Progressive Media Suffer Losses In the Fight Against the Right-Wing Media Machine
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There have been rays of hope for progressives recently, notably in the Wisconsin uprising against Governor Walker's union-busting jihad and in Glenn Beck's impending departure from Fox News, after strong critical campaigns by Color Of Change, the Jewish Fund for Justice and others, focusing on Beck's racism and obsession with Nazism.
But let's face it: progressives are perpetually put on the defensive by the right-wing media, and so are Obama and the Democrats, for that matter. The relentless conservative propaganda machine dominates the public discourse more than ever. The alarming result is that, according to a number of polls, the constant repetition of conservative disinformation results in many Americans increasingly denying reality.
We have reached this point over a 30- to 40-year process in which conservatives built and funded an infrastructure that is now so well entrenched it operates seamlessly. We are being overrun by a relentless, orchestrated, coordinated machine that hammers away with propaganda and obvious lies, shaped by conservative values and pro-business and corporate talking points. These are woven into conservative narratives delivered by big personalities in every corner of the media where they dominate the discourse and have the largest and most active audiences. It is, in a word, a juggernaut.
So it's particularly troubling that a bunch of bold-face progressive voices and talents, the most prominent being Keith Olbermann, have left their media perches for far less visible, and in some cases unknown, futures. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post has married AOL in a $315 million deal, and its editor-in-chief, Arianna Huffington, has gone out of her way to say that HuffPo hasn't been a "left" publication for more than three years, and actually, of all that huge traffic to the site, only 15-20 percent has been to the political content. Tell that to all those progressive bloggers who thought they were sitting atop the Mount Rushmore of political visibility.
Right-Wing Propaganda Breeds Denial
There is no escaping the impact of conservative media in increasing the level of denial among Americans. Take climate change and Obama's country of birth, for just two obvious examples. As the Huffington Post reports, "according to a new survey, the number of Americans who believe that climate change is connected to human-caused pollution ... is at its lowest point in three years. Only 57 percent of Americans now believe this inconvenient truth -- down from 77 percent in 2006, when Al Gore's film was released. Maybe this disturbing trend is due to climate lobbyists and certain conservative politicians and pundits going all out for years now, trying to persuade the public that the growing mountain of scientific evidence supporting global warming is FAKE."
On the question of Obama's birth, the results of a Public Policy Polling survey on the attitudes of likely Republican primary voters are extraordinary. Fifty-one percent of likely 2012 primary voters said they believe President Obama was not born in the U.S. Birthers make up a majority of those voters who say they’re likely to participate in a Republican primary next year. The GOP birther majority is a new development. The last time PPP tested this question nationally, in August of 2009, only 44 percent of Republicans said they thought Obama was born outside the country while 36 percent said that he definitely was born in the United States. If anything, birtherism is on the rise.
The right-wing propaganda machine's constant pummeling of public workers is also taking a toll on public opinion. In California, for example, a new Field Poll "shows that two-fifths of voters feel the pension benefits of state and local government workers, are too generous. About a third of respondents feel the benefits are just about right, and roughly one in 10 say they're not generous enough. Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo says that's a big change from a similar poll taken in 2009. Back then, two-fifths of voters found the pension benefits acceptable."
In a surprising article titled "Scary: People Who Watch and Trust Fox News Will Surprise You," Ilyse Hogue shatters a number of reassuring stereotypes that many progressives may hold about Fox News watchers. She explains, "more than twice as many Americans watch Fox News as watch CNN ... and almost five times as many as watch MSNBC. Fox's audience cuts across age, gender, race, education, and income level. The average Fox News viewer is a male between the ages of 30 to 49 -- far from most people's perception that mostly seniors watch Fox [...] Fox is instead popular among a wide swath of well-educated, contributing members of society [...] This growing audience also puts significant faith in the credibility of the news delivered by Fox, even while trust in other major news outlets declines. Fox is among the most trusted news outlets in the US, despite countless demonstrable instances of their anchors and pundits spreading misinformation. This rise in influence is not an accident or a coincidence. It is the result of a sophisticated strategy to gain market dominance through an almost monopolistic aggregation of media platforms in individual markets, an aggressive strategy of cross-marketing between entertainment and news, and a systematic denigration by Fox News on air of all other outlets."
Right-wing Media Dominance
"Political media," by which I mean propaganda and advocacy with a strong political point of view, is already almost totally dominated by conservatives. The conservative media's firepower stretches from the powerful Fox News to the Wall Street Journal. They almost totally dominate talk radio, where Rush Limbaugh is only the best paid of a broad cadre of influential right-wing talkers. Conservatives also have more newspaper columns; a study by Media Matters for America showed that "Conservative syndicated columnists dominate daily newspapers and reach millions more than progressives and that top syndicated columnists are mostly conservative".
