consortiumnews.com

Five Pointers for a Left Media

By Robert Parry
June 21, 2005

For those who see U.S. news as tilted to the Right, the good news is that wealthy Left funders are beginning to earmark more money for media. The bad news is that little of the money is going into the kind of media infrastructure that could restore a balance.

So, from my 27 years in Washington journalism and 10 years as editor of this independent Web site, here are some suggestions about how to best spend the precious sums for media, whether from small or large donors. (We, by the way, are entirely funded by donations from our readers.)

1. Outlets and content are the keys.

The ultimate answer to today’s media imbalance is for progressives to build strong outlets for getting information to the American people and to develop powerful content for those outlets.

Conservatives have followed this formula for the past three decades, though often their content is more propaganda than information. Nevertheless, this combination of content and outlets has enabled them to reach the public with their message and put enormous pressure on the mainstream media.

Back in the 1970s, the situation was quite different. Then, the Left had a clear advantage in media, especially from the so-called “underground press” of the Vietnam War-era. These newspapers and magazines were read by legions of young people.

Many Americans got news, too, from independent investigative sources, such as Seymour Hersh’s Dispatch News which broke the My Lai massacre story. Progressives also produced video documentaries and presented anti-war news on rock music radio stations.

To avoid losing credibility with these young audiences, the mainstream press felt compelled toward more skeptical journalism. That dynamic created openings for major newspapers to challenge serious government wrongdoing, as in the Watergate scandal, or to disclose government lies, as in the Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War.

But Left funders made a number of fateful decisions at this turning point, essentially forsaking the national media advantage for a strategy of “grassroots organizing” or direct action, such as buying up endangered wetlands or feeding the hungry.

Simultaneously, the Right’s funders began investing heavily in media, launching what conservatives called the “war of ideas,” which was actually a struggle to control the flow of information to the American people.

The Vietnam-era dynamic was reversed. Progressive media shriveled into near irrelevance, while the conservative media expanded rapidly, with well-financed outlets in magazines, newspapers, radio, books, television and eventually the Internet. [For details on this process, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

The Right’s growing ability to get its message to Americans where they work, commute and live allowed conservatives to broaden their political base even among Americans who were harmed financially by the Right’s policies. Ironically, media proved very valuable in advancing the Right’s “grassroots organizing” especially in areas that lacked much media diversity, i.e. the Red States.

Despite this evidence of a link between media and organizing, the Left’s funders refused to shift priorities. As if following a dogma that didn’t change regardless of the circumstances, many progressive leaders kept calling for more “grassroots organizing,” even in the face of political debacles in the 1980s and 1990s, through the disastrous elections of 2002 and 2004.

That is only now beginning to change because one of the few bright spots for the American Left in recent months has come from the emergence of progressive talk radio on the AM dial. The programming is based on content from Air America Radio and Democracy Radio, which arose despite the opposition of major liberal funders, many of whom predicted failure for these radio outlets.

2. Beware an emphasis on “media reform.”

As progressive radio has grown and rank-and-file liberals have caught on to the value of having aggressive media, some Left funders have retreated to a new position, investing in “media reform.”

But the danger of this emphasis is that “media reform” often boils down to another way to do “grassroots organizing,” only aimed at placing demands on existing media outlets to do a better job or on the Bush administration to change its communications policies.

So, instead of concentrating on building independent TV outlets, bolstering progressive talk radio or supporting cash-starved Internet and print outlets, key progressive organizations are spending money on campaigns to “save PBS/NPR” or to urge the Federal Communications Commission to restore the “fairness doctrine” in broadcasting.

But this organizing strategy is doomed to fail because the campaigns can’t, in themselves, solve the larger problem of conservative dominance over U.S. politics and media. Neither petition drives nor demonstrations outside PBS stations will change the fact that PBS is morphing into a high-brow version of Fox News.

