As the Right has built up a vertically integrated
media infrastructure that stretches from newspapers, magazines and books
to talk radio, cable news and well-funded Internet sites, wealthy
liberals mostly have sat on their hands. Even now, as the Right expands
that infrastructure horizontally down to state, district and local
levels – with ominous portents for Election 2006 – well-heeled liberals
remain mostly passive.
And this pattern has been going on for years.
In the 1990s – after I left Newsweek over internal
battles about what I viewed as the magazine’s mis-reporting of the
Iran-Contra Affair – I talked to executives of leading liberal
foundations about the desperate need for building honest media in
America. I often got bemused looks. One foundation bureaucrat laughed
and announced, “Oh, we don’t do media.” Another liberal foundation
actually banned media-related proposals.
It’s as if American liberals and possibly some
tribe in Borneo are the only groups on earth who don’t understand the
transformational power of media. Even in the Middle East, generally
considered backward on the development of modern media, people have
gotten the media idea. Al-Jazeera satellite news network changed the
frame of debate in the region by showing news from an intensely Arab
In the United States, conservatives, who are
sometimes viewed as old-fashioned or behind the curve, essentially
reshaped American politics by harnessing right-wing foundations to the
yoke of financing media infrastructure. Pulling in tandem, too, was
South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, who altered the tone of Washington
debate by creating a right-wing propaganda outlet called the Washington
Next came conservative talk radio which reached out
to millions of Americans across the country and made the word “liberal”
synonymous with weakness, treason, immorality and anti-Americanism.
After Election 1994, radio talk show host Rush
Limbaugh was made an honorary member of the Republican congressional
class, which began an uninterrupted reign of GOP control of the House of
Representatives, once considered a Democratic bastion.
As Republicans hailed Limbaugh as their “national
precinct chairman,” the chief response from Democrats was that Americans
should turn off their radios.
Fox News Effect
Then, conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch
launched Fox News, making it a forum for every conceivable assault on
President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Fox News also created
an environment that pulled the mainstream networks further to the right,
as journalists fretted over the career damage if they got tagged with
the “liberal” label.
Indeed, in the treatment of Clinton during his
presidency and Gore during the pivotal Election 2000, it was difficult
to distinguish between the hostility from the right-wing media and the
venom from the mainstream media. Yet, wealthy liberals – including many
who made their fortune in the entertainment media – just couldn’t get
their brains around the need to build strong media outlets for honest
There were always reasons why that couldn’t happen.
One plan was too ambitious; another plan wasn’t ambitious enough.
Other times, perfection became the enemy of the
good. There were esoteric debates about how media outlets should
maintain their purity by not taking commercials, even though that
guaranteed that under-funded operations couldn’t pay professional
salaries or achieve necessary technical standards.
Or there were self-absorbed discussions about how
liberals don’t need media the way conservatives do because liberals are
more free-thinking. Or there was the defeatism about how liberal talk
radio couldn’t succeed. Some activists even thought one answer was to
get Americans to stop watching TV (after all, the strategy to get
Americans to turn off their radios had worked so well).
There was also a strange embarrassment on the Left
about the importance of money in achieving what needed to be done. The
reason we put the word “consortium” in our title was to stress our view
that the only hope for achieving the honest media needed to address
America’s political crisis was to pull together substantial resources
for building strong media outlets and producing quality journalistic
But whenever I’d attend one of those progressive
conferences, I left with the feeling that the people who had the money
were not serious about doing anything with it, at least not on media. Or
maybe they just didn’t see media as all that important.
Even in the past year when some liberal foundations
have told me that “oh, we now get the media thing,” what they really
wanted to do with their money was put it into activism on media issues,
such as organizing demonstrations to oppose funding cuts at PBS.
When I spoke to two foundation officials a year ago
and made my pitch for the need to support journalistic “outlets and
content,” one of them responded, “oh, those are just words.” What they
decided to do with their money was to support “media reform,” i.e.
organizing around media issues.
After this year’s “Take Back America” assemblage of
liberal activists had ended in Washington, I sat down with a West Coast
friend who had attended the conference. He had been there pushing the
need for investments in media and had concluded, “All they care about is
Our Web Site
As for us at Consortiumnews.com, we began this Web
site in 1995 with the goal of compiling a truthful record of what
happened to the United States during the Cold War and the post-Cold War
In my years with the Associated Press and Newsweek
– as one of the original reporters digging out the Iran-Contra scandal –
I had seen the power and importance of bringing real information to the
So, too, had propagandists on the Right, including
a new group of sophisticated operatives known as the neo-conservatives.
With their Ivy League degrees and their high-level connections in the
media-political world, the neo-conservatives could reach into major news
organizations, like Newsweek where their views were shared by Editor
Maynard Parker and other senior executives.
