Media

New Progress for Progressive Media

Progressives are beginning to flex some media muscle, finding ways to counterbalance the right wing's powerful spin machine. But there's still much to be done.
When the Washington Post recently announced the hiring of right-wing Republican operative Ben Domenech to blog on the Post website, it was literally a matter of hours before an avalanche of negative information regarding Domenech's bigotry and plagiarism was uncovered and widely distributed by a team of progressive bloggers. Domenech, ostensibly brought in to provide "balance" to watch-dog columnist Dan Froomkin, quickly resigned. Chalk up another progressive blogger victory in the rough-and-tumble world of media politics.

When Air America Radio launched, skeptics predicted that the progressive talk network would remain isolated in big cities in blue states, and be crushed by the long established right-wing talk. A relatively short time later, Air America is operating in more than 75 cities, covering 60 percent of the country and often scoring ratings victories over the right-wing shows. The experience so far demonstrates that, with sufficient funding, there is clearly a market for progressive talk.

There was little expectation that any progressive media strategy could put a dent in the seemingly invincible image of global behemoth Wal-Mart. Yet the release, effective publicity and innovative distribution of Robert Greenwald's documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, along with the close cooperation of activist groups, put the corporate giant on the defensive as never before. A series of Wal-Mart PR fiascoes quickly ensued, along with a scramble to try to fix policies and a dropping stock price.

There are many more such examples that showcase the newfound muscle in progressive media in the Bush era. The dynamics have changed. A fresh breed of smart, relentless media operatives, using the internet in creative ways, have put new pop into progressive media.

But alas, that is not the full story. As Rick Gell points out in his accompanying article, while progressives have certainly made progress, it does not yet equal success. There is a giant hole in the TV world, where progressives are virtually invisible and donors seem unable or unwilling to do battle in the commercial world of advertising and investments. Much of progressive media remains "alternative" media, speaking mostly to its secure audience while some of its political clout is hindered by the legal limits of most organizations' nonprofit status.

So there is much to be encouraged by, and much to contemplate. But no matter how the challenge of progressive media gets weighed or examined, a serious investment of capital and chutzpah is necessary if progressive media is going to provide the counter balance to the right-wing media machine that will be revved up for fall elections in 2008 and beyond.

Post-Kerry handwringing

After John Kerry's shattering defeat in the 2004 election, organizers, political leaders, pundits and funders all agreed that without a significant boost in progressive media capacity to provide a counter to the highly partisan right-wing media, the chances for liberal and progressive issues to gain traction and for Democrats to return to power, were questionable.

When compared to the radical conservatives and religious fundamentalists, the progressive media sector lacked clout. Post-election, the right enjoyed a huge talk radio advantage and ownership of dozens of right-wing oriented local television stations. Fox News dominated cable news, while large-circulation dailies like the New York Post, the Scaife papers and the persistence of the Rev. Moon-funded Washington Times provided a powerful megaphone for right-wing ideas. Meanwhile, religious broadcasters rapidly penetrated into numerous cable networks, perhaps surpassing mainstream corporate media as the most potent threat to a democratic media.

In addition, conservatives in 2004 appeared to have a better understanding than Democrats and the Kerry campaign of how the media environment has been transformed by the internet. Republicans and the right wing recognized that it no longer made sense to plow tens of millions of dollars of resources primarily into television commercials and New York Times ads while ignoring the rest of the media ecology, especially at the grassroots level.

No example of the right's "new media" savvy was more telling than the Swift Boat Veterans' attack on John Kerry. The right wing played the internet card brilliantly, effectively smearing Kerry and putting the Democratic candidate -- a war hero running against a phantom soldier -- on the defensive. Meanwhile, rather than counterbalance the attacks with the facts, the corporate media basically helped publicize the Swift Boaters' scurrilous campaign.

Seventeen months later, as the '06 campaign is heating up, it's a good time for an updated assessment. How much change has there been in the progressive media apparatus? Are progressives making real progress in the battle of language, ideas and audience-building? With this president's current dismal popularity scores, can progressive media seize the ripe opportunity for political change, and create more space for populist issues and Democratic candidates?

Signs of progress

The newfound kick-ass, in-your-face attitude exhibited by emerging progressive media is an important development and a cause for celebration. Using blogs, talk radio, new models of content distribution and a tenacious rapid-response media watch capacity, progressives are scratching back with new ferocity.

The new phenomenon of progressive talk radio has begun to gradually loosen the media stranglehold the Republicans have on Washington. Democrats who make guest appearances on Air America Radio seem to develop more spine in the process. The A-list political blogs, led by The Daily Kos, My DD, and a dozen or so other established blogs, have been strengthened considerably by blog upstarts like FireDogLake, and the highly trafficked video blog, Crooks and Liars. Meanwhile the Huffington Post, initially met with scads of skepticism, has catapulted over much of the blogosphere, becoming the fourth most-linked-to blog in the world.

