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The U.S. Left and Media Politics

Robert W. McChesney teaches communication and library science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This piece was originally presented at the “Back to Basics” conference, sponsored by In These Times, held in Chicago in October 1998.

American democracy is in deep trouble. Cynicism and distrust of the political system, fueled at least in part by imposed ignorance, have grown steadily in recent years. There are several reasons for this, but few as important as the condition of our media. Many Americans, especially those on the left, know that after a generation of rampant consolidation and conglomeration, the American media are dominated by less than twenty firms—and that a half-dozen or so corporate giants hold the commanding positions. These firms use their market power to advance their own and other companies’ corporate agendas. And they increasingly commercialize every aspect of our culture. By any known theory of political democracy, this tightly-held media system, accountable only to Wall Street and Madison Avenue, is a poisonous proposition.

A healthy democracy depends on an informed and educated public, but the wealthy and powerful few who make the most important media decisions deny that as a possibility. Theirs is a system in which crucial political issues are barely mentioned, or are molded to fit the confines of their elite debate. The public is thus denied the tools it needs to participate as an informed citizenry. Moreover, the media system not only serves the ideological needs of our business-run society, but is itself a major sector of the economy.

One would expect to see an exploration of ways to fight back, among those who see the industry’s concentrated power and untrammeled commercialism as roadblocks in the path of democracy. Yet, for generations, the control and structure of the media industries have been decidedly off-limits as a subject of political debate on the left.

As long as this holds true, it is difficult to imagine any permanent qualitative change for the better in the American media system. Without reform of the industry, the prospects for the United States improving the quality of our democracy seem dim indeed. It is mandatory for the U.S. left to put media reform on its agenda.

Until after the Second World War, concern about media reform was less pressing, because labor and the left understood the importance of communicating with and educating their own members and supporters. Every labor union and political group had its own publications in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the more successful and aggressive unions and political parties had extensive media outlets. In the early 1900s, Socialist Party members and supporters published some 325 English and foreign language daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. Most of these were privately owned or were the publications of one or another of the 5,000 Socialist Party locals. They reached a total of more than two million subscribers.

Similarly, from the late nineteenth century on, just about every labor union had its own newspaper. In the mid-thirties, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO) was organized, it explained to its members that the labor movement could not thrive if the press remained the exclusive property of capital, and made the creation of labor and public service media a high priority. So did the more conservative American Federation of Labor’s central labor council in Chicago, which established a local radio station as a conscious first step in setting up a pro-working-class network. All of this was part of a broader effort during the period to establish a cultural popular front. It was overwhelmed by corporate opposition in the thirties, and was given the final blow with the start of the Cold War in the late forties.

In sum, labor and the left’s declining interest in developing its own independent media can be traced to post-war labor-corporate accommodation and the disruption and decline of the broader left as a result of Cold War anticommunism. The process was aided, too, by the change in corporate journalism in these years from a more open conservativism to a new, ostensibly non-partisan or “objective” professionalism, a change designed to broaden the appeal—and the advertising revenue—of newspapers, magazines, and, later, television.

Then, too, labor and the left, like their corporate opponents, came to see the media largely as a form of public relations. Thus, they fell victim to the belief that the media were not important, that the “real action” for social change lay in organizing and militant activity. Attracting media attention became more important than having a means of communication that might educate members and leaders of progressive organizations.

After taking a beating in the media for fifty years, however, organized labor has begun to show some interest in media reform. Labor leaders today are more aware of the huge barrier that the corporate media presents to labor’s advance. Yet this sentiment remains largely inchoate. At the 1997 AFL-CIO annual convention, perhaps the most political and vibrant meeting in the organization’s history, the issue of media was not even mentioned in passing. Under John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s initial foray into media activity has not gone beyond the half-baked idea of spending a small fortune on TV ads and hiring PR firms in an attempt to massage the press. In contrast, the United Auto Workers (UAW) recently invested heavily in the United Broadcasting Network, a 100-station radio operation that also publishes a bi-weekly newspaper. The UAW tried something similar in the 1940s, in a failed attempt to combat the antilabor bias of the commercial radio broadcasters of that era. Yet aside from this effort by the UAW, the structural barriers to a democratic or pro-labor media remain unchallenged by labor, at both the national and local levels.

