Is the Future Bright for Progressive Media?
While the journalistic establishment, and even progressives like Bob McChesney and John Nichols wring their hands over the demise of advertising-driven corporate journalism, activists and journalists Tracy Van Slyke and Jessica Clark have chosen to tell a different, more positive story about the future of media in America.
In their book Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (New Press), the authors take us on a celebratory journey through the relatively recent (over the past eight years) surge of independent, progressive media. The conclusion they reach is undeniable: by every measure, what we know as the progressive media and the netroots, "reaches far larger audiences -- millions of people every day -- and is decidedly more influential than ever before."
In the old days, it was considered a big success when a progressive magazine had 200,000 monthly subscribers. But today, there are a dozen or more blogs, magazines and online news sites that have enjoyed more than a million unique readers in a month. A recently formed Ad Progress Network, founded by AlterNet, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and joined by American Prospect, The New Republic and others, reaches over four million people. And by the way, progressive media is not in crisis, primarily because it is not dependent on one source of revenue -- advertising -- as corporate media is, but rather is often supported by a mix of grants, reader donations, advertising sales and list partnerships with the large non-profit advocacy sector.
Led by aggressive creative media makers like Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films, Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake, John Byrne of Raw Story, and Mark Karlin of BuzzFlash, the new progressive media use a range of strategies and tactics that are far more hard-hitting and activist-oriented than the smaller print magazine universe that dominated progressive media for a long time. (Heck, the Nation magazine is 145 years old.)
But before the progressive media establishment gets too cocky about its role, there are still major weaknesses and some dark clouds on the horizon. Clark and Van Slyke don't sidestep the obstacles, spending the better half of the book weaving the challenges of the future with the success stories and promoting models of social networking and collaboration they feel can increase the progressive media's new-found influence.
What Are Progressive Media?
Progressive media are made up of a large collection of entities of all sizes and delivery systems. But by far, their largest audience is online.
Progressive media are ideologically diverse, ranging from liberal to radical. Roughly speaking, the thousands of people who make progressive media happen generally to believe in making the world a better place through their media efforts. They are fighting for a more fair and just society; the democratization of information; speaking truth to power and holding social systems and elected officials accountable (to name a few of the values progressives support). Many progressive media outfits practice opinion journalism and investigative reporting, while others are far more willing to use agit prop and highly successful organizing tactics for drawing attention to issues and causes.
And the term progressive is a catchall. There are many differences among these groups, in philosophy, kinds of journalism practiced, ideological orientation and business structure. Some of these differences may not seem so significant to the uninitiated, but among media practitioners they are noteworthy. For example, there is a canyon-sized gap between the hugely trafficked Huffington Post, and smaller entities with more narrow foci like Laura Flander's Grit TV, or ColorLines Magazine, or even some of the mainstays of progressive media like Mother Jones Magazine, The Nation, and Amy Goodman's influential Democracy Now! radio and TV show. Huff Po, with upwards of 10 times the traffic of the rest of the pack (with the exception of Salon.com) sits on top of the pile of media entities with progressive views, enjoying quality staff writing and the influential voice of its founder, Arianna Huffington.
The genius of the Huffington Post is that virtually every liberal progressive commentator with a point to make or idea to communicate feels they need to "blog" it on the "Huff Po," even though so many people push their writing there that much content can get lost. Yet, Huff Po is also home to a large amount of celebrity blogging, gossip and "tits and ass" coverage, like the infamous daily contests in which readers can choose the "best rack in Hollywood," or the best cleavage at the Golden Globes. Unsurprisingly, these features are often very popular.
While the influence of progressive media is increasing, and the progressive audience is larger than ever before (progressives even have representation on corporate TV, in the form of Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schulz), the justifiable cheer in Beyond the Echo Chamber is not the whole story.The recent demise of Air America radio reminds us that all is not well in the progressive media universe. In fact, there are several fundamental problems that loom large in terms of the long-term future:
1. Demographics is the first issue. While there are some small progressive media organizations run by people of color, the largest progressive media organizations with the most funding have audiences which are predominantly well-educated, white, often more than 60 percent male, with average ages in the boomer generation. This reflects the overall audience that follows news most closely in corporate media, and within the right-wing conservative media environment. This demographic fact is true across the board at the blogs, magazines of opinion and online news sites. The consequences are twofold: First, progressive media, despite their values, mirror the white male-dominated universe. (There are obvious leadership exceptions like Katrina vanden Heuvel at The Nation and the female editorial team of Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffries at Mother Jones, while the Women's Media Center, under the new leadership of Jehmu Greene, is working to improve a long-standing imbalance especially when it comes to female bylines.)
