Weekly Part 4: where do we go from here?
Three weeks ago, we began what has now turned into a four-part series:
The defining issue of our time is not the Iraq war. It is not the "global war on terror." It is not our inability (or unwillingness) to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care. Nor is it immigration, outsourcing, or growing income inequity. It is not education, it is not global warming, and it is not Social Security.
The defining issue of our time is the media.
The dominant political force of our time is not Karl Rove or the Christian Right or Bill Clinton. It is not the ruthlessness or the tactical and strategic superiority of the Republicans, and it is not your favorite theory about what is wrong with the Democrats.
The dominant political force of our time is the media.
A week later, we elaborated on the notion that the "dominant political force of our time is the media," with a look back at more than a decade of media treatment of progressive leaders including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Howard Dean, John Kerry, Jack Murtha, and Harry Reid.
Last week, we elaborated on the contention that the defining issue of our time is the media, by illustrating that whatever issue you care most about, the media are likely skewing the public debate on that issue.
Those three pieces have been warmly embraced by readers, particularly among the progressive blogosphere, a response for which we are grateful. They have also prompted a great deal of feedback, most commonly the question: What do we do about it?
We don't have an easy answer to that question; nor do we believe that an easy answer exists. But we do have several suggestions, some of them inspired by responses we've received to the first three parts of this series.
For progressives to change the way the media operates, it has to be a top priority for all progressives. Media Matters and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Eric Alterman and Eric Boehlert and a handful of others can't do this by ourselves: Every progressive must do his or her part.
Conservatives understand this. That's why media criticism on the Right isn't limited to Brent Bozell and Tim Graham and Ann Coulter and Bernie Goldberg. Republicans -- from small-town precinct chairs to the president of the United States -- make media criticism a regular part of their public statements. President Bush told tens of millions of viewers during a 2004 presidential debate "I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations." He famously strolled to Marine One in 2002 visibly carrying a copy of Bernard Goldberg's Bias under his arm, sending a signal to reporters, and to all Americans: The media are biased against Republicans. Even Laura Bush recently got in on the act, falsely claiming that newspapers didn't run stories about President Bush's high approval ratings on the front page. Decades of constant assault on the media from the Right has had an effect, skewing news coverage.
Progressives need to embrace media criticism at all levels, like conservatives do. When we do that, we'll be more successful than they are. After all, we're right on the substance.
Support progressive media watchdogs
If you'd like to send a few bucks our way to support our work, there's a "Donate" button at the top of the page (or, if you're reading this via email, at the bottom). But you can support us in other ways, as well. Most important: Read Media Matters' website. If you prefer to receive content via email, you can sign up for automatic delivery of this weekly update, or of all of our items as they occur (10-15 times per day) or of a daily compilation of links to everything we posted that day.
You can do more than simply read our items, though. Each item we post on our website includes, in the upper-right corner, a link to "Send to a friend," which you can use to email Media Matters content to others who may be interested. Each item contains contact information for the media we critique, so you can contact them and urge them to correct their mistakes -- and to avoid making the same mistake again. Each item includes a comment thread where you can discuss the misinformation we've identified, tell us and other readers about similarly flawed reporting you have encountered, and more.
But don't just support Media Matters. A growing number of progressives understand the point we made above: that all of us have to embrace and engage in media criticism. Media Matters isn't alone in doing interesting and important work in this field, nor would we want to be.
FAIR has been doing important work for decades. It recently released an excellent look back at "the Iraq War's Pollyanna pundits." Think Progress doesn't focus strictly on the media, but it does post criticism of media coverage of politics and policy nearly every day. Many progressive weblogs do the same. Some, such as News Hounds, who "watch Fox so you don't have to" (unfortunately, we still have to) are dedicated to monitoring and critiquing specific media outlets. Others, like Bob Somerby's Daily Howler blog, do valuable work chronicling and debunking the media-created storylines that shape our understanding of the political process. Alterman, author of the landmark What Liberal Media? (Basic Books, 2003) continues to provide excellent insight and analysis through his blog, Altercation, and regular columns for The Nation and the Center for American Progress. Greg Sargent of The American Prospect and New York magazine writes a new blog for the prospect called The Horses Mouth, which focuses on the political news media and often includes excellent original reporting. Huffington Post recently introduced "Eat the Press," a section that promotes progressive media voices and highlights conservative outrages.
