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Welcome to the Media Revolution (cont’d)

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Similarly, the progressive media network has come together to promote blogger and attorney Glenn Greenwald’s new book, How Would a Patriot Act? This first book by Working Assets Publishing, released in May, represents an experiment in rapid-response publishing and grassroots promotion. Conservative publishers, like Regnery Publishing, have made a mint and generated a wave of “experts” by aggressively promoting their books, like Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, to the conservative base via right-wing media. They sidestep the mainstream book reviews and market their books like political campaigns. Marjory G. Ross, Regnery’s publisher, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “We don’t really care about reviews because we want sparks to fly. That’s much easier on radio and TV than in print.”

Brought to market in just 12 weeks How Would a Patriot Act? hit the top of the Amazon charts before it was even published and debuted on the New York Times bestseller list in early June. The book was pushed by many progressive blogs, but older progressive media, however, are still a bit hesitant to jump into the fray. “It’s been like pulling teeth trying to get progressive media outlets to pay attention to the book,” Greenwald says.

Adopting the integration model, Robert Greenwald, the director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price Living, is pioneering a new model for distributing documentary films through grassroots channels. Journalists like Farai Chideya, pundits like Al Franken, comedians like Janeane Garofalo, academics like Juan Cole and politicians like Al Gore have become multimedia masters, spreading their ideas through progressive and commercial print media, radio, online outlets, books, television appearances and speaking engagements.

Collaborations among members of the media network can take many forms. Media outlets with a traditional journalistic mission may prefer to confine their work with other publications to syndication and cross-promotion. More overtly political media projects have already moved to merge content production with grassroots organizing. The YearlyKos conference, which takes place as this issue goes to press, exemplifies this trend. Organized by the readers and diarists at the popular progressive blog, DailyKos, observers have said this could be a watershed moment for the “netroots.”

The next frontier

All stripes of media are attempting to connect with the growing broadband audiences. The change is “happening in every media sector, television, motion, sound media” says Peter Ledyen, director of the think tank New Politics Institute. He identifies the most recent tipping point as September 2005, when news about Apple’s video iPods began to make the rounds. News of this new platform sparked a wave of investment into broadband content like short films and news clips. Ever since, Leyden says, it has been “a headlong, pell-mell, dizzy kind of rush. It’s very exciting and quite scary.”

He notes that progressives have an advantage in this new environment. The majority of the people at the front end of these new technologies have a progressive worldview and inhabit the coastal blue cities and urban hubs. “Companies innovating in this space are often run by out-and-out avowed progressive types,” he says.

Take “The Young Turks,” a trio of liberal radio hosts that can be heard on Sirius Satellite Radio and on the Web. They are pioneering the next frontier of online broadcasting. After a failed attempt to get MSNBC to pick up their radio show as a liberal TV show, the Young Turks went a different route. With the support of investors they bought digital cameras and rented studio space. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “In mid-December, they began streaming their three-hour show every weekday on their website … billing it as the first live Internet talk show,” writes Matea Gold. “In the process, they’ve helped pioneer the rapidly developing field of online programming–from webcasts to video podcasts and vlogs (the video version of a blog)–now delivering content that traditionally would have had to survive the television development season and pass the muster of network executives to find an audience.”

“The Young Turks” are part of an explosion of efforts to bypass network and cable channels and develop progressive content for emerging satellite, dish and digital broadcast platforms. Other efforts include more established broadcasters like LinkTV and Free Speech TV, online projects like PoliticsTV and The Real News, an effort to establish a progressive cable channel.

Traditional media–print, radio and television–are struggling to balance staying true to the tenets of journalism, with reaching new audiences with interactive features and, in some cases, the ideologically aggressive tone that has come to characterize much of the mainstream news environment.

This rapid technological evolution is challenging print publishers. But, as Arianna Huffington writes in a recent blog post on Huffingtonpost.com, “It’s not an either-or proposition. Despite drops in circulation, print magazines are not going the way of the dodo bird (indeed, there are over 5,000 more magazine titles on sale now than there were in 1988)–and the 75,000 new blogs appearing every day won’t be the death knell of Big Media. Instead, if the mainstream media play their cards right, the new media could provide a transfusion of energy, passion, and immediacy that will alter–and ultimately save–them. Provided they keep adapting to the changing technologies–and, more importantly, the changing audience.” The same can be said for the progressive media.

In order to flourish, progressive media makers must understand and pursue this new online audience, as the rise of the political blogosphere attests. Yet even the bloggers must contend with the hegemony of the mainstream media.