Overwhelming whiteness is not a progressive value; a lack of diversity has bedeviled progressive media for decades, as do class issues, given that progressive media have always been the home of mostly highly educated elites. Clark and Van Slyke tackle this challenge in the cleverly-titled chapter, "Pale, Male and Stale." Always highlighting the positive, the authors cite online growth in the African American community with some popular blogs. Then there's the highly successful campaigns of Color of Change. Last year, the organization launched a campaign against Fox News' racist coverage, pushing dozens of advertisers to abandon the Glenn Beck show and the diabolical racist rants of Rupert Murdoch's favorite organizing demagogue. And led by Roberto Lovato, a veteran of progressive media, Presente.org was instrumental in forcing the anti-immigrant, birther-supporter Lou Dobbs off the air.
These major achievements demonstrate the clout of the progressive sector, and sophisticated strategy around race issues. But they also suggest there is a fundamental blending of organizing and online media tactics which blur the lines between journalism and pure advocacy. I'll leave the debate over whether this shift is the best evolution for progressive media for a future time, but it is clearly true that our biggest successes have come via efforts that many would not call journalism, or even media, but a new form of organizing that uses the media capabilities of the Internet.
2. A second challenge is funding. While progressive media is healthier than its corporate counterpart because it is not dependent on advertising, independent media have never been well-funded by foundations and wealthy individuals (although the survival of older progressive media depended on the loyalty and staying power of a handful of key individual donors). And the great recession is only shrinking foundation endowments.
One big funding success story is Media Matters, which tracks the corporate and right-wing media's many transgressions -- an important asset in the overall media ecology. Media Matters has benefited from the largesse of wealthy donors who are part of the Democracy Alliance, a group of progressive givers with big bucks.
But in the biggest recent personal investment in independent media, billionaires Herb and Marion Sandler chose to create ProPublica at $10 million a year, putting a former Wall Street Journal editor in charge for $550k a year; ProPublica tends to be phobic about all things progressive.
Pro Publica employs some very good journalists and produces quality work. But the organization is stuck in the old model of: "produce investigative work and somehow, magically, the problems uncovered will be solved." They lack substantial investment in marketing, promoting, and organizing on the Internet. All these elements are essential to achieving policy change in an era dominated by thousands of lobbyists and PR flacks, and hundreds of millions of dollars protecting the interests of every special interest imaginable.
3. The third challenge is probably the most fundamental. Despite its recent successes, progressive media is not yet up to scale where it can do serious battle with right-wing media. Most are familiar with the power of Fox and Rupert Murdoch, with the huge audiences of Rush Limbaugh and dozens of other right-wing shock jocks. And there are many more wing-nuts online and in magazines.
Conservatives have always invested big money in media and communications, while much progressive money goes to the myriad issues that individual donors prefer. It's as if they somehow count on the establishment media to blunt the right-wing media. Well, we know how that has worked out. Most liberal issues are held hostage by conservatives, and neglected by a seemingly overly timid Obama administration.
One set of numbers illustrates the problem: While progressives happily cheer MSNBC and Rachel Maddow's success, and more and more are glued to the tube each night, the continued dominance of Fox News on cable is overwhelming. Here's how audience numbers compared on January 27 on the day of Obama's State of the Union Address according to the site TV by the Numbers: Bill O'Reilly pulled in 4,067,000 viewers, Glenn Beck drew 3,140,000 viewers; and Sean Hannity had 3,636,000 viewers -- giant audiences, approximately three times the size or greater than Keith Olbermann's (1,159,000 viewers) and Rachel Maddow's (883,000 viewers). Clark and Van Slyke tackle this problem in their chapter "Fight the Right," pointing to the success of Brave New Films in harassing Fox News. But as we know too well, the Murdoch media juggernaut continues to roar along, hitting few potholes.
