What Liberal Media?

Democracy Media War and Peace

The title of this piece is ripped from Eric Alterman’s book of the same name (Basic, 2003), but it speaks to an issue that’s been gnawing at me for the past couple of weeks. And this is thanks to Danny Schechter, a.k.a., The News Dissector, and a recent discussion we had on his radio program (listen below). I wonder: where is the left, progressive media? Or, more acutely, what is the hydra-headed progressive media in this country, and how do liberals leverage its many assets and ambitions into a cohesive, message-making machine?

I recently met Schechter at Left Forum 2010 where he sat on a panel on media, Islam, and the “war on terror,” (see a note here) and sat with Mantle blogger JK Fowler for a quick interview (here). Left Forum 2010 was held over the seventh anniversary weekend of the American invasion of Iraq, and yet nary a peep was made on this point in the numerous discussions I engaged in or listened to throughout the event. Yet, Schechter was all riled up about the topic, and rightly so. (Where was the outrage!?) But Schechter was also disgusted and flabbergasted that there was no popular fury against mainstream media that was effectively complicit in selling the Iraq War in the first place, and one that continues to do so today.

A.N.S.W.E.R., the anti-war coalition, held a demonstration that same weekend in Washington, DC. As is par for the course, they marched toward the White House, shaking their fists and waving their placards, in a collective lament against violent foreign policy actions. And yet, Schechter pointed out, why didn’t these same demonstrators march against outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CBS, NBC, and the myriad of other complacent, news venues?

Calling it a necessary war of choice, NYT columnist Thomas Friedman in 2003 urged the U.S. (with international support) to embark on a preventive war to remove Saddam Hussein from office in order to establish a model, Arab, Middle East democracy.The editorial page of that tony paper was just as complicit: the mission of American soldiers was “transcendently clear,” the editors said, and “we are in this fight to bring freedom of speech to Iraq.” Meanwhile, anti-war activists’ favorite media target of the time, NYT reporter Judith Miller, sold the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” to the American public by printing whatever her trustworthy source, the oh-so honorable, power-hungry Ahmad Chalabi, fed her. (Aside: the new movie Green Zone does a decent job of replaying this farce). And this is just one newspaper!

Regarding the television networks, the news was/is even more distressing. According to a study about the on-camera coverage leading up to the 2003 invasion, Fair and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reported: “Among the major findings in a two-week study (1/30/03–2/12/03) of on-camera network news sources quoted on Iraq:

Seventy-six percent of all sources were current or former officials, leaving little room for independent and grassroots views. Similarly, 75 percent of U.S. sources (199/267) were current or former officials.
At a time when 61 percent of U.S. respondents were telling pollsters that more time was needed for diplomacy and inspections (2/6/03), only 6 percent of U.S. sources on the four networks were skeptics regarding the need for war.
Sources affiliated with anti-war activism were nearly non-existent. On the four networks combined, just three of 393 sources were identified as being affiliated with anti-war activism--less than 1 percent. Just one of 267 U.S. sources was affiliated with anti-war activism--less than half a percent.”

After the war commenced, nothing improved. Again, FAIR: “Nearly two thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war, while 71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war. Anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources, but just 6 percent of non-Iraqi sources and 3 percent of U.S. sources. Thus viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1.”

Ah! But none of this is new to those who pay attention to the media, and I am no media dissector. Check out Mediachannel.org, and FAIR’s website for more info in this arena. I’d like to take a different angle. A couple of questions came up during my interview with Schechter (below) that I’d like to bring up with The Mantle’s savvy audience.

Granted, there is a multitude a progressive media in the U.S.: Democracy Now!, GritTV, Free Speech TV and Radio, The Nation, Progressive magazine, ZNet, Alternet, Counterpunch, and on and on. The wide array of progressive outlets is exciting and inspiring… but is this disaggregation also the liberal media’s weakest characteristic? In other words, because the progressives in this country must resort to so many sources for news, is there a disconnect in media messaging across the Left? After all, there is no 24-hour, overarching liberal news outlet that aggregates information from the disparate progressive media; at the same time, this invisible, overarching news outlet cannot summarize, market and distribute progressive messages across the Left and to the rest of the country. (Think of a progressive version of the Associated Press.) The closest liberals in this country came to such a venue was the now defunct Air America radio, which, after failing to raise enough funds to keep running, closed down after just under six years.

Has another radio network stepped up to try and fill the void? Has another website made the push to be that progressive, national, trans-network voice? Hardly. Current TV, co-owned by Al Gore doesn’t come close. What? You’ve never heard of Current TV? Exactly. And Huffington Post… well, it’s a fun website with a lot of different voices and some serious cash backing, but with seemingly non-stop celebrity gossip stories streamed alongside more serious columns, it’s hardly a bastion of progressive media. Indeed, at 4:53pm today I logged onto the home page and saw that of the 80 or so articles highlighted on Huffington Post’s front page, there were zero—ZERO—stories on America’s two foreign wars!

And people on the Left love Huffington Post.

What are we to do about the lack of a concentrated, powerful progressive voice in American media? Does The Mantle’s readership have an idea? Is this a problem at all? Are there models in other countries we could follow? I am open to suggestions…


Take a listen my conversation with Danny Schechter below. Skipping to ~36:00 will provide a little context, before I come in at ~37:00.

Iraq, Journalism, Left Forum 2010