Media

Taking Media Progress Even Further

Until progressives are on TV -- especially cable TV -- the right wing will continue to dominate the airwaves.
Any sports fan knows that a retooled team may win a few more games, but if the competition has also ramped up, the end result is the same. In 2004, in the weeks leading up to the November election, liberals and Democrats were patting themselves on the back for their major increases in voter registration and field organizing -- only to be shocked at the even stronger turnout produced by the better-organized Republican effort.

You know the result. Did it feel like progress? Hardly. But people forget. Air America was on the air for six months, Daily Kos was raising lots of money for candidates, MoveOn.org was a force, Michael Moore was smashing box-office records, Al Franken was at the top of the bestseller list along with other Bush-bashing tomes. And the result: Kerry was  "Swift Boated," and an  AWOL president was portrayed as a strong Commander-in-Chief. Progress?

Yes, with Air America, we have entered the talk radio ballpark. On the web,  we seem to have a small edge in the blogosphere similar to the edge held in circulation of left-of center magazines and books. I'm bullish on web TV, but each new medium has always predicted the demise of the previous one -- movies were going to kill radio, as TV was going to kill the movies, etc.

And market penetration is always slower than we think. Thirty years later, and the top ten cable shows average between two and four million viewers; those numbers would translate to instant cancellation on ABC, CBS and NBC. 

It's the mainstream media, stupid. Mostly it's TV. Swift Boating was a TV phenomenon, accomplished primarily on broadcast and cable news programs. We are being lulled into a false sense of accomplishment because mainstream news media has supposedly "awakened" to Iraq and Katrina -- as if they could ignore dead bodies floating past the camera in an American city. But Katrina was apolitical, and didn't require a stand on any issue other than incompetence. Bush and company have so thoroughly fouled up Iraq, not to mention their falsified claims to start the war, that it is easy to think that things have turned around.

But rest assured, the same defeatism that feeds our media strategy will have us firmly in our role as "Linus" -- having the football pulled out from under us, once again -- in '08. We will be shocked when the mainstream media fawns all over "straight-talkin'" McCain and his tough as nails, 9/11 superhero VP Rudy Giuliani.  In my opinion, Hillary will be eaten alive with under-the-radar attacks on personal vulnerabilities, as well as the  basic misogyny embedded in corporate media and its advertisers. Just watch.

Unless progressives wake up and face hard truths about media — and the money, strategy and tactics it will take — we will continue to win battles and lose the war. Progressives have essentially given up on center stage -- broadcast and cable news  -- and stayed in the comfortable terrain of  alternative media, given up on leveraging our "buying power" and mostly come to believe that the non-profit road is the only road to editorial integrity.

This allows corporations to have their cake and eat it too; as if progressives are still the back-to-the-country, anti-automation, communal-living hippies of the sixties and not the Starbucks-drinking, iPod carrying, SUV-driving people many of us really are.

So we run off to the alternative media hills preparing to wait the ten years till web-video reaches parity with broadcast. We live in the rarified world of non-profit funding, and leave billions of ad dollars and venture capital money on the table. We run "media reform" conferences steeped in policy, but void of creativity and  absent of people who could greenlight any media projects.

Progressive investors, hardest to criticize because they do so much, are loath to change directions and fund media -- even though they know that GE, Viacom and News Corp. are crushing the things they believe in and spend tens of millions on.   There is plenty of dough among wealthy liberals  -- billions -- and yet we prefer to blame Rupert.  Much of the political funding for media spending  takes place in back rooms and in secret because the same progressive press that should be shining a light, is begging for cash.

How long are liberals going to let Maytag advertise on right wing Michael Savage's radio show, and shun Air America -- without doing anything? We wash our clothes too.

In the cause of full disclosure, for the past year I have been pitching a weekly progressive newsmagazine show for cable with a former cable-news president on board as Executive Producer. In a country evenly split between red and blue, with 168 hours of very profitable Fox News programming on cable each week, this should be a no-brainer. But I can't get to first base.

In his article "New Success for Progressive Media," also up today on AlterNet, Don Hazen frames a mostly positive view of the emerging media battles won, and what we need to move forward. In a rather different tone, I've laid out what I think has to change for big victories. Together, I hope they make a lot of sense.
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