Many of these topics will be on the agenda today and tomorrow in New York City, at the Hudson Hotel where the Media Consortium, an organization designed to improve the capacity of progressive media and made up of many of the media groups cited in Beyond the Echo Chamber, and in this article. Tracy van Slyke is the director of the group.
What follows is Chapter Eight of Beyond the Echo Chamber, titled "Assemble the Progressive Choir." This chapter features the work of FireDogLake,and includes elements of an interview with me, in which I attempt to describe the thinking behind AlterNet.org.
If you want a comprehensive view of the many successes of progressive media over the past eight years, please buy a copy of Beyond the Echo Chamber. There are huge challenges ahead, which Van Slyke and Clark know full well. Nevertheless, the authors insist there is much success to build upon, and by using the new tools that have emerged online -- Facebook, Twitter and many others -- progressives can move to the next level in our long-term struggle for a better society. -- AlterNet
Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media
Copyright 2010, reprinted with permission by The New Press.
The trial was in full swing. The defendant: Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. The witnesses: Judith Miller of the New York Times, Matt Cooper of Newsweek, and Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, among others.
As 2007 began, Libby was facing five counts, including perjury, for his role in leaking the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson to conservative pundit Robert Novak, who revealed the agent's name in a July 2003 Chicago Sun-Times column. But while Libby was the only person formally on trial, the establishment media was also under public indictment for its role in the resulting quagmire.
Throughout U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak, it became clear that the establishment journalists' many connections to Washington political elites had muddled their reporting decisions. Their reluctance to accurately report on conservative think tanks' and commentators' spin jobs in the lead-up to the Iraq war -- much less the role of former Vice President Cheney's office in the leak -- was under the microscope. As Michael Massing, the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq, wrote in the New York Review of Books:
The Plame leak case has provided further insight into the relation between the journalistic and political establishments. It's now clear that Lewis Libby was an important figure in the White House and a key architect of the administration's push for war in Iraq. Many journalists seem to havespoken with him regularly, and to have been fully aware of his power, yet virtually none bothered to inform the public about him, much less scrutinize his actions on behalf of the vice-president. A search of major newspapers in the fifteen months before the war turned up exactly one substantial article about Libby -- a breezy piece by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times about his novel The Apprentice.
Simultaneously forced to cover the trial, explain their role to the public, and testify on the stand, mainstream reporters were also looking askance at a group of six unlikely individuals who attended the trial every day. Sharing two press passes, they rotated to enter the trial each morning, transcribing the proceedings almost word for word. Throughout the trial, these unconventional observers provided daily, sometimes hourly, analysis of the proceedings and offered critiques of establishment media coverage.
"All day long during the trial, one Firedoglake blogger is on duty to beam to the Web from the courthouse media room a rough, real-time transcript of the testimony," noted a February 15, 2007, article from the New York Times. "With no audio or video feed permitted, the FireDogLake ‘live blog' has offered the fullest, fastest public report available. Many mainstream journalists use it to check on the trial."
After the trial was over, Firedoglake (FDL) blogger "Scarecrow" covered a panel at the annual Yearly Kos conference, where two other FDL bloggers -- Christy Hardin-Smith and Marcy Wheeler -- recounted their experiences. "As Marcy noted today, the bloggers knew what none in the MSM every [sic] admitted, that the Libby trial was just as much about the media's complicity and its seduction by the favors of privileged access as [the] lies and obstruction of Scooter Libby and Dick Cheney," Scarecrow wrote. "And when the verdict came down, it was not just Libby who was found guilty, but some of the best known media personalities as well."
Covering the Libby trial was the high point of what had been a whirlwind few years for the FDL crew -- which included becoming one of the most popular blogs in the country. The attention they received during the trial was one of the first times mainstream reporters had acknowledged bloggers for their prowess as journalists. But what really set FDL apart was the influence that the site had built with its active and engaged community. The site had developed the power to move their users to rally around campaigns that included exposing mainstream media failures and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for progressive candidates.
