Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart found just the right words in 1964 when he concurred in a First Amendment case. The Constitution, he asserted, protected obscene speech except for hard core pornography. I won't try to describe it, Stewart wrote, but I'll know it when I see it. Americans also might search their vocabulary to describe the January 6th mob assault on Congress, but no one could fail to recognize the political pornography the day represents.
A delusional speech by a seemingly mentally ill man about a stolen election incited the thousands who marched to Capitol Hill. But he wasn't the only one responsible. The Republicans who helped promote and purvey his lies also fomented the pornographic assault on democracy. In Georgia one day before the attack, two of their on-screen stars, both senatorial candidates, reached their climax, so to speak. Both lost their runoff elections, but not before spewing apocalyptic warnings, demonizing their opponents, and spreading President Trump's baseless claims.
Trump, his political enablers, and his acolytes across the country didn't work alone. They had the support of a multi-billion dollar industry to help raise the mob. In Georgia their effort laid out over half of the $830 million spent on two Senate run-off elections. Media was the big-ticket item, with reports suggesting Republicans outdid their opponents on TV ad spending. In fact, their consultants and ad men as well as social media, broadcast, cable networks and local stations all helped make history, not only in Georgia but on January 6th in Congress as well.
It wasn't just the Republicans' deep pockets that was central to laying the foundation for the travesty in Washington DC. It was also the willingness of the political consulting and media business to create and run the incendiary, provocative and prevaricating content produced by the candidates' propagandists. While they doubtless would cite Michael Corleone in The Godfather—it's strictly business—they're still at the front of the queue to bear the shame that resulted from their work.
Georgia wasn't the only state where the Republicans incited the faithful with incendiary TV spots, social media posts and radio ads. Still, the menu in the Peach State would have made Josef Goebbels smile. Take Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Raphael Warnock. Her never-ending theme was 'stop socialism,' a voice-over that ran against scenes of mobs in the streets. Then, there were other ads distorting and misrepresenting her opponent's words. For example, Loeffler featured videos of controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright's famous 'goddamn America' line as if it was Senator-elect Warnock's own. Leni Riefenstahl would have stood to applaud.
Not to be outdone, David Perdue literally conjured a Democratic win as the apocalypse. He bannered the end-of-time that Ossoff's election was sure to bring. No tub-thumping preacher's fire and brimstone could top Perdue's vision of the looming Democratic Hell. Increased taxes, defunded police, open borders, voting rights for illegal immigrants, an end to private health insurance, a gutted military, and packed Supreme Court. Who wouldn't grab their Glock and head for DC? America will never be the same, the millionaire buy-out artist warned. Stop them before it's too late.
On January 5th Georgians made clear they are moving toward a different vision of the future despite the apocalyptic lunacies in the GOP candidates' rallying cries. But the Republican hyperbole had its effects, reinforcing Trump's lies as well as producing dangerous consequences as Loeffler and Purdue echoed his troubled mind. Threats against Georgia's governor, secretary of state, their families, and election officials proliferated. So did hair-on-fire rhetoric from the state's perennial crop of far right Republicans and QAnon crazies pushing Trump's bogus claims.
The threat to American democracy didn't begin on January 6th. It also didn't end when the Congress was cleared. But whatever the responsibility of the politicians and their parties, the media industry that creates and capitalizes on their political advertising had a role. The political pornography produced by Trump and his supporters on January 6th, and the broadcast, streamed and posted lies that helped it grow should make media executives look in the mirror.
As they tote up their billions of dollars from this year's massive campaign ad spending, the question is obvious. Will it be business as usual in 2022 enabling the same malevolent misrepresentations that will reprise this year's divisiveness? Or will media executives recognize they have the power to create ethical standards that can help curb the excesses?
Justice Stewart concurred in a Supreme Court decision 56 years ago that overturned a ban on an artsy movie, with the caveat that free speech wasn't a free pass. Stewart made the point with a cleverness of mind that recognized the ambiguity of the problem. But he also made clear the need for judgment. When it comes to political pornography, industry leaders need to do the same.
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