The warped reality of our media stars

The latest polling data demonstrates that what we heard from our top journalists about Pelosi's Syria trip was all wrong.

Published April 17, 2007 11:37AM (EDT)

(updated below)

Two weeks ago, our nation's greatest and most cherished media stars lamented how "controversial" and irresponsible was Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria (she went even though the President said not to), and they warned how very harmful that would be to Democrats, because it made Democrats -- as always -- look weak and irresponsible and unserious, and proved yet again that they cannot be trusted when it comes to the big, strong, serious, important matters of National Security.

Throughout Pelosi's trip and thereafter, these journalists were continuously promoting the same theme touted weeks earlier by their colleague, Brit Hume, who, during the debate over whether to withdraw from Iraq, said this about Jack Murtha: "this is why the Democratic Party has had this reputation, going back decades, of really not being very serious about national defense. It's because they aren't."

Let us first briefly review a small sampling of the commentary to which we were subjected during Pelosi's All-Important, Politically-Disastrous Syria Trip:

NBC News' Matt Lauer and Tim Russert:

LAUER: Vice President Cheney called Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria "bad behavior," a Washington Post editorial on Thursday called it "counter-productive and foolish," and op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning goes a step further and suggests her trip may actually have been a felony, that it may have violated something called the Logan Act. Tim, is this the way the Democrats wanted to get off the mark in terms of foreign affairs?

RUSSERT: No, they clearly wanted to distinguish themselves from the president's policies, but you have to be careful, as Congressman Hamilton suggested. One ranking Democrat, Matt, said "we have an alternative Democratic foreign policy." That is going to be very difficult to articulate and put into place when you donb

LAUER: But if the Democrats and Speaker Pelosi appear to be acting irresponsibly or incompetently, and let's face it, a lot of people think she messed up on this one, what's the impact for Democrats overall?"

RUSSERT: It's considerable. The Democrats have always had a difficulty being competitive with the Republicans in the public voter's mind on national security and foreign policy issues. And if the people perceive missteps, it's going to create and underscore that perceptual problem of Democrats

CNN's Suzanne Malvaeux:

And, Nancy Pelosi in Syria and in the crosshairs of Vice President Cheney. Is she on her way to becoming the most controversial House Speaker yet?

Today, we have polling data comparing the views which Americans had of Pelosi and Congressional Democrats prior to the Terrible Syria Mistake and afterwards:

Washington Post-ABC News Poll (from April 12-15)

Pelosi's approval ratings from before her Syria trip and after are virtually identical (her approval rating increased by 3 points, her disapproval rating by 4 points). And Pelosi remains the most popular of the three key Washington political leaders. Compare the +18 gap in her approval ratings to George Bush's -27, and even Harry Reid's +13 gap. And Pelosi's 53% approval ratings are far ahead of Bush's (35%) and also ahead of Reid's (46%).

And just to get a sense for how inane and fact-free were the comparisons being made between Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, here are Gingrich's numbers for the comparable period when he first became Speaker in 1995:

The very idea that Pelsoi's trip to Syria was going to be some black eye in how Americans perceived of her job performance -- let alone that she is becoming unpopular or "controversial" even remotely on the level of Newt Gingrich -- was a total fiction, literally just made up by media stars whose right-wing confidants and Beltway colleagues were repeating that endlessly until it became The Truth:

Yes, Pelosi's trip to Syria sure did make Democrats look weak and untrustworthy on national security -- just like our brilliant media stars told us it would. After all, the percentage of Americans who trust Democrats over Bush to handle the situation in Iraq increased after Pelosi's trip -- from 54% to 58%. And the gap between those who trust Democrats more than The Great War Leader George W. Bush with regard to the war is now a startling 25 point gap -- up from 20 points as compared to the period before Pelosi went to Syria. Just to underscore the point a bit more:

After Pelosi's Syria trip, there is a 15-point gap in favor of Congressional Democrats over Congressional Republicans. These media stars have absolutely no idea what and how "Americans" think. They take the conventional Beltway wisdom they pass amongst one another -- all generated by their White House confidants and other right-wing sources who have long ruled Washington (and therefore "their world") -- and they mindlessly assume it to be true and then run around repeating it without any effort to determine if it is actually true (or they know it's false and repeat it anyway).

Or, as The Boston Globe's editor, Martin Baron, put it yesterday in explaining what Charlie Savage did to merit a Pulitzer Prize that distinguishes him from other journalists: "he covered what the White House does, not just what it says."

By stark contrast, the Tim Russerts, Matt Lauers and Suzanne Malvaeux's hear what their secret White House and Bush following sources tell them ("Americans don't want negotiations with Syria -- Pelosi is in big trouble on this one -- this feeds the image of Democrats as weak and untrustworthy on national security - this was a major unforced error from Pelosi -- she's really overreaching here -- Karl Rove is chortling over the pictures of Pelosi in Damascus") and then they run around repeating those cliches.

