It was not only Democrats but a wide spectrum of Americans who were deeply appalled and offended by the demagogic Republican attacks on Obama’s planned speech to schoolchildren today. A New York Times editorial well expressed the sincere outrage many Americans felt:
The American right has directed many silly and offensive attacks at President Obama. But so far nothing compares with the news that right-wing demagogues on talk radio and the Web, along with Republican Party officials, are trying to stop children from hearing the president urge them to stay in school — because, they say, that is socialist propaganda.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise after a summer in which town hall meetings on health care have been turned into mindless shouting matches, where protesters parade guns and are cheered on by elected officials… Still, it was startling to read in Friday’s Times about the overheated and bizarre response to Mr. Obama’s [planned speech]…
The White House says Mr. Obama will talk about the importance of education — hardly, we hope, a controversial topic. But the article said that in a growing number of school districts, especially in Texas, parents, talk-show hosts and some Republican officials are demanding that schools either refuse to show it or allow parents to keep their children home. The common refrain is that Mr. Obama will offer a socialist message — although nobody said what they meant by that…
There is, of course, nothing socialist in any of Mr. Obama’s policies, as anyone with a passing knowledge of socialism and its evil history knows.
Unfortunately, this was not the only reaction among the “mainstream” media. Many print and TV commentators took a far more timid approach. Consider, for example, the editorial in the Washington Post:
Education, not politics, should drive the president’s pitch to students on Tuesday.
…One would think that this message about the importance of education — by a president making it a priority — would be universally welcomed. Instead, the planned speech has drawn denunciations from conservatives. School districts around the country are refusing to air the broadcast, and some parents are even threatening to keep their children out of school that day…Particularly egregious have been comments, like those of the Florida Republican Party, accusing the president of wanting to spread a socialist agenda, at taxpayer expense. Who knew that doing homework and setting goals was part of “The Communist Manifesto”?
But, Democrats aren’t exactly blameless, either. They were the ones who criticized President George H.W. Bush for making a similar address in 1991. They accused Republicans of using children as political pawns and questioned the use of federal dollars to stage the event…It also was a goof for education officials to suggest as part of the original menu for classroom activities that elementary students write letters to themselves “about what they can do to help the president.” That has been changed in the wake of the controversy to writing letters “about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.”
A complete list of resources and suggested lesson plans appears on the Education Department’s Web site, and there is nothing objectionable thereof. Moreover, the White House’s promise to post the full text of the speech online Monday should be further reassurance that the president’s interests are educational, not political.
What in God’s name is this editorial actually implying — that Obama really needed to be warned by the Washington Post editorial writers that “education, not politics, should drive [Obama’s] pitch to students on Tuesday” – because otherwise he would give a campaign speech? Or that Democrats are equally guilty of this kind of behavior — although they never called on a single school district to boycott Bush’s 1991 speech or told a single Democratic parent to keep their children home that day?
Of course, the editorial does not explicitly say either of these things. Quite the contrary, it is a particularly elegant example of a widespread modern genre of commentary that attempts to hem and haw so acrobatically that it says nothing substantial at all — and most important of all, avoids expressing any genuine and categorical moral outrage.
The purpose of this exercise is, of course, to avoid offending the powerful thunder gods of Fox News and the vocal foot-soldiers of the conservative right. At least half of the editorial writers who wrote equivocal, “on the one hand, on the other hand” commentaries about the Republican attacks on Obama’s address were actually as offended as most Americans and privately agreed with the New York Times editorial but were unwilling to “go out on a limb” with their audience by expressing the moral outrage they actually felt.
Commentators weren’t always this timid. In the 50’s when major American papers began to challenge Joe McCarthy, they had the courage of their convictions.
The Evening Star of Washington It was a bad day for everyone who resents and detests the bully boy tactics which Senator McCarthy so often employees…
The New York World Telegram: Bamboozling, bludgeoning, distorting way…
St. Louis Post Dispatch: Unscrupulous, McCarthy bullying.
The New York Times: The unwarranted interference of a demagogue — a domestic Munich…
The Herald Tribune of New York: McCarthyism involves assaults on basic Republican concepts…
In a TV broadcast that was widely viewed as dealing a major blow to McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow summed up the challenge:
We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men…
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.
50 years later those words are still taught in J-schools and honored as one of the proudest moments in American journalism. In contrast, editorials that offered “on the one-hand, on the other hand” equivocations are now forgotten.
Today the time has come for all American journalists to face their responsibility – as Murrow said “to stand up for America’s heritage and history”. It is time for mainstream journalists to stop being intimidated by the bullies at Fox News, talk radio and the Republican Party. It is time for them to stand up for what they know is the truth – to show whether or not they are “descended from fearful men”