FDL's ability to merge journalism with action set up a new power dynamic for progressive media organizations -- not just preaching to a passionate choir, but moving them directly to action.
The left is often derided for "preaching to the choir." Detractors argue that communicating with the already converted does little to bring in new audiences and merely reinforces accepted beliefs. Others believe that "preaching to the choir" limits debate and access to alternative viewpoints.
In a 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor, wrote about the dangers of people seeking viewpoints that match their own:
As a result of the Internet, we live increasingly in an era of enclaves and niches -- much of it voluntary, much of it produced by those who think they know, and often do know, what we're likely to like. This raises some obvious questions. If people are sorted into enclaves and niches, what will happen to their views? What are the eventual effects on democracy? . . . A key consequence of this kind of self-sorting is what we might call enclave extremism. When people end upin enclaves of like-minded people, they usually move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group's members were originally inclined.
But others who operate within the politicized media space believe that reaching out and engaging the like-minded has an inherent and long-ignored value. Wrote blogger Chris Bowers earlier in 2007:
By preaching to our choir, and organizing that choir, the progressive blogosphere and netroots have grown to wield a large amount of influence within the progressive political ecosystem simply by harnessing progressive energy that had lain dormant and ignored for so long. Just as importantly, harnessing this energy has also greatly enhanced the capability of the progressive political ecosystem as a whole, by making better use of all the available resources in that ecosystem. As we have seen over the past few years, all that new money, media influence, activism, strategy, infrastructure and ideas generated in this new constituency have not just played a major role within the progressive political ecosystem, but within the broader American political ecosystem as well. If the progressive netroots had been so myopic to only and ever target the "swing," that energy would probably still be untapped, and progressives would be at the same disastrous level of infrastructure disadvantage to conservative that we were during the 1990s and the early parts of this decade.
As noted in previous chapters, the right had successfully built its noise machine precisely by creating ideological vehicles to amass, inform and activate conservative audiences. From think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, to magazines such as the Weekly Standard, talking heads such as Ann Coulter, and shockjocks such as Rush Limbaugh, conservatives not only constructed their own media equivalent of a megachurch but assembled a choir loud enough to be heard across the entire media landscape, significantly influencing policy debates and elections.
But "preaching" is actually a false description of what many progressive projects do. While they may exhort audiences via editorials and essays, those progressive outlets devoted explicitly to journalism spend much more time investigating, reporting, and informing their audiences about political and social debates, trends, and events. And for the more activist media outlets -- most notably the bloggers -- the term "preaching" falls flat, as it assumes one-way communication without any conversation or collective reaction.
As Bowers notes, it is the assembling and activating of the choir that is the critical strategy. Just as churches, temples, or mosques serve as hubs for those seeking to examine and fortify their beliefs, a number of media outlets have evolved into central meeting places for those looking to join, debate, and strengthen political movements.
Sites such as FDL resemble the movement publications of previous generations, springing up around a particular political moment and working explicitly to attract and organize like-minded users. In People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements, Bob Ostertag writes about the pivotal role that newspapers and magazines served in U. S. political movements of the last two centuries, including abolition, women's suffrage, gay and lesbian liberation, anti–Vietnam War activism, and environmentalism:
People in positions of institutional power, whether generals, politicians, bankers, and even journalists, exercise some degree of social power during the course of their everyday professional lives. For everyone else, if we seek to have a voice in shaping our society beyond our immediate social circle, wehave to step outside our daily existence into roles to which we are not accustomed and for which we have little or no institutional support. We have to band together to maximize our very limited time and resources. Before we can do any of that, we have to find each other -- identify others with the same interests who are also willing to step outside their daily lives to pursue our long-shot objectives. We have to see who's good at what, who else is doing what, who might rise to the occasion if given half a chance. We have to make plans, formulate strategies, set priorities. We have to agitate, educate, mobilize, confront and more. In short, we have to constitute ourselves as a political subject, a constituency, a social movement. And if we had done this sometime between 1830 and 2000, we would have made a newspaper. In most cases, it would have been the first thing we did.