That whole week, the media stars were simply copying the right-wing talking points fed to them about Pelosi's trip, and then making one false claim after the next about how Americans think. For instance, the week of Pelosi's trip, GOP Rep. Eric Cantor in National Review wrote that "the Speaker and many of her Democratic allies have become so drunk with grandiose visions of deposing Bush that they break bread with terrorists and enemies of the United States." That was the premise the media stars adopted -- that Americans see Syria as "the enemy" and therefore will view Pelosi's trip as fueling the image of Democrats as subversive, soft-on-terrorism losers who cannot be "trusted on national security."

But that is how the right-wing fringe thinks (and therefore how our media stars think), not how most Americans think. The vast majority of Americans favor negotiations with the Syrians ("By 64% to 28%, respondents favored the [Baker-Hamilton] group's recommendation to open direct talks with Iran and Syria"). And only a small minority of Americans share Rep. Cantor's view that Syria is even our "enemy" at all. From a Rasmussen poll taken in the midst of the Pelosi/Syria "controversy":

Even Israelis, by an overwhelming 54-31 margin, favor negotiations with Syria. The notion that Americans would backlash against Pelosi for defying the Leader and travelling to Syria existed only on the talking points pages of right-wing operatives and (therefore) in the minds of our media stars. It never existed in reality, as the latest polling data conclusively demonstrates.

The Beltway chattering class is, along with the hard-core dead-ender right-wing ideologues, the only component of Bush's base which remains. Both are as far removed from mainstream American political thought as can be.

The Post's polling data on the Iraq war shows that even further -- Americans: (a) think the Iraq war was not worth fighting by a 66-33% margin; (b) believe we should withdraw forces "even if that means civil order is not restored there" by a 56-42% margin; (c) oppose the President's "surge" by a 65-35% margin; (d) realize that a victory in the "war on terrorism" does not require victory in Iraq (57-37%); and (e) perhaps most remarkably: believe America is losing the war in Iraq (53-32%) and will lose (51-35%). They not only oppose the war, but they decisively reject every claim made by war supporters to justify it.

More notably still, most of the opposition to Bush and Iraq is not merely widespread, but also intense and "strongly held." And a majority of Americans are now even officially part of the "Angry Left" -- with 54% saying that "anger" now describes their "own personal feelings about the situation in Iraq."

[And whenever the gulf between PunditThink and reality is raised, one would be remiss if one did not mention that Time's Managing Editor Richard Stengel has still not retracted or corrected his patently false statement on The Chris Matthews Show that compelling Karl Rove to testify would harm Democrats because "that's not what voters want to see", when polls proved that the vast majority of Americans hold the exact opposite view of the one Stengel falsely attributed to them. How can Stengel's refusal to retract his factually false claim possibly be justified?]

There is a profound and fundamental shift taking place among the American populace with regard to their views on American foreign policy, this President, and his party. But the only ones who seem not to realize it -- or who realize it but deliberately pretend it does not exist -- are our nation's journalists and media stars. In their world, Republicans are On The Rise Again because Nancy Pelosi did not pick Jane Harman for House Intelligence Chair, or backed John Murtha for House Majority Leader, or went to Syria.

But in the real world, that is just meaningless, deceitful Beltway chatter. America has fundamentally turned against, and continues to turn against, the President, his party, and his policies. And everyone seems to realize that except our nation's Beltway media.

UPDATE: As Scott Lemieux and Blue Texan both note, it is just factually false to assert -- as various right-wing propagandists are asserting -- that Congress is as unpopular as Bush is (that claim is advanced, of course, to suggest that The Leader himself is not really unpopular, but instead, Americans are just dissatisfied with politicians generally). As Scott notes, Congress' approval rating in the latest poll is 44/54, while Bush's is 35/62. And, as noted above, that disapproval is directed far more to Congressional Republicans than Congressional Democrats.

But there is another point that I think is critical to note. A principal reason why Congress is not more popular is because a very substantial portion of liberals and Democrats are expressing dissatisfaction with Congress -- presumably because (at least many of them) believe that Congress is being insufficiently resolute in opposing Bush and the war.

It is customary for one party to express "approval" for the branch of government controlled by that party. For instance, in the latest Los Angeles Times poll (.pdf), President Bush is wildly unpopular among Americans generally (they disapprove 62-36%), but a large majority of "conservatives" (63-36%) and especially Republicans (81-17%) approve of Bush's performance.

But even with Democratic control of Congress, liberals are split almost evenly on whether they approve of the job Congress is doing (they actually disapprove by 46-45%), and Democrats are evenly split (45-45%). If liberals and Democrats supported their Congress even close to the levels of Republican support for Bush, Congress' approval numbers would be vastly higher still.

To the extent that Congress' popularity is as low as it is, it is due almost entirely to the dissatisfaction among many liberals and Democrats in what Congress has thus far done. And indeed, much of the Democratic criticism of Pelosi has come from liberals who believe (rightly or wrongly) that she has not been sufficiently aggressive in opposing the President and the war. All of this suggests that Congress's lower-than-expected popularity is due not to the belief that they have been too aggressive in opposing the President, but the belief that they have not been aggressive enough.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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