An Idea to Reform the Media

Feb. 13, 2004

I have become convinced that progressives cannot win without reforming the media, no matter how much time or money we put into grassroots organizing or policy analysis. So what should we do?

Ultimately, of course, we’re going to need governmental solutions and leadership. We’re going to need to break up the media monopolies, open up opportunities for smaller companies, and provide free air time for political campaigns. We’ll have to place new caps on media ownership and ban the granting of exceptions to those caps, limit the number of media outlets one corporation can own in a given medium, strictly prohibit cross-ownership and vertical integration, greatly expand funding for public broadcasting channels on television and radio, allow not-for-profit groups to obtain low-power FM radio-station licenses, and encourage the development of new, community-based, noncommercial broadcasting outlets. We’ll also need to withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization, which media companies are currently lobbying for the creation of trade sanctions against countries that fund public broadcasting, limit foreign ownership of media, or establish standards for local content. For similar reasons, we’ll need to block US participation in the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

But none of this is about to happen. Were we able to persuade the media-selected Democratic presidential nominee to adopt this platform, such is the power of the media that we would be virtually sealing that candidate’s defeat.

Many progressive magazines are doing well on the internet and in print. Some progressive voices can be found here and there on the radio, and there are possibilities for expansion there. But what progressives are missing is not commentary or thoughtful analysis or in-depth reporting so much as daily written reporting. I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post today, but I’ve been tempted to do so ever since I first subscribed. Why did it take me so long?

In part, I wanted the local news about the DC area. Primarily I wanted the daily national and international news. I had no use whatsoever for the editorials or op-eds, and very little use for the bulk of the newsprint: advertising, classifieds, real estate, sports, cooking recipes, gossip, etc.

Even though I’ve subscribed to the Post, I’ve still gone to the BBC website for international news and often turned to the British press for news about the United States. I’ve checked the web for stories from various mainstream US news sources at least once a day as well. And I’ve spent more time reading articles/columns from progressive websites and magazines than I have with any of this daily news.

But I – like many people – want daily news. And it is daily written articles that set the agenda for the rest of the media. What we need, I think, is a daily news service that does not slant all of its news in favor of the corporate agenda. I am imagining a 24-7 news service available online and made available to print publications that does not include any commentary or opinion pieces, just straight news without the corporate slant.

Today the Washington Post printed two columns, one in the business section and one on the op-ed page, suggesting that the free-trade agreements that are driving jobs out of the country might not be all for the best. One of these columns focused on Senator John Edwards’ expressions of concern over job loss. Neither column suggested that any alternative to NAFTA or the WTO might be possible, much less that any presidential candidates had proposed any. These are the Post’s rebellious liberal opinion pieces, and they offer no course of action whatsoever.

These columns were made possible by the Post’s lack of reporting on the effects of “free trade” and virtual elimination of its least preferred political candidates from its news reporting. Today the Post reported on page A-10 on President Bush distancing himself from the claims of his chief economic advisor, N. Gregory Mankiw, who had claimed that the “outsourcing” of jobs to other countries is good for this one. “Several economists, including some Democrats,” the Post reported, “have defended Mankiw, a Harvard economist, for speaking the economic truth. But his remarks have become a political liability for the president.”

Thus the Post – not in its commentary, but in its straight news reporting – declares a minority opinion to be the “economic truth,” and gives politics a bad name, depicting it as the process of appealing to the ignorant American people while deceiving them for their own good. The effect of this “reporting” is much more damaging than would be a Post editorial declaring the loss of jobs good for workers. People would denounce such an editorial. People internalize and accept the reporting.

On Sunday, Aug. 18, 2002, the Washington Post ran two articles about a potential U.S. attack on Iraq, plus an editorial, an ombudsman column, and three op-eds. Had the articles reported the news in a responsible manner, the opinion pieces could not have been printed.

One article, placed on the top of the front page, reported on a memo that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had sent to the White House and the media. Pentagon officials were worried that countries such as Iraq or Iran could use cruise missile technology to attack “U.S. installations or the American homeland.” The article admitted that “no particular piece of new intelligence prompted the warning.” This article should not have been published.

The second Post article on August 18 effectively urged the U.S. President to hurry up and argue for an attack on Iraq before opponents of such an attack raised their voices too loudly. The headline was, “White House Push for Iraqi Strike Is On Hold: Waiting to Make Case for Action Allows Invasion Opponents to Dominate Debate.” While the article did touch on some of the opponents’ arguments, it mainly focused on arguments about how best to persuade the American public and European politicians to support a war. A responsible article would have included more viewpoints and focused not on whether the White House or its opponents would win the “debate” (as if the article itself did not in large part constitute and determine the outcome of the debate) but on what the arguments were and what the facts were to support them.

Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times nor the other major dailies or major wire services has remotely approached professional unslanted coverage of the Bush Administration’s hunt for reasons for war — or coverage of those alleged reasons once proffered, much less of the millions of activists around the globe opposing the war. None of these sources of daily news has given decent coverage to the Bush Administration’s lies, to the Katharine Gun case, to the case that soldiers and Congress Members brought against the President to try to prevent the war, to the impact the war is having on the families of the dead, the wounded, and the soldiers kept in Iraq beyond their terms of service, or to the enormous budgetary implications of the ongoing war.

Plenty of left-wing columnists and magazine reporters have pointed to these concerns and have reported some of the unreported news, but not to the mainstream, only to those who read left-wing columnists.

We need a mainstream news source that does not care about Janet Jackson’s breasts or Don Rumsfeld’s baseless assertions. We need mainstream, unopinionated, coverage of soldiers’ funerals, workplace struggles, the working poor, the working homeless, media consolidation, and all of the news currently unfit to print, including news about health care.

The New York Times published an article last month on the health care plans of the Democratic presidential candidates. The article fit the pattern followed by all of the daily news media. The issue was framed as one of weighing how many more people we could insure versus how much more money it would cost us. Completely hidden from the public were the positions of the candidates whose views the Times did not approve of and their claims that we are already paying more than we have to pay to cover everyone, that we simply need to follow the other wealthy countries and create a single-payer system.

These articles could have been written from an understanding of what the rest of the world is doing, what the public wants, what doctors would prefer, and what all – not just some – of the candidates propose. Such articles would not need to include any first-person opinion or anything that could be labeled left-wing. Such mainstream, but non-corporate, articles could be published by the – for lack of a better name – 24-7 News Service.

I’m convinced that when we recognize the priority of creating this type of news service, we will find the money for it and have no trouble at all finding the reporters and editors. This, even more than scheduling MeetUps, is the use to which we must put the Internet if we are to have a democracy.

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