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
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
‘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
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
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
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
Second, invest both in existing outlets and in new
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!”]