National Progressive Media: Who's Left?

When it comes to the question of why most progressive national media outlets reach such a small persentage of their potential audience, progressive activists are conflicted. On the one hand, we're exhilarated when we reach large numbers -- whether it's the Independent Media Center website getting 1.5 million hits during the protests against the World Trade Organization, or the Chronicle running a rare cover story on an issue we care about. On the other hand, we insist that progressive media must hold firm to their progressive missions regardless of how large an audience they draw.

Nowhere has this conflict been sharper than in free speech activists' struggle against the right-wing assault on the Pacifica Radio Network. For the past several years, the Pacifica board of directors and national management have been forcing structural and programming changes in the network that they claim will increase audience size and diversity. Since many of these changes have led to a tempering of Pacifica's programming, community organizers and activists contend that the issue of audience size is a red herring -- what Pacifica managers are really trying to do is eviscerate the politics of the only progressive radio network in the United States. Free speech activists call for Pacifica to pursue its mission, rather than pursuing high audience ratings.

At other progressive media institutions, editors and producers offer their own excuses for their small audiences: when there is no mass social justice movement, they say, there will not be a socially conscious mass media outlet. But those who are active in social justice movements often see a different problem. Among ourselves, we criticize the left press -- from The Nation to Mother Jones to the Pacifica Network News -- for being boring, academic, homogenous, and out of touch with social justice activists.

Rarely, though, do activists or independent media producers go beyond the mainstream measurements of audience size and financial success to evaluate our own progressive media institutions. As we enter 2001 with apparently growing progressive political movements -- the anti-corporate globalization movement, the Green party, youth fighting against the prison industrial complex -- we owe it to ourselves to grapple with the difficult question of whether or not our national progressive media are serving the needs of our movements and helping promote social change.

Measuring Our Effectiveness

Laura Flanders has thought a lot about this question. Flanders did media criticism with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for nearly ten years. She now hosts the only progressive talk show on AM radio at the Working Assets radio station in Boulder, Colorado. Flanders and Working Assets are trying to make in-roads in a medium that is dominated by the radical right. "My listeners were listening to Rush Limbaugh," Flanders says. "[Working in commercial AM radio] does bring me smack up against the failures of the alternative media movement. I put on what I think is a great show, and there are no calls."

By traditional measures of success, such as audience size and financial support, Flanders' show isn't doing well. (Nor are most national alternative media institutions, which not only reach small numbers of people but also consistently lose money.) But she measures her effectiveness in other ways. She considers listener response, call-ins, e-mails, the level of listener participation in activism, and whether or not her show has raised important issues. "I think I do a good job raising social justice issues. I just don't know if I raise them in a way that AM talk radio listeners can hear."

Flanders says that progressives should realize that it takes years to develop a large audience for a radio show, and that audience size should be but one factor in measuring effectiveness. "Apple gave itself seven tries at a successful computer before they got the iMac and G4," she points out.

For Peggy Law, executive director of the International Media Project (IMP), one of the most important measures of success for the IMP radio show, Making Contact, is the activists' ability to use it in their outreach and education efforts. For example, the National Housing Law Project just bought 15 copies of a recent Making Contact show on housing, which they will use in presentations to organizations, activists, and students all over the country.

With a skeleton staff of four paid employees and numerous volunteers, IMP has succeeded in six short years in convincing more than 160 radio stations to air Making Contact weekly. They have also produced numerous special shows, especially around the large protests that were organized this year in Seattle and elsewhere. "One of the reasons we're pretty exhausted right now is because we want to be as responsive as we can be to movement changes, so we were in Seattle, in DC in April, and did unconventional coverage at both conventions, even though we didn't even have a travel budget," Law says. And in response to demands from Pacifica Radio listeners, IMP will soon pilot a new progressive national daily news show to replace the Pacifica Network News.

"The tension between content and audience has to be addressed constantly. Pacifica has lost track of the mission," says Law. She acknowledges the value of getting Making Contact on as many radio stations as possible. "The number of stations is important, but also the diversity of stations. We like it when we have a station that has a huge listening audience, but we're equally excited when we get an Alaskan fishing village or stations that are not in the group of stations which would normally carry Pacifica programming. One of our goals is to reach beyond the circle of communities who are already looking for this." At the same time, she is not willing to water down the content of the show to appeal to more mainstream stations.

Flanders and Law see their shows as part of the social justice movement and, therefore, measure their effectiveness very much by whether or not they are serving social justice activists. By contrast, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who's worked on and off at The Nation for the last 20 years and now holds its top editorial position, says that The Nation "doesn't pretend to be a social change agent; first and foremost, we are an independent publication."

