From the Archives:
The Left's Media Miscalculation
Editor’s Note: More than four years ago, with George W. Bush near the height of his power, we published this article about how the Right had achieved a political ascendancy that had little correlation to the merits of its actions or its ideas.
Though the political situation has changed since then – in part because of Bush’s undeniable blunders, from Hurricane Katrina to open-ended wars – the Right continues to wield power beyond all reason in large part because of its media clout, a situation that the Left contributed to with its “media miscalculation”:
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 ire.
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 Ronald Reagan’s 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 sites.
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.
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 our book, Neck Deep.]
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 Preemption.”]
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 journalism.
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 and candidates.
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 goals.
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, 2005, saying, “Just to be direct and frank, we have no immediate plans to pursue funding for media …
“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 (2004-05), 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 storyline.
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 ally.
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 to failure.
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 latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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