Features » January 18, 2002
Why We Need In These Times
My God, the world sure looked different then. It seemed like progressive politics were on the rise, not just in the United States but worldwide. To my friends and me, the 60s had been an epiphany for the human race, and there could be no turning back to the dark days of racism, sexism, militarism and the capitalist (or communist) status quo. We thought we were part of a movement that would radically change the world for the better, and do so in our lifetimes. In the mid-70s there remained a whole coterie of left-wing and alternative institutions founded in the preceding decade, from food co-ops to underground newspapers to community radio stations. Even Middle America dumped the Republicans in 1976. We thought the best was yet to come. The early In These Times confirmed our enthusiasm, with reports on the socialist government in Jamaica, left-wing victories across Europe, the rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and Dennis Kucinich, the boy-wonder mayor of Cleveland. The members of the best rock band in the world, the Clash, were committed socialists. The times, they were a-changing, and now we had a national weekly newspaper to link us all together.
And that was Jim Weinsteins plan. We wanted to create a magazine that was independent, but would serve as a source of information and education for the movements popular constituency, he recalled a few years ago. You cannot have a viable political movement of the left, right or center if it doesnt have its own press.
The premise for In These Times was that there was a resurgent left and the newspaper would ride the popular wave to a large circulation and considerable influence over political affairs. Instead of marking the dawn of a new progressive era, however, the mid-70s proved to be exactly the opposite. Politics moved rightward with a vengeance. First under Carter, and then with no holds barred under Reagan, Bush and Clinton, the United States embraced neoliberalism, the ugly notion that business is the rightful and necessary ruler of society. Corporations were in the drivers seat, while labor, poor people and traditional left constituencies were getting run over. They had less influence than at any other time in memory.
But that doesnt mean In These Times has been a waste of time and money. To the contrary, In These Times has been invaluable over the past 25 years, shining the light of journalism on subjects generally left in the dark by the mainstream news media. The impact of In These Times has gone far beyond its subscriber base. In These Times has broken numerous stories that have been picked up by larger media, stories that otherwise would not have seen the light of day. In These Times also has provided a platform for some of the nations finest political writers.
Moreover, progressive politics require progressive media just as much in moments of darkness as in moments of growth and triumph. Indeed, without such media, the darkness may become permanent. Over the past quarter-century, In These Times has provided a trenchant critique of U.S. politics, giving citizens the information they need to organize and fight back. The world is a better place thanks to In These Times.
Accordingly, In These Times has joined an illustrious list of political media in U.S. history, going back to the revolutionary era. From abolitionists and feminists to populists, unionists and socialists, every progressive movement in U.S. history could almost be defined by its press. If there was no press, there was no movement. Consider, for example, the United States in the early 1900s. Members and supporters of the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs published some 323 English and foreign language daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. Most of these were privately owned or were the publications of one of the 5,000 Socialist Party locals. They reached a total of more than 2 million subscribers. Appeal to Reason, the socialist newspaper that inspired Jim Weinstein to launch In These Times, alone had a readership of more than 750,000.
All of that changed over the course of the 20th century. Most important, the nature of our media system changed dramatically. Rather than being a competitive industry where newcomers could enter on the margins and make a go of it, the media became dominated by large firms operating in oligopolistic markets. This reduced the ability of leftist media to survive, let alone prosper. It also caused a major shake-up in journalism. Publishers realized that to continue using their monopoly newspapers as partisan engines might discredit the legitimacy of their enterprise, so they instituted professional journalism as the new model for their newsrooms. In this new world, trained editors and reporters would run the newsroom while owners and advertisers would concern themselves with the business side of the operation. The news would be fair, accurate and reflect no political bias.
Of course, it is impossible to have such nonpartisan journalism, and the newly minted code for professional journalists had three distinct biases written into it that reflected the commercial and political needs of the owners. First, to remove the controversy connected with the selection of stories, it regarded anything done by official sourcese.g., government officials and prominent public figuresas the basis for legitimate news. This gave those in political office (and, to a lesser extent, business) considerable power to set the news agenda by what they spoke about and what they didnt.