These success stories all point to a brighter future if -- and this is a big if -- these efforts, and particularly more commercial ones aimed at TV, can be financially supported in a serious way. Interestingly, a number of the big successes in the blogosphere are self-supporting via advertising, while some, like The Huffington Post, have investors, meaning they have no need for grants and are unhampered by IRS laws that require nonprofits to be nonpartisan. But the rest of the progressive media needs a significant, long-term, reliable commitment of resources.

The emerging media elements, as feisty and effective as they are, don't yet add up to an overall media vision and infrastructure. Much of the new progressive media capacity is reactive, lacking the ability to effectively frame a vision for the future. And most of it is on the web and on talk radio -- not on television. Yes, "moving media" is all on track to converge in a broadband world -- but in the meantime, cable TV still needs some progressive presence, and investments are required in the nascent area of web TV. Also, new and young on-air talent, never a progressive strength, needs development and exposure, via subsidizing books and speaking tours and high-level media training.

Show me the smart money

There are clearly enough resources to build progressive media capacity. Progressive (not moderate) donors and unions, especially SEIU, invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million into media and communications efforts during the 2004 election. Much of it went to media corporations and consultants. Had even 10 or 20 percent of that sum been devoted to building progressive infrastructure it would have made a huge difference. Unfortunately, due to old habits and assumptions, that didn't happen.

Now we have another chance. Will the major progressive funders step up and support a media and ideas infrastructure, beyond backing a few established beltway groups? The year-and-a-half-old Democracy Alliance has brought together dozens of high-worth individuals with a commitment to fund progressive infrastructure with many millions of dollars. In their midst are clearly media-savvy and committed donors trying to figure out how to do the right thing, in terms of funding media. But so far, except for former right-winger David Brock's powerhouse media monitoring outfit, Media Matters For America, very little money has flowed to support the kind of media that can be an antidote to the radical right.

Democracy Alliance insiders insist that it's still early, and more donors need to be recruited to the cause. Some media makers, like Julie Bergman, a progressive producer based in Los Angeles whose project, Show Us the War, will soon debut on the Huffington Post, feel change in the air. "I sense that funders, especially on the West Coast, are more open to supporting content than in the past. At least they are listening in new ways and the conversations continue." (It is important to note that there is a core group of progressive foundations that understand the importance of strategically funding media content and have invested in an ongoing way. )

Of course, for many observers, funding media is a no-brainer. For progressives to be without an effective propaganda arm, to depend mainly on corporate media constantly cowed by the right wing to get its message out, is a grievous handicap. Much of the funding investment in ideas, policy and organizing are squandered without a powerful progressive media capacity to push the ideas and aggressively engage the public discourse.

Recently, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas specifically addressed funders, emphasizing the need for "smart" money to build the necessary progressive infrastructure.

"We're lacking the idea factories and the noise machine," he said. "Funding patterns need to change. When financial investors are thinking about the future, they don't go to IBM to see what the next new thing is; they look in garages in Redwood City. Google is busy buying start-ups. We need outside-of-the-box thinking." The gist of the Markos message is a wake up call -- hoping that the big donor community will start acting like venture capitalists instead of conservative big cap stock investors, and spread some money around.

The media reform trap

Previously, funders and their advisors saw progressive media as marginal -- unable or unwilling to broaden the base, or mobilize larger constituencies. Meanwhile, progressive media has been caught in the media reform trap: that we are all victims of overbearing corporate media ownership concentration. The underlying message that we can't succeed until the corporate problem is fixed and the media democratized -- in essence, that reform must come before implementation -- has been a powerful meme in parts of the progressive sector.

We must replace this negative frame with a positive one: The "new" emerging progressive media is no longer stuck in the reform conundrum. As media reform veteran Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, notes, "For the first time in the history of modern media, we have an opportunity to cut through the din of the conglomerate culture and reach those who would listen to alternative and independent messages via a wide range of digital platforms and technologies."

It is still essential that we protect the internet from cable and phone company takeover, push for community WIFI, and keep the media system from still further concentration. Key people continue to fight tirelessly in these causes. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that any conceivable media reform based on political reality is unlikely to effect the current conservative propaganda juggernaut: FOX News, the New York Post and Direct TV will still be in the hands of Rupert Murdoch; Rush Limbaugh and the legion of ugly talkers will continue to dominate talk radio; and right-wing fundamentalists will continue their march to be a constant presence on every cable network.

The new appeal: a new media world

Developing media capacity that can challenge the right requires changing the way the funding class, media consultants and beltway operators think about media. Funders and investors are not irrational, of course. They make their investments in ways that made sense to them, and to their consultants. But the 2004 gatekeepers and operatives, veterans of depressing political defeats, had very little experience or inclination for using new media or progressive media capacity. They primarily stayed in the corporate media terrain and passed huge bucks on to corporate media. I think it's fair to say that some consultants made bundles as well, by putting the dough into corporate media.