From 2000 to 2008, the first thing that many activists and journalists did to join and define the progressive movement was to start a blog. But while many blogs offer a relatively narrow framework for participating in politics, other progressive media projects are more ecumenical. Ostertag distinguishes such focused outlets from those that "contributed to many movements yet were not rooted in any particular one," such as Mother Jones, I.F. Stone's Weekly, and "the granddaddy of them all," The Nation, published since 1865.
In his 2005 book A Matter of Opinion, Victor Navasky, former editor and publisher of The Nation, provides a lively account of the magazine's role in national and global politics:
I always get a big laugh when people dismiss The Nation (or any journal of opinion) by saying that it "preaches to the choir" or is dogmatic or ideological or follows a party line. Barely a week has gone by in my years at The Nation when I have not had to answer a letter, a phone call, or, in more recent years, e-mail from an unharmonious dissident member of the so-called choir. And rather than march in lockstep, our contributors and staffers have disagreed, argued, feuded and debated, among themselves and in our pages, on matters of principle, practicality, politics, policy and morality.
Indeed, Navasky offers a dizzying catalog of the range of positions and issues that have been battled out on the pages (and, later, the Web pages) of The Nation, placing the current progressive surge in proper historical context. Throughout, however, he asserts the value of providing a weekly space to "question the conventional wisdom, to be suspicious of all orthodoxies, to provide a home for dissent and dissenters, and, to be corny about it, to hold forth a vision of a better world."
As Navasky -- who writes that the main role for The Nation has been to "serve as a forum for the debate between the radicals and the liberals” -- suggests, the progressive community is made of many factions of choirs. Sometimes these factions will join together around a certain political moment, event, or policy. But very rarely are they all in concert (with the monumental exception of their dislike for the former Bush administration), and more often than not, such alliances can quickly disintegrate.
A major question -- one we tackle in more detail in the next chapter -- is: who gets to define the choir? Age, gender, race, sexual preference, personal style, cultural preferences, and ideology all play into the creation and success of particular political outlets.
In the networked media environment, the trick is to learn how to regularly sync or "assemble" these diverse choirs for maximum engagement and action. As we note in the chapter "Build a Network-Powered Media," online platforms have offered progressives powerful tools to attract and organize their users, hold those in power accountable, and raise up those who share similar values and ideals. The result has been the rise of a dynamic infrastructure that has shored up the left's ability to affect the political process.
While early blogs showcased the insights, media criticism, reporting, and, yes, rants of individuals, they soon turned into political communities, offering a space for their users to help develop and debate political and social justice strategies. Discussion platforms -- such as forums for community comments and diaries that allowed users themselves to blog -- hastened the growth of the progressive choir, as did technologies that allowed bloggers to link to, feature, and argue with one another.
The key element for running such sites is regular conversations with users. The most successful "assemblers" don't just post a story or analysis and then lurk in the background and read comments and reactions. They dive back into the community debate, expand their argument, discuss users' reactions, and even sometimes reframe their own outlook based on community feedback. This is an inclusive process: Media producers may have the higher profile, but their transparency keeps them accountable to their community. Such two-way communication between the outlet and its community also allows for an environment of trust to develop. Bloggers and editors know that their site's ongoing influence is dependent on the community's knowledge that the media producer is credible and accessible.
As the community grows, the outlet gains more power to validate ideological points of view in the larger public debate. This is key in moments when the outlet works to move its community to action via online and offline protests, such as boycotts, donations, or letters of support. This is where true impact is revealed -- driving tens of thousands to a certain action can result in media coverage and larger public recognition of an issue or policy. Combining "crowd-swarming" and media coverage can result in the ultimate goal: a reaction, a capitulation, or an agreement from the target of ire, whether it is a government official, a corporation, or even another journalist.
In this chapter we explore two different models of assembling the progressive choir. While Firedoglake demonstrates an innovative, high-impact activist approach, AlterNet, an online news source that republishes content for a wide range of progressive outlets, serves as sort of choir of choirs, amplifying and expanding the sector.
How Firedoglake Became one of the Left's Best 'Assemblers'
Firedoglake has broken ground as a Web-native hybrid: a media outlet and an organizer of the left. Founded in 2004 by Jane Hamsher, a former movie producer of such films as Natural Born Killers and Apt Pupil, FireDogLake was a spin-off from Hamsher's involvement in the community on Daily Kos, where she would frequently comment.