The second bias is that professional journalism tends to present news in a decontextualized and non-ideological manner. In theory, one could read every professional news story on a topic and they all would be pretty much the same. An irony of professional journalism is that those stories which generate the most coveragethe Middle East, President Clintons health care planoften produce a confused and uninformed readership. In professional code, this decontextualization is accomplished in part by positing that there must be a news hook or peg to justify a story. Hence crucial social issues like racism or environmental degradation fall through the cracks of journalism unless there was some event, like a demonstration or the release of an official report, to justify coverage. So journalism tends to downplay or eliminate the presentation of a range of informed positions on controversial issues. This produces a paradox: Journalism, which in theory should inspire political involvement, tends to strip politics of meaning and promote a broad depoliticization. That is very bad news for the left.
The third bias of professional journalism is more subtle but most important: Far from being politically neutral, it smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers as well as the political aims of the owning class. Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, refers to this as the dig here, not there phenomenon. So it is that crime stories and stories about royal families and celebrities become legitimate news. (These are inexpensive to cover and they never antagonize people in power.) So it is that the affairs of government are subjected to much closer scrutiny than the affairs of big business. And so it is that those government activities serving the poor (like welfare) get much more critical attention than those serving the interests of the wealthy (the CIA, for instance). The genius of professionalism in journalism is that it tends to make journalists oblivious to the compromises with authority they routinely make.
Of course, professional journalism has not been explicitly or viciously anti-labor or anti-left in most instances. The process is more subtle. And in moments of resurgence for the left and social movements, professional journalism is malleable enough to improve the quantity and quality of coverage. In the 40s, for example, full-time labor editors and reporters abounded on U.S. daily newspapers. Even ferociously anti-labor newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune, covered the labor beat. The 1937 Flint sit-down strike that launched the United Auto Workers was a front-page story across the nation. By the 80s, however, labor had fallen off the map and there were no more than a dozen labor beat reporters remaining on U.S. dailies. (The number is less then five today.) Hence the 1989 strike at Pittston Coalthe largest since Flintwas virtually unreported in the mainstream national media. Of course, poverty among workers is growing and workplace conflicts are as important as ever, but this is no longer considered news. And that has made the prospect of rejuvenating the labor movement vastly more difficult.
The experience with the mainstream media has been the same for other progressive social movements over the past 50 years. From peace and the environment to civil rights and feminism, news coverage has tended to be bad and filtered through elite lenses. The initial response to these movements by the press was to ignore them, trivialize them or, at times, demonize them. All in all, evaluations of all major progressive social movements conclude that the lack of a viable media outreach to the general population, or even to the progressive constituencies they were seeking to organize, has been a major barrier to success. That, of course, is much of what In These Times has aspired to provide.
During the past 25 years, it has gotten even more difficult for progressives to receive satisfactory press coverage in the mainstream media. This is due primarily to the tightening corporate ownership over the news media that has resulted from government deregulation of broadcasting and lax enforcement of antitrust statutes. Over the past two decades, the U.S. media system has been consolidated in the hands of a small number of colossal conglomerates. To give some sense of proportion, in 2000 AOL purchased Time Warner in the biggest media deal ever, valued at around $160 billion. That was 470 times greater than the value of the largest media deal that had been recorded by 1979. The nine or 10 largest media conglomerates now almost all rank among the 300 largest firms in the world; in 1975 there were only a couple of media firms among the 500 largest companies in the world.
These media conglomerates often pay a premium price for TV networks or newspaper chains, so they have incentive to apply the same commercial logic to their newsrooms that they apply to their other divisions. Why should they grant editors carte blanche when their other managers are held to a strict accounting of all their moves? The logical result has been a reduction in resources for journalism, a decline in costly and controversial investigative reporting, and a softening up of journalistic standards to permit less expensive and more commercially attractive journalism.
This does not bode well for the left or for democracy. Mainstream news and business news have morphed over the past two decades as the news is increasingly pitched to the richest one-half or one-third of the population. The affairs of Wall Street, the pursuit of profitable investments, and the joys of capitalism are now presented as the interests of the general population.