Peter Daou, founder and editor of the Daou Report (and, in the interest of full disclosure, currently a consultant to Media Matters) is a frequent, and forceful, advocate for real change in the media landscape. Rolling Stone contributing editor Eric Boehlert's new book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Simon & Schuster, May 2006), like his previous writing for Salon and the Huffington Post, is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in how the media have distorted our understanding of politics and public policy.
All of them -- among others -- are worthy of your time and support. They aren't all for everybody; find the ones you like. Share their work with family, friends, and coworkers. Buy their books.
Remember Bernard Goldberg's Bias? Though it was thoroughly debunked, Goldberg was regularly given a platform to discuss his faulty premise and flawed evidence by the nation's leading news organizations. (A Nexis search for "Bernard Goldberg" and "Bias" yields 40 hits in the CNN file alone.)
Why was this inaccurate and misleading book given such prominent attention? Why have authors such as Goldberg and Ann Coulter been able to shape the public debate with their lies and their half-truths?
Because their fellow conservatives support them. The president of the United States gave Goldberg's Bias better advertising than money could buy, waving it in front of reporters, in effect telling them: This is an important book. Take it seriously. And helping to generate priceless media coverage of the book.
Meanwhile, important factual books like Boehlert's Lapdogs and Alterman's What Liberal Media? get comparatively little attention. Why the disparity? Certainly a large part of the reason is that major media outlets are more likely to respond to media criticism from the Right than from the Left. For example, as we recently pointed out, the media this spring experienced a bout of self-examination over Iraq war coverage -- but the question was always whether coverage was too critical, and never whether too little was being done to illustrate the human costs of the war.
But news organizations are more responsive to criticism from Right than the Left in large part because the Right forces them to respond. Books by Goldberg and Coulter and their like are relentlessly hyped by prominent conservatives -- even the president. Where is comparable support for Lapdogs among progressives? Nowhere to be found. Neither House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) nor Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean nor Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) nor Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) nor Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) nor any other progressive political leader has publicly endorsed this important work. Progressive media outlets haven't embraced it the way, for example, the National Review embraced Bias.
Likewise, C-SPAN has turned its airwaves over to Media Research Center president L. Brent Bozell III to conduct an interview, and other MRC events have been broadcast on C-SPAN as well. Yet when Media Matters' president David Brock recently moderated a panel discussion including Eleanor Clift, Al Franken, and Helen Thomas, C-SPAN refused to air the event - even though Thomas was, at the time, the subject of widespread media attention for controversial questions she asked President Bush at a press conference. When Media Matters hosted a panel discussion including Boehlert, Media Matters senior fellow and author Paul Waldman, USA Today reporter Kathy Kiely, and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Dick Polman, C-SPAN refused to cover it. They found time to broadcast a speech by actor Scott Bakula, but not a Media Matters' panel discussion featuring two of the nation's leading journalists and two authors of important new books.
Media Matters, FAIR, Think Progress, Boehlert, Alterman, and many more are all doing important work. But we need your help. Many of the media outlets we critique are, perhaps understandably, loathe to cover us -- even as they lavish attention on our conservative counterparts. That will change only when all progressives insist that it changes. When a prominent progressive leader walks in front of a group of reporters, pointedly carrying Lapdogs. When people contact C-SPAN and demand that they broadcast Media Matters events. When thousands -- millions -- of progressives send a message to the media that those of us who engage in media criticism full-time are not alone; we have the support and endorsement of the entire progressive movement.
Support independent and progressive media
While we all must continue to prod and encourage established media outlets to do a better job of covering politics and policy, there are alternatives. Conservatives who didn't like the coverage they were getting in The New York Times and CNN turned to talk radio and to Fox News and to other ideologically driven sources of news and information.
Progressives have the same opportunity, as a growing universe of progressive media emerges and matures. Actually, a better opportunity. The Right turned to Rush Limbaugh not because the "liberal media" it complained about was a real problem; their claims quickly fall apart under scrutiny. And not only did the Right seek a solution to a nonexistent problem, it did so by turning to a collection of two-bit hucksters and snake oil salesmen -- Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and The Washington Times, among others.
Progressives, on the other hand, have real, well-documented factual complaints with the media. (In December, we pointed out the different approach to media criticism taken by the Left and the Right: Unlike our counterparts on the Right, we actually go to the trouble of watching the television shows we critique.) And progressive media outlets like Air America, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The Nation, In These Times, The Young Turks, and the Washington Monthly, among others, don't share Rush Limbaugh's vitriol or Bill O'Reilly's increasingly strained relationship with reality. Progressives needn't rely on The New York Times, CNN, or Time magazine for their news; there are alternatives.