In “The Triangle: The Limits of Blog Power” on Salon.com, Peter Daou writes, “Simply put, without the participation of the media and the political establishment, the netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom … That is not to say that blogs can’t be the first to draw attention to an issue, as they often do, but the half-life of an online buzz can be measured in days and weeks, and even when a story has enough netroots momentum to float around for months, it will have little effect on the wider public discourse without the other sides of the triangle in place.”

While progressive bloggers focus on the daily news grind, other progressive media play a different, but equally important, role. Progressive outlets reported on the lies of the Bush administration and the atrocities in Darfur months before these became mainstream news stories. And they chronicled the hidden desperation of poor Americans–long before Katrina, which made Anderson Cooper famous for noticing the “news” that was all around him.

This static triangle of the beltway, the bloggers and the big boys of cable TV will not shift the debate. It will take a vibrant network of progressive media outlets, reporters, artists, grassroots organizers, politicians, researchers, celebrities, activists, think tanks and citizens working in concert.

Connections still to be made

With two and a half years left in the Bush presidency and the mid-term elections looming, progressives have begun developing a network that can elevate progressive ideals and experts into the mainstream, as well as media initiatives that reach critical new audiences. But is that enough? AlterNet Executive Editor Don Hazen noted in a recent article, “The emerging media elements, as feisty and effective as they are, don’t yet add up to an overall media vision and infrastructure. Much of the new progressive media capacity is reactive, lacking the ability to effectively frame a vision for the future.”

In order to shape the news instead of responding to it, progressive organizations and media outlets still need pipelines for moving stories, reporters and experts into each other’s outlets, as well as into agenda-setting media like “Meet the Press.”

While groups like the Institute for Public Accuracy promote progressive experts and academics to the mainstream media, no organizations are doing the same for the independent journalists and analysts. Progressives must develop and fund the next level of infrastructure to accomplish this. One idea worth discussing is the creation of a national progressive booking agency.

It is also time to harness progressive content through a national syndication service that will connect to other media outlets, including campus newspapers, the ethnic media and local opinion pages. Projects such as FeatureWell.com and the Progressive Media Project do place progressive content into mainstream outlets, but this has not been supported on a large scale.

The reporters, pundits and bloggers on the front lines of political debate need to forge stronger ties to the think tanks and organizations that provide the facts and research needed to make a case for progressive change. The Center for American Progress has made great strides in this area, as has the New York-based Drum Major Institute (DMI), which has revamped its operations to focus on communicating its findings to the a wider audience. “We have a saying here,” says Elana Levin, DMI’s director of communications. “If a report wasn’t read, it wasn’t written.” As part of its strategy, DMI requires its fellows to blog, a perfect example of bridging old and new communication models.

All of these strategies must work in tandem, connecting existing institutions with the evolving 21st century audience, thereby reaching people who previously only had access to mainstream news.

“What’s changed in the last five years is that the people who used to be called the audience are now co-participants in creating the news,” says Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site that explores the intersection of technology and politics. “Progressive media as a whole has become profoundly more small-d democratic, open and participatory.”

And all that gives progressive media the chance to find larger audiences than ever before. “The playing field has been leveled between so-called mainstream and so-called alternative media,” says Sifry. “I recently heard Amy Goodman brag that her ‘Democracy Now!’ podcast has as many subscribers on iTunes as Tim Russert’s ‘Meet the Press.’ Surely that tells us that the old notion of creating an ‘alternative’ media in opposition to the ‘mainstream’ has become meaningless. At a time when anyone can find any article or report from almost any news outlet in the world directly and instantaneously, it makes little sense to marginalize ourselves as ‘alternative.’”

It’s important to stay abreast of new media opportunities, but adopting and shifting into these new forms won’t be enough. In order to break through the din, members of the progressive media network will have to produce reporting and political entertainment that is surprising, immediate, factual and nuanced, using all of the tools at its disposal: collaboration, activism, aesthetics, humor, and a deep understanding of the power that progressive values and history have to inspire.

Bill Moyers recently told a meeting of public broadcasters, “One reason we get such pale and unquestioning journalism in America is that skepticism and irreverence toward the prerogatives of power and privilege are exactly what corporate media moguls don’t want from the journalists who work for them.”

Skepticism and irreverence, along with a commitment to the values of free speech, social justice, environmental conservation and equal opportunities for all, are what the 21st century audience is hungry for. It’s time for progressive media makers to seize the moment.

View a special interactive version of the progressive media map discussed in this article.

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)

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