Last week, Glenn Beck told his version of President Obama's life story. Obama's parents met, according to Beck, "while taking a Russian language class... at the height of the Cold War." His father figure was "Frank Marshall Davis, a guy who had a really thick FBI file" and who "happened to be a communist." In college, Obama attended "socialist conferences" and befriended political radicals. In Chicago, he fell in with "like-minded people like William Ayers," "slum lord Tony Rezko," and "terrorist sympathizer Rashid Khalidi." When he "sought a relationship with God," he picked a church whose pastor damned America -- a sentiment, Beck said, he couldn't find in the Bible. Obama married his "soul mate," Michelle Obama, who only recently discovered pride in her country. Now in the White House, Obama is still "honoring his communist child mentor with policy drafts."
In the ensuing days, health care town hall meetings hosted by Democratic members of Congress were disrupted by increasingly violent, belligerent protestors who shouted down representatives, accusing them and the Obama administration of tyranny and inhumanity toward the elderly and the ill.
It's all connected. The leaders of the conservative movement who are feeding those protests have a simple message, encapsulated by Beck's monologue: President Obama isn't one of us. He wasn't raised with American traditions or values, and he doesn't believe in what "real" Americans believe: free market capitalism, respect for life and liberty, and love of country.
Part of this theme is the "birther" conspiracy -- an idea some media conservatives, Beck included, reject, but that many others, like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh, have encouraged. The two narratives compliment each other: of course Obama doesn't believe in "our" America. He wasn't born here, and isn't an American in even the most basic sense.
Stripping Obama of his American-ness -- a 2008 right-wing campaign strategy which has continued unabated -- is the key for contemporary conservatives. The birther issue isn't about Orly Taitz. The town hall dissidents shouldn't be dismissed as a few extremists. And none of this is helping progressives by hurting the conservative brand.
It is, rather, the essence of the Right's all-out assault on everything President Obama is and everything he represents. By delegitimizing him, conservatives aim to delegitimize the entire progressive agenda and prove that Obama's supposed un-American values system is producing anti-American policies. Here's how Michael Savage, the third most popular radio host in the country after Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, tied it all together a few weeks ago: "He may as well be an illegal alien from Mars the way he's running America. He's the least American president in American history, doesn't matter where he was born. He's ruling as though he's from another country. He's reversing everything in America that's American!"
The conservative media has already taken on an unprecedented role in this fight. No longer content to simply disseminate misinformation and right-wing propaganda, Fox News actually helped coordinate the April "tea party protests," completely erasing the line between journalism and advocacy.
Now, conservative hosts are cynically and hypocritically urging a civil national debate while simultaneously stirring the pot of discontent and lauding town hall disruptions. Just last week, Beck, who has routinely used militia-style rhetoric and has even supported civil disobedience, poisoned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in effigy -- on national television no less -- before trying to play it off as a joke. And on Monday, Fox hosted Mike Sola, a Michigan town hall protestor who angrily accused Rep. John Dingell of supporting a health care bill that would (he claimed) deprive his son, who has cerebral palsy, of all medical care. During the interview, Sola implied that "thugs" had visited his house at the behest of Pelosi, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and Sen. Harry Reid. His statement was met with no objection.
Sola also explained his concern regarding his son, citing an editorial written in July by Betsy McCaughey. McCaughey is a long-time opponent of health care reform. She spent years with far-right think tanks funded by billionaire conservatives. Her error-prone analysis of health care issues has been publicly exposed on numerous occasions. And yet, her work is still published. McCaughey represents the host of well-funded actors opposing meaningful change. Right-wing powerhouses like FreedomWorks, a D.C. advocacy organization headed by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, are publicly encouraging protests and are counting on the conservative media to amplify, rather than fact-check, their work.
Sola is not the real enemy of health care reform in America. He, like so many citizens, simply wants care for his loved ones. And that is what makes the lies, distortions, and racist fearmongering he and tens of millions of others are exposed to so tragic. On one channel, Limbaugh unabashedly compares Obama's health care reform logo to a Nazi symbol. On a second, hosts claim that the time for revolution is near. On a third, we hear that the man pushing for reform isn't from America and is constitutionally ineligible to be president.
After months of bombardment, just 42 percent of Republicans nationwide believe Obama is even a citizen. Only 47 percent of all Southerners believe this indisputable fact. Not surprisingly, on the legislative side, the public is increasingly divided over signature Democratic efforts. Despite overwhelming agreement that health care reform is needed, recent polling has found that nearly 50 percent of respondents feel that Obama's health care plan is a "bad idea." This confusion and discontent is exactly what conservatives are working to cultivate and exploit. And then, when public meetings descend into chaos, they celebrate.
It is this broader context that makes CNN's decision to lend its good name to the birther conspiracy so egregious and so dangerous. With the blessing of the network, Lou Dobbs has given the smear an unparalleled level of credibility by reporting it as an ongoing and unresolved story. His coverage is part of a career spent advancing prejudicial, anti-immigrant, and conspiratorial right-wing canards. He has also portrayed Obama as a "socialist" and compared him to fascist dictators. Again, this from a "journalist" with a prime time show on CNN, the self-described "most trusted name in news," a network that has publicly advocated its political neutrality and commitment to serious, fact-based reporting.
There isn't a single progressive issue that isn't in danger of being overwhelmed by this right-wing campaign and its central narrative. Health care reform is a socialist takeover. Restructuring bankrupt companies is a ruse designed to give the government direct control over the economy. Obama's speech in Cairo was part of a "Muslim apology tour" that shows how eager he is to blame America first and how unwilling he is to defend it (he is, after all, a false Christian, important to those who irrationally fear Islam). In the absence of any new legislation involving gun ownership, Democrats are still supposedly committed to overturning the Second Amendment which will further support tyranny. New environmental regulations and green energy promotion represent an encroachment upon personal liberty, an excuse for more federal power and higher federal taxes, all based on the myth of global warming. No matter what progressive issue you pick, conservatives are working to turn it into nothing less than sedition, carried out by an illegal president who is actually a traitor. The conservative media is their megaphone, with the mainstream media all-too often following suit.
The future success of every progressive initiative will be impacted by what information the American people receive. We must respond forcefully, swiftly, and collectively to counteract the distorting and dangerous impact of the right-wing noise machine whenever and wherever it appears. And we must demand integrity from mainstream news organizations. If there is any doubt about what progressives are up against, consider the fact that last week, Dobbs officially abandoned his self-appointed "Mr. Independent" label. "What do you think you're doing Barack Obama?" he said on his radio show, accusing the president of promoting "mindless, churlish, un-American nonsense." He continued: "I'm moving from being an independent, sir, to being absolutely opposed to any policy you could conceive of." Yet just days earlier, he had told Don Imus that CNN president Jon Klein and "all of the folks at CNN are just terrifically supportive."
If we can't even prevent CNN from functioning as a right-wing propaganda organ, then we have no hope of ever getting a fair hearing on any issue.
Conservative goals and tactics will not change on their own. The Right will keep doing what works. Whenever the increasingly prevalent right-wing cry of "I want my country back!" is heard, progressives must understand what is behind the words, and realize that unless they act, we will lose the greatest opportunity in a generation to redefine the American political landscape.
Eric Burns is President of Media Matters for America (www.mediamatters.org), a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C.