How the Left Can Win Arguments
and Influence People
by John K. Wilson
New York University Press,
What's wrong with America is not capitalism as a system but capitalism
as a religion. We worship the accumulation of wealth and treat
the horrible inequality between rich and poor as if it were an
act of God.
How the Right Won the Culture Wars
The right's victory in the public sphere
was not a triumph of logic over emotion or the victory of rational
argument over inferior ideas. That's not how our system works.
Progressives have failed to realize that winning an argument doesn't
mean winning the war. Although more Americans than ever before
share progressives ideas and although many of these leftist beliefs
(including gender equality, racial equality, environmentalism,
and support for many social programs) now dominate the mainstream,
the left itself is losing ground as a political force.
The right wing won the culture wars in
the same way they have taken control of our political system:
with money. It's more complicated than that, of course, it always
is. Part of the story includes clever organizing by the far right,
the growing corporatization of the media, and the failure of the
left to create an effective resistance. But ultimately, money
mattered, and the right simply overwhelmed the progressives with
its financial investment in an ideological struggle.
One small piece of this battle was in
publishing. Virtually every important right-wing book in the 1990s
was created and promoted with the help of tens of thousands (in
some cases, hundreds of thousands) of dollars in support from
right-wing foundations. From Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education
to Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, from the National Review to
the American Spectator, these ideas were subsidized and publicized,
played up by op-eds and reviews written at right-wing think tanks,
and aggressively promoted in the well-financed right-wing magazines.
D'Souza is a perfect example of how right-wing
money helps shape the public debate over the culture wars. D'Souza
entered the conservative network in college as editor of the Dartmouth
Review, which reveled in printing racism, such as an interview
with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke (illustrated on the
cover with a photo of a black man being lynched on campus). The
Review received a $10,000 grant from a conservative foundation
in 1980, and numerous other right-wing papers were given similar
funds to promote the campaign against what became known as "political
correctness." After writing a fawning biography of Jerry
Falwell, D'Souza was able to get a $30,000 grant from the Olin
Foundation to write his book Illiberal Education, plus a $20,000
grant to promote the book and a $98,400 research fellowship at
the American Enterprise Institute in 1991 when the book appeared.
Since then, D'Souza has profited handsomely by the playing the
role of a second-rate right-wing journalist turned public intellectual
with the help of generous conservative money.
This doesn't mean that authors are moving
to the right in order to make a buck (although it would be a rational
plan for any upwardly mobile intellectual-I'm currently open to
any and all offers of bribery to turn against the left). Instead,
people who would toil in obscurity on the left are heavily promoted
and subsidized because they're right-wingers. The right wing gives
its people training and encouragement, money and promotion, think
tank positions and "research" fellowships. The left,
though, offers virtually nothing except the certainty of another
The right's money also bought it organizing
strength. From the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition to
the Promise Keepers, the religious right can mobilize a large
number of people. Newt Gingrich himself was fined by Congress
for illicitly funneling money from corporate friends to his personal
nonprofit organizations (with the taxpayers paying for the tax
deductions) in order to train the Republican activists he hoped
would put him in the presidency.
Whining about the vast right-wing conspiracy
is a popular sport among progressives, but it accomplishes remarkably
little. Most people simply don't care about the gripes of poor
oppressed leftists. Although it may be effective to point out
the way that conservative foundations subsidize attack journalism
that is depicted as objective scholarship in the mainstream media,
progressives ultimately need to make arguments work on their own
Conservatives argue that the conspiracy
is really on the left, because large foundations such as Ford
and MacArthur have liberal tendencies. Of course, this is true
if you imagine that helping the poor is left-wing idea. Although
many foundations are liberal leaning, they mostly serve the function
of a shadow government, providing basic health, community, culture,
and human services that the government offers in most other countries.
The liberalism of foundations is a basic respect for all people,
not a political ideology geared toward changing media coverage
and government policies, as the conservative foundations aim to
In their book No Mercy, which analyzes
how right-wing foundations won the culture wars, Richard Delgado
and Jean Stefanic wrote:
America works best when it receives a
roughly equal infusion of ideas from the right and the left. For
nearly two decades, this balance has been tilting sharply. Today,
society is out of kilter, the right in full cry, the left defeated
and listless. Most new programs and initiatives come from the
right. The left has had little to do with setting the country's
agenda and seems unable to mount any sort of effective resistance
to the conservative juggernaut.
To fight the right, progressives must
organize an opposition to the current system that challenges the
status quo and brings popular progressive ideas into mainstream
... research showing the large number of mistakes made in death
penalty cases and students investigating how innocent people are
held on death row is far more effective than a thousand protests
of chanting activists.
When protests are held too often on issues that are too familiar,
the result is "protest fatigue." A protest every week
on the outrage of the day soon bores the media, the politicians,
the public, and the protesters themselves. The press might cover
the protest, but it will include snide comments about the size
of the crowd and only indifferent attention to the issue at hand.
This doesn't mean that progressives need to abandon protests as
a tactic but that protests need to be coordinated with other efforts.
One step in making a vast left-wing conspiracy
is manipulating the media. All the leftist think tanks and experts
in the world won't matter if the press continues to rely on the
conservative and establishment figures for their sound bites.