"What The Nation can do," vanden Heuvel says, "is provide progressives with information and a context within which to consider important ideas." Vanden Heuvel describes the readers of The Nation (circulation 100,000) as activists, academics, and journalists, as well as people outside of urban areas who consider it their lifeline to the progressive community. She believes The Nation has been most effective when a story it covers pushes leaders in Congress, the labor movement, and elsewhere to act on issues they would not have acted on. A good investigative story can provoke a Congressional investigation of U.S. military complicity with paramilitary groups in East Timor. Or, consistent coverage of the living wage issue can put the term into the general discourse and have it accepted by the labor movement.

Not that vanden Heuvel ignores the role of social justice activists. The street is not the only place where social change happens, she contends. There is a national battle of ideas, and progressives need a publication that can insert itself into that battle.


On the subject of how national progressive media outlets could improve their effectiveness, Vanden Heuvel looks more to external structural barriers than to the failings of the left press for an explanation. She believes that there are millions of progressives in the United States, "but TV -- let's be honest -- is the media which millions of Americans get their news from." The left has no television station nor does it have a talk-radio network.

"We need daily outlets for the progressive media," says Amy Goodman, co-host of Pacifica Radio's popular national show, Democracy Now. The left has neither a daily national newspaper nor a daily wire service. Goodman does not give credence to what she calls the "mainstream media point of view" that the public can be divided along liberal and conservative lines, and that liberal issues are of no interest to a larger public. Referring to the pathetic coverage of the annual protest against the School of the Americas, where thousands have been arrested in the last three years, she points out that if people had known about the protests and the history of the school, they would have cared. Military people would have been concerned about it; journalists would have been interested in covering it. But most people just never heard about it. "I think there's a big audience out there. The audience doesn't share the point of view that the media puts out," Goodman says.

Currently under pressure from Pacifica management to soften her reporting on issues like police brutality and the death penalty, Goodman is perhaps reluctant to critique the progressive media establishment. Other progressive media journalists, however, have no problem articulating their criticisms and offering opinions about the self-marginalization of progressive media institutions.

Don Hazen is one of them. A former editor at Mother Jones, Hazen now directs the Independent Media Institute, which puts out AlterNet, a wire service for alternative news weeklies. What does he think about a television station run by progressives? "To yearn for one is to operate in the world of unreality," Hazen says. "Nobody would watch a progressive TV channel, at least not enough people so that anybody could make any money with it. That's why there isn't one."

Hazen believes that progressives need to think more strategically about media, especially the role of corporate media. "In the final analysis, change doesn't happen because of progressive media. So we progressives need to go beyond progressive media, using a combination of grassroots organizing, demonstrations, the Internet, paid ads, effective PR, and on and on, and be campaign oriented," he says. Progressive media does not identify and hone in on the audience that is most essential for bringing about change, he says. It may mean making use of mainstream media, but he fears that many progressives, including leaders of progressive media institutions, would rather marginalize themselves than chance being "corrupted" by their participation in the corporate media.

In Flanders' opinion, progressive media outlets tend to talk down to people and don't collaborate effectively with each other. When some of Flanders' colleagues interviewed some regular listeners of RadioForChange -- employees at a Toyota body shop -- they were shocked to learn that these people would never consider calling in to the show because they didn't think they were smart enough. "How do we sustain our listeners and sustain our communities and at the same time have it not be a closed conversation? Are we having our conversation in a way that excludes other people?" Flanders asks. Vanden Heuvel -- whose publication The Nation is often criticized by activists as being too academic -- is also concerned about opening up the conversation. "If corporate power is the most important issue of our time, we need to find a language that describes corporate power that is more accessible to others," she says. Peggy Law's own observation is that "many of us [in the media of the Left] are better at critiquing and resisting than we are at building something helpful. This becomes discouraging."

On the issue of collaboration, Vanden Heuvel agrees with Flanders. "I do think that progressives are too reluctant to act together until they agree on everything," she says. This is particularly troubling, Flanders believes, because the result is multiple progressive media institutions with almost identical mission statements and projects, duplicating each others' efforts -- something cash-strapped organizations simply cannot afford. Worse still, independent media outlets often pit themselves against each other because they are competing for limited funding, says Law. Of course, this leads to even less collaboration.

Flanders also criticizes what some call the "unbearable Whiteness of the national progressive media." "Movements of the last 20 years have said that racism, sexism, and homophobia are not just details or side issues -- they're central issues. And our alternative press hasn't taken these on," she says. Hazen agrees that the audience for progressive media is predominantly White and middle-aged, but he sees it more as a matter of media matching the culture of a group. "Intellectual magazines don't cut it for most young people," he says. "Hip hop, the Internet, zines, slams, Napster, are all more appropriate because they are part of their culture, just like The Nation, ITT [In These Times], et al, are part of ours."

Where Do We Go From Here?

If Hazen is right, and the popularity of the left press is limited to the generation that is now in its middle age, the future of traditional progressive media institutions looks bleak. Fortunately, the popularity of Internet media outlets, particularly the IMC website, give reason for hope and a glimpse of the possible next phase of development for progressive media.

