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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.