Writing letters to the editor complaining
about media bias and inaccuracy is a long-favored technique of
conservatives. It's effective, too: most studies show that the
letters column has more readers than the rest of the op-ed pages.
Don Wycliff, public editor of the Chicago Tribune, noted late
in the 2000 campaign that "virtually all the complaints about
campaign coverage seem to come from the George W. Bush camp-or
his camp followers." The conservatives rants powerfully influence
the media by reinforcing the myth of the liberal media. When I
complained to the media magazine Brill's Content about its choice
of Newt Gingrich's pollster Frank Luntz to do a "neutral"
poll about the media, Steven Brill responded that he chose Luntz
because "we get criticized for being too much on the left."
Brill's Content is a thoroughly mainstream corporate magazine,
but conservatives are able to manipulate its content by force
Simply writing a letter to the editor
isn't enough: progressives need to call, write, and e-mail the
reporters and news editors as well, to voice their concerns and
suggest organizations and experts who should be contacted the
next time something is written on this topic. And when your letter
to the editor concerns state or national legislation, copies should
also go to your representatives.
Conservatives in America have become professional
whiners, complaining about the repression of their ideas at every
turn, with catch-phrases about the "liberal media" or
"political correctness" to prove their oppression. Progressives
also need to learn how to whine, not how to grouse with one's
comrades over a cup of java in some anticorporate coffeehouse,
but how to whine effectively to the right people in the right
Progressives also need to create local
and national media watchdog organizations that can apply pressure
on the mainstream media. Refusing to allow the center-right media
to be defined as "liberal" and pressuring reporters
to include progressive ideas will have a ripple effect: politicians
will pay attention to what the media are focusing on, and the
public will support progressive ideas when they have an opportunity
to hear them.
Progressives can't depend on the mainstream
media to represent the ideas of the left. Instead, progressives
need to create their own print, broadcast, and Internet media.
HOW TO GET A LETTER PUBLISHED
Letters to the editor are a powerful way
of influencing the media and also getting progressive ideas in
the public eye. Most national newspapers such as the New York
Times and the Washington Post are highly selective, but many smaller
community newspapers will publish just about anything. Here's
a list of what to keep in mind:
Be nice. Never insult or question the
credibility of the publication, even if it deserves it. One might
hope that journalists had the courage to print scathing criticism
of themselves, but don't bet on it. I've written dozens of letters
that never saw print because of my excessive enthusiasm for telling
Keep it short. Remember, editors are lazy.
They don't want to edit letters (but they sometimes will). They
always prefer a concise letter to a long, rambling diatribe. And
it's better to write a short letter than to have your argument
cut to pieces because of space limitations. Look at the publication
you're writing to in order to get a sense of the normal preferred
length for letters.
Respond to the story. A letter is not
the opportunity to fulfill your literary talents. Stay close to
the piece you're writing about. Some newspapers will publish occasional
letters from out of left field, but it's rare. If you feel inspiration
on some subject, try submitting a op-ed if the newspaper accepts
them, or wait for the right topic to pop up in the paper.
Write it quickly. If you mail a letter
one week after a story appears, it will have virtually no chance
of getting published in a major newspaper. Use e-mail, and respond
within one day. That gives the editor more time to find a space
for it, and readers are more likely to remember the original article.
Say something interesting. This is easier
said than done, but it's crucial. Mere disagreement or outrage
is not grounds for having a letter published. Finding an original
position or an original way of phrasing an argument greatly increases
the likelihood of having a letter accepted. Don't repeat an argument
that's already been made (or attacked) in the op-ed pages-instead,
try to surprise the op-ed editor with an idea that hasn't been
considered. If you don't have a good idea, don't bother writing.
Do not quote anyone (unless you're repeating
something from the original story). This is not the time (is there
ever a time?) to haul out the Bartlett's for the perfect quotation
from Shakespeare. Nor is it the time to quote Marx, Lenin, Chomsky,
or anybody else. The Bible may be quoted against religious conservatives,
but that's the only exception.
Use your status. If you are a professor
or an expert on the topic, you should mention it in the byline.
High-status writers are more likely to get published and to convince
readers if their status is listed after their name in the newspaper.
Be aware of syndication. If you want to
write something against a syndicated columnist, it's possible
to write the same letter to many different newspapers, using the
web to find out where the column appeared. Be careful: most newspapers
hate this, and if you do it often, you'll end up on a letter-writing
blacklist (no one will admit it, but every newspaper has a group
of people it usually bars from publication). The major media will
check to make sure you wrote the letter and haven't submitted
it anywhere else.
Document your facts. If you are including
facts or statistics (usually you shouldn't) that weren't published
by the newspaper, include the references where this information
can be checked (as a postscript). Editors don't want to print
factual errors in the letter column, and it's easiest for them
to throw a letter away if it includes any questionable numbers.
... American centrism is a philosophy of moderation and inaction,
standing for nothing and hoping that everything goes well enough
to avoid making any decisions.
Democratic centrists are people who wave
with the latest political wind, measured by an ever-present poll.
They stand on no principles except the Machiavellian principle
of maintaining political power.