When one sees how labor and progressive social movements have fared in the U.S. media over the past fifty years, the importance of media reform becomes less abstract. In the thirties and forties, nearly every daily newspaper with a medium-to-large circulation had at least one full-time labor editor or beat reporter. When the Flint sitdown strikes established the UAW as a major trade union in the late thirties, it was front-page news. True, the coverage was often unsympathetic, but at least the public knew what was happening. Now, in the nineties, fewer than ten labor reporters remain on daily newspapers in the entire nation. Conversely, there are seemingly thousands of business writers who, daily, fill the nation’s papers with their stories. Thus, in 1989, when the largest sitdown strike since Flint took place in Pittston, Virginia, it went virtually unreported. When several leading U.S. trade unions formed a new Labor political party in 1996, that, too, was unreported in the commercial media. Labor coverage has been reduced to stories about how strikers are threatening violence or creating a burden for the people in their communities. If one read only the commercial media, it would be difficult to determine what good was served by having labor unions at all. I do not mean to suggest that corporate media hostility to labor is swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the public. The 1997 Teamster strike against UPS elicited the usual right-wing hysteria about labor, but the remarkable public support for the strikers forced some of the media to deal more fairly with the Teamsters, despite the fact that the press was far from sympathetic to the union.

Meanwhile, the idea of organizing for structural media reform is ignored or opposed by the entire democratic left in the United States. Two of the three new progressive party groups—the Labor Party and the New Party—avoid any mention of media in their core platforms. Some chapters of the Green Party have made an issue of media ownership and control, perhaps influenced by Ralph Nader’s persistent call for stricter control over the publicly owned airwaves, but these are token gestures at best. The Progressive caucus of the U.S. Congress has shown only shown slight interest in the matter, although Rep. Bernie Sanders (Ind., VT) recognizes that “This is an issue that is absolutely vital to democracy, and that only the left can address. The New Party, the Green Party, the Labor Party, as well as progressive Democrats, should be all over this issue,” he says, though he laments, “for most of the left, it’s not even on the agenda.” Sanders, the most successful American socialist politician in half a century, is unequivocal about the importance of media reform: “The challenge of our time is to make media relevant for a vibrant democracy.”

To a large extent, the absence of informed media politics reflects the power of U.S. media corporations to control and dominate not only mainstream debate, but also debate on the left. After all, why pick a fight with these guys when the chances for success seem so slim, and when there seems to be little public recognition of structural media issues or opposition to the status quo? The corporate media may well be the most powerful adversary in the ranks of capital. They control what the general public sees and reads about the political process in the United States. Critical discussion of media structure is the last thing they want the general public to consider. They prefer to leave analysis of media ownership and advertising to the business pages and the trade press, where such questions are covered solely from investors’ point of view. In this climate, it is no surprise that even left critics of the corporate media rarely discuss organizing to change the system; the very prospect seems implausible.

But the left’s disinterest in media is not merely the product of ignorance or intimidation. Some on the left dismiss media activism as a waste of time. Their arguments are rarely the result of sustained thought, and range from the idea that the media system is unreformable to the notion that the corporate media system isn’t that bad or that influential. The correct path, from this perspective, is simply to develop independent left media on the margins, while devoting organizing efforts elsewhere. Media reform struggles, therefore, are dismissed as the logical province of liberals and single-issue advocates with narrow political vision or platform. Real battles with the ruling class, from this viewpoint, should be fought elsewhere.

This approach is correct on a couple of key points. Firstly, media reform is no substitute for building a democratic left. But the options are not either/or. Virtually all leading left media critics incorporate media criticism into a range of broader political activity. Secondly, it is correct to argue that if we ever build a solid left or labor movement, it will have its own media and we will have less reason to be concerned about how the corporate media system operates. But that begs the question of why we have been incapable of building even a tiny left in the United States for the past thirty years. The corporate media system is not the sole (or even the primary) reason for the lack of a left or a strong labor movement, but it powerfully reinforces the ideological and political power of business.

The political “free market” right understands the importance of media far better than the left. Indeed, the relative success of the right in recent years is largely the result of the development of its own media and influence on the corporate media. Right-wing individuals and foundations have devoted considerable resources to campaigns that have pushed the media to support their programs—social as well as economic. Billionaire right-wingers establish political media primarily to propagate pro-business politics and push the range of political debate ever rightward. Since the seventies the right has worked mightily and with considerable success to establish right-wing journalism.

The political right leads the fight against all forms of noncommercial and nonprofit media. It also battles tirelessly to see that the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio stay within the same ideological boundaries as the commercial media. As a result of this pressure, PBS now refuses to permit labor to sponsor programs about workers, even while it begs business lavishly to subsidize programs extolling free enterprise. At the same time, progressive and mainstream foundations virtually ignore this right-wing assault. These groups fear being “political.” They end up trying to keep people from falling overboard while conceding the privilege of steering the ship to the right.

