Solving the Media Puzzle
by Robert Parry
consortiumnews.com, May 14, 2005
American progressives finally are taking
seriously the threat posed by the U.S. news media's swing to the
right, which - perhaps more than any other factor - has transformed
the U.S. democratic process into a mess of disinformation, fear
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 complicity.
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 some suggestions:
'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
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 public.
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 way.
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 conservative-defined "balance."
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
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
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
So the starting point must be to build
that independent media.
Second, invest both in existing outlets
and in new ones.
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 media outlets.
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 well.
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
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
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.
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
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 story.
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 project started.
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
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"
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.
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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