The Democrats' Tiny Megaphone
By Robert Parry
February 9, 2006
Kerry says a key reason that the Democratic political message seems so
muddled to many Americans is that Democrats have a smaller “megaphone”
than the one wielded by the Republicans and their conservative allies.
“Our megaphone is just not as large as their
megaphone, and we have a harder time getting that message out, even when
people are on the same page,” the Massachusetts Democrat explained to
the New York Times for a story about the party’s missed opportunities
heading toward Election 2006. [NYT, Feb. 8, 2006]
While Kerry’s observation is undeniably correct –
when one considers Fox News, right-wing talk radio, well-paid columnists
and magazine racks weighted down by conservative publications – the
overarching question remains why Democrats and progressives haven’t
invested more in getting a competitive megaphone.
Wealthy progressives and liberal foundations can
match up almost dollar for dollar with conservative funders. But the
American Left has adopted largely a laissez-faire attitude toward media
infrastructure, while the Right has applied almost socialistic values to
sustain even unprofitable media ventures.
Indeed, the Right’s subsidizing of media may be the
most under-reported money-in-politics story in modern American history.
Many good-government organizations track the millions of dollars
contributed to candidates, but much less attention is paid to the
billions of unregulated dollars poured into media.
This imbalanced attention continues even though the
conservative media is arguably the most important weapon in the
Political “propaganda themes” – often coordinated
with GOP leaders – are distributed instantaneously across the country,
reaching into both rural and urban America with a repetition that gives
these messages a corroborative ring of truth.
The messages echo from talk radio to cable news to
conservative columnists who appear in the mostly pro-Republican local
newspapers. The themes then are reinforced in magazine articles and in
books that dominate the shelves of many American bookstores.
Over the past two decades, Republicans have
exploited this media capability with great deftness in consolidating
power across large swaths of the country, especially where there is
little media diversity (i.e. the Red States).
The Right’s megaphone is particularly decisive at
key moments when power is being conveyed – that is, before national
elections, when a Supreme Court nominee is facing confirmation, or when
the nation is poised to go to war. But it’s also there when
conservatives are working to consolidate their base or just rile up the
So, for instance, when the Senate was weighing the
nomination of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, the right-wing news
media – and much of the mainstream press – spent more time chastising
Democrats for supposedly making Mrs. Alito cry than they did explaining
Alito’s radical theories of the “unitary
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who often speaks
eloquently about the constitutional checks and balances that are under
assault from Alito’s theories, said he was swayed to vote for Alito
because so many West Virginians called to complain that the Democrats
had been mean to him during the confirmation hearings.
It’s doubtful, of course, that many West Virginians
actually watched the Alito hearings on television. But they surely heard
the spin given to the hearings on right-wing radio stations as they
drove to and from work.
Similarly, the right-wing media helped feed the war
fever that swept the United States in late 2002 and early 2003.
Anyone who questioned George W. Bush’s case for war
with Iraq was pilloried as un-American. Celebrities, such as the Dixie
Chicks and Sean Penn, were held up to ridicule. Former weapons inspector
Scott Ritter, who doubted the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction, was called a traitor.
Not surprisingly, most Democrats and much of the
mainstream news media quickly fell into line. Often, it was difficult to
distinguish between the pro-war coverage on Fox and the pro-war coverage
on MSNBC and CNN, as those two cable networks scrambled to “Out-Fox
Fox.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bay
of Pigs Meets Black Hawk Down.”]
On other occasions, the Right ties its themes to
the calendar, such as the ballyhooed “War on Christmas” that roiled the
chat shows in December and was cross-marketed with a book by Fox News
anchor John Gibson, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban
the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.
As absurd as it might be to think that the United
States doesn’t adequately honor Christmas – when the lavish celebration
lasts for a month – the “war on Christmas” theme agitated Christians
with the notion that they’ve become the victims of secularists, Jews and
other non-Christians. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Meaning of (the War Over) Christmas.”]
In essence, the right-wing media – a vertically
integrated machine reaching from books, magazines and newspapers to
radio, television and the Internet – has the power to make almost any
ludicrous notion seem real and threatening to millions of Americans.
The Right’s media infrastructure also offers
important secondary benefits to the conservative political movement.
Though right-wing media operations often aren’t
profitable themselves, they help create an environment in which
conservative writers and commentators get the publicity needed so they
can earn millions of dollars on books. That, in turn, guarantees that
the Right’s personalities are sought after by publishers focusing on the
By contrast, the Left’s neglect of a media
infrastructure has made liberal books a relatively hard sell with
publishers. Without the expectation of a buzz resonating through an
ideologically friendly echo chamber, the major houses are less eager to
take on left-leaning books or give liberal authors reasonable advances.
These cascading financial consequences eventually
mean that fewer liberal books are produced and bookstores end up
overstocked with conservative tomes. In that way, the right-wing
dominance of bookstores has become the print equivalent of the AM-radio
dial, with many more conservative messages than liberal ones.
Just as liberals have long avoided AM radio, some
now grit their teeth as they enter bookstores brimming with indictments
of liberals as traitors, idiots, bigots, perverts and people lacking in
civility. Less political Americans come away thinking that conservatives
must have more ideas and more facts than liberals do.
In the past year or two, there has been some
pushback from the Left, particularly the launch of Air America Radio
with a 24-hour broadcasting package that has allowed scores of stations
across the country to switch to a progressive talk radio format.
Low-budget Internet sites also have sprung up to challenge the Right’s
But what has been remarkable – considering the
stakes involved for American democracy – is that wealthy progressives
and major liberal foundations have mostly stayed on the sidelines,
avoiding a significant investment in media infrastructure.
A shortage of money almost doomed Air America on
takeoff and still limits its expansion, especially into the Red States.
The Left’s funders have continued a pattern that can be traced back to
the 1970s of focusing on “grassroots organizing” and “activism” instead
of building media outlets and producing journalistic content.
When liberal foundations do provide money for
media, it is often for “media reform,” which can be translated into
organizing around media issues.
So, the Left ends up financing petition drives that
demand President Bush appoint someone nice to run the Corporation for
Public Broadcasting or the Federal Communications Commission, when those
appeals are certain to have no effect.
Another consequence of the Right’s smart media
investments – versus the Left’s clueless approach – is that nearly
everyone at the national level in politics and journalism reacts to the
pressures that the conservative media brings to bear.
Though Bill and Hillary Clinton may have
popularized the concept of “triangulation,” it was a natural reaction to
the career dangers faced in Washington once the conservative media
became an intimidating force in the 1980s.
Intuitively, journalists began positioning
themselves to avoid being branded “liberal,” a label that could mean the
end of a promising career. National Democrats also tried to shield
themselves from taking the brunt of the Right media’s attack by giving
themselves some conservative cover.
Over time, rank-and-file Democrats grew furious –
or demoralized – over what they saw as the equivocation and
ineffectiveness of the party leadership. That, in turn, generated more
stories about Democratic divisions and indecision.
So, while Kerry has a point in noting that a key
weakness of the Democrats is the size of their megaphone, the more
pertinent question is: What is America’s liberal community going to do
[For more on the nation’s media dilemma, see
Left’s Media Miscalculation” or “Five
Pointers for a Left Media,” or read Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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