In the mid-1970s, after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam
and President Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal,
American progressives held the upper-hand on media. Not only had the
mainstream press exposed Nixon’s dirty tricks and published the Pentagon
Papers secrets of the Vietnam War, but a vibrant leftist “underground”
press informed and inspired a new generation of citizens.
Besides well-known anti-war magazines, such as
Ramparts, and investigative outlets, like Seymour Hersh’s Dispatch News,
hundreds of smaller publications had emerged across the country in the
late 1960s and early 1970s. Though some quickly disappeared, their
influence shocked conservatives who saw the publications as a grave
political threat. [For details, see Angus Mackenzie’s Secrets: The
CIA’s War at Home.]
Conservatives felt out-muscled on a wide range of
public-policy fronts, blaming the media not only for the twin debacles
of Watergate and Vietnam but also for contributing to the Right’s defeat
on issues such as civil rights and the environment
At this key juncture, leaders of the Right and the
Left made fateful choices that have shaped today’s political world.
Though both sides had access to similar amounts of money from wealthy
individuals and like-minded foundations, the two sides chose to invest
that money in very different ways.
The Right concentrated on gaining control of the
information flows in Washington and on building a media infrastructure
that would put out a consistent conservative message across the country.
As part of this strategy, the Right also funded attack groups to target
mainstream journalists who got in the way of the conservative agenda.
The Left largely forsook media in favor of
“grassroots organizing.” As many of the Left’s flagship media outlets
foundered, the “progressive community” reorganized under the slogan –
“think globally, act locally” – and increasingly put its available money
into well-intentioned projects, such as buying endangered wetlands or
feeding the poor.
So, while the Right waged what it called “the war
of ideas” and expanded the reach of conservative media to every corner
of the nation, the Left trusted that local political action would
reenergize American democracy.
Some wealthy progressives also apparently bought
into the conservative notion of a “liberal bias” in the media and thus
saw no real need to invest significantly in information or to defend
embattled journalists under conservative attack. After all, over the
years, many mainstream journalists did appear allied with liberal
In the 1950s, for instance, northern reporters
wrote sympathetically about the plight of African-Americans in the Jim
Crow South. The anger of white segregationists toward that press
coverage was the grievance that sparked the first complaints about media
In one 1955 case, negative national coverage
followed the acquittal of two white men for murdering black teenager
Emmett Till, who supposedly had whistled at a white woman. Reacting to
the critical reporting on the Till case, angry whites plastered their
cars with bumper stickers reading, “Mississippi: The Most Lied About
State in the Union.”
War Over Journalism
The conservative refrain about “liberal bias” grew
in volume as mainstream journalists reported critically about the U.S.
military strategy in Vietnam and then exposed President Nixon’s spying
on his political enemies. The fact that reporters essentially got those
stories right didn’t spare them from conservative ire.
Progressives apparently trusted that professional
journalists would continue standing up to conservative pressure, even in
the 1980s as well-funded right-wing groups targeted individual reporters
and Reagan-Bush “public diplomacy” teams went into news bureaus to lobby
against troublesome journalists. [For details on this strategy, see
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
As those conservative pressures began to take a
toll on reporters at the national level, the progressives still
emphasized “grassroots organizing” and focused on more immediate
priorities, such as filling gaps in the social safety net opened by
With the numbers of homeless swelling and the AIDS
epidemic spreading, the idea of diverting money to an information
infrastructure seemed coldhearted. After all, the social problems were
visible; the significance of the information battle was more
In the early 1990s, when I first began approaching
major liberal foundations about the need to counter right-wing pressure
on journalism (which I had seen first-hand at the Associated Press and
Newsweek), I received dismissive or bemused responses. One foundation
executive smiled and said, “we don’t do media.” Another
foundation simply barred media proposals outright.
On occasion, when a few center-left foundations did
approve media-related grants, they generally went for non-controversial
projects, such as polling public attitudes or tracking money in
politics, which condemned Democrats and Republicans about equally.
Meanwhile, through the 1990s, the conservatives
poured billions of dollars into their media apparatus, which rose like a
vertically integrated machine incorporating newspapers, magazines, book
publishing, radio stations, TV networks and Internet sites.
Young conservative writers – such as David Brock
and Ann Coulter – soon found they could make fortunes working within
this structure. Magazine articles by star conservatives earned top
dollar. Their books – promoted on conservative talk radio and favorably
reviewed in right-wing publications – jumped to the top of the
While progressives starved freelancers who wrote
for left-of-center publications like The Nation or In These Times,
conservatives made sure that writers for the American Spectator or the
Wall Street Journal’s editorial page had plenty of money to dine at
Washington’s finest restaurants.