Hamsher says she was initially drawn to the political blogosphere during the Whitewater trial, when she says she found herself wanting to throw things daily at the television. Throughout her interactions on Daily Kos, she found herself drawn to the possibilities of what an online-networked group of people could accomplish.
"What interested me was Ralph Reed," Hamsher says, referring to how Reed had been able to organize the churches in the 1980s. "I was interested in seeing this self-existing architecture of the churches that he could just network together.... He was the one who took it and used it to get presidents elected." She notes that until the blogosphere, "there was no natural place for me to network with people who felt like I did. So suddenly I saw this and thought, ‘wow.' So it's been a constant process over the last four years of exploring different ways to do that, but with the ultimate goal of networking progressives together in order to have an effect on the culture, the country, the world ... an effect beyond the numbers."
Hamsher's strategy for building an effective network of progressives was to offer users a place where they could talk and feelpart of something larger. She wanted to create an environment that addressed their needs, cared what they thought, and, last but not least, responded to their criticisms.
Hamsher and her fellow FDL bloggers -- including "redhead" (Hardin-Smith), "emptywheel" (Wheeler), "Siun" (Christina Siun O'Connell), and those who like to be known by their aliases only, such as "Pachacutec" and "T-Bogg" -- have turned this engaged space into a media juggernaut and a spot for one-off and ongoing organizing.
For FDL, 2006 was a seminal year. One initial organizing or "assembling" attempt included the Roots Project, timed to influence congressional hearings on the National Security Administration's warrantless wiretapping efforts. FDL partnered with blogger Glenn Greenwald and John Amato of the video blog Crooks and Liars to recruit small groups of local activists. They sought out constituents of senators who might wield swing votes to write letters to the editors of their local newspapers. The hope was that an outcry in local outlets might pressure the senators "to vote for real oversight in the face of illegal executive overreach.
The Roots Project provided the context for local and statewide groups of activists to self-organize on a range of issues. In general, those issues were dictated by the local groups, but the groups could also connect with each other to more fully take on national issues. The project provided tools for individuals within the groups to find, meet, and contact one another, and to organize and advertise events, as well as to contact media outlets and their congressional representatives. Much of this seems rudimentary now, but back then, it was a revelation for a group of blogs to come together and provide the space for users to self-organize and take action.
The year 2006 was also a big watershed in terms of bloggers organizing users around midterm electoral politics. With Crooks and Liars and the blog Down with Tyranny run by Howie Klein (Hamsher knew Klein as a DJ in San Francisco many years before), FDL formed the Blue America PAC, designed to raise money for progressive congressional candidates. Hosted on the ActBlue.com site, an online clearinghouse for Democratic campaign fund-raising, Blue America raised just over $544,000 for congressional candidates from 6,053 supporters in 2006 and another $448,000 from 5,362 supporters in 2008.
What motivated these individuals to donate? Along with the new ease of making online donations and learning about candidates (even candidates across the country), Hamsher claims that the site's basic ideology was the impetus.
"I realized our audience was very active and had a very strong sense of social justice and right and wrong -- and that continues to characterize FDL to this day. A lot of other blogs during the election decided that they were wholesaling to one candidate over the other. We never really got into that -- the politics of personality. I think that we've always stayed principle-focused," says Hamsher.
FDL would bring the candidates and potential donors together in virtual kaffeeklatsches. Candidates looking for supporters would join the FDL community for live Q&A chats where they would answer users' questions about policies, ideology, and what they would do once elected. This tactic removed traditional barriers and allowed candidates to more easily reach out to supporters across the country. Without this infrastructure, many of the FDL users would never have had the opportunity to openly and directly converse with the candidates. This direct communication is an integral part of Blue America's candidate fund-raising strategy.
In addition to fund-raising, FDL and a cohort of netroots allies decided to put their full attention, energy, and muscle behind overthrowing congressional incumbents who they believed had betrayed the progressive value system. Hamsher and Matt Stoller (then at the blog MyDD) became involved in millionaire businessman Ned Lamont's campaign to unseat Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman for the 2006 election. When Lamont announced his Senate candidacy against Lieberman, many thought it was beyond a long shot. But Lamont surprised observers as the national progressive blogosphere closed ranks behind his antiwar campaign.
