Drudge, Limbaugh, and the Sad Return of "Racial America"

When I was college a long time ago, I read a book called Subliminal Seduction, which chronicled how Madison Avenue tricked your sub-consciousness into craving vodka (as if a trick were needed there) by placing sexy silhouettes inside ice cubes. For some reason that reminds me a lot of Matt Drudge and the ever-popular Drudge Report, except Drudge isn't quite so subliminal in his mind games. By harnessing the power of the Internet, in the mid-1990s before anyone else thought of it, to reordering the news into the "Holy S---!" headlines that people crave rather than the eat-your-peas stories on trade or budget negotiations that were fed to you by the editors of the New York Times, Drudge became the leading influencer of the news cycle from a laptop in some undisclosed location around South Beach.

Even more remarkably, Drudge has become indispensable in America's newsroom - packed with at least self-described liberals - despite a conservative world view that he promotes, not in a heavy-handed way that would push those influential readers in a way, but by using placement, pictures and the well-timed big shot to nudge the nation's news cycle to the right. Today, Drudge does less and less "original reporting" (if that's what you can call his famed Monica Lewinsky "scoop") and succeed more by serving as a Rorschach test of how the right-wing is trying to subliminally seduce America.

Except that ever since President Obama's largely successful speech to Congress last week, the message from Drudge and from the conservative echo-chorus that is conducted daily by Rush Limbaugh has become increasingly less subliminal and more shrill, and their toxic tone is one that should alarm all Americans. It can be summed up: "Black people are running amok in Obama's America - emboldened by an African-American in the White House, they are now here to beat up white folks, cheat them out of their hard-earned money, and impose 'black nationalism'! White people need to be very afraid."

I don't believe that allegations of racism should be tossed out lightly, and I've cautiously watched this narrative unwind over the past couple of weeks. Today, there can be no doubt. The lead story on the Drudge Report for the entire day until about 2:30 p.m. - on a day in which two tabloid evergreen stories, the murder of a beautiful young Ivy League college student and a round-up of terrorists in New York City just after the 9/11 anniversary, were in the news - is about a fight on a school bus. A non-fatal (thankfully) fight on a bus, that happened to involve black kids beating up a white kid, and was captured of course on video.

Drudge's typically sedate headline: "White Student Beaten On School Bus: Crowd Cheers."

Now, I noted that the story was removed as a lead item right around 2:30 - coincidentally, the story also changed from an original version in which the police declared that the fight was racially motivated. It's still a fluid situation, but right now, the world of America's newsrooms has been "ruled" (in the famous words of ex-ABC/Time's Mark Halperin) for most of today by a kids' fight on a school bus. The article also gets into racial history of Belleville, Ill., which is probably not the part of the story that Drudge was interested in hyping:

Belleville has had a long history of racial turmoil, with a past that includes police harassment of black motorists, cross burnings and discrimination in city hiring.

The divide began a century ago, in 1903, when a black man was lynched by a mob of 5,000 people in the town square, set on fire and dismembered.

No matter -- let's not let history interfere with Drudge's "Blacks Gone Wild" narrative for the day, his layout of stories and photos that might seem willy-nilly but in fact usually has all the deliberate care of a $10,000 wedding planner. Thus, right below the screen shot of punching black students, we see the headline "POLITICO: So far, Obama's failing miserably," which is in fact an opinion piece, which it would have to be since the actual news of the day (not linked on Drudge) is that the president's approval rating is climbing again. But as you ponder Obama's alleged failure, it is the photo of rampaging young blacks that you see.

On the left. we have a medley that includes a campus rape (the suspects are black), mixed in with a story about a principal in trouble for not showing Obama's speech, leading up to a photo of a black man, Kanye West, disrespecting a white woman, Taylor Swift, brought full circle by Obama again calling West "a jackass" (which he, in fact, was).

Drift back to the center for a series of increasingly hysterical headlines about the ACORN scandal, which involves a few rotten employees of a community organizing group (Obama was a community organizer, remember?) caught giving tax-cheating scam advice -- did I mention the ACORN workers were predominantly black? Do you remember all the fuss in the right-wing media about million-dollar, white collar tax-cheating advice-givers at banks like UBS? Me neither.) Clearly, today's Drudge Report is a narrative, and that narrative is all about race, and a social fabric that Drudge and his readers are convinced (based, of course, on a series of scare headlines) is coming apart.

Think I'm a little paranoid? I still probably wouldn't be reading about this if I hadn't spent a little time in the car this afternoon, enough time for Rush Limbaugh, the de facto leader of the Republican Party who has worked tirelessly to infuse race into discussions about Obama, playing tag team with Drudge, as he so often does. As I started the engine, the radio host and his caller were prattling on about the all-important school bus assault, and Limbaugh said the story is a perfect illustration of what he called "Obama's America."

That alone would be beyond outrageous, the allegation that the mere presence of a black president -- who just last week spoke to students urging them to study and act responsibly -- is encouraging kids to fight on a school bus. But that was just a small part of Limbaugh's show today, which was all about race. He harped on a Newsweek article that he claims shows that racism is pre-determined (just as liberals always argue that homosexuality is pre-determined, don't you see...so...I guess racism is OK, after all -- all-righty, then), and of course the massive left-wing conspiracy that is ACORN, the corn-rowed people who are the real ones trying to rob the middle class, and not the Wall Street types who so rarely get even a mild rebuke from Limbaugh, except when they vote for Obama. I thought he was done -- but then Limbaugh said "remember how I asked earlier today if Obama's brother is still in the hut" (not making this up) and read all of a lengthy article about Obama's relatives in Kenya.

Look, there's a lot to talk about with a new president such as Obama, who has a lot of policy proposals on complicated issues like health care or climate change, and so there's a lot there for a thoughtful, conservative critique. But that's not where the conversation is going right now -- it's all about the shiny black object.

Fox News and its out-of-control Howard Beale, the seriously un-anchored Glenn Beck, have spent most of the last several weeks focused on two issues: ACORN, and mid-level Obama officials like now-departed so-called "green jobs czar" Van Jones. Jones -- did I mention that he is black? -- and ACORN have both shared a common mission: bringing a dose of political power to poor, mostly urban people who have not had power. And make no mistake, what really scares Beck, Fox News and the vast right-wing media is not the petty fraud of some ACORN employees or a few nutty things that Jones said in his more radical past, but the fact that they will succeed in their legitimate mission of empowering American citizens.

There's something else that the right wing finds alarming, and that is Obama's relative success in speaking to the American public in a calm and persuasive manner, as he did last week. I think it is this frustration, the worry that while it's mostly a vast work in progress that the president may not be "failing miserably" as Drudge and some Politico op-ed writer allege but showing signs of success, that have led to the new more overtly racial tone, dragging the current discourse to a low level that didn't seem possible. And so -- like Maureen Dowd concluded, also reluctantly -- I can't help but feel there was a racial edge to ex-Strom Thurmond acolyte Joe Wilson and his exasperated "You Lie" at the president. It plays right into the toxic narrative that is building on Drudge and talk radio and Fox like a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama's post-racial America? Good grief, were we really that naive, and so recently? I can honestly say that America right now, on the ides of September 2009, feels more racial, at least to me, today than it has any time in a generation, now since I was living in New York City in the era of Do the Right Thing. And the "Racial America" of Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and far too many of their millions of "dittoheads" is going to keep getting even more racial -- if we don't call them out.

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