Centrism fails as a political philosophy
because nobody, not even a centrist, believes in it. Most centrists
in America are not ideologically stuck in the middle between the
Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, it's becoming increasingly
difficult to tell the difference between the procorporate policies
of the Democratic Party and the procorporate policies of the Republican
Party. Centrists in America are centrists because of their disillusionment
Ronald Reagan was widely liked and respected by a large part of
the American people, even though his conservative policies ran
counter to the prevailing will.
In 1998, 395 of 402 members of the House of Representatives ran
for reelection and won - a reelection rate of more than 98 percent.
In many ways, the Democrats are a more corrupt party than the
Republicans, because corporations buy influence in Washington
in two ways: first, by giving large amounts of money to candidates
who agree with their views (primarily Republicans) in order to
help them get elected and, second, by giving large amounts of
money to ambivalent candidates (primarily Democrats) to persuade
them to support procorporate positions. While most Republicans
are simply getting paid to vote their consciences, many Democrats
are actively selling out in order to get the money they need for
Unfortunately, the power of money that has corrupted all of American
politics has had its greatest impact on the Democratic Party.
Big corporate donations don't fundamentally alter the Republicans'
ideology. In the Democratic Party, though, the battle between
the corporate centrists and the liberal left has been decisively
won by the people with the most money.
The worst part of our corrupt campaign finance system is not the
bribery but the apathy. The American people see a government that
does not belong to them. When something is not yours, indifference
is the consequence. The principal reason for public disgust with
our government is the belief that our politicians are bought and
sold by special interests with huge amounts of money. The only
way to restore confidence in our government is not by sanctimonious,
cliché-filled speeches urging greater public interest in
elections but by altering the system that gives wealthy private
interests so much control over our government.
The Myth of the Liberal Media
The accusation of a "liberal bias in the media is believed
because it is repeated so often. From [Rush] Limbaugh and G. Gordon
Liddy to Oliver North and a legion of lesser-known radio hosts,
from the McLaughlin Group and Tony Snow to Thomas Sowell and the
Wall Street Journal op-ed pages, "liberal media" have
become the conservative pundit's favorite term. And because conservative
voices outnumber progressive ones by a wide margin in the mainstream
media, the cry of liberal bias usually goes unchallenged.
The constant attacks on a "liberal
media" affect public opinion. A 1999 study by Republican
pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of Republicans think
that most journalists are more liberal than they are and 7 percent
think journalists share their ideology. That's hardly surprising.
But even 47 percent of Democrats see journalists as more liberal
than they are, with 16 percent sharing their ideology and 28 percent
perceiving journalists as more conservative.
Yet evidence of a "liberal bias"
in the media doesn't exist. These conservative claims are based
on a few shoddy studies and dubious anecdotes. The overwhelming
number of conservative voices in the press complaining about "liberal
bias"-and the near absence of progressives attacking the
more clear-cut examples of conservative bias-is proof by itself
that the left, not the right, is shut out of the mainstream media.
The right's relentless attacks on the media help explain why so
many people imagine that the media are "liberal." In
the war of ideas, the left is winning the battles on the ground
but watching the media report j them all as losses.
A 1998 study by Vassar sociology professor William Haynes found
that the public affairs programs on PBS showed none of the liberal
bias imagined by critics. In fact, PBS has been dominated by right-wing
talk shows (such as Firing Line, McLaughlin Group, McLaughlin
One on One) and uncritical business programs (Bloomberg Morning
News, Morning and Nightly Business Reports, Wall Street Week).
Corporate representatives and Wall Street sources accounted for
35.3 percent of the appearances, followed closely by professionals
(primarily mainstream journalists and government officials (25.6
percent each). The general public and citizen activists accounted
for only 10 percent of the sources, down from 18 percent in a
similar study made six years earlier.
This is true mostly of the lower echelon of beginning journalists.
At the level of high-priced "star" journalism-the John
McLaughlins, the George Wills, the David Brinkleys, the Ted Koppels-no
one believes that the conservatives are suffering. Once journalists
reach the highest tax bracket, their concerns about the poor become
more distant. Moreover, many of the media "stars" aren't
really journalists at all. From Tony Snow (the only Sunday morning
talk show host with a clear ideological perspective as a former
Bush speechwriter) to George Will to Matt Drudge, the most influential
media voices come from the mouths of conservative advocates.
Celebrity journalists are also lured by
the money offered them to speak at corporate gatherings and conventions.
From Cokie Roberts to most of the McLaughlin Group, tens of thousands
of dollars are available to "journalists" ready to speak
to powerful lobbying groups and corporations. Of course, none
of them reveal to the public that they've taken large sums of
money from companies with a direct interest in the policies they
discuss. Progressives critiquing capitalism aren't paid tens of
thousands of dollars to talk to capitalists; celebrity journalists
would never be invited to give a liberal slant on the world for
a hefty price tag.
Even if these rich journalists turn out
to have a few liberal sympathies buried deep in their heart, it
doesn't matter: the media conglomerates who hire them are concerned
only with seeing media products made at the lowest possible cost
and offering the highest possible profits.
