consortiumnews.com

Five Days Left

By Robert Parry
June 16, 2006

Some e-mailers and friends have asked why I didn’t attend some of the recent progressive conferences – like “Take Back America” or the “Yearly Kos Convention” – where media was on the agenda. The short answer is that I have been to progressive meetings in the past where media was discussed – and almost nothing gets done.

As the Right has built up a vertically integrated media infrastructure that stretches from newspapers, magazines and books to talk radio, cable news and well-funded Internet sites, wealthy liberals mostly have sat on their hands. Even now, as the Right expands that infrastructure horizontally down to state, district and local levels – with ominous portents for Election 2006 – well-heeled liberals remain mostly passive.

And this pattern has been going on for years.

In the 1990s – after I left Newsweek over internal battles about what I viewed as the magazine’s mis-reporting of the Iran-Contra Affair – I talked to executives of leading liberal foundations about the desperate need for building honest media in America. I often got bemused looks. One foundation bureaucrat laughed and announced, “Oh, we don’t do media.” Another liberal foundation actually banned media-related proposals.

It’s as if American liberals and possibly some tribe in Borneo are the only groups on earth who don’t understand the transformational power of media. Even in the Middle East, generally considered backward on the development of modern media, people have gotten the media idea. Al-Jazeera satellite news network changed the frame of debate in the region by showing news from an intensely Arab perspective.

In the United States, conservatives, who are sometimes viewed as old-fashioned or behind the curve, essentially reshaped American politics by harnessing right-wing foundations to the yoke of financing media infrastructure. Pulling in tandem, too, was South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, who altered the tone of Washington debate by creating a right-wing propaganda outlet called the Washington Times.

Next came conservative talk radio which reached out to millions of Americans across the country and made the word “liberal” synonymous with weakness, treason, immorality and anti-Americanism.

After Election 1994, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the Republican congressional class, which began an uninterrupted reign of GOP control of the House of Representatives, once considered a Democratic bastion.

As Republicans hailed Limbaugh as their “national precinct chairman,” the chief response from Democrats was that Americans should turn off their radios.

Fox News Effect

Then, conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, making it a forum for every conceivable assault on President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Fox News also created an environment that pulled the mainstream networks further to the right, as journalists fretted over the career damage if they got tagged with the “liberal” label.

Indeed, in the treatment of Clinton during his presidency and Gore during the pivotal Election 2000, it was difficult to distinguish between the hostility from the right-wing media and the venom from the mainstream media. Yet, wealthy liberals – including many who made their fortune in the entertainment media – just couldn’t get their brains around the need to build strong media outlets for honest journalism.

There were always reasons why that couldn’t happen. One plan was too ambitious; another plan wasn’t ambitious enough.

Other times, perfection became the enemy of the good. There were esoteric debates about how media outlets should maintain their purity by not taking commercials, even though that guaranteed that under-funded operations couldn’t pay professional salaries or achieve necessary technical standards.

Or there were self-absorbed discussions about how liberals don’t need media the way conservatives do because liberals are more free-thinking. Or there was the defeatism about how liberal talk radio couldn’t succeed. Some activists even thought one answer was to get Americans to stop watching TV (after all, the strategy to get Americans to turn off their radios had worked so well).

There was also a strange embarrassment on the Left about the importance of money in achieving what needed to be done. The reason we put the word “consortium” in our title was to stress our view that the only hope for achieving the honest media needed to address America’s political crisis was to pull together substantial resources for building strong media outlets and producing quality journalistic content.

But whenever I’d attend one of those progressive conferences, I left with the feeling that the people who had the money were not serious about doing anything with it, at least not on media. Or maybe they just didn’t see media as all that important.

Even in the past year when some liberal foundations have told me that “oh, we now get the media thing,” what they really wanted to do with their money was put it into activism on media issues, such as organizing demonstrations to oppose funding cuts at PBS.

When I spoke to two foundation officials a year ago and made my pitch for the need to support journalistic “outlets and content,” one of them responded, “oh, those are just words.” What they decided to do with their money was to support “media reform,” i.e. organizing around media issues.

After this year’s “Take Back America” assemblage of liberal activists had ended in Washington, I sat down with a West Coast friend who had attended the conference. He had been there pushing the need for investments in media and had concluded, “All they care about is organizing.”

Our Web Site

As for us at Consortiumnews.com, we began this Web site in 1995 with the goal of compiling a truthful record of what happened to the United States during the Cold War and the post-Cold War period.

In my years with the Associated Press and Newsweek – as one of the original reporters digging out the Iran-Contra scandal – I had seen the power and importance of bringing real information to the American people.

So, too, had propagandists on the Right, including a new group of sophisticated operatives known as the neo-conservatives. With their Ivy League degrees and their high-level connections in the media-political world, the neo-conservatives could reach into major news organizations, like Newsweek where their views were shared by Editor Maynard Parker and other senior executives.

