Challenging the Media Machine
Progressive Activists Demand Accuracy in Mainstream Media
by Norman Solomon
Mainstream news outlets are usually quite receptive to conservative
messages-and no institutions have taken better advantage of that fact than
think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute
and the Cato Institute. In recent years, according to the Nexis data base,
those three corporate-backed organizations have been among the four think
tanks that are most quoted and cited by major media in the United States.
Significantly, the other think tank in the top tier of media visibility,
the Brookings Institution, is widely regarded as "liberal" despite
the fact that Republicans hold key posts there. The resume of Brookings'
current president, Michael Armacost, includes stints as undersecretary of
state for the Reagan administration and ambassador to Japan under Bush.
The two most prominent analysts at Brookings, Richard Haass and Stephen
Hess, served in Republican administrations.
While lacking the enormous financial resources of pro-corporate think
tanks and the hospitality accorded those think tanks by the big media, progressives
could do a better job of asserting themselves in the media fray. Although
outfits like Heritage and Cato enjoy some overwhelming advantages that are
denied to progressives-including a lot of money and numerous allies in media
high places-there are also some large gaps due to inadequate strategic priorities
among progressives. Overall, we spend a much smaller proportion of our time
and budgets on assertive media work. (For example, the Heritage Foundation
devotes about 40 percent of its $29 million annual budget to some form of
Not all of the right's advantages in the propaganda wars are due to
objective conditions of money and media access. Progressives have tended
to self-marginalize by hanging back from fighting for space in mainstream
media or by doing a substandard job when we do fight for that space. The
left has lacked institutions that can engage in the kind of tenacious, day-in
day-out, ongoing media combat that has been a key element of right-wing
successes in shaping the bounds of public debate.
Getting the Fax Straight
Two years ago, I began to talk with some people about setting up an
organization to quickly challenge the latest media output of major think
tanks and to put forward progressive analysis of crucial issues. We named
the project the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA). In October 1997, IPA
opened its national office in San Francisco-and in April 1998 our media
office went into operation at the National Press Building in Washington,
During the spring and summer of 1998, IPA put out about 50 news releases-with
an emphasis on speed, clarity and assertive responses to breaking news.
We've taken on issues ranging from Social Security and welfare to global
warming, federal budget priorities and the U.S. missile attacks on Sudan
and Afghanistan. Sometimes we've contested specific claims by think tanks,
such as widely publicized reports urging privatization of Social Security.
Other times we've addressed events such as the nuclear bomb tests by India
and Pakistan. In all cases, we've tried to widen the customary center-right
debate by promoting the views of progressive scholars, researchers and activists.
Within a few minutes, IPA is able to distribute a news release-via "blast
fax" and e-mail-to more than 1,000 editors, reporters, columnists and
talk show producers around the country. (See IPA's web site- www.accuracy.org-for
examples of news releases and related information.) We follow up quickly
with an intensive blitz of phone calls to emphasize that the policy analysts
quoted in IPA news releases are available to be interviewed.
The media reactions to IPA's news releases have varied widely. Sometimes
the experts quoted in an IPA news release get few media calls; other times,
they're deluged. Overall, the trend is encouraging: the news releases are
leading to interviews and appearances in local, regional and national media
outlets. And IPA's media office is receiving more and more unsolicited calls
from journalists and producers looking for experts to interview on an array
After several months of full operation, IPA has logged some encouraging
successes. As a direct result of our media work, IPA communications director
Sam Husseini appeared live on ABC's "Good Morning America;" progressive
economist Mark Weisbrot appeared on the Fox News Channel; and numerous progressive
activists and academicians aired on other national cable TV outlets, in
addition to many local, regional and national radio talk shows. Our news
releases have resulted in quotes appearing in the New York Times, Newsday
and other daily papers, plus in articles by the Associated Press and other
These are small but crucial steps toward creating progressive institutions
that do consistent and effective media work. One thing that makes IPA unique
is that distinct from other valuable media projects- we do not let money
affect which issues we take on and which individuals or organizations we
promote for media visibility. In other words, IPA doesn't charge any of
the people or groups that we publicize.
IPA's "Roster of Experts"-over 250 people at this writing-have
agreed to be called upon on short notice to be interviewed in their areas
of expertise. Some are scholars; many are part of progressive organizations,
including former Resist grantees like the Center for Campus Organizing,
Dollars and Sense, and Political Research Associates. In any event, without
needing to satisfy paying clients, IPA can concentrate on trying to figure
out which perspectives and experts to promote in the news media at any given
It's only because of a few funders that IPA has been able to function
with appreciable resources. A "Public Interest Pioneer" grant
from the Stern Family Fund enabled me to found the Institute for Public
Accuracy. The Florence and John Schumann Foundation and an individual donor
made it possible for IPA to open its media office in Washington. The Arca
Foundation and Deer Creek Foundation recently gave us grants. For the long
run, it's essential that IPA widen its funding base.
Right now, the total budget of the Institute for Public Accuracy is
about one percent of the Heritage Foundation budget. Despite the huge gap
in financial resources, there are real possibilities for making a dent in
the right-wing media machine.
A straw in the wind: last August, the Baltimore Sun published an article
that I wrote, headlined "Foreign Funds Flow to U.S. Think Tank: Heritage
Foundation Mum on Ties to South Korea". The piece described the flow
of $1 million to the Heritage Foundation while that think tank testified
on Capitol Hill about U.S.-Korean relations without disclosing its financial
ties with the government in Seoul. The article also discussed the $13 million
that Asian corporations and wealthy donors have provided to Heritage's Asian
Studies Center in Washington over the past 15 years. In response, the Heritage
Foundation went ballistic.
When the article appeared on August 2 in the Baltimore Sun, and ran
in several other daily papers within the next few days, a vice president
of Heritage sent the offending newspapers a letter to the editor denouncing
me and the Institute for Public Accuracy. (We, in turn, responded with rebuttal
letters, which were printed as well.) Heritage also distributed a memo under
the heading: "Here is the Heritage Foundation's response to Mr. Solomon's
charges." And in a private letter to the Sun's editorial page editor,
the Heritage vice president charged that "Mr. Solomon . . . received
a large grant to conduct his jihad against Heritage."
But the truth is that the Institute for Public Accuracy has never been
concerned only with the Heritage Foundation. From the outset, we've been
working to challenge an array of powerful think tanks and the forces they
Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.
For more information or to support their work, contact: IPA, 65 Ninth Street,
Suite 3, San Francisco, CA 94103; institute@,igc. org; www. accuracy. org