As veteran media observer Rory O'Connor, author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio, explains: "For too long, progressives seemed oddly content to ignore the longstanding conservative dominance of talk radio, downplaying its importance -- and its audience of tens of millions -- even concluding, as one prominent left-wing activist told me, that "only senior citizens and cabdrivers listen."
As O'Connor notes, "this shortsighted and dismissive attitude is finally starting to change in one sense, in that progressives are now calling out the shock jocks and using their free speech to combat the perennially racist, sexist and homophobic hate speech that continues to pollute much of the public airwaves." Yet, there is the unfortunate legacy of Air America Radio, created to help blunt the success of right-wing talk. Air America was so promising in the beginning, with popular shows including Al Franken's and Rachel Maddow's. Its demise was depressing. The network was undermined by both bad business decisions, and a lack of support from deep-pocketed liberal donors. As O'Connor notes, despite the continuing efforts of a handful of progressive talkers "like Stephanie Miller, Randy Rhodes, Mike Malloy and Thom Hartmann, the right continues to dominate in the talk radio space, with no end in sight."
Even on the Internet, where progressives used to think they had an advantage, conservatives have invested aggressively. As Robert Parry of Consortium News explains, "Backed by deep-pocket conservatives, the Right has poured large sums of money into its Internet assets, integrating them with other media properties, helping star right-wing bloggers get rich, and still maintaining the veneer of 'populism' – even making sure some sites look amateurish – to stay attractive to rank-and-file Americans."
Parry, the veteran investigative journalist who reported on Iran-Contra during the Reagan era, understands the problem of conservative media's dominance as well as anyone. He writes, "The troubling message to progressives is that they remain essentially orphans when it comes to having their political interests addressed by any corporate news outlet. While the Right has built its own vast media infrastructure – reaching from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and the Internet – the Left generally has treated media as a low priority."
Parry continues: "The ongoing significance of America’s media imbalance is that it gives the Right enormous capabilities to control the national debate, not only during election campaigns but year-round. Republicans can deploy what intelligence operatives call “agit-propaganda,” stirring controversies that rile up the public and rebound to the GOP’s advantage. These techniques have proved so effective that not even gifted political speakers, whether the savvy Bill Clinton or the eloquent Barack Obama, have had any consistent success in countering the angry cacophony that the Right can orchestrate. One week, the Right's theme is 'Obamacare’s death panels'; another week, it’s 'the Ground Zero Mosque.' The Democrats are left scrambling to respond – and their responses, in turn, become fodder for critical commentary, as too wimpy or too defensive or too something. The mainstream media and progressives often join in this criticism, wondering why Obama let himself get blind-sided or why he wasn’t tougher or why he can’t control the message. For the Right and the Republicans, it’s a win-win-win, as the right-wing base is energized, more public doubts are raised about the President, and the Left is further demoralized."
In the Propaganda War, a Bundle of Losses of Media Heroes
Given conservatives' dominance of the media world, it is particularly troubling that several very popular progressive voices have, for the present, left the public scene, or changed to less visible venues. First was Keith Olbermann's surprising departure from MSNBC. Then Frank Rich and Bob Herbert, two influential stalwarts of the New York Times editorial lineup exited stage left; Rich, to New York magazine. Meanwhile, the venerable and influential Bill Moyers left public television for a well deserved and often postponed semi-retirement. And then the biggie -- the Huffington Post was bought by AOL for $315 million, leading to a huge public debate about what the sale means and the future impact of an AOL/Huffington Post. A lot of hand-wringing about the role of its progressive blogging corp., ensued, including an effort by the National Writers Union to persuade bloggers to withhold their copy.
The message from Arianna as she positioned the new merger is that the Huffington Post has not been left for a while. "The tag line we have used a lot is 'beyond Left and Right,' " she insisted. Huffington noted, according to Robert Parry, that "her Web site was already shedding its political identity, providing more celebrity news and scandal stories, including a newish section devoted to divorce. While about half of the traffic was on politics a couple of years ago, she said, that is now down to about 15 percent with only one of two dozen 'sections' centered on politics."
We will find out over time just what role Arianna and AOL will play in the political discourse, and it may be more positive than not. It's too early to tell. But the point in terms of the current media dynamic is that HuffPo gained its visibility and brand as a "progressive site," and was seen as providing some political ballast against the right. But now, with an increasing lineup of mainstream journalists and editors, it will be something more mainstream and corporate, making the imbalance in the media system more profound.