The Conservative Bias of the Media
If you want to understand the nature (or
bias) of a car, you look at the people who run the auto industry
and the people they hire to design cars. The people who assemble
the car in the factories are essential but not important: the
autoworkers don't change the cars; they only make them correctly
or badly. If someone discovered that autoworkers like Porsches,
it wouldn't make a bit of difference to the Escorts they actually
Of course, journalism is not quite like
auto assembly, but the resemblance is far greater than journalists
or the public likes to imagine. The media create a consumable
product, carefully arranged and directed. Reporters do what they're
told and write in a standardized, "objective" manner
about the topics they're assigned to cover. Editors monitor their
work. The bosses decide who gets hired and fired. Conservatives
are quick to complain and apply heavy pressure at the first sign
of a "liberal" tendency in any reporting.
Right-wingers have been complaining about
"liberal bias" for decades. They created organizations
such as Accuracy in Media (AIM), the Media Research Center, and
the American Enterprise Institute's Center for Media and Public
Affairs to attack the mainstream press and promote conservative
causes. The mainstream media are sensitive to the accusations
of "liberal bias" and bend over backward to appease
the far right. Then I criticized Steven Brill, the founder of
the centrist media criticism magazine Brill's Content, for employing
right-winger Frank Luntz to conduct a poll on media bias, Brill
replied that he had chosen Luntz because "we get criticized
for being too much on the left.")
Investigative reporter Robert Parry, who
worked at the Associated Press and Newsweek, noted that "mainstream
journalists lived with a constant career dread of being labeled
'liberal.' To be so branded opened a journalist to relentless
attack by well-funded right-wing media 'watchdog' groups and other
conservative operatives. AIM, for example, succeeded in having
New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner removed from his Central
America beat after he wrote about massacres by U.S.-supported
troops. Many years later, UN excavations found that his reports
were completely accurate." On the rare occasions when the
media reveal the truth, they almost inevitably face condemnation
from the far right for "liberal bias."
The money of the right wing buys more
than just these well-financed "watchdog" groups to promote
the myth of the liberal media. The conservative funding also finances
right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute,
the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, which provide
easy jobs for conservatives who produce the sound bites and op-eds
to fill up the mainstream news stories and editorial pages. According
to a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), more
than half the think tanks cited in the Lexis-Nexis database of
media coverage each year are right leaning (51 percent in 1999).
About one-third (35 percent in 1999) are centrist think tanks
such as the Brookings Institution (which is headed by a Republican),
but far fewer (13 percent in 1999) represent progressive perspectives.
Because the ideology behind the conservative think tanks is rarely
identified by reporters, the conservative bias of sources goes
unnoticed. Although many progressive think tanks exist (including
the Economic Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities, and the World Policy Institute), media professionals
don't like to use them.
Conservative think tanks usually have
more money than progressive ones, because the right is willing
to serve wealthy corporate interests. Conservative pundits are
often quite willing to sell their services. Former New York lieutenant
governor Betsy McCaughey Ross wrote to the president of the Pharmaceutical
Research and Manufacturers of America asking the lobbying group
"to support my work at the Hudson Institute, because my writings
on healthcare policy can make a substantial difference in public
opinion and in the nation's capital. My track record proves it."
As intellectuals for hire, the right offers journalists mouthpieces
for corporate America with the veneer of neutrality provided under
the guise of a think tank.
The reason for excluding left-wing views
isn't an aversion to radical ideas, for the most popular conservative
think tank is the libertarian Cato Institute, which promotes many
views far out of the mainstream. Nor are progressive think tanks
excluded because of their own failure to contact journalists,
since many left-leaning think tanks seek media coverage more aggressively
than do the better-funded conservative think tanks. The main problem
is that reporters seem to be biased toward presenting political
debates as a battle between the right and the center. Because
the left is excluded from American politics, it's also excluded
from the American media.
On virtually every issue, journalists usually head straight to
the government experts, conservative pundits, and corporate PR
hacks, ignoring progressive voices. The 1996 Greenberg survey
found that the groups that journalists "nearly always"
consulted on economic issues were government officials (51 percent),
business representatives (31 percent), think-tank analysts (17
percent), university academics (10 percent, who in the field of
economics typically lean to the right), and Wall Street analysts
(9 percent). By contrast, labor representatives (5 percent) and
consumer advocates (5 percent) are far less likely than business
representatives and their supporters to appear in these news stories.
When reporters who support the status quo quote the representatives
of the status quo, where could there be any "left-wing"
... the Fox News Network was started by billionaire Rupert Murdoch
and is run by Roger Ailes, the head of George Bush's 1988 campaign
for president. Murdoch similarly bankrolls the right-wing New
York Post (which loses $20 million a year) and the right-wing
magazine, the Weekly Standard, to provide a far right alternative
to the center-right mainstream media.
Murdoch also eliminated the BBC World
Service Television from his Asian satellite network after the
Chinese government objected.
Richard Mellon Scaife's fortune enables him to finance right-wing
causes through his foundation (such as financing the American
Spectator magazine) as well printing the conservative Pittsburgh
Tribune-Review, which featured Christopher Ruddy's front-page
anti-Clinton conspiracy theories that both Vince Foster and Commerce
Secretary Ron Brown had been murdered.
There are good economic reasons that media
conglomerates wish to avoid being labeled as conservative, even
if their reporting generally is. Media corporations are in the
business of making money, not ideology. A newspaper that explicitly
tilts far to the right would alienate too many readers and create
the opportunity for genuine progressive competition. Although
newspaper subscribers and other news consumers tend to be wealthier
and more conservative than the general population (in part because
the absence of progressive media drives many people away from
the news media altogether), news consumers are still more progressive
at heart than the American political establishment, which is biased
toward those who can attract enough donations to win an election.
