As George W. Bush’s poll numbers sink to his
personal lows and the mainstream news media finally reports on the
Downing Street Memo, what political factors should get the credit for
these changes? And what are the lessons for the future?
As readers of Consortiumnews.com know, I have long
argued that the American liberals/progressives made a historic mistake
three decades ago when large funders decided to shift money away from
national media outlets. The idea was to concentrate on local grassroots
organizing and on direct activism, such as feeding the poor or buying up
Simultaneously, the Right made a different
strategic choice, investing heavily in national media – TV, radio,
magazines, newspapers, books and later the Internet. The Right leveraged
that infrastructure to intimidate political rivals and build broad-based
popular support, especially in rural areas which lacked media diversity,
i.e., the Red States.
Yet, despite the undisputed rise in conservative
political power since the mid-1970s, it’s remained a hard argument to
get liberal funders to reconsider their priorities.
It’s not that grassroots organizing isn’t worthy,
the argument for new priorities goes; it’s that a strong national media
is necessary for any political activism to succeed. It’s not that
feeding the poor or buying wetlands isn’t admirable; it’s that
short-changing media has cleared the way for policies that have made
more people poor and put more wetlands in harm’s way.
One can point to plenty of examples where a smart
investment in media has paid huge dividends. Even the Arab world – not
known for the free flow of information – has shown how media can
transform the political dynamics of a region, with the founding of al-Jazeera,
which has been followed by other Arabic-language news channels.
But, inside the United States, there was no way to
test the theory that progressive media could have a similar impact
because the outlets that did exist lacked sufficient reach to the
public. The only test was a negative one, by gauging the clout that Rush
Limbaugh, Fox News and many other right-wing outlets brought to
With the emergence of “progressive talk radio,”
however, there’s now some basis to make an assessment.
Over the past several months, “progressive talk
radio” has expanded from a handful of cities to more than 50. From those
urban centers, the majority of Americans can now hear an unflinching
critique of Bush’s deceptions on Iraq and of his controversial policy
proposals, such as the plan to partially privatize Social Security.
On the AM dial now, listeners no longer hear only
verbal genuflecting before the mighty Bush or vitriol against those who
would question his greatness. Instead, there’s Air America’s Al Franken
calling Bush a “putz” or Democracy Radio’s Stephanie Miller applying the
l-word, as in “li-li-liar.”
These new AM stations have added their voices to what’s
already been there: irreverent anti-Bush Web sites, Comedy Central’s
satirical “Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” some struggling left-of-center
magazines, and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, whose daily news show airs
on a number of FM stations as well as on Link TV and Free Speech TV.
Surely, other political factors must be taken into
account, such as the grievous casualties from Iraq, the economic
pressures on working Americans and Bush’s bumbling public comments. But
those factors also were present during last year’s campaign when
millions of Americans believed Bush was “a regular guy” for whom they
were proud to vote, even against their own pocketbook interests.
Now, however, Americans are turning against Bush.
According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent
disapprove of how Bush is handling the presidency; 55 percent consider
him divisive; 58 percent say the Iraq War was not worth fighting; 65
percent see the U.S. as bogged down in the war; and 73 percent believe
the numbers of U.S. casualties are “unacceptable.” [Washington Post,
June 8, 2005]
Not only are many Americans coming to disagree with
Bush’s policies, they are concluding that they neither like nor trust
him. A critical mass seems to be forming of Americans who judge that
Bush is not on their side, that he duped them with his folksy style,
that he’s really a friend of the super-rich.
The expansion of progressive media – especially on
AM talk radio – seems to have emboldened Americans to speak out against
Much as the powerful conservative media and the
mainstream news media marginalized anti-Bush dissenters, especially
during the buildup to war in Iraq, now a counter-dynamic is taking hold:
Bush is no longer cool and indeed he seems to many to be a cross between
a dimwitted bully and a sneaky liar.
This new dynamic – with millions of Americans
turning to alternative media to get information – also has given the
mainstream news media some pause. After years of fawning pro-Bush
coverage, the mainstream press finds itself viewed by many Americans as
a bunch of sellouts.
The big media is beginning to respond to its loss
On June 8, USA Today felt obliged to explain the
mainstream media’s reluctance to publicize the leaked Downing Street
Memo, which described a July 23, 2002, meeting between British Prime
Minister Tony Blair and his foreign policy advisers as they discussed
Bush’s determination to invade Iraq.
“Intelligence and facts were being fixed” around
Bush’s war plans, said the memo, which was first published by the London
Sunday Times on May 1, 2005. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s
Bush, With the Candlestick” or “For
Bush, Iraq Lies Are Fundamental.”]
USA Today said the memo “caused a sensation in
Europe,” while “American media reacted more cautiously.” USA Today noted
that no major U.S. newspaper put the story on Page One and “other major
media outlets, including the evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC,
had not said a word about the document before” June 7 when Bush and
Blair were asked about it at the White House. (The USA Today’s story on
June 8 also was its first reference to the memo.)
USA Today cited the role of Internet sites in
demanding attention to the memo. “Some activists who opposed Bush’s
decision to attack Iraq have been peppering editors with letters and
e-mails to push the media into more aggressive coverage,” the article
“We want what the Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton and
Star Wars stories have gotten: endless repetition until people have
heard about it,” said David Swanson, an organizer of Democrats.com,
according to the USA Today article.
Faced with new competition, some major newspapers
also seem to be growing a spine.
The New York Times, for instance, didn’t pull many
punches in its series, “Class Matters,” which argued that the American
class structure was hardening, with the poor and the middle class
falling behind the rich and the “hyper-rich.”
“The people at the top of America’s money pyramid
have so prospered in recent years that they have pulled far ahead of the
rest of the population,” the Times reported. “They have even left behind
people making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”
The article by David Cay Johnston reported that the
“hyper-rich” – the multi-millionaires in the top 0.1 percent of the U.S.
population – increased their average income by 250 percent since 1980,
far more than any other income group. The year 1980 represented the
start of the Reagan-Bush era, with its emphasis on tax cuts.
Meanwhile, since 1980, the share of the nation’s
income for the bottom 90 percent has declined, indicating that the class
separation between average Americans and the rich has been widening.
What was striking, however, was the fact that the
Times dared publish a series of articles that highlighted a core myth of
Reagan-Bush policies, that tax cuts are a tide that lifts all boats. In
recent years, major news outlets have shunned these types of stories to
avoid having the Right accuse them of “class warfare.”
Playing off the Times series, some left-of-center
writers took the opportunity to note that Bush has even had the temerity
to joke about his alliance with the super-rich. During a black-tie
fundraiser in 2000, Bush called his backers “the haves and the
have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base.”
With more and more information moving around the
Internet and bouncing along the air waves from progressive talk radio, a
small counter-echo chamber is taking shape. It amplifies both original
news stories and useful stories from the mainstream news media.
The results are already evident from the changed
tenor of Bush’s coverage.
But these charges are, without doubt, tentative.
They could easily reverse, especially if Bush and his supporters unleash
another round of war hysteria, as they did in late 2002 and early 2003.
If that happens, the strength and the determination
of the rising progressive media will be tested. Investment in media now
could prove crucial.
Already, however, results of the progressive media
experiment seem to show that the national distribution of information –
especially when it has an attitude – can go a long way toward
reinvigorating a democracy.
[For more on media, see Consortiumnews.com's "Solving
the Media Puzzle" or "The
Left's Media Miscalculation" or Robert Parry's
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise
of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]