The independent progressive media is, to put it charitably, very "modest" when compared to Rupert Murdoch's empire, and the reach of giant personalities like O'Reilly, Hannity and the talk radio stars. So the presence of a handful of strong, progressive political voices like Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Moyers, Thom Hartmann, Rich and Herbert, and Michael Moore when he has a movie or book out, along with the couple thousand bloggers on HuffPo, is what progressives have depended on to reach the "mainstream" and feel like they are in play. Much of that is now in question.
If the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL was the biggest media news of late, the ouster of the popular, bombastic Olbermann from MSNBC, was a shock of a different sort. The timing was particularly suspicious. Olbermann left just as Comcast was taking control of NBC from General Electric, which many saw as a bad portent for the future of media. Olbermann set the table for the "progressive project" on MSNBC, which includes Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, and currently Cenk Uygur in the 6pm slot -- a lineup that has given progressives hope that in the right hands, our ideas are marketable and popular. Olbermann, who clearly wasn't into pleasing his bosses at MSNBC, nevertheless had a solid, money-making audience. His ongoing badgering of Fox News and Bill O'Reilly was a point of pride among progressives who are tired of being abused by right-wing talking heads. The fact that Olbermann -- a key piece of the progressive franchise -- could be easily ditched made the others in the progressive lineup vulnerable as well.
The Comcast takeover of NBC is an appalling setback in the media reform world. It made the conservative Comcast, the country's largest cable company, the dominant media corporation in America. The takeover totally undermined one of the basic principles of media fairness, the separation of content and delivery. No one was operating under the illusion that General Electric and the kingpins at NBC News had suddenly become progressive. It was kind of by accident that they stumbled onto the notion that with Fox dominating cable, they had little to lose by throwing up people who would talk back to Fox and the conservatives with a smarter schtick. But with Comcast at the helm, no one knows whether the experiment in cable news progressivism has a long life ahead of it.
For his part, Olbermann announced that he would become “chief news officer” at former Vice President Al Gore’s Current Media, a struggling operation that is available mostly over the Internet and in households with digital cable connections. "Though Olbermann may draw new attention and more viewers to Current," Parry writes, "the overall impact of his departure from MSNBC is that far fewer Americans will have access to Olbermann’s influential commentaries, which were important in rallying progressives especially during the peak of Bush’s power."
It was no less depressing when powerhouses Frank Rich and Bob Herbert announced they were abandoning (or being pushed from?) one of the most powerful editorial perches in America. Their departure leaves a big hole and many wondered how the New York Times would fill it. (So far it's been Joe Nocera, a columnist from the business section, who is smart, savvy and contrarian, but who will not reproduce Rich's much-loved "connect the dot" pieces on Sundays, or essays marked by the outraged passion, backed up by irrefutable facts, penned by Herbert two days a week.) Rich and Herbert, along with Paul Krugman, are admired, read and discussed. Herbert says he wants to write longer pieces, and I hope he does. (AlterNet would be happy to publish them.) Rich is headed to New York magazine, where he and editor Adam Moss are close friends. He says New York magazine " ... will allow me to write with more reflection, variety and space than is possible within the confines of a weekly newspaper column -- and, for that matter, will allow me to stretch the definition of a magazine column." Only problem is that NY mag's 2009 paid and verified weekly circulation was 408,622, which hardly matches the Sunday New York Times circulation of 1.4 million. And although NY mag has a strong Web site, the New York Times is one of the top-10 most-trafficked sites on the Web.
Media Reformers Gather in Boston: Why Do Conservatives Dominate Media and What Can be Done?
The current overwhelming conservative media advantage is not a new story and the reasons for it are relatively straightforward. (A full understanding of why current media strategies continue to fail to gain ground on the right would take another article to explain.) The main reasons for the huge media discrepancy have to do with how the right has invested its money in building a media and propaganda infrastructure and how progressives have failed to do so. Conservative money has always been more radical and political than liberal and and progressive money, which, for the most part, never has been comfortable with media or with political propaganda. In the end, the overall failure of progressive media to gain a serious foothold involves missed opportunities, myths and delusions. And when all is said and done, large wealth -- even big progressive dollars -- is unlikely, with some rare exceptions, to act to fundamentally undermine the capitalist system that produced it.
