America's Political Spectrum
Signs of Life on the Left
by Eric Alterman
If you want to date the beginning of conservative domination of the opinion media, you could do worse than to pick Election Day 1964. That's when Richard Mellon Scaife, later joined by many others, figured out that it was pointless for wealthy conservatives to pour money into the coffers of conservative candidates like Barry Goldwater without first investing in their own form of media through which to communicate their ideas.
The multibillion-dollar conservative investment helped to create much of the media world in which we wallow today. Liberals are now grappling with a problem not unlike that facing the far right forty years ago: how to get one's ideas across through media that twist and distort them beyond recognition? It is hardly an academic question.
Just about the only thing liberals have going for them these days is that most Americans agree with them on the issues. This is partly due to the annexation of the Republican Party by its Taliban faction. It is also likely a product of the relative conservatism of today's liberals, present company included. Today, "liberal" is just another word for "not nuts." Don't go around invading countries that do not pose a threat and lie to the world to justify it; don't destroy the nation's fiscal health in order to give trillion-dollar gifts to the wealthy; don't gratuitously insult countries whose help we need to maintain world peace and security; don't shred the Constitution at every opportunity, etc., etc.
Why, then, if liberals are speaking little more than consensus common sense, do they seem to be in danger of political oblivion? Well, lots of reasons actually, but a big one is a right-wing opinion media that treats these principles as if they derived from The Communist Manifesto. Report on dissension about Iraq between Republicans and military men, and you're treated as the vanguard of the antiwar movement. Do the math on a tax cut geared to multimillionaires, and you've declared "class warfare." Mention that Bush is neglecting "homeland security" while bin Laden remains at large, and you're giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
The power of conservatives to control the discourse through biased media is only now beginning to dawn on liberals. Progressive politicians, activists and intellectuals once believed that all they had to do was make their case, and the media would faithfully pass it along to voters, who would judge the argument on its merits. Thanks to the "liberal media" fallacy, few seemed to notice that the world hasn't worked this way for a while. Don't forget that shortly after coming into office, Bill Clinton himself complained he did not get "one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press."
Well, at least that jig is up. If you run into Clinton these days, he's likely to bend your ear about the media's shameless affection for Bush & Co. (Hillary's belated "aha moment" apparently came with her discovery of the profoundly misnamed "vast right-wing conspiracy." If only she had known during the healthcare debate...) Today liberals are finally starting to take the first steps in the enormously expensive task of building their own media institutions.
MoveOn.org, the savviest progressive organization in recent memory, is brilliantly exploiting the communications potential of the Internet to bring pressure to bear on politicians, support progressive campaigns and raise money for the right causes. Its recent "presidential primary" is just one of the group's innovative ideas. Garlic & Grass, for its part, is one in a burgeoning multitude of progressive internet periodicals. Also, John Podesta, Clinton's much-admired former Chief of Staff, together with top former Gephardt aide Laura Nichols, is leading the effort to launch what is widely described as a "liberal Heritage Foundation" with a projected $10 million annual operating budget.
Meanwhile Al Gore, joined by Joel Hyatt, the founder of Hyatt Legal Services and a former Democratic candidate for Senate in Ohio, is in the process of tapping into his presidential support network to explore the possibility of forming a new liberal cable network. Given the daunting challenges involved before production can even begin -- including raising hundreds of millions of dollars and then obtaining carriage agreements with countless local cable systems -- he'll need all the help he can get if he is serious. So far he's getting some from Steve Rattner of Quadrangle and Stan Shuman of Allen and Co.
In addition, venture capitalists Sheldon and Anita Drobny have formed AnShell Media LLC to try to put together a national network of liberal talk-radio stations. They've hired Jon Sinton, who helped start Jim Hightower's nationally syndicated radio program in the 1990s, before Disney bought up the network that carried it and unceremoniously dumped the Texas populist from its programming. (Hightower had made CEO Michael Eisner's greed in the face of Disney's poor performance a frequent topic of discussion.) They also have comedian Al Franken on board. What's more, like Gore's, this effort reflects an understanding that a token liberal program sandwiched between conservative blowhards is bound to fail.
But the cost of starting a cable network and securing the local carriage deals is so vast as to be almost unimaginable. As for radio, the Drobnys are beginning with what they say is just a twentieth of the $200 million they'll need. And nobody's even certain liberals will respond or if we'll be any good at it. Moreover, when you think about the combination of Fox/Limbaugh/Hannity/O'Reilly/the Wall Street Journal/the Washington Times/Heritage/Hoover/Cato/CSIS--to say nothing of the colonization of the mainstream media by the conservative punditocracy--and then throw in the new FCC regulations that allow the likes of ideologically driven wing-nut outfits like Clear Channel and News Corp. to swallow even more of our means of communication, you have to be optimistic to the point of delusion to hope that liberals can even begin to level the playing field for the proponents of their ideas.
Then again, there really is no alternative. PNAC Republicans and their friends on the extreme right already controls all three branches of government and an increasingly significant percentage of the media the Constitution appoints to be their watchdog.
The "liberal media" is dead. Long live the liberal media.
Eric Alterman currently writes the "Stop the Presses" media column for The Nation and the "Altercation" web log for MSNBC.com.
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