Today's media system is very different, operating on many levels, and continues to constantly change. Yet many in the "deciding class" -- donors, experts and influential advisors -- don't consume or engage much new media. They have little idea of how effective the conservatives are at the media that operates below the radar, far from the type of media -- the New York Times, PBS and NPR, and magazines -- where many of the elite still get most of their information.

Peter Lyden, writing for the New Politics Institute, explains that the "progressive political community needs to recognize the integral linkage between changes in media and changes in politics." Lyden goes on to explain the crucial ingredients that are transforming the media marketplace: "The arrival of new distribution channels -- especially the rapidly growing ubiquity of broadband that will mean the ever-growing delivery of digital video over the internet leading to more interactive, on demand, tailored media the introduction of cheap new tools like quality video cameras, the emergence of new domestic audiences such as the Baby Boom-sized generation of young people and surfacing Latino communities, and the reality of a new form of global competition."

As J.D. Lasica notes in his book "Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation," Americans "are no longer couch potatoes absorbing whatever mass media may funnel our way. We produce, publish, reinvent and share personal media. We make our own movies. We create digital photos, niche news sites We program our personal video recorders to watch programs on our own terms. We listen to web radio or satellite stations that cater to our personalized tastes. We download music from the Net and distribute our own works on the internet."

Along with the technological changes, media experts predict that the media will continue to become increasingly ideological, building on the model that has come to dominate a good deal of public discourse (think Bill O'Reilly and FOX News, The Drudge Report, etc.). This media dynamic, which effectively undermines traditional media, focuses on converting people to ideological and "moral" positions, not presenting facts. There are hundreds of new media entities broadcasting their messages in various ways to targeted audiences, deliberately skewing toward a point of view. Many conservative voters now get most or all their information from such sources.

The media ecology system

As important as comprehending the constantly changing nature of the media, is grasping that the media -- as conservatives brilliantly understand -- is an ecology system, with many interdependent pieces working together. The right's ecology has a national echo chamber, including the Wall Street Journal editorial page; conservative talk radio and television; Scaife newspapers; Sinclair, the largest owner of local TV stations; the fundamentalist religious cable networks; and effective use of grassroots media, among much else.

If an ecology system is weak in some areas, as progressive media is, the whole system is less effective. Key Democrats are only now beginning to understanding this principle, having basically put all their financial eggs in the corporate, old media basket.

Media ecology (AKA media diversity) is about the many ways to deliver content to audiences, the ways audiences choose to receive it, and the methods of interacting. Diversifying progressive media means reaching out to younger media consumers through their preferred medium and recognizing the limits of the existing infrastructure of mostly old media delivery systems. Diversifying media is not increasing the frequency of print magazines or starting book clubs.

If progressive media is to be successful, it must experiment by funding content concepts and take advantage of new delivery systems -- video on demand, digital video recorders, web television, infomercials, and efforts to develop and put progressive talent on cable, both for talking head shows and more substantive programs.

Another necessity is to better leverage high quality, underutilized progressive journalism and investigative reporting -- for example, spend equal amounts of resources, as conservative think tanks do -- to promote quality journalism and investigative work, and expose the talent to larger audiences. As blogs and progressive talk has shown, progressive journalism needs to become far more aggressive in its promotion and business practices. In fact, many are taking that message to heart -- the newly formed Media Consortium, made up of at least 40 mostly veteran media groups, is looking to increase its collective clout and visibility, while establishing closer collaborative relationships to the emerging media.

Because healthy ecological systems are always evolving, we see many new elements of the media ecology -- peer-to-peer, interactive blogs, citizen journalism that sees the audience as integral to the process, multimedia online -- all adding significant numbers and diversity to the audience.

What new media does not intrinsically add, however, is diversity of race and ethnicity. If funders are serious about supporting the broad ecology necessary for change, there must be a commitment to developing media voices from diverse communities and cultures, sometimes in their own language. One ambitious effort is the New American Media, which works with hundreds of ethnic media -- many of them not necessarily progressive -- to raise standards and encourage investment to improve their journalism . NAM likes to say there are 51 million ethnic Americans, 150 languages, and 2,000 ethnic media outlets.

Media pathways to political power

Future success depends on how well the changes in the media system are grasped and acted upon. Progressives have the potential and the tools to leapfrog corporate media. But we need to harness new technologies, collaborate among our existing media and keep creating new forms. Embracing the interactivity of new media technologies can strengthen democracy and bring millions more people into the political process.

As Jeff Chester adds: "While the new media pathways are still scarcely recognizable next to the major thoroughfares of the info-tainment giants, there is one special advantage over the old media counter parts -- these are two-way communications, with opportunities to send as well as receive, to create as well as consume."

Change is in the air. It can be hastened if progressive media can break from the shadow of the corporate media behemoths, change patterns of top-down media and the overemphasis on individual journalism without sufficient collaboration and promotion. The famous line that freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses can be turned on its head; on the internet, we now can all own the presses.

Next: The Top 10 Progressive Media Success Stories
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
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