Media firms are among the leading beneficiaries of these global capitalist trade deals, which helps explain why their coverage of them throughout the 90s was so enthusiastic. The sad truth is that the closer a story gets to corporate power and corporate domination of our society, the less reliable the corporate news media are. And, in the final analysis, the U.S. mainstream media covered the extraordinary demonstrations against the WTO and global capitalism in Seattle in a manner not all that different from how the Chinese Communist Party press covered Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Over the past five years, there has been a rebirth of the left in the United States, but it has passed by almost entirely undetected by the same corporate news media that can tell you who Monica Lewinsky is dating or how many times Bill Gates picked his nose while at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This new new left is dominated by young people and is organizing around human rights, labor rights, opposition to the death penalty and the criminal justice system, environmental issues and corporate power in general. It manifested itself in Seattle and then in Ralph Naders 2000 presidential campaign. And there are numerous signs of openings for progressive politics among broader segments of the population. The soil for left politics is fertile, but nothing can happen without an organized left and viable independent media.
On September 11, 2001, the world was turned upside-down. Following the attacks on New York and Washington, the United States launched a worldwide war against terrorism that could last for a generation and reach the far corners of the globe. In a democratic society, the decision to go to war must be made with the informed consent of the population. That requires is a press system to provide the citizenry with the information and perspectives to make such a decision. In some respects, for the notion of a free press, this is the moment of truth.
Americans once tended to be misinformed about world politics, but now they are uninformed. The U.S. citizenry is embarrassingly and appallingly ignorant of the most elementary political realities in other nations and regions. It is an unmitigated disaster for the development of a meaningful democratic debate over international policy, and highlights a deep contradiction between the legitimate informational needs of a democratic society and the need for profit of the corporate media.
The historical record suggests we should expect an avalanche of lies and half-truths in the service of powerin both the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War, the government employed sophisticated propaganda campaigns to whip the population into a suitable furyand that is exactly what we have gotten. But the U.S. news media, which love nothing more than to congratulate themselves for their independence from government control, did not so much as blink before they became the explicit organs of militarist and imperialist propaganda.
The Manichean picture conveyed by the media was of a benevolent, democratic, peace-loving nation brutally attacked by insane, evil terrorists who hate the United States for its freedoms and affluent way of life. Thus the only option was for the United States to immediately increase its military and covert forces, locate the surviving culprits and exterminate them; then prepare for a long-term war to root out and destroy the global terrorist cancer. Those who do not aid the U.S. campaign for justicedomestically as well as internationallyare to be regarded as accomplices who may well suffer a similar fate.
No skepticism was showed toward U.S. military, political and economic interests that might benefit from militarism and war. No hard questioning demanded evidence that the proposed war might actually reduce terrorism or bring justice to the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks. Those concerns, which would be applied to any other government that proposed to direct a world war, were avoided by the mainstream press. It looked suspiciously similar to the press coverage one would expect in an authoritarian society.
U.S. media corporations exist within an institutional context that makes support for U.S. military natural. Indeed, the U.S. government is the primary advocate for the global media firms when trade deals and intellectual property agreements are being negotiated. Coincidentally, at the very moment the corporate broadcasters were singing the praises of Americas New War, their lobbyists appeared before the Federal Communications Commission seeking radical relaxation of ownership regulations for broadcasting, newspaper and cable companies.
The current war may be the most serious global political crisis in decades. The need for viable democratic journalism has never been greater, and the performance of the mainstream news media has fallen far short of that goal. In this moment of darkness, our need for In These Times has never been greater.
After 25 years of feisty independent journalism, In These Times may finally be on the verge of the times for which it was intended. As the events of the next several years unfold, we are all going to be fortunate and thankful for the long and rich path In These Times has traveled, and all the hard lessons it has learned. It will serve us well in the coming struggle to radically transform this nation and the world. We should hope that someday In These Times will be regarded as having been 25 years ahead of its time.
Robert W. McChesney, a member of the In These Times board of directors, is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-editor of Monthly Review. He is the author, most recently, of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. A longer version of this essay will appear in Appeal to Reason: The First 25 Years of In These Times (Seven Stories Press).
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Robert W. McChesney is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-editor of Monthly Review. He is the author, most recently, of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times.