Making media reform a component of the labor and left agenda has many potential benefits. Although the issue receives scant public attention, there is evidence of growing public dissatisfaction with the hyper-commercialized media. In few areas are the conflicts between corporate rule and the needs of a democracy more apparent. The left can use media as an educational tool to explain the flaws in the existing social order and to present its vision of what a more democratic society would look like. Many people from across the political spectrum, as well as entirely depoliticized people, are appalled by the commercial carpet bombing of our culture (especially children’s culture), and by the collapse of journalism. The left can offer coherent explanations and viable, democratic solutions. Nobody else can.

Labor and the left can also use media reform as an issue that unites its disparate elements, such as environmentalists, feminists, civil rights advocates, and labor activists, along with journalists, artists, educators, librarians, parents, and many others who are discomfited by the commercialization of public life. We should not forget that if the left ignores media reform, it hands the game to the far right, whose bogus analysis and frightening solutions do not keep it from being an active player.

So what should the left do to address the commercial media system? First and foremost, it has to put media reform on its agenda and work to get its reform proposals before the general public. The core principle is that control over communication has to be taken away from Wall Street and Madison Avenue and put in the hands of citizens, journalists, and others whose concerns are not limited to the defense of corporate profitability.

In nations ranging from New Zealand and Canada to India and Brazil, democratic left electoral parties are increasingly making the break-up of corporate commercial media, and the establishment of a viable non-profit media sector, a main part of their platforms. This is a striking new development in the 1990s. In Sweden, the Left party—which represents those disenchanted with the Social Democratic Party’s move toward the right—has made media reform a cornerstone of its platform. In 1998, the Left party scored twelve percent of the vote in national elections, doubling its previous level. Moreover, in many nations there are nascent grassroots media organizations struggling to promote noncommercial and nonprofit media.

Here in the United States, there are a few new media reform efforts, but some are narrowly conceived and suffer from a lack of democratic vision. There is the drive to establish, for example, a civic or public journalism that is largely devoted to counteracting the sensationalism of print and television. Unfortunately, the movement works hand in hand with the very corporate chieftains who have created and molded the existing media. This version of public journalism, not surprisingly, is averse to what it calls “ideological” approaches to the news, opting instead for a supposed objectivity that avoids lively debate and political conflict. Instead it works toward the sort of boringly balanced and antiseptic newsfare that could put the entire nation into a deep, uninformed slumber. By claiming that they want to give readers news that is important to their lives, advocates of public journalism may in fact be assisting in the process of converting journalism into the type of noncontroversial consumer news that delights the advertising community. Such is the logic of a commercialized and depoliticized society.

Those who wish to increase the integrity of commercial journalism should advocate increased power for journalists, which in the commercial media can only be achieved by establishing strong, progressive unions. Media workers’ unions need to be supported. The assault on journalists’ unions in the United States has been an important factor in the decline of the quality of journalism. Ideally, journalists’ and media workers’ unions should negotiate for as much control as possible of the editorial and creative process. We need to work to eradicate the control of capital over our journalism and culture, without substituting deadening bureaucratic control.

Another burgeoning area of interest is the media literacy movement, whose aim is to educate people to be skeptical and knowledgeable users of the media. Media literacy has considerable potential as long as it involves an explanation of how the media system actually works, and leads people to want to work toward a better system. But the media literacy movement has a highly visible wing that accepts money from corporate media and advertisers. This version of media literacy implicitly buys into the line that the commercial media simply “give the people what they want.” So the media literacy crowd’s job is to train people to demand better fare from their presumably willing and obedient corporate media servants. Like public journalism, this attracts foundation support because it is noncontroversial. But this approach may simply help to perpetuate the current situation. “Hey, don’t blame us for the lousy stuff we provide,” the corporate media giants will say. “We even bankrolled media literacy to train people to demand higher quality fare. The morons simply demanded more of what we are already doing.”

Fortunately, some other media groups are more promising. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group launched in the 1980s, provides consistent analysis of media trends through published reports and its magazine Extra! FAIR’s work helps both those who wish to improve the quality of existing journalism and those who seek structural change. Similarly, the Cultural Environment Movement (CEM), founded in the mid-nineties, attempts to draw all sorts of nonprofit and public-interest groups into the campaign for media reform. Like FAIR, it works for improvement within the status quo as well as broader structural reform.

Local media alliances have also been established in numerous North American cities, to create alternative media and to watchdog the local commercial media. These local groups have shown some potential to draw the public into media politics by targeting issues like violence-obsessed local TV news, newspaper “redlining” of poor neighborhoods, the proliferation of alcohol and cigarette billboards in poor and working-class neighborhoods, and the commercialization of education.

Likewise, microradio broadcasting—unlicensed, low-power, noncommercial broadcasting conducted on open slots in the radio spectrum—has become a significant enterprise throughout the nation in the past few years. It offers poor, dispossessed, and marginalized voices an opportunity to be heard.