The right's current powerful propaganda machine got started in the early 1970s when the conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce freaked out over the prospect of student and progressive protests taking over the country. This led to a famous memo by Lewis Powell, before he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, which is credited for laying the framework for a comprehensive and vast long-term investment in an array of think tanks, astroturf groups, right-wing media figures and their books, and the building of a media infrastructure. Today we are hyper-aware of the main architects of this empire -- Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers. Many foundations, wealthy donors and media figures have contributed to the construction of arguably the most powerful propaganda apparatus in our history -- an infrastructure that has, over the past 40 years, fundamentally reshaped America into something almost unrecognizable. (Hence the observation, which would be funny if it weren't so sad, that if moderate Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower were in today's U.S. Senate, he would be Bernie Sanders.)
Of course, the picture is not all bleak. The progressive media constellation -- mostly on the Internet -- reaches far more people than ever before. There are half a dozen or more Web magazines and blogs that get 1-2 million unique visitors a month. Added up, excluding overlap, that's an activist audience of 10 million or more. The progressive blogosphere is energetic, creative, enthusiastically supported by its readers, and in targeted ways can create havoc and win small battles. Amy Goodman reaches the most people with the most consistently powerful news and analysis. There is plenty of progressive media talent looking for an audience, and progressive programing that is worth watching and listening to. But there is no large-scale investment with marketing money or savvy to bridge the giant gap between progressive and conservative media.
What I call the "progressive political media" ( The Nation, Mother Jones, Brave New Films, Grit TV, Free Speech TV, Democracy Now!, AlterNet, Truthout, Daily Kos, FireDogLake, Raw Story and dozens more) do not get funded or invested in any significant way beyond what they need to survive each month and year -- and that's been true for decades. That is why Michael Moore, Rachel Maddow, and those voices who can reach audiences through mainstream media, are so important, and perhaps so vulnerable. Big liberal money that goes to media, and it is not much, mostly goes to investigative reporting like ProPublica, which insists it is scrupulously non-partisan, and the Center for Independent Media, and to opposition research at Media Matters. With rare exceptions, it does not go to the advocacy political media whose purpose is to push a political agenda beyond that of Obama and the weak Democratic party; media that attempts to frame a vision for the future and blunt the right-wing media machine. No one is against investigative or deep reporting, of course. In a balanced progressive media ecology, it is essential. But in and of itself, without strong advocacy, promotion and organizing around its findings, the "non-partisan" reporting rarely produces social change.
The main job of Media Matters, which has received the largest amount of funding from liberal and progressive donors, is, according to its leader David Brock, to document and distribute the horrors of the right-wing media and conservative leaders. Again, this important job would be much more effective if we had stronger progressive political media to provide balance to the right. But ironically, as Media Matters' voice gets more powerful, it ends up promoting the language and frames of the right -- the idiotic things that Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others say every day.
In fact, it could be argued that all of us in the progressive media, in part because we are often so shocked at the endless stream of crazy things that right-wingers say, are too preoccupied with the right's messaging. Whether we want to admit it or not, we spread their inanities beyond their base, to millions of others who would likely never have heard of them if they were confined to right-wing media. Of course the corporate media loves to do this too, but when we do it, why should they not? Every moment we are repeating a Glenn Beck lie, we are not talking about what needs to be done to make our own change, or how to do it. Of course we need to know what the opposition is saying and doing, and that information can help mobilize the base. But the constant focus on right-wing disinformation talking points, which stream out daily, should not be the centerpiece of progressive media. That does not constitute success.
As progressives media reformers and mediamakers met and talked in Boston at the Conference for Media Reform this past weekend, many celebrated the importance of independent media and applauded the progressive media heroes in their midst, pointing to modest victories and hopes. But there was no avoiding the general pall over the proceedings -- the reality of how bad things are, with the double whammy of the power of right-wing media and the overwhelming influence of corporate power over our everyday lives. This dominance was perhaps best symbolized by discussion of the Supreme Court's appalling decision in Citizens United, which confirmed that corporations are persons and can thus spend unlimited amounts of money to influence political campaigns.
There was no lack of enthusiasm or idealism about trying to change the system, and there were warm celebrations of some sweet grassroots media successes. But in the sessions on corporate domination and invasion of privacy, it was hard to deny how badly the system is stacked against reform, and how hard it is to gain traction, even against corporations like Google and Facebook, which many have embraced as part of their everyday lives. In terms of the big picture, what was lacking at the conference was any realistic blueprint, any viable path, to blunting corporate power and the conservative media echo chamber in the near term.
In the conversations in the halls, some wondered, as they have over the past 20-30 years, when will it be our turn? How can we get political media better-funded, and not have to spend half of our time fundraising. (It seems the right never has to do that.) And how can we better work together? The multitude of smallish, often overlapping progressive media, unfortunately do not add up to more than the sum of our parts. These are questions have been asked hundreds of times before, and as I left Boston, they remained unanswered.