Features » June 28, 2006
Welcome to the Media Revolution
How today’s media makers are shaping tomorrow’s news
On September 29, 2005, in a conference room on the 17th floor of a Philadelphia office building, blocks away from Independence Hall, members of a newly formed network, The Media Consortium, gathered to reshape the national media landscape.
To a casual observer, the situation may not have looked much different than any other business meeting. Flipboards and sheets of paper filled with scrawling penmanship were scattered across the room. Tables overflowed with laptops, cell phones, Blackberries, notebooks and half-empty cups of coffee that had seen numerous refills throughout the two-day meeting.
By the end of the meeting the consortium members were clustered around an 11 x 17 sheet of printer paper. One by one we added our names to the Declaration of the Independent Media. Among the 25 signatories were editors, publishers and directors of various media organizations including The American Prospect, The Nation, Mother Jones, The Progressive, The Washington Monthly, AlterNet.org, Grist.org, Link TV, Free Speech TV, Air America, New American Media and In These Times.
The declaration reads, in part:
We, the makers and providers of progressive, independent journalism, declare our intent to form among ourselves a new nonprofit association, The Media Consortium. … We believe it is possible and necessary to seize the current moment and change the debate in this country on our terms. Therefore, the mission of The Media Consortium is of vital importance–not just for the furtherance of our individual enterprises, but for the health of American democracy.
While the language lacks the grandeur of “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the declaration represents a revolutionary shift in the world of progressive media. “We recognized that there were things we had to do together, that we couldn’t do by ourselves. Our future depends on it,” says Steve Katz, project director of The Media Consortium and associate publisher of Mother Jones.
Why should media be a priority, with Iraq in a civil war, living wage jobs continuing to spiral downward and the Earth’s environment heating up? Because media serves as the forum for all political debate. The right has learned to use the media to its political advantage. Now, progressives must reclaim their place in the national conversation.
We documented the beginnings of the progressive media network in our May 9, 2005 issue, “Making Connections.” Here we report on the unprecedented collaborations fostered by this emerging media network in the past year and explore the opportunities and challenges it now faces.
Members of The Media Consortium, who make up a large segment of this network, understand that in order to shift the national debate progressive media will need to break through to a larger audience. The end goal: to develop a sustainable progressive media infrastructure that can inform and influence public opinion, encourage grassroots action and create political change. But to do so media outlets and media-focused organizations need three things: support from each other, investment in core journalistic efforts, and a strategy for moving into new digital media that facilitate rapid response initiatives and audience interaction.
“We’re trying to redefine who we are to reach the audience of the 21st century,” Katz says. “Progressive media is to the progressive audience as classic rock is to the radio audience. We know we can do better and we know people are looking for good journalism and a progressive point of view. We’re also looking at the platforms in which people are getting their information. Technology is changing and we need to change with it.”
Jan Schaffer, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, told a conference of editors in October 2004, “The potential of new media is not simply more noise–but information experiences and meaningful interaction–and even, I would suggest, entirely new kinds of civic participation.”
Media is the movement
Reinventing progressive media is an uphill battle. Progressives are competing against a ruthless right-wing media machine and a dominant commercial media sector that has honed audience-distraction tactics.
Many new progressive media projects have arisen in direct response to the dominance of the right’s media apparatus. As Rob Stein, David Brock and Eric Alterman, among others, have documented, right-wing funders and ideologues have over the past three decades created their own successful cadre of media and messaging organizations, from think tanks to magazines to radio and television outlets. They have infiltrated the mainstream media, rallying conservatives across the country.
“What conservatives thus enjoy,” writes Paul Waldman in Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success, “is a wide-ranging, multimedia apparatus that when tapped will vibrate like a gigantic tuning fork.”
In response to this distortion of the public debate, many media activists have focused on the problems of the mainstream commercial media. After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gutted regulatory limits on media ownership, policy reform organizations like Free Press and the Center for International Media Action organized public campaigns against media consolidation. Monitoring groups, like Media Matters for America, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and Women in Media and News (WIMN) serve as watchdogs, alerting their members and the media to inaccuracies, conservative bias, sexism and racism in both news and entertainment programming.
Booking and distribution organizations like the Institute for Public Accuracy and the Mainstream Media Project act as media liaisons, attempting to funnel progressive activists, academics and pundits into the mainstream media. Most recently, progressive “framing” efforts and think tanks like the Center for American Progress have used their research to shape messages that define and promote progressive values to a wider audience.
Such media activism is crucial to reshaping the country’s media landscape. But pointing out the flaws in the mainstream media is not enough.
Progressive media outlets are critical agents of social change. Progressive magazines and books provide the research and long-range analysis needed to support political movements. Radio and television humanize a story and bring it to a mass audience. And blogs have now begun to serve as a powerful rapid response system.
