The Time Has Come to Create a Real 'Liberal Media'
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Having spent more than three decades in Washington, I’ve seen enough mistakes made – and opportunities missed – for a lifetime. So, at this turning point in American history, I’m venturing beyond my normal role as reporter to offer a few ideas about what must be done now.
For one, the progressive side of American politics must invest much more in media and do so immediately.
Looking back over the past three decades, the cost of the Left’s complacency on media – i.e. its failure to create a reliable way to get important facts to the public and to counter the Right’s propaganda machine – has been almost beyond calculation.
America’s right-leaning media imbalance was a big reason why George W. Bush was able to misgovern the United States for eight years, leaving the nation in two bloody wars and wallowing in the worst financial crisis since World War II. Hundreds of thousands are dead and millions may soon be out of work.
Despite Barack Obama’s election victory, this media asymmetry will not go away. Indeed, it is almost certain to limit his ability to bring about significant change and could tilt the country back in the direction of the Republicans in the not-too-distant future.
It is a pattern I have seen often since 1977 when I arrived in Washington as a reporter for the Associated Press.
During that time, while the American Left has been largely absent from the national media landscape, wealthy right-wingers (from foundations like Olin and Scaife to media moguls like Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch) have poured tens of billions of dollars into media.
Over those years, the Right built a towering – and vertically integrated – media structure reaching from newspapers, magazines and books to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, an apparatus concentrated in the power centers of New York and Washington.
The Right also invested money in attack groups to go after mainstream journalists who dared dig up information that put right-wing policies or politicians in a negative light. Offending journalists were accused of “liberal bias” and often found themselves hounded from the national press corps.
Over time, this imbalance had a spillover effect. Many right-wing and neoconservative pundits landed prime spots on mainstream TV news shows and the Op-Ed pages of leading newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Even the most dangerous of right-wing ideas – such as free-market absolutism at home and neoconservative imperialism abroad – got respectful if not reverential treatment across the mainstream-to-right-wing media spectrum, the news outlets that most Americans read, heard and watched.
The Right’s bullying was made more effective by the fact that the progressive side of American politics chose – also starting in the mid-to-late 1970s – to withdraw from any serious commitment to national media.
One of the Left’s favorite slogans became “think globally, act locally.” In practice, that meant favoring local activism (such as direct philanthropic spending on projects like feeding the poor or buying up endangered wetlands) over national media (i.e. building the kind of informational infrastructure that the Right had).
So, it was not so much that the Left lost the “war of ideas” to the Right over the past three decades; it was more that the Left abandoned the battlefield.
The Left’s neglect of media proved disastrous. The Right, with its three-decade project of building media and controlling the federal government, showed it could create far more poor people than well-meaning progressives could feed – and put more wetlands at risk than could ever be bought up.