The ‘Liberal Media’ Are Dead; Long Live Progressive Media
If you squint into the hodgepodge of hucksterism, misinformation and occasional brilliance that make up today’s American mass media, you will discern (at least) two encouraging signs:
- The myth of the “liberal media”–that is, mainstream, conventional media is naturally biased toward the liberal point of view–is evaporating like snow during a winter warm-up. Hardly anyone on the right is banging that drum anymore; and
- Progressive media–those publications, websites, broadcasting outlets, etc., which actually do promote a liberal point of view–are poised to do battle with the financial behemoths that are their conservative counterparts…running parallel to favorable demographic shifts in this country, and the technology those populations embrace. Led by Huffington Post, American Prospect, Brave New Films, Media Matters for America, Daily Kos, Upworthy, old reliable publications such as The Nation and The Progressive, Democracy Now! radio and countless emerging left-wing websites (the netroots), progressive media are quickly jumping hurdles to be competitive with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the like. It’s about time.
Meanwhile, a simple change of jobs has created quite a stir…a symbol of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ media. Last week, it was announced that Ezra Klein, the editor of The Washington Post’s influential Wonkblog, will walk away from perhaps the highest perch in mainstream political journalism to join Vox Media, a start-up technology site. Although this move is not about progressive media per se, it provides a tantalizing glimpse into the future for all points on the ideological spectrum. More about that later.
The Echo Chamber
For progressive media, the stakes couldn’t be higher. AlterNet‘s Don Hazen explains:
We are being overrun by a relentless, orchestrated, coordinated machine that hammers away with propaganda and obvious lies, shaped by conservative values and pro-business and corporate talking points. These are woven into conservative narratives delivered by big personalities in every corner of the media where they dominate the discourse and have the largest and most active audiences. it is, in a word, a juggernaut.
Not only does this “echo chamber” drive the conservative agenda, it also managed, until recently, to marginalize mainstream “objective” media by labeling them as their opposite: liberal. The “liberal media” tag was applied to all other media. Accordingly, it enabled the fanatically right-wing Fox News to depict itself as “fair and balanced.” The perverted logic is obvious: If all other media have an inherent liberal bias, then Fox News is an oasis of “fair and balanced” coverage. The scheme worked like a charm. (Some say it still is.)
In my view, the whole concept of “liberal media” was thoroughly debunked in 2003 by Nation columnist Eric Alterman in his book, What Liberal Media? Alterman, a distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, cited instances of conservative political and corporate leaders “playing the refs” to secure favorable media interpretations of various left-right clashes: the Clinton administration, the 2000 election, the Florida aftermath, Iraq. Regarding books by right-wing authors Anne Coulter (Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, about the left’s “hegemonic control” over the news media) and Bernard Goldberg (Bias, about how “liberal bias pervades the mainstream media”), the author wrote:
Their danger derives less from the authors’ respective allegations than the “where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire” impression they inspire. In fact, barely any of the major allegations in either book stands up to more than a moment’s scrutiny. The entire case is a lie, and, yes, in many instances, a slander…The myth of the “liberal media” empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States.
It seems logical that the future of progressive media and the future of media in general are grudgingly linked…and that their shared outcome should give cause for some optimism. In the Pew Research Center’s report on “The State of the News Media 2013,” the very first sentence provides this insight:
A continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.
The word “opportunities” catches my eye. In any case, here are some nuggets from the report:
- Newspaper newsrooms have shrunk around 30 percent since 2000, “below 40,000 professional employees for the first time since 1978.” As a consequence, 31 percent of US adults “have stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were accustomed to getting.” This result is “a news industry that is undermanned and unprepared to cover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.” [emphasis mine]
- Local TV news is feeling the pinch. “Local TV audiences were down across every key time slot and across all networks in 2012…Regular TV viewership among adults under 30 fell from 42 percent in 2006 to just 28 percent in 2012.”
- With digital ad revenue growing a feeble three percent per year, newspapers have reluctantly turned to paid subscriptions…”450 of the nation’s 1,380 dailies have started or announced plans for some kind of paid content…” Meanwhile, “the news industry continues to lose out on the bulk of new digital advertising” to non-news players such as Google and Facebook.
The gist of the report is this: The vacuum created by the decline of traditional news-gathering is being filled by “citizen journalists” connected to organizations that are knowledgeable about the issue at hand. The wall between quality newsroom journalism and “agenda-driven” press releases parading as news is slowly crumbling. A prominent example: The Kaiser Family Foundation and its Kaiser Health News has become a ubiquitous source of information about health issues and the complexities of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the Washington Post “regularly carries articles bylined by Kaiser Health News…with a lead-in identifying the source.” The implication should alarm traditionalists: There is not a beat reporter at the mighty Washington Post who can do better.
Technology is King
Speaking of the Washington Post, let’s go back to Ezra Klein and his divorce from that paper. It seems Klein is one of many established journalists migrating to digital start-up companies. According to Klein, the decision was a proactive one: “We want to improve the technology of news, and Vox has a vision of how to solve some of that,” he told the New York Times. The Times article surmises that young media such as Vox, BuzzFeed and even the Huffington Post are not about profit or prestige at this stage; but they “will eventually mature into the legacy media of tomorrow.” The article pinpoints one of the backers of BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, Kenneth Lerer, who declares that “whenever he is pitched an editorial idea, he always asks who the technology partner is.”
In a follow-up article, the Times‘ David Carr writes: “The Silicon Valley machine that is used to billions in profits, and spending billions on acquisitions, is beginning to crash onto the media scene.” The purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a prime example. Carr interviews Eli Pariser, one of the founders of Upworthy, a site that offers quirky videos on current topics through a “progressive prism,” and which enjoyed 87 million unique visitors during the month of November of last year. Pariser:
Our focus is on drawing massive amount of attention to important social topics–we actually never post stuff that we don’t think has some social value…It also means there’s a strong core purpose that folks relate to, and that we believe sets us apart.
The Future of Progressive Media
I have hopefully offered a glimpse into mass media’s future, defined by two compelling trends:
The decline of traditional news media has opened the door for news-gathering and reporting to a vast array of interest groups, concerned citizens, organizations large and small and media entrepreneurs. Whether this democratization of news media will level the playing field in financial terms is not supported by any data I could find. But one thing seems certain: Media empire-building on the scale of Fox News will soon be an anachronism.
- Technology is transforming news media as we speak. The pioneers of this movement are obviously not all “card-carrying” members of progressivism. But when you gaze (squint?) at this demographic portrait–young, racially diverse, East and West coast, collaborative, educated–one color seems to assert itself: Blue. Works for me.
I’ll let you sort out the implications. I for one feel very good about the future.