The Dragon at the Gate: The Media Problem
Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?
John Milton, Areopagitica
Since the demise of "The Fairness Doctrine" in 1987, liberal and progressive opinion has almost completely disappeared from the broadcast media. Today, the mainstream media in the United States, once respected and envied throughout the world, has become a virtual propaganda ministry for the Bush Administration and the Republican Party. This is the compelling conclusion that an informed and unbiased observer must arrive at – a conclusion that is, in fact, reiterated by foreign journalists throughout the world.
Of course, the delusion of "liberal media bias" is promulgated by such individuals as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and David Horowitz. But that delusion is itself an invention of the right-wing propaganda mill, quite incapable of surviving critical scrutiny.
The unrelenting media spin against the Democratic party and its candidates is clearly responsible for the "election" of George Bush in 2000. (Of course, there were several independent factors which, had any been otherwise, would have resulted in a Gore victory. See "The Hijacked Election" ). And that spin continues to this day. For example, when Al Gore gave a major foreign policy speech in September, it was not broadcast by the network or cable channels. Nor was there conspicuous unbiased coverage in the print media. However, there was an abundance of denunciations by commentators and pundits. A sample: "dishonest, cheap, low, hollow" (Michael Kelly), "a disgrace – a series of cheap shots" (Charles Krauthammer), "an act of self-immolation" (William Bennett). And, of course, there were the usual irrelevant comments about Gore’s voice, posture and clothing, etc.
Similarly, as soon as a Democrat steps forward as a potential presidential candidate, he draws hostile fire from the media spinners: James Edward’s legal fees, John Kerry’s haircuts, Tom Daschle’s "whining," and so forth. In stark contrast, during the recent election, cable television covered numerous Bush campaign speeches, without critical commentary. And it seems that every time Bush’s helicopter lands on the White House lawn, CNN is there to cover it. (See Sam Parry, "The Politics of Pre-emption").
However, my purpose in this essay is not to document and defend this indictment of American journalism. I have done so at length elsewhere. (See my "Following the Light," and The Press and Party Symbiosis and follow the links). Instead, I wish to deal with a more urgent and practical issue: how are we, the opponents of the Bush regime, to deal with the one-party propaganda mill that is the American media.
It is a daunting challenge, for unless and until the media problem is effectively dealt with, little else can be accomplished. The establishment media is the dragon guarding the gate through which we must pass if we are to achieve a restoration of our democracy.
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with the media problem.
The Russian Solution: In my frequent visits to Russia (the first three during the Soviet era), I came to appreciate how a media in the complete control of a totalitarian government can, by "over-reaching," utterly destroy its own credibility. Virtually all intelligent and educated Soviet citizens (including members of the official nomenclatura), depended upon the Western press, the BBC, and the Voice of America, for accurate and unbiased news, not only about the "outside world," but also about events inside the Soviet Union. Pravda and Isvestiya were widely regarded as acceptable solutions to the chronic toilet paper shortage, but otherwise of little value. Gostelradio was regarded with comparable contempt.
The communist media lost its credibility by reporting domestic "news" that was clearly contrary to the experience of ordinary citizens, and international news that was contradicted by evidence that filtered through the "iron curtain." In addition, Soviet news and commentary was self-contradictory, incoherent and shrill. The Soviet peoples (about half of them ethnic Russians), though soaked in propaganda, were by and large, no fools. Well educated, well-read, and all-too familiar with the cruel and devious ways of despotism, they eagerly sought reliable information, and found it in "foreign" publications and broadcasts, despite desperate government efforts to prevent access to these media.
And so, when Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the lid of repression with glasnost and perestroika, the lid blew off and the communist regime was swept away. (Ronald Reagan had little to do with it. Instead, credit is due to Gorbachev and the Soviet people). It was as if seven decades of total government control of education and the media had never existed. (For a fascinating conversation with some Russian students in 1995, see "What if American Loses its Voice?").