Media conglomerates also have good economic
reasons to avoid challenging the political establishment. During
the debate over the 1995 Telecommunications Act, media conglomerates
gave $2 million to politicians over a six-month period in an attempt
at influence peddling. Not surprising, few reporters offered serious
investigative reporting of their own company's attempt to buy
favorable legislation, and as a result, this massive giveaway
of tens of billions of dollars in public airwaves went largely
unnoticed by the public.
Unlike progressives, the conservatives also have the advantage
of media exclusively devoted to their ideas: a cable news channel
(Fox) that is explicitly to the right of the mainstream, numerous
religious TV and radio networks that promote their causes without
any of the "objectivity" inhibitions of the mainstream
media, and many radio talk shows, led by Rush Limbaugh, that allow
conservatives to push their values without opposition. The conservative
media help spread the myth of liberal bias, since the mainstream
media certainly do seem a little liberal when compared with Limbaugh.
Only in the realm of magazines, with high-quality
products such as Mother Jones, Harper's, The Nation, In These
Times, the American Prospect, and Z Magazine, have progressives
competed effectively against the better-funded right-wing counterparts
of the National Review, the American Spectator, and the Weekly
Standard. But these progressive magazines tend to preach to the
choir-although their investigative journalism is excellent, the
information rarely reaches the mainstream public. While the far
right concentrates on reaching the mainstream media, the left
struggles to keep a few small magazines alive.
The big reason for this disparity is money.
The word media is a plural noun. But after a wave of mergers,
monopolization, and homogenization in recent years, "the
media" need to be considered a singular entity. The media
not only act as our eyes and ears, they also help shape our thoughts
by providing the information that tells us what we ought to think.
While conservatives frequently attack "liberal bias"
among news reporters (despite the lack of evidence that their
personal views are truly left wing or affect the reporting), the
only place where biases are openly expressed is on the op-ed pages.
Here conservatives dominate the debate of ideas. As presidential
endorsements show, most newspapers lean to the right in their
editorial perspective, and conservatives dominate syndicated columns.
According to a 1999 survey by Editor and Publisher magazine, the
leading syndicated columnists are right-wingers. James Dobson,
president of Focus on the Family, leads the pack by appearing
in 550 papers, followed closely by fellow right wingers Cal Thomas,
Robert Novak, and George Will, all of whose columns appear in
more than 480 papers. Several other conservatives make the list
of 250 or more papers, including Mona Charen, Thomas Sowell, Morton
Kondracke, Joseph Perkins, and Ben Wattenberg. Meanwhile, the
only liberals appearing in at least 250 newspapers are Ellen Goodman
(425) and Molly Ivins (250+), along with the left-leaning Nat
Hentoff (250), and centrists Art Buchwald (250+) and David Broder
Conservatives also are able to express
their ideas more openly on television. There is no liberal counterpart
to John McLaughlin or William F. Buckley with a weekly program
on PBS, nor a left-wing news network to counter the explicitly
conservative Fox News Network, nor a leftist critiquing society
with the freedom that John Stossel of 20/20 has on ABC.
Stossel is quite open about his right-wing
bias: "I have come to believe that markets are magical and
the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the
beauties of the free market." Stossel reports not only on
20/20, he also has a full-time staff to produce several "documentaries"
a year on topics such as greed (which is good) and organic food
(which is bad). Stossel regularly speaks to corporate clients
for large fees and donates some of his fees to the conservative
Palmer Chitester Fund that promotes-coincidentally enough-the
Stossel in the Classroom program to push his free-market ideas
The problem with the media is not the
presence of conservatives such as Stossel but the absence of contrary
views. Leftists should not seek to silence Stossel, despite his
one-sided programs and their questionable accuracy. Rather, it's
the silencing of progressive voices that must be the greater concern;
a bland centrism without critical voices from the left or the
right would be no better than the status quo. The main problem
is that a leftist version of Stossel would be fired almost immediately
by his corporate bosses if an advertising boycott organized by
the far right didn't get rid of him first. Conservatives such
as Stossel create the opportunity for progressives to demand that
the other side of the story must be heard.
Even a supposedly "liberal" medium such as public broadcasting
is heavily controlled by its advertisers (or "sponsors,"
since advertising is technically, but not actually, prohibited).
National Public Radio has a daily Business Report but no Labor
Report. When a producer attempted to create a labor-oriented public
television show, the Public Broadcasting System refused to allow
it on the grounds that funding from labor unions compromised its
objectivity-even though numerous probusiness programs are sponsored
Truth at War: Journalists and the Military
During peacetime, the media rarely challenge
political authority. But when war begins, the critical role of
the press disappears almost completely, and it becomes a propaganda
agent for the Pentagon. As Dan Rather observed in his 1999 book
Deadlines and Datelines, "The fact is, and the record shows,
American journalists as a whole are, and have been over the years,
decidedly promilitary. Foreign reporters and other international
observers often accuse us of favoring our armed forces, and they're
right. We try not to show our bias, but it manifests itself almost
every time U.S. military forces are deployed anywhere in the world."
