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York's Vast Snow Job To Discredit Democratic Groups

Reported by Judy - April 21, 2005

Will Rogers once famously joked that he did not belong to any organized political party. He was a Democrat. The 2004 presidential election was one time when the Democrats did try to get organized. And to a right-wing journalist, that idea is down right un-American.

Byron York in the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy says that Democrats tried to organize in 2004 not just to win an election but, as his subtitle put it, "to Bring Down a President." How dare they try to get George Bush out of office just because his term was up?

Using similar rhetorical tricks throughout his book, York tries to make something sinister out of the new organizations and tactics that grew up to support the Democratic ticket in the last presidential election -- groups like Moveon.org, the Center for American Progress, Air America radio network, and America Coming Together, and tactics such as voter registration, guerilla documentaries, and Michael Moore movies. York’s main storyline is that Democrats in 18 months copied the array of think-tanks, media, and so on that make up the Republican echo-chamber, which Senator Clinton labeled a "vast right-wing conspiracy." York's story, of course, loses some of its sinister sheen since the Democratic effort did not succeed. But he uses Kerry's loss to show his other point -- that the Democratic groups were only the radical fringe preaching to the choir and never appealed to the mainstream. Well, 59 million voters is a pretty big fringe group.

The big bogeyman behind the operation in York's story is George Soros, who contributed some $27 million to Democratic causes prior to the 2004 elections. Big bucks in anybody’s book, but far less than the millions that Richard Mellon Scaife has bestowed on the vast right wing conspiracy over the past two years -- $21.4 million to the Heritage Foundation, $7.7 million to Judicial Watch, $5.7 million to American Enterprise Institute, and of course, $2.4 million to American Spectator magazine for the Arkansas Project, to dig up dirt on President Clinton. (Follow the link for the full amounts.)

York did mention Scaife's funding of the Arkansas Project, but I kept wondering why he never got around to any sort of meaningful comparison of Soros and Scaife. The reason was hidden in a footnote. York worked at the magazine during the Troopergate period, not on that project, but he still benefited from the increased circulation the mudslinging brought to the magazine. The other reason is that York is not at all interested in any sort of comparison between the two sets of organizations, only in discrediting the Democratic ones.

That is obvious from the way York uses evidence. York appears to have done a lot of research to disprove Michael Moore’s claim that Fahrenheit 9/11 "was the number-one movie in every single red state in America" right after it opened in June 2004. Unfortunately, most of the research is irrelevant. Instead of giving the reader stats on how the movie performed on its opening weekend, York presents an elaborate analysis of how the movie "underperformed" during its run in the states Bush carried in 2000. Then he does the same analysis with Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ to show how it "overperformed" in those states. What does that have to do with Moore's claim that his movie opened strong in those states? Nothing. York implies that Moore lied about how well his movie did, but instead of proving it, he delivers a classic snow job - a blizzard of facts that miss the point but covers everything up as a distraction.

York does the same thing with Al Franken and Air America. Its first month on the air, Franken said ratings showed him beating Rush Limbaugh in New York City. York digs up ratings for the first three months to show Franken is wrong. Franken never said he beat Limbaugh for three months, only the first month. York also goes on for pages about a dispute with Franken over something York wrote about him, trying to make Franken seem petty for refusing to be interviewed.

York devotes an entire chapter to Outfoxed, the movie on Fox News that got the News Hounds into the media monitoring business. Ellen already has dissected the chapter accurately in another post, pointing out the errors York made both in his interview of her and the way the movie was made. He criticizes the media monitors for being all white and all female, for example. Even though we News Hounds are all white and all female, the original monitors were not. Other monitors included at least one man and one Asian (it's hard to tell someone’s race and gender, based on a conference call). But we eight were the ones who were able to stick it out.

York also faults Outfoxed producer Robert Greenwald for not presenting a "more complex" picture of Fox by including clips of Fox not being biased. I suppose the prosecutor in the Michael Jackson case could present cases of children it says Jackson did not molest. But isn't that the job of the defense? And if a network says it is "fair and balanced," shouldn’t it be "fair and balanced" all the time, not just some of the time? He also confines the impact of Outfoxed to its box office take, ignoring the thousands who saw it on DVD’s and the buzz created through the hundreds of reviews and newspaper articles on the film. Imagine if someone tried to confine the impact of the Slime Boat Veterans for Truth to the number of television ads it ran. The alternative method of film distribution pioneered by Greenwald and Moveon has immense potential.

The goofiest chapter in York's book is the last, which has nothing to do with any new Democratic organizations or tactics. It deals with some off-Broadway show about a right-wing effort to turn the U.S. into a theocracy with laws based on the first five books of the Bible. York extrapolates from that show to charge that Democrats who use the word "theocracy" to describe Republican efforts to impose Christian morality on all America believe some sort of coup is in the works. By setting up and knocking down that strawman, York thinks he has proved there is nothing wrong with the 10 commandments in court houses, prayer in schools, and Congress intervening in the Terri Schiavo case.

York's writing is not polemical, nor passionate. It is subtle and cool, but still biased. Instead of Democratic activists or Democratic groups, there are "anti-Bush activists" and "anti-Bush groups" - which makes what they do seem wrong, rather than just part of the political process. These groups are radical (no quotation marks) but they accuse Bush of having a "radical" agenda (with quotation marks, so the reader knows that York is questioning that characterization). And the phrase "bring down a president"? It’s the same phrase York uses to describe what Troopergate was all about during the Clinton years in a not-very critical article in Atlantic Monthly.

Lucky for those of us in the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, York totally missed what really happened in the last election, how Democrats set aside special interests and worked for one overriding goal: defeating Bush and electing a Democrat. Democrats took some beginning steps toward setting up the framework that can articulate a broad agenda. York is right, however, that it was only a beginning, that it came together very quickly, and that it will try harder next time.

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