The Left's Media Miscalculation
by Robert Parry
consortiumnews.com, April 29,
To understand how the United States got
into today's political predicament - where even fundamental principles
like the separation of church and state are under attack - one
has to look back at strategic choices made by the Right and the
Left three decades ago.
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 priorities.
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 "liberal bias."
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
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 Robert Parry's 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 Reagan-Bush policies.
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 theoretical.
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
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 best-seller lists.
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 1993.)
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 Bush-Cheney."]
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 of
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 their careers.
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
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
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 resources.
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
When media activist Carolyn Kay presented
a comprehensive 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
"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 now."
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 against Bush.
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
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
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 toward extinction.
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
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.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty
from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com.
It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost
History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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