The Time Has Come to Create a Real 'Liberal Media'
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.
Another result of the Left’s media miscalculation has been that even when moderately progressive politicians have managed to claw their way to power – as Bill Clinton did in 1993 and the congressional Democrats did in 2007 – they must operate within a hostile environment, fighting relentless media assaults and often scaling back plans.
It has been no accident that the last three decades have been dominated by three Republican presidents who have held the White House for a combined 20 years. At each step, the media played a pivotal role, most notably in promoting the incompetent George W. Bush over the well-qualified Al Gore.
Only in the last few years has there been a modest pushback from the Left. Adding to a few earlier media standbys – such as Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” radio/TV program and some liberal magazines – there were these new developments:
--Often operating on a shoestring, Internet sites rose up to challenge both Bush and the fawning coverage he was getting from the major news media.
--In 2004, a poorly funded Air America took flight with the goal of putting at least a few liberal voices on AM talk radio.
--Progressives got an unexpected boost with Comedy Central’s surprise hit, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and a spin-off, “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert.
--MSNBC, after trying for years to out-fox Fox News with flag-waving jingoism, took a different tack when it elevated former sportscaster Keith Olbermann to a prime-time broadcast called “Countdown,” which made a point of mocking Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing blowhards on Fox.
--When profit-obsessed MSNBC executives realized that Olbermann was boosting their ratings, they hired Air America host Rachel Maddow to put on a show that follows “Countdown,” creating a four-hour block of relatively progressive news content.
The Obama Movement
Though still operating at a fraction of the budgets available to right-wing media, this combination – grassroots Internet sites, a struggling radio network and a few toeholds inside corporate media – helped create a climate that permitted the growth of Barack Obama’s political movement and his election on Nov. 4.
But this new media ecology is very fragile.
There is also the reality that a generation of mainstream journalists has learned the lesson that tilting stories rightward protects your precious career. They have seen what happens even to media icons, like CBS News anchor Dan Rather, when the Right’s ire is stirred.
So what must be done now?
If America’s media imbalance is to be corrected, progressives – both individuals and liberal foundations – must invest heavily in a media infrastructure that is national but focused on the news centers of Washington and New York.
This investment should have both micro and macro components.
Financial support is needed for the gutsy Web sites that stood up to Bush – like our own Consortiumnews.com – but money also should go to larger media institutions, which can then help publicize stories that are generated by the smaller outlets.
For instance, a properly capitalized and well managed Air America could not only improve the radio network’s programming but could place ads at Web sites with links back to Air America so listeners can click on Webcasts and get information about local Air America affiliates.
That way Air America could grow; its affiliates would be strengthened; and ad money could help keep Internet news sites afloat. They, in turn, could provide the radio network with original content for shows, rather than having Air America hosts rely on warmed-over conventional wisdom from mainstream outlets like Newsweek.
There are plenty of other examples of how cooperation could work within this loose confederation of independent journalism. At Consortiumnews.com, for instance, we produce our own original articles, but we also serve as a portal to the independent video news site, TheRealNews.com.
Another example is how media critic Norman Solomon’s Institute for Public Accuracy, through the work of the indefatigable Sam Husseini, supplies broadcast outlets with the names of off-the-beaten-path experts, including independent journalists, to provide fuller context for news than what often is heard in the mainstream press.
Needed: A Leader
This strategy for building independent media would be most effective if someone with access to plentiful resources took the lead, much like former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon did for the Right in the late 1970s. Simon used his perch at the Olin Foundation to coordinate with other right-wing foundations on media funding.
Bill Moyers, who has run the Schumann Foundation and knows his way around New York/Washington media circles, would be an ideal candidate for such a role now.
Other possible leaders would be major directors/producers from Hollywood, given their expertise in producing media content.
If Hollywood did take the lead, my nominee for coordinating this infrastructure work would be Stuart Sender, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles who understands the rigors of investigative journalism and the value of multi-media formats (or someone like him).
But the bottom line is, as they say, the bottom line. Without an investment of serious money in a timely fashion, even a well-conceived plan and the involvement of well-qualified people won’t go anywhere.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said in the context of opposing the Vietnam War (and Barack Obama frequently reiterated during his campaign), there is at crucial moments “the fierce urgency of now. … There is such a thing as being too late.”