After several decades of Soviet propaganda, savvy Russians acquired an appropriate contempt for their media. Americans, on the other hand, are not used to a captive "quasi-official" media, since many of us can remember the blessed days of the free, independent and diverse press and airwaves – the days when the media were graced with such luminaries as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Scotty Reston, I. F. Stone, and Walter Lippmann. In contrast, today we are bombarded with outright lies and slanders (e.g.,the "Whitewater" non-scandal, Gore’s alleged claims to have "invented the internet" and "discovered Love Canal," the alleged Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, etc.), whitewashes and coverups (e.g., Bush’s drug abuse, his failure to fulfill his National Guard obligation, the Harken securities fraud, Cheney’s business dealings with Saddam, Bush Administration involvement with corporate scandals such as Enron and WorldCom, etc.), media distractions from important public issues with trivial non-stories (e.g., O.J., Jon Benet, Chandra/Condit, etc.).
The American media have provided us with an abundance of self-discrediting material. By way of retaliation, these derelictions must be collected, documented, archived, and then kept persistently in front of the public awareness until the mainstream media either clean up their act or lose their credibility.
Loss of credibility was the well-deserved fate of the Soviet media. The American corporate media today, in their present condition, deserve no less than this.
Look Beyond the Borders. This response to the media problem is directly suggested by "the Russian Solution." It is a simple and easily discernable fact: some of the most accurate news and intelligent commentary about American politics comes from foreign sources that are readily available through the internet. Correspondents from Canada, England, Australia, France, and elsewhere that are assigned to the United States are not constrained by the media conglomerates that own and control our news. So check out the foreign press at The Smirking Chimp, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, The London Independent, Le Monde, and so on. (Most foreign language sources have English editions). Send these media your messages of appreciation, and encourage them to present still more news for American readers. Let them know that we are aware that our media are failing us and that we are looking abroad for fair and accurate information. Who knows? Maybe the BBC or the CBC will set up a "Radio Free America" for us.
But above all, contact the American media and tell them that you have given up on them, and are looking abroad for your news sources. If the American media don’t clean up their act, we might evolve toward a situation similar to that in the Soviet Union, where discerning individuals ignored the state media, and looked to the Voice of American, Radio Free Europe, and the BBC for information about their own country. If such a condition becomes even a possibility, the American media, out of simple embarrassment, might attempt to restore some of its balance and integrity.
The remaining liberal voices. Of course, the American media are not a complete loss. Intelligent and informed dissent can be found in "the small magazines" such as The American Prospect, The Nation, The Progressive, and The Progressive Populist. All deserve support, and a subscription to any of these amounts to a cash contribution to the progressive movement. In addition, there are a few worthy columnists in the mainstream publications who struggle upstream against the rightward flow. They include Paul Krugman, E. J. Dionne, Michael Kinsley, Arianna Huffington, Eric Alterman and Joe Conason, among others They too should be supported with letters to their editors and publishers. Finally, there is the internet – "the last refuge of the liberal.".. We’ll have much more to say about the internet later in this essay.
The Boycott Option has been suggested by the readers of some progressive web sites. Here’s the drill: tune in to Fox News or Russert or Rush or whatever. Jot down the names of the sponsors, then tell said sponsors that you will not purchase their products as long as they support the wing-nuts. Frankly, while I am doubtful that this will do much good, it can’t do any harm. And who knows? It doesn’t take a flood of letters to make a difference. And if there is anything more important to the media folks than the party line, it’s the bottom line. The down side is that the "research" requires one to tune into right-wing cable or radio, and that’s asking a hell of a lot.
"Out-Foxing" the Right. Why not a progressive answer to Fox News? The idea has bounced around the progressive sites for several months, and is beginning to be heard now and then on the commercial media. While the Democratic party can’t match the GOP in campaign funds, it can nonetheless raise a tidy sum. Similarly, there surely must be numerous wealthy individuals who are acutely distressed at the direction this country is taking, and who might be persuaded to finance a progressive cable news channel. How about those "Hollywood left-wing celebs" (e.g., Streisand, Redford, Beatty, Baldwin, Sheen, among many others) that the right-wing pundits never tire of disparaging? Not only could they gather the necessary capital, but just imagine the talent that they could put on the screen! In addition, there must be a small army of talented journalists who either left or were forced out of the mainstream media, who would be eager to join the fight. Today, Bill Moyers is about the only remaining voice with uncompromising integrity still on network television. He deserves some company. Each day brings us closer to November 2004 and, with the continuation of an unanswered right-wing media, the re-election of George W. Bush. It is past time to get with it!