Embrace progressive blogs
If you haven't yet begun reading progressive blogs, start. When the traditional media were slow to cover the Downing Street Memo, blogs jumped on the story. When the traditional media seemed to continually get stories about the CIA leak investigation wrong, and pay it scant attention aside from political horse-race articles, progressive bloggers like Jane Hamsher and Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake -- and a few journalists, such as Murray Waas of the National Journal and Dan Froomkin of the WashingtonPost.com -- gave the story the persistent and thoughtful attention it deserved. Joshua Micah Marshall at Talking Points Memo regularly does the hard work of getting politicians on the record on issues they'd rather duck, often covering a story more thoroughly and in greater depth than entire national news organizations do.
If you haven't started reading progressive blogs because of the way they've been portrayed in the media -- unwashed, wild-eyed radicals toiling away in their parents' basement -- think again. The media portrayed Al Gore -- who never did anything to threaten or harm them -- as a liar, an exaggerator, a crazy, earth-tone wearing phony. You're going to take their word about bloggers who directly challenge their hegemony over the flow of information? Seems kind of silly, doesn't it?
See for yourself. You won't like everything you see, but chances are if you look around, you'll find something that suits your style and interests. And you'll find timely, incisive analysis of important issues that aren't getting the quality or quantity of attention they deserve in the traditional media. (Wondering where to start? Peter Daou's Daou Report "tracks leading blogs, message boards, news outlets, and independent websites from across the political spectrum -- providing a snapshot of the latest news, views, and online buzz.")
5. Urge progressive leaders to embrace media criticism
Only when you make clear to progressive leaders that you consider the media your top priority will they make it one of theirs. They won't do it on their own; they just aren't accustomed to it. When they get asked bogus questions based on bogus premises, they need to point that out. But they won't criticize the media, no matter how much it needs criticizing, unless you make clear to them that you think they should.
Tell Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Howard Dean and the leaders of think tanks and issues organizations with which you are affiliated: It's time for them to engage in this fight. And when they do -- as Pelosi did this week, refusing to accept Wolf Blitzer's flawed question, thank them. Encourage effective behavior.
Don't back down in the face of hostile media reaction
Many journalists are open to criticism of their work. They want to do their jobs as well as they can, and, though they may not always agree with the criticisms they receive, they respect and appreciate the process; they recognize that they aren't perfect.
Others ... others respond less favorably.
Former Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler, who now holds that position for the Public Broadcasting System, recently criticized Boehlert's Lapdogs, arguing that the book doesn't prove "that the press rolled over for Bush" because that "would mean knowing what was inside the heads of producers and editors at the time their news decisions were made." In response, Boehlert wrote: "I don't buy it. Journalists should be judged on the work they produce, not what's inside their heads while they're producing it." We at Media Matters agree completely. We can't know precisely what reporters are thinking and feeling while working on a story, even if we wanted to. Instead, while the Right launches allegations of "bias," we focus on content, not intent. Boehlert may not know why "the press rolled over for Bush" -- but it's clear after reading his book that they did.
New York Times public editor Byron Calame recently said at a journalism conference that "cheapened" feedback from Media Matters readers goes "straight into a folder," and suggested that Media Matters readers are insufficiently "thoughtful."
And that's one of the nicer reactions we've gotten recently.
ABC's Jake Tapper, whose false statements downplaying the White House's now-broken pledge to fire anyone involved in outing Valerie Plame we have repeatedly had to correct, lashed out at us this week. Again. Tapper has now accused us of "dishonesty" and "partisan martyrdom," which he says is an effort to fill our "professional coffers." He has said we are "clearly all-too-eager to engage in standards more fit to last-minute political attack ads than to fair and objective journalism." He has called us "partisan hacks" who "find conservative media bias in every reporter's ampersand." But while Tapper stoops to name-calling, Media Matters has stuck to the facts. Contrary to his suggestion that we allege "conservative media bias," we have done nothing of the kind. We've said he got something wrong, and we've provided facts to support that position. Like we said: We focus on content, not intent. But some reporters -- and Tapper seems to be one of them -- just can't stand to be told they are wrong. They lash out, they call names, and they claim we are doing something we aren't.
That's fine. We aren't going away, and neither should you.