At Newsweek, my insistence that the Reagan-Bush
White House was engaged in a systematic cover-up of Iran-Contra crimes
put me on Parker’s wrong side and eventually led to my departure in
summer 1990. (It would be revealed after I left that, indeed, the White
House had been covering up the roles of President Ronald Reagan and Vice
President/President George H.W. Bush).
By then, it also was clear to me that the
mainstream media had become part of the problem. My son, Sam, suggested
that I experiment with the Internet, then a new entrant in the media
world. So, I cashed in my Newsweek retirement account and plowed the
money into starting this Web site, which became Consortiumnews.com.
Our overriding goal was to create a
counter-narrative for America based on solid reporting and historical
record. We challenged the sloppy and self-congratulatory narratives that
dominated the post-Cold War period.
In our view, the principle that a well-informed
electorate was needed to sustain a democratic Republic had a troubling
corollary: that a propagandized population – especially one living in a
heavily armed country dependent on the world’s resources – would be
inclined toward authoritarianism and susceptible to military solutions
dangerous both to its citizens and the rest of the planet.
We worked for five years – from 1995 to 2000 –
amassing our counter-narrative and seeking funding to expand our
operations. While I was proud of the important journalism that we
published from reporters in the United States and around the world, I
failed to convince enough people with substantial resources that what we
were doing deserved their support.
In early 2000, therefore, I put the Web site on a
part-time basis and took a good-paying job as an editor at Bloomberg
News, a business wire service. One of my last stories before putting the
Web site in mothballs was a detailed account of how the national news
media – including the New York Times and the Washington Post – had made
up bogus quotes for Al Gore to paint him as delusional and unfit for the
Presidency. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al
Gore v. the Media.”]
While we published intermittently during Campaign
2000, our work was limited by the fact that I was spending long hours at
my paying job. Though it’s hard to say what would have happened if we
and other independent outlets had the resources to cover the election
campaign and the Florida recount battle, there’s a good chance the
outcome would have been different.
Then, in 2002 and 2003, as the Bush administration
led the nation toward war, we did what we could on a part-time basis,
reporting troubling developments as the United States shifted more
toward an authoritarian system of government. [See, for instance,
Grim Vision.” and “The
Politics of Preemption.”]
In spring 2004, I was persuaded by a couple of
progressive entrepreneurs that the climate had changed and that wealthy
liberals now “got the media thing.” I also wanted to write a book
bringing together little-known information I had compiled on the
political rise of the Bush Family.
So, I quit Bloomberg News to write Secrecy &
Privilege. After completing Secrecy & Privilege (financed by
cashing in my Bloomberg retirement account), I made the rounds of
potential funders again. But, again, I encountered a wall of
Still, I thought we might be able to demonstrate
how valuable the Internet had become as a vehicle for disseminating
honest journalism. We tried to transform Consortiumnews.com into an
almost daily source of investigative-style reporting.
We helped blaze the trail for understanding Bush’s
assault on American liberties. [See, for instance, “Bush’s
Grimmer Vision” and “The
End of Unalienable Rights.”] We challenged the conventional wisdom,
too, on how the Middle East was presented to the public. [On the
confrontation with Syria, for instance, see “The
Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report” and “The
Hariri Mirage: Unlearned Lessons.”]
Working on a shoestring and backed almost
exclusively by small donors, we managed to survive and grow. In May, we
recorded more than a quarter million “unique visitors” and our stories
also were re-posted at hundreds of blogs and Web sites across the
But we’ve had to struggle to raise even the small
sums required for story costs and other operational expenses. Our
current spring fund-raising drive, with the modest goal of $10,000, has
raised only half that amount with only five days to go.
On the Sidelines
People with money have continued to sit on the
sidelines, either because they feel they can’t accomplish much or
because they hope that the U.S. mainstream news media will magically
start doing its job again.
Ironically, many of the people who could make the
biggest difference in solving the media crisis have amassed their
fortunes in the media. They have names like Turner, Spielberg,
Streisand, Reiner, Lear, Clooney.
Some have even bemoaned the state of American
journalism. CNN founder Ted Turner, for instance, has lamented his
decision to sell his breakthrough cable news network to Time-Warner and
its subsequent decline into a boring conveyor of conventional wisdom.
But there’s no reason that Turner couldn’t put his billions of dollars
to use creating a new version of CNN.
Producer Steven Spielberg has created moving
cinematic tributes to the brave generation of Americans who turned back
fascist totalitarianism across the globe. He could invest some of his
money in news outlets that would stand up for the Constitutional
freedoms for which so many of those Americans gave their lives.
Actor George Clooney produced a compelling film
about Edward R. Murrow and other newsmen of the 1950s standing up to the
bullying of Sen. Joe McCarthy. But Clooney could help create ways for
honest journalists of this generation to do their work and uphold the
principles that Murrow embodied.
In the meantime, we are trying to raise $5,000 in
the next five days.
[For more on the importance of bringing money into
a new news media, see
Brent Budowsky’s essay at the Huffington Post, entitled “From
the Desk of Jerry Maguire.”]