At Newsweek, my insistence that the Reagan-Bush White House was engaged in a systematic cover-up of Iran-Contra crimes put me on Parker’s wrong side and eventually led to my departure in summer 1990. (It would be revealed after I left that, indeed, the White House had been covering up the roles of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President/President George H.W. Bush).

By then, it also was clear to me that the mainstream media had become part of the problem. My son, Sam, suggested that I experiment with the Internet, then a new entrant in the media world. So, I cashed in my Newsweek retirement account and plowed the money into starting this Web site, which became Consortiumnews.com.

Our overriding goal was to create a counter-narrative for America based on solid reporting and historical record. We challenged the sloppy and self-congratulatory narratives that dominated the post-Cold War period.

In our view, the principle that a well-informed electorate was needed to sustain a democratic Republic had a troubling corollary:  that a propagandized population – especially one living in a heavily armed country dependent on the world’s resources – would be inclined toward authoritarianism and susceptible to military solutions dangerous both to its citizens and the rest of the planet.

We worked for five years – from 1995 to 2000 – amassing our counter-narrative and seeking funding to expand our operations. While I was proud of the important journalism that we published from reporters in the United States and around the world, I failed to convince enough people with substantial resources that what we were doing deserved their support.

In early 2000, therefore, I put the Web site on a part-time basis and took a good-paying job as an editor at Bloomberg News, a business wire service. One of my last stories before putting the Web site in mothballs was a detailed account of how the national news media – including the New York Times and the Washington Post – had made up bogus quotes for Al Gore to paint him as delusional and unfit for the Presidency. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media.”]

While we published intermittently during Campaign 2000, our work was limited by the fact that I was spending long hours at my paying job. Though it’s hard to say what would have happened if we and other independent outlets had the resources to cover the election campaign and the Florida recount battle, there’s a good chance the outcome would have been different.

Then, in 2002 and 2003, as the Bush administration led the nation toward war, we did what we could on a part-time basis, reporting troubling developments as the United States shifted more toward an authoritarian system of government. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Grim Vision.” and “The Politics of Preemption.”]

Revival

In spring 2004, I was persuaded by a couple of progressive entrepreneurs that the climate had changed and that wealthy liberals now “got the media thing.” I also wanted to write a book bringing together little-known information I had compiled on the political rise of the Bush Family.

So, I quit Bloomberg News to write Secrecy & Privilege. After completing Secrecy & Privilege (financed by cashing in my Bloomberg retirement account), I made the rounds of potential funders again. But, again, I encountered a wall of disinterest.

Still, I thought we might be able to demonstrate how valuable the Internet had become as a vehicle for disseminating honest journalism. We tried to transform Consortiumnews.com into an almost daily source of investigative-style reporting.

We helped blaze the trail for understanding Bush’s assault on American liberties. [See, for instance, “Bush’s Grimmer Vision” and “The End of Unalienable Rights.”] We challenged the conventional wisdom, too, on how the Middle East was presented to the public. [On the confrontation with Syria, for instance, see “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report” and “The Hariri Mirage: Unlearned Lessons.”]

Working on a shoestring and backed almost exclusively by small donors, we managed to survive and grow. In May, we recorded more than a quarter million “unique visitors” and our stories also were re-posted at hundreds of blogs and Web sites across the Internet.

But we’ve had to struggle to raise even the small sums required for story costs and other operational expenses. Our current spring fund-raising drive, with the modest goal of $10,000, has raised only half that amount with only five days to go.

On the Sidelines

People with money have continued to sit on the sidelines, either because they feel they can’t accomplish much or because they hope that the U.S. mainstream news media will magically start doing its job again.

Ironically, many of the people who could make the biggest difference in solving the media crisis have amassed their fortunes in the media. They have names like Turner, Spielberg, Streisand, Reiner, Lear, Clooney.

Some have even bemoaned the state of American journalism. CNN founder Ted Turner, for instance, has lamented his decision to sell his breakthrough cable news network to Time-Warner and its subsequent decline into a boring conveyor of conventional wisdom. But there’s no reason that Turner couldn’t put his billions of dollars to use creating a new version of CNN.

Producer Steven Spielberg has created moving cinematic tributes to the brave generation of Americans who turned back fascist totalitarianism across the globe. He could invest some of his money in news outlets that would stand up for the Constitutional freedoms for which so many of those Americans gave their lives.

Actor George Clooney produced a compelling film about Edward R. Murrow and other newsmen of the 1950s standing up to the bullying of Sen. Joe McCarthy. But Clooney could help create ways for honest journalists of this generation to do their work and uphold the principles that Murrow embodied.

In the meantime, we are trying to raise $5,000 in the next five days.

[For more on the importance of bringing money into a new news media, see Brent Budowsky’s essay at the Huffington Post, entitled “From the Desk of Jerry Maguire.”]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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