Magazine article Dissent

Media, Democracy, and the Left

Magazine article Dissent

Media, Democracy, and the Left

Article excerpt

IF YOU HAD attended the most recent National Conference for Media Reform, held in Memphis, Tennessee, this past January and sponsored by Free Press (, you might think that the media reform movement is on a roll. There was a palpable sense of momentum in Memphis, as more than 3,000 attendees-a substantial increase over previous conferences in Madison, Wisconsin, and St. Louis, Missouri-filled the convention center to hear speakers such as Jesse Jackson, Bill Moyers, David Brancaccio, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Van Jones, Geena Davis, and Jane Fonda preach eloquently to the choir.

There is, indeed, reason for optimism. Thanks to people like the Memphis conferees, a lot of independent media are emerging, especially on the Internet. They run the gamut from independent news services, such as OneWorld and the video-based The Real News, to community broadcasting and a plethora of local, small-scale, and left-leaning media outlets.

But after decades of media concentration and broadcast deregulation, this important and overdue movement, mainly for independent alternatives to commercial media, is still in its infancy. It remains to be seen whether it can eventually transform the media mainstream, rather than merely supplement it.

One lesson of these gatherings is that the left should pay more attention to the media generally and to media reform in particular. This is important on several levels: most obviously, because politics is media-saturated, and failure to focus on the challenges and potentials of the mainstream media (and alternatives to them) means failure politically. This is not the age of Pericles; there is little significant political discourse outside of the (mostly commercial) public media. Blogs are not the answer.

Media savvy is more than just a tactical imperative or a critical pastime. The current regime of concentrated and hypercommercial media-in which Clear Channel alone owns some 1,200 radio stations-is inimical to two fundamental tenets of the left. One is greater economic equality; the other is greater political equality, aka democracy. We want to steer democracy toward a more egalitarian society; we also want to expand democracy. The questions of who controls the media and how they control it are relevant to both goals.

THERE is A significant literature on the failings of contemporary journalism, and a sagging shelf of books on the interpenetrations of media and politics. Of particular interest are the works on media concentration by Ben Bagdikian and Robert W. McChesney (the founder of Free Press) and studies of right-wing bias, such as those by Eric Alterman and Joe Conason. But we have to go to A.J. Liebling to find the root of the problem. The press, Liebling said, is "the weak slat under the bed of democracy." We have to ask why it is the weak slat, what it's doing under that bed that warrants our attention, and how to reconstruct it.

Democracies need quality journalism-just as they need quality education-to promote informed and active citizenship. Commercial news indentures democracy to the marketplace, whereas it ought to be the other way around, with the marketplace governed by democracy. The answer is not state-run or state-controlled media, but nonprofit media, and not just for journals of opinion.

The problem of journalistic excellence is not a common starting point for inquiries on the left. Despite the influence of critical theory and other radical critiques, American progressives have seldom viewed the mainstream media-as opposed to alternative media, muckraking, or investigative journalism-as central to their agenda. The left's natural alliances have been with labor and minority struggles; its agenda is, by definition, explicitly egalitarian.

Nevertheless, the media deserve greater attention on several levels. Most narrowly and tactically, progressives need to be smarter about using the media and about how the media are used by the right (as George Lakoff and others have urged). …

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