Even during peacetime, the military maintains
close relations with the media. Dutch reporter Abe de Vries revealed
that in 1999, CNN employed army propaganda experts from the Fourth
Psychological Operations Group. Major Thomas Collins of the U.S.
Army Information Service declared that the "psyops personnel"
worked at CNN in Atlanta as "regular employees of CNN"
as part of the army's "Training with Industry" program
and "helped in the production of news."
Although reporters' patriotism is one
reason that critical reporting disappears during a war, journalists
have a genuine problem getting independent information when government
secrecy is considered acceptable. During the Gulf War and other
major conflicts, the Pentagon maintained strict censorship over
reporters and provided the pictures it wants to show, to the point
of deceiving journalists and the public about the accuracy of
its bombing missions that killed thousands of civilians in Iraq.
Indeed, most of the debates over wartime policy reflect internal
Pentagon arguments, not the perspective of those who believe that
war is unnecessary. When the bombs fall, the standards of journalism
fall with them.
Most journalism bears no resemblance to aggressive investigative
journalism. In fact, most media coverage bears no connection to
journalism: it's entertainment, weather, features, sports, comics,
and, most of all, advertising, with a small news hole. The main
goal of most TV news departments is to produce cheap, ratings-driven
features; most informational radio is devoted to the same news
headlines repeated every ten minutes or to talk shows that tilt
wildly to the right and are freed from any journalistic standards.
Even newspapers devote surprisingly little space to actual news.
It's simply not a priority: at the Chicago Tribune, one sports
columnist is paid $225,000, twice as much as the maximum for any
news editor. When infotainment reigns supreme over investigative
journalism, the news will deviate little from the establishment's
The Media on Crack: Covering Up for the
In August 1996, journalist Gary Webb of
the San Jose Mercury News shook the world with a series of articles
revealing links between the CIA's operations and drug dealing,
including some of the major figures who helped launch the crack
epidemic during the 1980s in California. If the media were liberal
or even neutral, the reaction should have been predictable: widespread
praise, a Pulitzer Prize and other honors, and follow-up investigations
on the ties between the U.S. government and all sorts of loathsome
Instead, Webb faced a smear campaign from
all the top newspapers, an attack unprecedented in the history
of journalism. His colleagues seemed determined to undermine his
articles, and when it proved impossible to refute fairly what
he had written, they went after an absurd hyperbole of his journalism.
Webb's CIA/crack story is still probably
the most widely read piece of journalism ever written. Webb, who
for his series was named "Journalist of the Year" by
the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional
Journalists, lost his job over this solid piece of investigative
reporting, a clear example of how the media regulate journalists
who dare examine an issue embarrassing to our government.
Webb's series revealed far more than the fact that the CIA was
willing to overlook drug dealing in its relentless efforts to
overthrow the Nicaraguan government. It exposed the mainstream
media's role as apologists for the authorities. It was bad enough
that major newspapers ignored the CIA-contra-crack link when the
information was first uncovered in the 1980s by a congressional
investigation. But to launch a crusade against the journalist
who printed the important news they had overlooked amounted to
sacrificing journalistic ethics for professional jealousy.
As Webb himself noted, "Nothing in
their stories says there is anything wrong with what I wrote.
In fact, they have confirmed every element of it." But the
mainstream press spun the evidence indicating CIA involvement
as if it were an exoneration, based on the strange idea that Webb
had asserted some kind of CIA conspiracy attempted to push crack
in certain neighborhoods.
The Webb case offers several lessons to
progressives. First, it should eliminate any delusions about the
willingness of the mainstream press to ignore stories that question
powerful institutions. The more important and revealing a story
is, the less likely it will ever appear in the establishment press.
Progressives should also be aware of how dangerous it can be to
associate with radical conspiracy theories. In the Webb case,
journalists and government officials used the most extreme rumors
to dismiss the most accurate reporting.
When the pressure from the mainstream
media grew intense, San Jose Mercury News executive editor Jerry
Ceppos buckled, apologizing for Webb's investigation. Webb's follow-up
stories-proving that what he had written was accurate and expanding
the investigation-weren't published. As retaliation, Webb was
eventually exiled to the newspaper's Cupertino bureau, far away
from his family and from any compelling stories to report. No
longer allowed to be an investigative journalist, Webb resigned.
In the end, the title of Webb's series,
"Dark Alliance," proved to be prescient. But rather
than simply revealing a dark alliance between the CIA and pro-contra
Nicaraguan drug dealers, his case showed a dark alliance between
the media and the political establishment to conceal embarrassing
evidence of misbehavior by government officials that helped spread
the devastating epidemic of drugs in America.
Conclusion: The Reign of the Conservative
Why do Americans perceive a liberal media?
One reason is the I mythology of the media: we still imagine journalists
to be like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who aggressively pursued
President Nixon's crimes and forced him out of office. The fact
that so few journalists (not even Woodward and Bernstein) act
that way anymore, or ever did, doesn't stop the myth from persisting.
Another reason that people perceive the
media as liberal is that the public tends to notice only unusual
reporting. There is a conservative baseline for the media that
the public has taken as the norm: when the media follow the status
quo, nobody sees it. But if the media on rare occasions actually
investigate the political establishment, it sticks in people's
minds. So they perceive the media as liberal, perhaps because
the public sees the even greater conservative control over the
According to conservatives, corporate
America is the victim of a devious liberal media conspiracy. Big
media corporations hire liberal reporters who attack them. Big
corporations advertise in these proliberal newspapers. Wealthy,
conservative people subscribe to these proliberal newspapers.