Slowly but surely, this activity is percolating its way from media activist groups to broader progressive political organizations. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is now making media reform one of its primary organizing issues. In 1998, it held public hearings on the problems of media concentration in several U.S. cities, and it has earned the support of a few members of Congress, including John Conyers and Chicago’s Bobby Rush. This is a major breakthrough, but it needs to be aggressively followed up by other progressive constituencies.

That all of this activity has blossomed in the current political environment suggests that there may be a wellspring for further media reform activity. However, the movement lacks the resources to exploit this opportunity. This should be the province of organized labor and the philanthropic community. Not surprisingly, given the absence of a coherent political left, the movement also lacks an understanding of where media reform fits into a broader movement democracy. To be successful, media reform needs a resurgent left. But, conversely, for the left to succeed it will need to support the existing nonprofit media to a far greater extent (e.g., Monthly Review, The Progressive, Z, The Nation, In These Times, Counterpunch, Dollars and Sense, Adbusters, Left Business Observer, NACLA Report, MERIP, Dissent, Pacifica, Globalvision), create its own media, and fight for media reform.

For these two areas to reinforce each other, labor and the left will have to use their own resources to support and create better noncommercial media and agitate for better results from commercial media. Some labor unions and federations, for example, have begun to encourage the production of labor video documentaries. But all of labor needs to support newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations, and Web sites of their own, and give money and resources to existing community and nonprofit media without direct labor affiliation. This is crucial. Labor needs to grant considerable editorial leeway to media it subsidizes. Unless it does so, the media will tend to be timid, overly concerned with pleasing labor’s political hierarchy, and unlikely to produce anything vital or interesting to a general public.

Unlike the right, labor and the left can never consider funding alternatives or independent media a satisfactory media program in and of itself. The agenda and activities of the right mesh well with the corporate control of the media, and right media figures move comfortably at all echelons of the corporate media system. A well-established, independent, left media can and will influence mainstream media in a positive manner, but marriage is out of the question, given the differences in social status. The upper limit of this approach is to establish a strong left niche on the margins. This point holds true for the Internet which, for the most part, assimilated into the corporate media. Technology alone cannot undermine the media system.

In addition, labor and the left need to take another page from the political right, which masterfully manipulates traditional U.S. journalism. Like the right, labor and the progressive philanthropic community need to support think tanks of experts who can provide labor and left perspectives on social issues for commercial and noncommercial journalists alike. It can also monitor the massive right-wing campaigns to shape news coverage. The recently formed Institute for Public Accuracy, under the direction of Norman Solomon and Sam Husseini, is one example.

Government media policies also must be changed. There is nothing natural about the existing corporate media system; it is the result of laws, regulations and extensive public subsidies that have been pushed through by the corporate media lobby with almost no public awareness or participation in the legislative process. Our objective is a more diverse and competitive commercial system with a significant nonprofit and noncommercial sector.

There are several legislative proposals to organize around. First, we need to make it easier for people—not just rich people—to make donations to nonprofit media. Why not let everyone deduct $150 from their taxes if they donate it to a nonprofit medium? Second, let’s establish a bona fide noncommercial public radio and television system, with local and national stations and networks. The expense should come out of the general budget, though we need to establish a governing mechanism to keep the public broadcasters accountable but not suffocated by politicians. Third, let’s really make some demands on commercial broadcasters, and finally get something in return for letting them become filthy rich using the scarce public airwaves at no charge. Why not insist on eliminating advertising on children’s and news programs, and use five percent of the broadcasters’ revenues to subsidize three or four hours per day of children’s and news shows on every channel? And put the control over these shows in the hands of journalists and creative people, not advertising executives! And why not ban running any political ads as a condition for getting a license to broadcast? Fourth, let’s go back to the original spirit and intent of our antitrust statutes and break up the media giants, whose concentrations of power should be unthinkable in a democracy. (When the United States occupied Japan and Germany following the Second World War, it instituted policies discouraging media concentration, as this was seen as antidemocratic and fascist-promoting. What was smart policy in 1945 is smart policy today.)

If we won the reforms above, it would automatically add a strong progressive presence to the Internet, because all of the above media would necessarily have an online component.

There are numerous other policies that would promote democratic media. In the short term, however, the most important thing is to put the issue on the political agenda, have sympathetic members of Congress draft legislation that we can organize around, and get the discussion moving forward. This will not be an easy area in which to gain victories. Few mainstream politicians wish to tangle with the media giants. But it is an area with unusual promise for labor and the left.There is little evidence that people are captivated by commercial media fare to the extent the media giants’ PR declares. And the bottom line, so to speak, remains clear. Unless we can make some headway on the media front, it will be difficult to get very far anywhere else.

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