The Republican-controlled Corporation for Public Broadcasting keeps layering on more and more overtly conservative PBS shows, such as programs featuring Republican pundit Tucker Carlson and the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Meanwhile, the CPB’s demand for “fair and balanced” reporting is seen within the PBS network as a codeword for avoiding anything that offends the Right. If self-censorship doesn’t do the trick, then politically attuned ombudsmen will finger offending journalists.

Even premier PBS programs, like the documentary series Frontline, are tailoring their content with one eye on what might draw complaints from the right-wing pressure groups or from the White House.

For instance, Frontline’s special last fall on the two presidential candidates showed no skepticism when dealing with Bush’s conversion to born-again Christianity. Frontline accepted the sincerity of Bush’s politically convenient discovery of old-time religion. [For a contrasting view, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s ‘Elmer Gantry’ Politics.”]

Meanwhile, Frontline portrayed Sen. John Kerry as a communist dupe for his initiatives to promote peace in Central America in the 1980s. The show also skipped over Kerry’s groundbreaking investigation of cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan contra rebels, a topic that would have raised the ire of Republicans if Frontline had explained how the CIA’s inspector general had confirmed Kerry’s findings in 1998. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Kerry’s Contra-Cocaine Chapter.”]

This ongoing dynamic inside PBS is comparable to what happened in the cable news networks, the so-called “Fox Effect,” as programmers increasingly followed the news judgment and tone of Fox News.

One of the consequences was the failure of the U.S. news media to examine Bush’s case for war with Iraq. While Fox and other conservative outlets acted as cheerleaders, mainstream reporters tried to avoid the career damage that could come from being viewed as insufficiently patriotic. Now, more than 1,700 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead.

“Media reform” – in the sense of demanding better performance by the mainstream media or more openness from the Bush administration – will do little to improve the situation. The only meaningful “media reform” at this point is to “build media.”

3. Put media where it makes the most sense.

There are some logical places to put media outlets, but San Francisco isn’t one of them.

Even as Left funders have denied money to many promising media projects, progressives have disproportionately invested what little money they have in the San Francisco area.

As pleasant as that part of the country is, it makes little sense for a national news operation, let alone many of the biggest ones on the Left: from Mother Jones to Salon.com to Alternet to Moveon.org as well as many media-support organizations.

For starters, San Francisco is three hours behind the news centers of Washington and New York. That reduces chances of getting editors and journalists on national TV programs or for having them attend events in Washington.

That means there are fewer opportunities to speak with other journalists or meet policymakers, an important way for ideas to spread among the nation’s opinion-makers or for reporters to pick up news tips.

By putting so much of its media in San Francisco, progressives also invite a conclusion that it’s more important for them to take weekend trips to wine country or hike among the redwoods than it is to slug it out in the political trenches of Washington.

In contrast, the Right has grasped the value of putting its media overwhelmingly in the East Coast news centers. For instance, the American Spectator was told by its funders to pull up stakes in Indiana and move to Washington, where it has since played an important role in bedeviling the Democrats, especially during the Clinton administration.

While Washington and New York may make the most sense for where to place media investments, an argument could be made for cities in Middle America, such as Chicago or Memphis or Fargo, N.D., where progressive radio talk show host Ed Schultz is based.

But San Francisco has few of the advantages of either the East Coast power cities or Main Street USA locations.

4. Concentrate on information over opinion.

As the old saying goes, opinions are a dime a dozen because everyone has one. But information is powerful, as should be apparent following the disclosure of the leaked British documents on the Iraq War, including the so-called Downing Street Memo.

The revelation of the cynical internal discussions between London and Washington over how best to manipulate their respective publics into war with Iraq has changed the nature of the war debate. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “LMSM – the Lying Mainstream Media” or “Mocking the Downing Street Memo.”]

Under pressure from Internet bloggers and some anti-war Democrats, the mainstream media has been forced into a corner. Unable to continue just ignoring the documents, some newspapers have put the information on their front pages while others – like the Washington Post – have lashed out over having their news judgments questioned.