Yet the well-paid "liberal" journalists, like the lovable
prisoners in Hogan's Heroes who run a spy operation under Colonel
Klink's monocled eye, secretly evade their profit-hungry bosses,
their advertisers, and their readers in order to spread the message
of the left through various secret codes cleverly inserted into
those stories passively quoting government officials and business
The conservative conspiracy theories don't
make any sense. Millionaire TV anchors twisting the news in favor
of the poor? Corporate executives applauding the journalists who
attack the companies they run? Liberal bias isn't a profitable
endeavor. It goes against every rule of capitalism and journalism
for liberal bias to dominate the media. In a free market, a liberal
media bias could never survive. And it hasn't.
Why, then, do the charges of liberal bias
stick? Because Rush Limbaugh and a legion of right-wing talk show
hosts and opinion writers regularly repeat that the media are
liberal, and the absence of progressive voices in the mainstream
media makes it difficult for the opposing view to be heard. For
the media owners, allegations of a liberal bias make it easier
for them to impose the conservative bias they prefer. For the
pseudoliberals who work in the media system, confessing to a liberal
bias is far more comfortable than admitting that they've sold
out their beliefs for a nice salary. It's only because the mainstream
media is so conservative that all these right-wing pundits can
make accusations of liberal bias without opposition.
Progressives do, however, bear some responsibility
for the perception that the media are liberal. Although a few
organizations point out the media's conservative bias (most notably
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) and a few progressive magazines
haphazardly discuss it, many leftists would rather march in a
protest than write a letter to the editor.
One mistake many progressives make is
to try to defend the media against conservative attacks. Staying
on the defensive only makes it seem like the media really are
liberal. While it is important to refute inaccurate conservative
allegations of liberal bias, the best way to do that is by going
on the offensive and pointing out the procorporate, right-wing
bias at every opportunity.
Progressives can change the conservative
bias of the media and challenge the media biases at every turn.
Letters to the editor, calls to radio talk shows, participation
in media watch organizations-all these tactics are important to
counter the public's misperception of a liberal media and to present
a progressive perspective on various issues. Equally important
is the creation of alternative media-newspapers, magazines, web
sites, radio programs, cable access programs-that provide a place
for stories and perspectives excluded from the mainstream media.
By demanding an equal place in the media,
progressives can swing the political debate in their direction.
In a political system corrupted by money, progressives will always
be at a disadvantage. But if progressive ideas can be heard in
the media, the left will have an advantage in shaping the future
of American politics.
THE GLOBALIZATION WARS
How the Left Won (and Lost) the "Battle
Victory isn't easy for the left, even
when it wins. One example in which progressives did almost everything
right (but nevertheless was widely attacked) was the 1999 World
Trade Organization (WTO) hearings in Seattle. Thanks to the hard
work of leftists around the country (and the world), Seattle was
overrun by more than 50,000 protesters who were determined to
bring public attention to a powerful, secretive trade group.
A huge rally organized by labor groups
brought tens of thousands marching through Seattle, complete with
union workers and environmentalists in sea turtle costumes. Thousands
of protesters linked arms and prevented the opening session of
the WTO from meeting.
Most of the media coverage blamed the
protesters for property damage that was planned and caused by
anarchists and not stopped by the police.
But the protesters did have a powerful
effect on the scene, where the bias of the American media was
less important to the delegates, many of whom sympathized with
some of the protests. President Clinton, the world's leading trend
detector, expressed his support for listening to the peaceful
protesters, showing that he was more alert to the persuasive power
of the anti-WTO forces than most of the media.
Seattle and Washington left the left with
many lessons. The first was never to let the media choose what
the issue would be. Unfortunately, journalists (and their editors)
are trained to overlook an important point for the sake of a flashy
image and to portray a dramatic confrontation rather than a moral
cause. This doesn't excuse the inaccurate reporting, biased attacks,
and unquestioning defense of the authorities that filled most
of the front pages and TV news about the WTO and IMF demonstrations.
The progressives failed to spin the issue beyond their simple
anti-WTO message. The reasons for opposing the WTO got some mention,
but the idea of an alternative international organization built
on genuine "free trade" and the protection of basic
human rights never was aired.
The left has become so accustomed to being
ignored that progressives have wisely refined the attention-grabbing
techniques of theatrical protest that can convey a simple message.
Unfortunately, the left hasn't developed the difficult techniques
of bringing more complex arguments into the public debate, and
the result is that progressive views seem shallow and emotional
compared with the more extensive coverage of the ideas of the
right and the center in the mainstream media.
Still, Seattle was both a success and
an opportunity lost. The left brought attention to an organization
without many redeeming values, but it never was able to launch
a serious debate about what the alternative global values should
Ignoring the massive evidence of police
misconduct and brutality, the media served a well-defined role
as gatekeepers of the truth. When the media criticized Seattle
officials, it was for "permitting" the peaceful protestors
to exercise their right to protest instead of shutting down the
city, as happened for the rest of the WTO meetings.