(Brock broke away from this right-wing apparatus in
the late 1990s and described its inner workings in his book, Blinded
by the Right. By then, however, Brock had gotten rich writing hit
pieces against people who interfered with the conservative agenda, from
law professor Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence
Thomas of sexual harassment, to President Bill Clinton, whose
impeachment troubles were touched off by one of Brock’s articles in
As the 1990s wore on, mainstream journalists
adapted to the new media environment by trying not to offend the
conservatives. Working journalists knew that the Right could damage or
destroy their careers by attaching the “liberal” label. There was no
comparable danger from the Left.
So, many Americans journalists – whether
consciously or not – protected themselves by being harder on Democrats
in the Clinton administration than they were on Republicans during the
Reagan-Bush years. Indeed, through much of the 1990s, there was little
to distinguish the hostile scandal coverage of Clinton in the Washington
Post and the New York Times from what was appearing in the New York Post
and the Washington Times.
The animus toward Clinton then spilled over into
Campaign 2000 when the major media – both mainstream and right-wing –
jumped all over Al Gore, freely misquoting him and subjecting him to
almost unparalleled political ridicule. By contrast, George W. Bush –
while viewed as slightly dimwitted – got the benefit of nearly every
doubt. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al
Gore v. the Media” or “Protecting
During the Florida recount battle, liberals watched
as even the Washington Post’s center-left columnist Richard Cohen sided
with Bush. There was only muted coverage when conservative activists
from Washington staged a riot outside the Miami-Dade canvassing board,
and scant mention was made of Bush’s phone call to joke with and
congratulate the rioters. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush's
Conspiracy to Riot.”]
Then, once five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme
Court blocked a state-court-ordered recount and handed Bush the White
House, both mainstream and conservative news outlets acted as if it were
their patriotic duty to rally around the legitimacy of the new
President. [For more on this phenomenon, see Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
The protect-Bush consensus deepened after the Sept.
11, 2001, terror attacks as the national news media – almost across the
board – transformed itself into a conveyor belt for White House
propaganda. When the Bush administration put out dubious claims about
Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, the major newspapers rushed
the information into print.
Many of the most egregious WMD stories appeared in
the most prestigious establishment newspapers, the New York Times and
the Washington Post. The New York Times fronted bogus assertions about
the nuclear-weapons capabilities of aluminum tubes that were really for
conventional weapons. Washington Post editorials reported Bush’s
allegations about Iraqi WMD as fact, not a point in dispute.
Anti-war protests involving millions of American
citizens received largely dismissive coverage. Critics of the
administration’s WMD claims, such as former weapons inspector Scott
Ritter and actor/activist Sean Penn, were ignored or derided. When Al
Gore offered thoughtful critiques of Bush’s preemptive-war strategy at
rallies organized by MoveOn.org, he got savaged in the national media.
[See Consortiumnews.com “Politics
Over those three decades, by investing smartly in
media infrastructure, the Right had succeeded in reversing the media
dynamic of the Watergate-Vietnam era. Instead of a tough skeptical press
corps challenging war claims on Iraq and exposing political dirty tricks
in Florida, most national journalists knew better than to risk losing
Many on the Left began acknowledging the danger
caused by this media imbalance. But even as the Iraq War disaster
worsened, the “progressive establishment” continued spurning proposals
for building a media counter-infrastructure that could challenge the
“group think” of Washington journalism.
One of the new excuses became that the task was too
daunting. When proposals were on the table in 2003 for a progressive AM
talk radio network, for example, many wealthy liberals shunned the plan
as certain to fail, an attitude that nearly became a self-fulfilling
prophecy as an under-funded Air America Radio almost crashed and burned
on take-off in March 2004.
Later, the argument was that a media infrastructure
would take too long to build and that all available resources should go
to oust Bush in Election 2004. To that end, hundreds of millions of
dollars were poured into voter registration drives and into campaign
commercials. But the consequences of the Left’s longtime media
disarmament continued to plague its preferred policies and candidates.
When the pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
sandbagged Kerry over his Vietnam War record, the conservative media
infrastructure made the anti-Kerry attacks big news, joined by
mainstream outlets such as CNN. But liberals lacked the media capacity
to counter the charges.
By the time the major newspapers got around to
examining the Swift Boat allegations and judged many to be spurious,
Kerry’s campaign was in freefall.
Similarly, there was no significant independent
media capability to quickly investigate and publicize voting
irregularities on Election Day 2004. Ad hoc citizens groups and
Internet bloggers tried to fill the void but lacked the necessary
Once Election 2004 was over, many progressive
funders found a new reason to put off action on a media infrastructure.
