AL JAZEERA COLUMN: How the US Media Marginalizes Dissent

The US media derides views outside of the mainstream as ‘un-serious’, and our democracy suffers as a result.

“Over the past few weeks, Washington has seemed dysfunctional,” conservative columnist David Brooks opined recently in The New York Times. “Public disgust [about the debt ceiling crisis] has risen to epic levels. Yet through all this, serious people—Barack Obama, John Boehner, the members of the Gang of Six—have soldiered on.”

Here’s some of what Peter Coy of Business Week magazine had to say about the same issue: “There is a comforting story about the debt ceiling that goes like this: Back in the 1990s, the U.S. was shrinking its national debt at a rapid pace. Serious people actually worried about dislocations from having too little government debt…”

Fox News, the Murdoch-owned house organ of America’s official right-wing, asserted: “No one seriously thinks that the U.S. will not honor its obligations, whatever happens with the current impasse on President Obama’s requested increase to the government’s $14.3 trillion borrowing limit.”

“Serious people.”

“No one seriously thinks.”

The American media deploys a deep and varied arsenal of rhetorical devices in order to marginalize opinions, people and organizations as “outside the mainstream” and therefore not worth listening to. For the most part the people and groups being declaimed belong to the political Left. To take one example, the Green Party—well-organized in all 50 states—is never quoted in newspapers or invited to send a representative to television programs that purport to present “both sides” of a political issue. (In the United States, “both sides” means the back-and-forth between center-right Democrats and rightist Republicans.)

Marginalization is the intentional decision to exclude a voice in order to prevent a “dangerous” opinion from gaining currency, to block a politician or movement from becoming more powerful, or both. In 2000 the media-backed consortium that sponsored the presidential debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush banned Green Party candidate Ralph Nader from participating. Security goons even threatened to arrest him when he showed up with a ticket and asked to be seated in the audience. Nader is a liberal consumer advocate who became famous in the U.S. for stridently advocating for safety regulations, particularly on automobiles.

Read the full article at Al Jazeera English.


  • Nice column, Ted. Seriously. 🙂

    Another side of the story is the unwitting or unprincipled participation of the marginalized in their own censorship. For some, the sheer desperation to be heard by a mass audience is so great that they’re willing to water-down the fire in the arguments before they’re even spoken / written. Likewise, the seduction of being widely recognized by the mainstream media as a, or better still, THE rational alternative viewpoint on a given issue can be difficult to resist. It can become your ticket to fame, personal financial gain, and (comparative) safety from the very ills of society you would have liked to have seen addressed.

    Would you rather yell out, or sell out? Ask Alan Colmes…or better still, President Obama.

    Just a question, though, Ted.

    This website is yours. You seem comfortable advocating attending protest gatherings, boycotting elections in your blog. What’s stopping you from writing more openly about what you advocate in the Manifesto?

    Are you marginalizing yourself? Or is the public marginalizing you by not paying a pretty penny for your thoughts?

    • Fair question.

      Of course, the Manifesto isn’t exactly a secret. (Though, in America, no secret is safer than one printed in a book.)

      I tend to look at issues like a Rubick’s Cube, studying them from different points of view, often one at a time. That can lead to apparent contradictions. But it helps if you think of many of my thoughts as “If I were (say, a Democrat), then I’d think…”

  • There is no doubt you are correct that our mainstream media marginalizes dissent. My Molly the Robin Op-Ed column entitled, Handbook of Television News Editing covered the same ground but not as well, for you summed it up quite accurately and effectively.

    I think if we had a truly vibrant press, including television, where constructive criticism and real debate new ideas and methods our country would more likely develop to create a more stable and prosperous country. Instead, we had a disjointed and skewed and unbalanced national media which you describe with clarity that thwarts an honest discussion, for often the facts are omitted, such as how highways and airports are subsidized, but high speed rail has been totally neglected for it appears we are a country of lobbyists, by lobbyists and for lobbyists all permitted by our elected representatives.

  • Boy that Al Jazeera site sure gets some long commenters. I think I’d have to schedule time to read them. They’re long on crazy too! I especially like “Tererter Dfgfdgfg” though am not sure how to pronounce his name.

  • I saw a good vintage example of “seriousness” in the documentary “Hearts & Minds” (dir: Peter Davis, 1974, Criterion DVD). It’s a great film. Even if you’ve already seen it, see it again. Here’s an exchange between then-cabinet official Walt Rostow.

    Rostow: I know of no Communist analysis, or non-Communist analysis that would assert that there’s a majority of people in that country [Vietnam] who want to be Communist.

    D: Why do they need us then?

    R: Because they were subjected to military attack from the outside. Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question? You really want me to go into this, Mr. Davis? I mean, we really gotta go back to the origins of this thing. Alright, I’ll do it, but this is pretty pedestrian stuff, I must say, at this late stage of the game. Honestly, I’ll do it, but…

    R: There’s a lot of disagreement about…

    D: No there’s not. No there’s not. There’s no doubt…alright, I’ll answer your question and you can throw away that tape. But I didn’t really expect to have to go back to this kind of sophomoric stuff, but I’ll do it. The problem began in its present phase after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, October. This opened a phase of not well-coordinated, but optimistic and hopeful Communist enterprise in many parts of the world.

    See the film and ask yourself what any of it has to do with Sputnik, and what Rostow must have felt was an serious response to the “optimistic and hopeful”.

    There’s lots of what would otherwise be lost cultural history in the film. Americans used to pronounce “communist” as “COM-mon-ist”, even northerners.

    One more Rostow contrast from Hearts & Minds:

    R: Ho Chi Minh couldn’t get elected dog catcher in the south.

    Daniel Ellsberg’s opinion:

    D: A dead Ho Chi Minh could beat any of the candidates we put up in the South.

    The serious person was completely wrong. The non-serious person was truthful.