In late February, conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly sent a camera crew to the massive protests that had erupted in Wisconsin, the Midwestern state that became emblematic of nationwide outcry against an agenda of austerity, privatization and union busting.
Launching a segment that portrayed demonstrating schoolteachers, public employees and their supporters as offensive and aggressive, O’Reilly introduced his on-the-scene reporter as someone who had ‘experienced pro-union anger first hand’. As the two discussed the ostensibly disrespectful dissidents in Madison, the state’s largest city, scenes of crowds chanting inside the State Capitol rolled onscreen. These were followed by an outdoor shot of a belligerent, thick-necked union member shoving a counter-protester.
O’Reilly’s argument, in word and image, was that the uncivil demonstrations were getting out of hand.
There was just one problem. Wisconsin is one of the nation’s colder states, known for its frozen winter landscapes. Yet, when examined, the outdoor scene presented by O’Reilly hardly looked so inhospitable. In fact, in the shot’s background, you could see a sunny street lined with palm trees.
There are no palm trees in Wisconsin.
The scene became an internet embarrassment for O’Reilly. Fox News producers defended themselves by stating that the footage was carried over from earlier in the show, when the host argued that union anger was increasing ‘all over the country’. But the justification only highlighted the fundamental dishonesty of their message. After nearly two weeks embedded in overwhelmingly nonviolent Madison crowds, Fox News possessed so few adequately sensationalistic images that it had to import them.
For their part, the Wisconsinites took the slander in their stride: they began bringing inflatable palm trees to their rallies.
While the O’Reilly segment was a minor incident, it pointed to a wider pattern of distortion. The protests spreading at the state level are the product of a central rupture in US political life. Government stimulus that cushioned the blow of economic downturn over the past two years has ended. The crisis is now hitting states hard. And yet conservatives are using economic woes as an excuse to dismantle unions, slit social safety nets and push wealth upward.
Schoolteachers were once regarded in the US as embodiments of selfless civic virtue. Now, a corporate-financed ‘school reform’ movement, which has disturbing traction within the Obama administration, blames teachers’ unions for destroying the schools. Moreover, educators and other public employees who demand a middle-class standard of living are accused of bankrupting the states. As O’Reilly asserted, ‘it comes down to one very simple equation: the United States can no longer afford’ their pensions.
Such messages are repeated endlessly in the media. Rarely do people hear that prominent states without collective bargaining for teachers – such as Alabama and North Carolina – have among the lowest-performing schools in the country. In contrast, many states that offer the best public education, including Wisconsin, have strong unions. Nor do they hear that Texas, which has already undermined organized labour, has in no way escaped distress; it faces a two-year budget gap as large as $25 billion.
Public fiscal problems were not caused by union greed. They were brought on by a crisis of Wall Street recklessness and deregulation, and by a prolonged drive by conservatives to ‘starve the beast’ of government. This drive has only accelerated of late: falsely claiming to reduce deficits, the long-term budget now championed by Washington Republicans actually matches trillions of dollars in social-service reductions with trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy.
To pull off such redistribution without bloody coercion, within a democratic system, requires deceit. It requires the big lie – for misinformation to be repeated so confidently and persistently that it becomes ‘true’.
And so, with an economic crisis being felt as acutely as ever, Americans are being fed stories and images that conform to ideological needs. They are being sold palm trees in the snow.