consortiumnews.com

Solving the Media Puzzle

By Robert Parry
May 14, 2005

American progressives finally are taking seriously the threat posed by the U.S. news media’s swing to the right, which – perhaps more than any other factor – has transformed the U.S. democratic process into a mess of disinformation, fear and irrationality.

Many of the depredations of the last four-plus years – from the war in Iraq and the collapse of America’s image abroad to assaults on the teaching of evolution and inaction on the looming global-warming crisis – can only be understood by factoring in the Right’s powerful propaganda apparatus and the mainstream media’s complicity.

Still, there remains widespread confusion on the Left about what can be done and how to get the most value from investments of money and talent.

From our perspective as a 10-year-old independent investigative Web site and my own personal experience of more than three decades in journalism – mostly at mainstream news outlets, such as the Associated Press, Newsweek, PBS Frontline and Bloomberg News – here are some suggestions:

‘Content and Outlets’

First, concentrate on producing strong journalistic content and building independent media outlets that can reach broad segments of the American people by using a variety of forms – print, Internet, talk radio, DVDs and TV. The guiding principle should be: “content and outlets are the keys.”

An important corollary is that the content must be uncompromising, not watered-down fare to satisfy mainstream editors or producers fearful of offending conservatives. That means independent outlets must exist that are brave enough and have sufficient resources to get the content directly to the American people.

The existence of powerful independent outlets would have a secondary effect, eventually forcing the mainstream media to do better journalism because that is what the public would come to expect. At some point, the mainstream media would face a crisis: either get serious about good journalism or lose any remaining credibility with the public.

Right now, the only pressure the mainstream media feels is coming from the conservatives, who have long demonstrated a capacity to target, intimidate and remove journalists who get in the way.

This strategy of focusing on “content and outlets” may seem ambitious and – without doubt – it would be neither cheap nor easy. For many progressives, there will be temptations to look for shortcuts – schemes for collaborating with the mainstream, buying ads in traditional media or trying to impose government regulation on media.

But in today’s environment, those strategies won’t work. They will only waste scarce money and valuable time.

For instance, there’s no realistic way today to stiffen the spine of PBS, at least as long as. George W. Bush has the power to appoint right-wing apparatchiks to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB was created to serve as a buffer between PBS and the politicians, but now it is acting as the Right’s enforcement mechanism, scrutinizing each program for violations of a conservative-defined “balance.”

At least for the short term, the most effective progressive strategy toward PBS would be to mount a campaign to convince PBS viewers to divert their donations to independent broadcasting operations, such as LINK TV or Free Speech TV, or to give to Internet outlets that are distributing or producing honest journalism.

That would not only help build independent media, but it would show PBS and CPB that there is a price to pay for the Right’s “politicization” of public broadcasting. Then, at some future point, if and when CPB gets back to its original role, PBS would understand that it can’t take its loyal viewers for granted.

It also would be a mistake to put much effort in trying to get the Federal Communications Commission to re-regulate the telecommunications industry or to re-apply the Fairness Doctrine. In the current political environment, progressives can expect almost nothing positive from the FCC.

While it makes sense to educate the public about the damage caused by the FCC in recent years, a reversal of its policies won’t occur until there is a clear shift in the political winds – and that will require a far-stronger independent media.

So the starting point must be to build that independent media.

Building Blocks

Second, invest both in existing outlets and in new ones.

Some on the Left think of progressive media outlets as unavoidably marginal, typically the small-circulation magazine that preaches to the choir and exploits journalists by paying tiny sums for work that almost by necessity becomes substandard.

There is truth to this analysis. But a quarter century ago, the same criticism could have been leveled at the Right’s media outlets.

What the conservatives did was to invest a large portion of their available resources in a coordinated strategy to strengthen existing outlets and to start others. They also put serious money into the production of journalism, albeit journalism that was often more propaganda than fact. And the conservatives paid journalists well.

The Left must learn from these lessons, though independent media must always be committed to the production of honest journalism. That is, after all, what a democracy needs and what many Americans are starving for.

But the Right’s success should convince the Left that it needs to invest serious money in both the outlets and the journalists. For too many years, hand-to-mouth progressive media outlets have survived largely on subsidies from freelance journalists who contributed their work for a fraction of its value.

While some progressives may consider this self-sacrifice noble, it’s really self-destructive. Eventually, the best of these journalists gravitate to better-paying (though often boring) jobs in the mainstream media or they abandon journalism altogether simply to pay the bills and support their families.

For the journalists who try to stick it out, the lack of money limits how much time they can devote to stories. Plus, the poorly paid editorial staff at most left-of-center outlets provides a weak support system. The result is often a journalistic product that is shallow and confusing, further turning off the public.