Stoller and Hamsher traveled and lived in the state to cover the fierce primary election and encouraged their users to donate money and energy. Hamsher also encouraged the FDL community to travel to Connecticut and volunteer time to the campaign. The community responded -- and volunteers from as far away as California traveled east to help with a last-minute primary push. Lamont drew upon the combined forces of the national progressive blogosphere, a set of ever-growing and more powerful local and state blogs, and good old-fashioned campaigning and turnout tactics. He stunned many when he beat Lieberman in the primary.
National and local progressive bloggers were triumphant with the victory. But Lieberman drew from his deep war chest and ran in the general election as an independent. By courting Republicans, he ended up winning, 50–40 percent.
Despite the loss, the powerful role of the blogosphere was now getting attention. "Lamont, a millionaire with little political experience, catapulted from anonymity to become a front-running Senate candidate with the help of a new political phenomenon: bloggers," wrote Michael M. Grynbaum for the Boston Globe, on the day of the primary. "Political analysts say that the network of Internet commentators -- some from as far away as California -- channeled voter anger against veteran incumbent Senator Joseph I. Lieberman and his support for the Iraq war into a huge boost for Lamont, drawing national attention to the race. Lamont's strong challenge underscores the blogosphere's emergence as a new political power base, observers say."
The campaign's initial success and the resulting press coverage were both validations and shocks for the FDL crew. "We just weren't ready for prime time. We'd been toiling [on] the edges, not thinking we were having any impact, but because it was the right thing to do . . . and all of a sudden we get shoved out into the mainstream. It was a real adjustment," says Hamsher. "[FDL blogger] Pachacutec compared the blog at the time to kids in the back of the room screaming, being the bad kids and throwing spitballs because nobody was paying any attention to us and that's how we [got] attention. And then all of a sudden, as our influence started to increase, we had to write in such a way that people took us seriously, but not lose the authentic personal voice that made people trust us and want to come and read us in the first place."
And then came the Libby trial. Before the trial even began, FDL put out a call across multiple blogs in September 2006, hoping to raise $65,000 to help publish Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy by Marcy Wheeler.
Wheeler had been tirelessly reporting and blogging at both FDL and Daily Kos about the complicity of the mainstream press in the outing of Plame. Hamsher and Markos Moulitsas commissioned Wheeler to turn her blogging and analysis into a book for their newly founded co-venture, Vaster Media. They wanted the book out in time for the start of the Libby trial, only months away. The call for funds raised $29,000.
Firedoglake's coverage of the Libby trial fueled the site's popularity and growth. By 2007, FDL had a team of almost twenty part-time bloggers in addition to Hamsher and Smith. By 2008, it had become known as one of the top progressive blogs in the country. Hamsher claims that in October 2008, they had approximately 4.5 million page views.
One of Hamsher's proudest moments of 2008 came when FDL organized their audience to respond to a story by AP reporter Nedra Pickler, who reported on how Republican operatives were raising questions about Senator Barack Obama's patriotism. Wrote Eric Boehlert in his "Media Matters" column:
What prompted the organized outpouring of angst last week against the AP was when the website Firedoglake took action, embraced a new organizing tool, tapped into a wellspring of enthusiasm for Obama, and pointed angry readers not in the direction of the AP itself, but toward their local newspaper clients. . . . The results, according to FDL, as of March 3: 14,252 letters sent to 649 different newspapers located in all 50 states, and from 1,735 ZIP codes. That included more than 1,500 letters to the New York Times, 1,400 to both USA Today and the Washington Post -- not to mention 52 to the Denver Post and 21 to the Florida Times-Union.
This was a creative jujitsu move, turning the power of mainstream media against itself. FDL's choir was singing, loud and proud enough for even the biggest outlets to hear them.
There are many examples like this -- too many to count. With its weekly book salons, the site has become a hub and amplifier for the larger progressive community. FDL bloggers interact with community members via multiple daily posts, including political commentary, news roundups, and original reporting. Through its community blog, the Oxdown Gazette, and stepped-up field organizing, FDL provides regular opportunities for engagement and self-organizing. In the process, the site has established itself as one of the leading progressive outlets and assemblers of the decade.