Still, the inability of the left to unify
their ideas as easily as they unified behind the physical protest
made it possible for many of the media errors to go unchallenged.
Imagine if all the groups united behind the WTO protests had planned
to meet after the initial melee and formulate a united response.
How Progressives Differ from Conservatives
... Conservatives have power but not popularity-the
public hates their ideas, but their well-financed influence over
the media and politics more than compensates for this failing.
As a result, conservatives must constantly engage in a campaign
of deceit by disguising what they believe in order to avoid alienating
the American people.
Progressives have popularity but not power-the
public would like their ideas if the left could ever have them
taken seriously by the political and media powers-that-be. As
a result, progressives must not imitate conservative tactics of
deception. The notion that success in American politics requires
moving rhetorically to the center in order to conceal one's true
ideas is a tactic that applies only to the conservatives, who
have manipulated the political process because they have no other
Progressives don't need to lie; they need
to overcome their power deficit.
The Defense Industry
The enormous peacetime military budget
is the largest single source of corporate welfare, but until the
1980s it was relatively small. The massive increases during the
Reagan administration, however, gave defense contractors considerable
profits to invest in lobbying activities.
The Defense Department is the most wasteful
part of our government, and yet no one proposes ending the military
as we know it. The stories about a $640 toilet seat and a $437
tape measure are infamous. Less well known is the fact that between
1985 and 1995, the Defense Department "lost" $13 billion
handed out to weapons contractors, and another $15 billion could
not be accounted for. Now the Pentagon has spent millions to subsidize
corporate mergers of defense contractors. It's probably the only
example of a customer eagerly paying to reduce the competition
The military dominance of the United States
over the rest of the world is unparalleled in human history. No
great empire- not Egypt, not Rome, not anyone-has ever before
had such complete power over the entirety of the Earth. Most of
the nations of the world would have difficulty killing even a
single American soldier during a devastating U.S. attack.
In the past, the military budget was justified
by the need to stay above the Soviet Union's military spending.
With that Communist empire lying in ruins and its defense forces
almost eviscerated, what possible reason could there be to continue
running up cold war defense budgets? At the time of its war with
the United States, Iraq had one of the most powerful military
forces in the Third World, and it suffered one of the most lopsided
losses in history.
Even during the cold war, the military
budget was inflated far beyond reasonable needs. Future historians
will certainly look back at America in the 1980s and 1990s and
marvel that a country could waste so much money buying billion-dollar
toys for its generals to play with.
Today, the military-industrial-political
complex scrambles to invent new excuses for the bloated defense
budget. With imaginary scenarios of fighting two major wars simultaneously
(something the United States has never done before and almost
certainly would not need to do), hawks try to justify growing
the defense budget far beyond its needs.
There is no military need for the current
size of the Defense Department. Our permanent, large standing
army spread around the world is an anomaly leftover from the cold
war- never before has the United States maintained such a huge
force during peacetime. Now that the cold war is over, it's time
to return to a more reasonable military force. By eliminating
many foreign military bases that could be staffed by our allies
(our economic competitors in Japan and Germany currently are subsidized
by American defense spending) and by slowly reducing our standing
army, the United States can be adequately protected by its current
high-tech weapons and by a large force of reserves that, as in
the Gulf War, can easily be called up for active duty. Reserve
forces are much cheaper than a standing army and also allow our
soldiers to contribute to the economy.
Ultimately, the military strength of the
United States for the next century will not depend on how many
expensive explosive toys it has at the moment or the size of its
standing army. Rather, U.S. security will depend on its economic
growth and the education of its citizens. Future wars will be
more computerized than ever, and a poorly educated standing army
will be far less important than a well-educated citizenry. Today,
wars are essentially fought with money, and diverting some current
military funding to pay off the debt will do far more to increase
our future military potential than spending it today on weapons
that will quickly be outdated.
Much of the United States' military budget
and foreign aid is used to subsidize defense contractors with
plants in influential districts and to buy weapons that are ultimately
used to kill innocents and even American soldiers. The United
States exports 60 percent of the weapons sold worldwide, weaponry
that is then used to justify even more defense spending. A secret
FBI report revealed that it was a U.S. AN-M41 fragmentation bomb
that exploded in Santo Domingo, Colombia on December 13,1998,
killing at least nineteen civilians, including several small children
(the Colombian military had blamed the bombing on leftists). The
bomb was part of the billions of dollars worth of weaponry given
by the United States to military dictatorships around the world.
News of how American weapons were being used to murder innocents
did not stop Congress and the Clinton administration from giving
$1.3 billion in military aid to Colombia in the name of stopping
the drug trade. The massive military-industrial complex promotes
war around the world, not peace.
Progressives don't need to argue for dismantling
the military. To the contrary, the left ought to propose a military
budget that will make the United States by far the most powerful
military force in the world. But thanks to all the waste in the
Defense Department and the end of the cold war, the United States
could dominate the world while spending about half of what it
currently does. Progressives don't need to urge extensive cuts
that might make the United States a second-rate military force:
a gradual reduction of the military budget to $150 billion to
$200 billion a year would still make America the dominant power
in the world and easily capable of all necessary military action.
All that extra money (about $1 trillion per decade) could be used
for debt reduction and investment in education to increase the
long-term military security of the United States.