The Media Consortium provides formal and informal support to progressive media-makers and is distinguished as much by its cross-media approach as it is by its commitment to building a progressive movement.
Despite good intentions, however, such efforts can get complicated. At one of The Media Consortium’s brainstorming sessions, a scrawled question on a flip board summed up what was on the mind of many: “Who’s in, who leads, and who gets $?”
Who’s in, who’s out
Like much of the progressive movement, media organizations have historically developed in isolation or competition with one another. They thrive on debate. Consequently, a unified progressive narrative has not developed. An influential contingent of self-identified progressives maintains that this must change. They argue that fracturing media and activism into single-issue “silos” pulls funding and energy away from the building of a larger progressive media movement.
“An opening now exists, as it hasn’t in a very long time, for the Democrats to be the visionaries,” writes Michael Tomasky, the editor of The American Prospect, in the magazine’s May 3 issue. “To seize this moment, the Democrats need to think differently–to stop focusing on their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate. And to do that, they need to begin by looking to their history, for in that history there is an idea about liberal governance that amounts to more than the million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics that has recently come under deserved scrutiny and that can clearly offer the most compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era.”
Such statements set off alarm bells for the groups being dismissed as “special interests.” Too often, progressive writers and pundits believe that because they are “enlightened” about issues such as racism, sexism and everything else, they have the expertise to be the public voices on those issues. Yet this argument misses the fact that communities invested in specific issues often respond best to messages internal to their own culture and communities. This does not mean that media always has to be segregated by cause or audience, but cultural awareness is important when progressives attempt to integrate different voices and perspectives into the movement.
Other media activists resist top-down infrastructure building altogether, finding the project of adopting commercial forms and tactics for their media projects antithetical to their mission of empowering the disenfranchised and critiquing capitalist culture. Instead they advocate teaching these communities to create their own media. “Unless we do that, we’re not going to be shifting power, which is what social justice is about,” says Aliza Dichter of the Center for International Media Action.
Honoring diversity and supporting democratic participation are central to the progressive project. In order to succeed, members of the progressive media network must develop better channels of communication between issue-specific movements and the media outlets attempting to articulate the larger progressive vision.
This is exactly what the right did, argue Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava in a fall 2005 Nation article, “Wrong About the Right.” “There is no monolithic ‘conservative’ movement but rather a plethora of ideologies successfully harnessed together in a grand coalition. The implication for progressives is that we ought to tolerate a diversity of views and think strategically about how to align them to common purpose rather than seek a homogeneity we falsely ascribe to conservatives.”
Models for success
While crucial coordination takes shape, such efforts are hindered by the fact that most progressive media projects remain small and underfunded. Large-scale foundation funding for media projects has historically been funneled to public media such as PBS and NPR, or to issue-oriented media campaigns. In recent years, funders have become enamored with new technology initiatives. Foundations have avoided directly supporting overtly political independent media outlets. The right has no such qualms, understanding that providing general operating support strengthens media outlets, allowing them to invest in circulation, marketing and new technology.
Politically committed funders must work with and support media organizations to develop business models that can succeed in the long run. Progressive media infrastructure cannot exist without media organizations. A table will not stand without legs.
Seeing nonprofits continue to struggle, a new generation of progressive media projects has begun to experiment with private-sector business models, with varying levels of success. Such outlets operate with what funders call a “double bottom line.” The Investors’ Circle, an organization that matches funders and financial institutions with socially responsible projects, explains how this works:
Mainstream media companies operate within both an intensely competitive industry and the unforgiving conventional financial markets. … [but] both philanthropic and private market financial entities are increasingly paying attention to niche media that attend to both the financial bottom line and social impact.
Progressive media outlets have also started looking to their commercial counterparts, like the Washington Post Company, for clues about how to amplify stories. In addition to the flagship newspaper, the corporation owns Newsweek, the Post-Newsweek family of television stations, the CableOne systems that provide Internet services to subscribers in several states, and an online publishing subsidiary, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, which manages WashingtonPost.com, Newsweek.com, Slate.com and Budget Travel Online. Owning these cross-media properties allows the company to promote products and stories across a variety of platforms, a strategy known as “vertical integration.”
Many critics have noted that such integration involves consolidation that commercializes and dumbs down the media. In the progressive media sector, however, vertical integration operates not through ownership, but through organizing.
By linking up with each other, media outlets can cross-promote, reach new audiences and build momentum around an issue. The battle over network neutrality, detailed in the map on page 25, is one current example of the power of the budding progressive media network. This campaign created a groundswell of coverage around a policy issue that would have otherwise passed unnoticed.
View a special interactive version of the progressive media map discussed in this article.
Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke
Jessica Clark is a former executive editor of In These Times and director of the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media.
Tracy Van Slyke, a former publisher of In These Times, is project director of The Media Consortium and co-editor of buildtheecho.net. Clark and Van Slyke are the co-authors of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press)