlight to speak past the media gatekeepers, with memorable words and powerful ideas that haunt the imaginations of voters. We won’t find these candidates by looking for people the media supposedly likes, or approves of. The press liked John McCain more than any other Republican candidate of the modern era, and he’d barely clinched the nomination before the first trumped-up story of a supposed affair with a staffer began floating through mediaspace. The search for a Galahad candidate, of such noble purity that the mainstream media is awed and humbled into giving him a fair shake, is futile. If the press can’t find something real to work with, they’ll cruise the lefty web sites until they find a juicy lie they can use. If there aren’t already blogs full of imaginary “racist” comments from Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and every other potential Republican candidate, there will be.
Conservative candidates can’t keep the Blatant Beast from blotting them with infamy, or biting them with baneful teeth. They can make sure the voters see them battling with with skill and grace, and leave the Beast’s ears burning with a few white-hot words it can’t help repeating to everyone it meets.