"Tactical Judo" and other schemes. Judo is the martial art that utilizes the strength of the opponent to one’s advantage. It has application to the media problem. Case-in-point: The Right has repeated ad nauseum the complaint that "you can’t trust the liberal media." That is a half-truth, which can be put to good use.. The truthful half is that "you can’t trust the media." The false half is that the media has a liberal bias. Very well, let’s take the truthful half and ride with it. The more the public believes that the media can’t be trusted, for whatever reason, the more the media will be motivated to restore its credibility by adhering once again to sound journalistic standards and practices.
Another approach: the media, having become ridiculous, should be ridiculed. Nothing will grab the attention of the mainstream media as much as a growing sense among the public that it is worthy of derision. A few artful lampoons of the work of such media whores as Bob Woodward, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Chris Matthews would go a long way toward discrediting the right-wing spin machine. Come to think of it, Darrell Hammond’s take on "Tweety" Matthews is an authentic hoot. Let’s have more of it. (For a hilarious sample of devastating satire, see David Podvin’s "Whacking Pickles").
The Outflanking Maneuver. By this I mean, of course, the Internet. The trends appear to be promising. Recently I heard on C-SPAN that one-third of the population gets its news from the Internet, and one quarter from Newspapers. (No statistic given on broadcast media). Furthermore, half of American households access the internet. The internet trend is up, and newspaper circulation is down. Add to this the fact that the audience to the TV networks continues to drop. As the numbers continue to move away from the commercial media and to the internet, the media may begin to get the message that it might not be good business to offend the half of the population that votes for the Democrats.
However, a word of caution is in order. As the progressive opposition uses the internet to increasingly good effect, it becomes ever more likely that the Bush regime will try to take it from us. There are moves afoot to "privatize" or otherwise control the internet. These moves must be vigorously resisted, all the while plans must be set in motion to move to new "underground" media, should the internet be lost to us. The eventually-victorious Russian dissidents set up a network of "samizdat" – unauthorized publication of typed documents – which the KGB could never shut down. In today’s "wired" age, the opposition has on hand far greater resources, such as copiers, computers, FAXes, etc. – as the Chinese government was to discover at the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, and the Soviet communists encountered in the August, 1991 coup.
In conclusion, it is not our task to slay the dragon at the gate. Instead, we must tame it. It is not necessary, desirable, or possible to transform the media into a mirror image of the right-wing propaganda machine that it is today. A return to the sort of media that put an end to McCarthyism, and later the Nixon Administration and the VietNam war, is all that is desired. We do not want control, only fair access and honest investigative reporting. Give the public informed and responsible reporting, the presentation of evidence, open debate, and full disclosure, and the public will take care of the rest.
As I have argued recently, the Bush regime, with the assistance of the corporate media, is taking our country in a direction that few should want to follow – toward oligarchy, despotism, ostracism in the world community, and economic collapse. Continuation of a one-party media is not in the interest of those who control and perpetuate that condition of the media. Whatever medley of tactics we adopt as we confront the corporate media, we must never abandon the simple approach of appealing to the conscience and ideals of the publishers, editors, and working journalists, and invoking the honorable tradition of the free press, the First Amendment, the "fourth estate" which the founders of our republic insisted were indispensable to the politics of a free people.
Even though the American media today are subverting our freedoms and leading us to oligarchy, despotism and economic ruin, we must deal with them more in sorrow than in anger. The media, with the power of the government they serve, can crush us in a moment if they perceive us as "the enemy." And yet they require an audience – "the public" – to exist, and that is our weapon. The progressive community should work with the media toward a restoration of the condition of honorable service to democracy and liberty, that had once made the American press the envy of the world.
Copyright 2003 by Ernest Partridge