A Choir of Choirs
Part of what makes FDL work is its personal feel and targeted coverage. In contrast, AlterNet's executive editor, Don Hazen, describes his long-standing progressive portal as "the opposite of niche."
The site seeks to expand the audience for progressive news and cultural reporting -- as its "About" page notes, "Many of AlterNet's readers come from search engines (like Google) and news aggregator sites (such as Digg or Reddit), a testament to the fact that AlterNet reaches beyond the typical ‘choir' of progressive readers. Once there, users encounter an ever-changing assortment of articles, blogs, video, live audio streams, book excerpts, and more. AlterNet produces some original coverage, but mostly it aggregates content from more than two hundred independent media outlets and blogs on a daily basis.
Hazen says he compares the selection process for each day's above-the-fold stories to creating a musical remix. "Remixing content is an art in and of itself -- you want polemic, investigative reporting, sex, drugs, and rock and roll." He notes that he and other editors spend a lot of time crafting headlines that will attract clicks, noting that the goal of the site has always been to "get as much good content to as many eyeballs as possible." Controversial political moments create waves of new users -- the announcement of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as Senator John McCain's running mate was a boon to the site, which lured anxious readers with provocative articles such as "Mad Dog Palin," "8 More Shocking Revelations About Sarah Palin" (number 5: "Crazy Reverend, Crazy Church"), and "The 11 Dumbest Things Sarah Palin Has Said So Far."
All of those teasers paid off. In 2008, AlterNet attracted an average of two million visits per month. Hazen credits their traffic numbers in part to AlterNet's longtime online presence. The project has its roots in print; founded in 1985 as the Institute for Alternative Journalism, it began as a wire service for alternative newsweeklies, packaging syndicated content from independent magazines for reprinting in local outlets. Hazen came on in 1991 on the heels of an idea to create a Parade-style insert for the alt weeklies, but soon found what "seemed like a brilliant idea at the time" to be a nonstarter. "Nobody thought about how difficult it would be to get people to collaborate," he says. Graced with a surplus of independent content, AlterNet's board members recognized the Internet as a natural platform for distribution. "We realized that we could become our own publisher," says Hazen,who changed the organization's name to the Independent Media Institute. AlterNet was launched in 1998.
AlterNet negotiates with magazines and blogs for permission to offer their articles online, with mixed success. Some outlets opt to retain control of the distribution of their own content online, while others see AlterNet's selection of their pieces as an "imprimatur of status." Today, Hazen sees the site's leading competitors as Salon, which produces much of its own content, and the Huffington Post, which relies heavily on links and aggregation. He distinguishes the site from progressive blogs such as Daily Kos, many of which have a narrow focus on gaining electoral wins.
Hazen describes the site's model as "strategic journalism" -- reporting tethered to advocacy. Sometimes AlterNet staffers will team up with advocacy groups, not just to report on related issues but to craft ads that drive AlterNet readers to the organizations. "I haven't figured out the balance between activism and journalism," says Hazen, "and I don't know if anyone ever will.
Hazen says the site is still closer to an old-media, broadcast model than a diary-driven, user-generated blog. "Our main goal is to get the best stuff out to as many people as possible and have them do with it what they will."
AlterNet helps to support the expansion of the progressive media sector in other ways. It serves as a hub and amplifier for networked campaigns, working closely with producer-activists such as Robert Greenwald. Hazen himself regularly writes about the prospects and pitfalls of progressive media. In spring 2008 the site launched its own imprint, AlterNet Books, which published Rory O'Connor's Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio. The book includes an analysis of how progressive radio personalities are beginning to counter conservative dominance on the dial.
Over the years, AlterNet has made a conscious effort to diversify its content, at times creating a self-imposed guideline for editors selecting the day's news so as to incorporate female writers and writers of color. But their challenge in doing so reflects a discrepancy in the progressive media choir itself.
Both legacy outlets and the progressive blogosphere are dominated by white, male, middle-class writers, editors, directors, producers, and pundits.