While the Downing Street Memo is a reminder of how information can crystallize a political debate, the American Left has very little capacity for generating information on its own. Indeed, progressives are largely dependent on the mainstream news media for revealing information.

Independent investigative journalism is one of the areas most neglected by the Left funders.

Responding to suggestions from Consortiumnews.com readers that we expand our operation beyond what can be supported by small donations, we approached more than 100 wealthy individuals and foundations this past year, seeking support for a modern-day version of Hersh’s Dispatch News.

The idea was to put seasoned investigative journalists at work digging out important information in areas that were either ignored or underreported by the mainstream news media. But not a single one of these funders agreed to support the plan.

5. Don’t view the Internet as a panacea.

I’ve heard some progressives argue that the Internet, virtually alone, can solve the media imbalance. Some even feel that it’s enough to post raw documents on the Internet so citizens can read through the material and reach their own conclusions.

But those viewpoints misunderstand the way media works. While the Internet can be an important part of a solution to America’s media dilemma, it can’t work alone. Professionals are needed to ferret out documents, spot what’s especially important and make the information comprehensible to the average reader.

For instance, when the Central Intelligence Agency issued its reports on contra-cocaine trafficking in 1998, many facts were disclosed but often without context. Very few Americans could be expected to understand who the various players were and how they connected to senior levels of the Reagan-Bush administration.

That’s where having journalists available who know the context can make the difference between losing an important chapter of American history or saving it. Because I was working on this Web site then and had covered the contra-cocaine issue in the 1980s, I was able to make sense out of many disparate pieces of information scattered throughout the CIA reports. [See Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]

Our work on the contra-cocaine issue bolstered reporter Gary Webb, who had lost his job at the San Jose Mercury News after writing the stories in 1996 that had forced the CIA’s investigation. But because our Internet site lacked sufficient clout, we were unable to put much pressure on the mainstream media to reexamine its dismissive attitude toward Webb’s reporting and the contra-cocaine issue in general.

If there had been a progressive media comparable to what the conservatives have built, it would have been much tougher for the mainstream media to essentially ignore the CIA’s startling findings. Webb’s journalistic career might have been salvaged – and he might not have killed himself last December. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.”]

Though the Internet may be one area where progressives have established a stronger presence than conservatives, the Right has deployed its Internet resources more effectively by using them as part of a multi-layered media strategy.

Conservative Internet sites introduce attacks that then get amplified by other conservative media – talk radio, newspapers, cable TV – and are forced into the mainstream media.

Most memorably, right-wing activists leaked to Matt Drudge and his Internet site some facts about President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House aide Monica Lewinsky in 1998. Then, other conservative outlets pushed the story, driving it quickly into the mainstream media.

Similarly, in 2004, conservative Web sites questioned the authenticity of memos that had appeared in a CBS “60 Minutes” story about George W. Bush’s National Guard duty. With the help of right-wing talk radio and Fox News, that story, too, penetrated into the mainstream news media and led to the dismissals of four CBS producers (although it never was proven that the memos were forgeries).

The vastness of the right-wing echo chamber essentially lets information or propaganda be inserted at any point among the varied media outlets. The entry could be from a book (such as the attacks on John Kerry’s war record) or in newspapers or on talk radio or on cable news – before the material starts reverberating.

Soon, mainstream news outlets are joining in the media frenzy – fearing accusations of “liberal bias” if they don’t.

Progressives simply lack any comparable media infrastructure for generating or distributing original news whether from the Internet or anywhere else. Indeed, mostly the Left’s limited media distributes news that is produced by the mainstream media or – as in the case of the Downing Street Memo – the foreign press.

So, while some liberal funders have come around to recognizing the value of media, they are still inclined to support “organizing” around media, rather than “building media” that can produce important information on its own and get it to the American people.

Pending a change in those priorities, it will remain up to individual small donors and journalists working largely on their own time to do the best they can.


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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