When he hears talk of the decline and failure of the left press, Don Rojas of The Black World Today website is quick to point out that in the last year, progressive websites have experienced a boom. "We should not overlook the fact that usage of progressive websites and progressive new media in general is on the increase. I expect this will continue," Rojas says. His website is a case in point. Launched in July 1996, The Black World Today, has had more than four million visitors and experiences a five to ten percent increase in traffic every month. Rojas says that web users -- especially young people -- are very receptive to progressive messages. Like Working Assets' RadioForChange, The Black World Today is a commercial venture -- albeit one that has yet to turn a profit.

Most progressives would agree that the IMC phenomenon (see story on page 3) is the most exciting development in national progressive media of the last 15 years. The large audience for the IMC sites is paralleled by the enthusiasm of independent media makers wanting to work for the IMC for free. "We had no idea that 450 people would come and sign up [as IMC journalists] to participate in Seattle," says Sheri Herndon, a Seattle-based radio journalist and activist. "In DC [at the protest against the IMF and World Bank], 800 people signed up; in LA [at the Democratic convention], 1400 people showed up . . . during the week of the presidential election, we got over 100,000 hits per day at the main site."

Herndon believes that the IMCs are effective, because "movement" activists see them as something they can use. "It's not that we're exporting the IMC. It's that activists are requesting an IMC. The model fills a void," says Herndon. It doesn't cost much to create an IMC, and the self-publishing software already exists and can be replicated for any city. The software allows activists to create their own media rather than having their ideas filtered through a journalist, even if that journalist works for the progressive media.

As alluring as it is to romanticize the IMC as the perfect progressive media institution for the 21st century, it is an institution that is still going through the growing pains that many established national left media outlets went through decades ago. The decision-making structure at the IMC is still evolving, with each individual IMC developing its own structure, and larger issues for the IMC network being discussed on IMC e-mail lists. Some people would call it process hell. Herndon counters that the "constant collective reflection" shows a dedication of IMC participants to democracy and access that is revolutionary.

More problematic is the fact that the IMC network is run entirely by volunteers, some of whom are working 60 hour weeks without pay to keep this miraculous media phenomenon on track. "Some people feel the IMCs should remain a volunteer organization. Those people don't tend to be the ones who are working full time on the IMC," Herndon says. There is also the question of how the IMC will sustain itself in the months ahead without a major activist mobilization effort to cover. But Herndon believes that the IMC has already found a niche outside of major events -- as a wire service for news about activism.

Aside from the IMC website and several Internet portals for progressive information (Common Dreams, for example), the only other national daily source of news with a progressive slant is Democracy Now. It is also the most often mentioned example of successful progressive media. "I think Democracy Now is a model of a kind of journalism that inspires and motivates people," Flanders says. Goodman, her co-host Juan Gonzalez, and the show's producers seem to have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the progressive movements.

What is it about Democracy Now that makes it so effective? Although Goodman is one of the harshest critics of corporate media around, she has picked up certain lessons from the mainstream press. The main one is that issues have to be covered regularly and persistently. Otherwise, they don't sink in, Goodman says. She gives the example of her coverage of Leonard Peltier's clemency hearing in November 2000. "Now that Peltier's case is being decided on, we'll talk about it every single day, like mainstream press covers celebrities," Goodman explains. She believes that if the journalist is unabashed, unafraid, determined to uncover the truth, and unwilling to temper the message, and if she covers the issues over and over again, the audience will come. Democracy Now is proof that her philosophy works.

What's next, then, for the national progressive media? Rojas of The Black World Today is pushing for progressives to come together on an Internet radio station that would broadcast programming 24-hours a day. Hazen also believes that progressives should sink their resources into the Internet. But whatever the form of the new national left media institutions, it's clear what their goals need to be.

We must have some progressive media institutions whose charge is to keep our growing cadre of social justice activists informed and inspired to take to the streets to demand change. We must also have progressive media institutions that use mainstream media methods (or spin their stories to the mainstream press) to reach the masses of people who have yet to decide where they stand on the important issues of our time -- not to mention the political and economic elites who hold power in this country.

The audience has a role to play too. Hazen worries that people who read The Nation and listen to Pacifica Radio stations like KPFA believe that the action of consuming progressive media in and of itself constitutes political activism. "As [Ralph] Nader points out, there are powerful stories on the front page of the New York Times; whole issues of Time Magazine devoted to corporate corruption. The corporate establishment yawns. Nothing happens. . . . Articles, ads, stories without campaigns and organizing are futile. They fall into the hole."

Progressive messages -- whether in print or on the Internet or on radio -- are not going to create social change on their own. This means that audience members must go beyond just reading and listening; they must also take action.


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