‘Boots on the Ground’

Third, get journalistic boots on the ground wherever there’s an important story that the mainstream media and right-wing press are not covering or are covering badly. Information can change the national political dynamic, sometimes quickly and often unpredictably.

After Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide reelection, for instance, the White House rode roughshod over its political opponents and any journalist who got in the way.

At the time, I was at the AP and saw first-hand how the information that we developed about secret White House operations in Central America helped break the Iran-Contra scandal and put the Reagan-Bush juggernaut on the defensive for the first time in years.

While we viewed our investigation of Oliver North’s activities as just a good story, the repercussions were far-reaching. Indeed, if accommodationist Democrats like Lee Hamilton and mainstream news outlets hadn’t pulled back, the political reputations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush might never have recovered.

Light would have been shed into even darker corners of the scandal, like the contra-drug connection and secret contacts between Republicans and Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis. Without his father’s reputation to run on, George W. Bush might have remained a failed businessman in Texas. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

In 1995, I started Consortiumnews.com because there were many well-documented stories not being told in a news environment then dominated by conservative-driven scandal stories about Bill Clinton and tabloid fare like the O.J. Simpson case.

Our goal was to investigate and publish important stories, both historical and current, on a wide range of issues, which we did for five years. But my failure to raise sufficient money forced us to switch to a part-time operation in early 2000, limiting the coverage we provided during the pivotal Election 2000. [For details, see “A Brief History of Consortiumnews.com.”]

Over the past year, we have tried to restore Consortiumnews.com to a full-time operation. We also have approached dozens of potential funders with a plan for transforming it into a modern-day version of Dispatch News, the independent news outfit from the Vietnam era that supported investigative work by talented journalists, such as Seymour Hersh when he unearthed the My Lai massacre story.

In our proposal, the investigative journalism would be produced in various media forms for print, radio, TV and the Internet. So far, however, we have not raised enough money to get that project started.

Successful Models

Fourth, build on what works.

For those who want true “balance” in the U.S. media, one of the most positive developments in the past year has been the growth of progressive talk radio, now heard in more than 50 American cities. Millions of Americans can now hear voices of George W. Bush’s critics as well as those who adore him.

But the impact of progressive talk could have been much greater – especially during Election 2004 – if wealthy liberals had funded the operation more fully. Weighed down by financial troubles, Air America Radio nearly crashed on take-off in March 2004 and struggled to stay aloft in only a handful of cities through the fall.

By then, however, Air America had surprised many observers by getting solid ratings. Soon, more and more stations decided to switch over to progressive talk, often mixing Air America’s content with shows from Democracy Radio.

A chief reason for the hesitation to back Air America earlier was that the Left has long underestimated the political importance of the Right’s populist talk-radio monopoly. Many on the Left simply changed the channel to music or sports, but many Americans didn’t, explaining why so many – especially in the heartland – grew to despise liberals. That was all they heard on the radio.

Only now is that dynamic starting to change.

Another model could be Pacifica Radio, which for years stood out as a rare voice of dissent against the Right. Pacifica's flagship news program, “Democracy Now,” provides a comprehensive daily newscast anchored by Amy Goodman, whose show also appears on satellite TV and cable.

Progressives have scored media successes, too, with feisty Internet sites, such as Buzzflash and Smirkingchimp, which serve as clearinghouses for stories of interest to Americans opposed to George W. Bush. Other Internet sites, such as Salon or our own Consortiumnews.com, produce original journalism on topics that often are ignored or underplayed in the mainstream media. Another alternative source of news has been the Independent Media Center, which began with the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

On another front, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” has demonstrated how satire can pierce the pretensions of not only the politicians but the mainstream media. Stewart and his faux “correspondents” have created a market for sophisticated political humor, especially with younger Americans.

New TV outlets, such as Al Gore’s “Current,” would do well to build on Stewart’s success, while mixing in smart real news reporting, rather than simply try to emulate MTV and the already saturated market for exploitative “youth-oriented” programming.

The Future

All in all, the progressives are facing both great challenges and great opportunities in media.

What the Left does in the next two or three years could either change the political direction of the country or – if the progressives fail – open the door to the “transformational” consolidation of conservative power that Karl Rove and other conservative strategists have long sought.

The bottom line is that progressives no longer have the luxury of pretending that media doesn’t much matter. The big question now is whether progressives can grab the promising media openings that are before them.

[Other recent media-related articles at Consortiumnews.com include “The Left’s Media Miscalculation,” “Mystery of the Democrats’ New Spine,” “Money, Media & the Mess in America,” and “It’s the Media, Stupid!”]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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