They said they were financially strapped from the campaign.
Though media issues were part of the post-election
post-mortem, actual media plans made little progress. The main
activities on the Left centered around arranging more conferences on
media and holding more discussions, not implementing concrete proposals
to actually do journalism and build new outlets.
There also was a new variation on the Left’s
three-decade-old emphasis on “grassroots organizing.” MoveOn.org
postponed action on media infrastructure in favor of rallying political
activists in support of Democratic legislative goals.
When media activist Carolyn Kay presented a
media reform strategy, MoveOn.org’s founder Wes Boyd responded with
an e-mail on April 24 saying, “Just to be direct and frank, we have no
immediate plans to pursue funding for media …
“Our efforts are focused on a few big fights right
now, because this is the key legislative season. Later in the year and
next year I expect there will [be] more time to look further afield.”
Kay e-mailed Boyd back, saying, “For five years
people have been telling me that in just a couple of months, we’ll start
addressing the long-term problems. But the day never comes. … Today it’s
Social Security and the filibuster. Tomorrow it will be something else.
And in a couple of months it will be something else again. There’s never
a right time to address the media issue. That’s why the right time is
Boyd’s April 24 e-mail – calling the idea of
addressing the nation’s media crisis as wandering “afield” – is typical
of the views held by many leaders in the “progressive establishment.”
There is no sense of urgency about media.
Still, MoveOn’s blasé attitude may be even more
surprising since the organization emerged as a political force during
the media-driven impeachment of President Clinton. It also watched as
Gore’s MoveOn-sponsored, pre-Iraq-War speeches were trashed by the
national news media, reinforcing his decision to forego a second race
Indeed, one point many on the Left still fail to
appreciate is how much easier it would be to convince a politician to
take a courageous stand – as Gore did in those speeches – if the
politician didn’t have to face such a hostile media reaction. Already
the growth of “progressive talk radio” – on the AM dial in more than 50
cities – appears to have boosted the fighting spirit of some
congressional Democrats. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Mystery
of the Democrats’ New Spine.”]
At Consortiumnews.com over the past year, we have
approached more than 100 potential funders about supporting an
investigative journalism project modeled after the Vietnam-era Dispatch
News, where Sy Hersh exposed the My Lai massacre story. Our idea was to
hire a team of experienced investigative journalists who would dig into
important stories that are receiving little or no attention from the
mainstream news media.
While nearly everyone we have approached agrees on
the need for this kind of journalism and most praised the plan, no one
has yet stepped forward with financial support. Indeed, the expenses of
contacting these potential funders – though relatively modest – have put
the survival of our decade-old Web site at risk.
Which leads to another myth among some on the Left:
that the media problem will somehow solve itself, that the pendulum will
swing back when the national crisis gets worse and the conservatives
finally go too far.
But there is really no reason to think that some
imaginary mechanism will reverse the trends. Indeed, the opposite seems
more likely. The gravitational pull of the Right’s expanding media
galaxy keeps dragging the mainstream press in that direction. Look
what’s happening at major news outlets from CBS to PBS, all are drifting
to the right.
As the Right keeps plugging away at its media
infrastructure, the pervasiveness of the conservative message also
continues to recruit more Americans to the fold.
Ironically, the conservative media clout has had
the secondary effect of helping the Right’s grassroots organizing,
especially among Christian fundamentalists. Simultaneously, the
progressives’ weakness in media has undercut the Left’s grassroots
organizing because few Americans regularly hear explanations of liberal
goals. But they do hear – endlessly – the Right’s political storyline.
Many progressives miss this media point when they
cite the rise of Christian Right churches as validation of a grassroots
organizing strategy. What that analysis leaves out is the fact that the
Christian Right originally built its strength through media,
particularly the work of televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
What the Right has demonstrated is that media is not the enemy of
grassroots organizing but its ally.
Bright Spots & Dangers
Though there have been some recent bright spots for
the Left's media – the fledgling progressive talk radio, new techniques
for distributing documentaries on DVD, and hard-hitting Internet blogs –
there are also more danger signs. As the Left postpones media
investments, some struggling progressive news outlets – which could
provide the framework for a counter-infrastructure – may be headed
Just as the echo chamber of the Right’s
infrastructure makes conservative media increasingly profitable, the
lack of a Left infrastructure dooms many promising media endeavors to
The hard truth for the Left is that the media
imbalance in the United States could very easily get much worse. The
difficult answer for the progressive community is to come to grips with
this major strategic weakness, apply the Left’s organizing talents, and
finally make a balanced national media a top priority.