Having been an avid consumer of progressive media for more than 10 years, I’ve been noticing my own growing disinterest in the format. I’ve become less and less enthusiastic about looking at the coverage in progressive sources, even disenchanted by some of the changes that have occurred during what is ostensibly the format’s most successful run to date.
Being a devotee — someone who even spends money to support progressive programming and networks — I had to think about what might be causing my recent disinterest. I’m guessing that if I feel this way, other people do, too. After some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem may lie in the format itself, which has been borrowing heavily from the conservative format. What works for one does not necessarily work for the other.
If you haven’t heard of these people or organizations, blame Air America Radio (AAR). Just before AAR took to the airwaves and claimed progressive radio as its providence, there were already some impressive radio broadcasters on the progressive side of the spectrum, quietly chipping away at corporate media. They weren’t flashy and they didn’t get much publicity, but their broadcasts were full of facts, esoterica, and reportage worthy of the big guns of journalism. Their guests included people like Greg Palast, Brad Friedman, David Sarota, and Harry Shearer. They talked the full spectrum of progressive thought, tugged back and forth without a lot of rancor — and made me feel a lot smarter for having listened to them. The angry broadcasters were on Pacifica, so if I wanted invective and hyperbole, that’s where I went. But for the cold hard facts, I tuned into the White Rose Society.
AAR came on the scene with a brazen, funny, no-holds-barred style and proclaimed itself The Progressive Format. The splashy entrance of AAR raised the hopes of a lot of progressive news addicts, myself included, and for a while, the network delivered exactly what it promised. At the same time, it nudged progressive radio into a new direction, which, ultimately, has proved to be a limiting rather than an expanding influence on the format as a whole.
AAR launched with Al Franken’s show, “The O’Franken Factor,” provocatively named deliberately to rile Bill O’Reilly of the O’Reilly Factor. This maneuver immediately established AAR as an adversarial counterpart to conservative media — as opposed to the advocacy role that progressive media had been playing for so many years. Most of AAR programming was devoted to bashing the GOP for getting it wrong rather than talking about what the country should be doing to get things right. Granted, the GOP was doing a lot wrong, and the mainstream media was blithely complicit in many of their destructive activities, but the AAR format saddled progressive radio with the same anger and outrage that plagued conservative talk.
And the format has not been able to shake the rancor, even as politics turns in a new direction. As an example, most of progressive air time during the health care debate was taken up with
(1) predicting that health care would never happen
(2) complaining that the public option had been removed from the bill
(3) rejoicing that the public option hadn’t been removed from the bill
(4) repeating and ridiculing right wing talking points
(5) freaking out over the Tea Party
Now, maybe that kind of programming was good for ratings, but it was terrible for the progressive community. There was practically no advocacy for the health reform policies. Few progressive broadcasters explained the provisions in the House or Senate bill, how they would help people, what problems they would solve, what problems they would not solve, whose votes we needed, where we were in the process, or what progressives could do to help the bill get passed. Worst of all, the vitriol aimed at the president — repetitive memes like “coward,” “gutless,” “betrayed,” “sold us out,” “back room deals” — only served to demoralize much of the progressive community, leaving a lot of people angry, uninformed, and ready to boycott the 2010 midterms.
In all fairness, AAR produced some important progressive stars — Al Franken and Rachel Maddow among them — and gave others like Randi Rhodes and Thom Harmann a more solid footing in national media. It also paved the way for broadcasters like Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz. But the advocacy role of progressive radio, which dominated before the advent of AAR, all but disappeared. If anything, the new format turned progressive radio into a format that only discusses what’s wrong. And this creates a troubling dilemma for those of us who like to support progressive media AND our democratic legislative process.
The same unfortunate change of focus plagued online progressive news aggregators with the appearance of the Huffington Post (HP). HP has influenced many of the progressive news aggregators in the same way that AAR changed the focus of most progressive on-air broadcasters. Sites like Raw Story were originally designed to help the progressive community find stories that advanced progressive advocacy. Their staffs would comb through mainstream media sources such as the Times, the Post, USA Today, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Harpers — any mainstream, professional news publication — for stories that were not being highlighted by television, or had been buried on back pages despite their importance. Most aggregators regularly turned up stories that were too important for legitimate, major papers to omit, but too anti-Bush or anti-war to promote.
When HP came along, it seemed to adhere to this same mission at first, and there was a brief golden age when HP seemed to cover everything from the other aggregator sites, combined.. But as the site grew in popularity — in large part because of superior layout and a dynamic comment section — its focus changed from digging out the hard-to-find stories to highlighting the most sensationalist stories. When that happened, the landscape of progressive sites began to change, as HP emerged as the leader in the niche and other sites tried to keep up.
I am as guilty as anyone of replacing my eclectic menu of diverse progressive sites with a steady diet of HP. The first thing I used to do in the morning was turn on Amy Goodman and read Raw Story, Buzz Flash, Truthout, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, and Op Ed News. (Those were my personal favorites.) Then HP and its comment section became my primary online political interface. Now, after five years of the Huffington Post on the scene, I find I’m reading less of everything. Less of the classic progressive sites and almost nothing of HP. I’ve returned to the New York Times and the Washington Post for news. And their incomplete and often agenda-driven reporting on Iraq was the reason I sought out progressive aggregators in the first place.
But the truth is, HP’s success tainted the sites I used to frequent. AlterNet became more opinion than information. Common Dreams — a site that was once nothing short of inspirational in it’s advocacy-oriented articles — took on the role of the complainer’s haven. Raw Story took the sensationalist cue and began to lead with stories of little informational value but great emotional impact. Buzz Flash redesigned it’s folksy format to look more “impressive” and now is very difficult to read, purely from a visual standpoint. Raw Story also attempted a redesign to make itself more flashy and mainstream. It’s readers complained so fervently, the site actually discarded its new look and returned to the original layout.
And as if by some cosmic design failure, at the same time that the diversity of progressive aggregator voices seemed to be contracting, two standard bearers of rigorous reporting — AP and The Wall Street Journal — were slowly morphing into imitations of the New York Post, thanks to new ownership and/or new management. At the very time the news landscape should have had all the elements necessary for better information than ever, our information seemed to be getting worse.
I like to think the negative trend among progressive news aggregators is reversing as HP loses some of its luster. I’m once again finding lofty content on Common Dreams. Raw Story has recently dug out several good stories that the rest of the media, including HP, missed or ignored. Truthout is pulling good reporting from lesser known sources. Aggregators seem to be going back to square one. Hopefully their audiences will support them in making this decision.
Until very recently, progressive television was the province of the sedate, the brainy, the offbeat, and the esoteric. It was also a bastion of low-key production values in a populist framework. The standout program was Goodman’s Democracy Now, which continues to maintain a laudable standard of staying out of the adversarial framework by concentrating on issues that any citizen should know and care about. Programming such as Link TV emphasizes populist and local themes, and is noticeably “progressive” only in that it is culturally diverse. Those qualities were the mark of progressive television programming until the advent of MSNBC’s left-leaning prime time lineup.
Perhaps the nature of television — or the cost structure of television production — has prevented the firebrand commercial format from impacting other progressive programs in this medium. For the most part, corporate television’s impact on progressive broadcasting has been to create a framework for internet programming. Online shows like The Young Turks have latched onto the power of visual transmission, and are delivering firebrand-style progressive programming on a shoestring. And a number of progressive radio programs have outfitted themselves with “cams” in order to mimic the impact of tv — a trend that probalby started with Don Imus.
For the most part, progressive programming on commercial networks is as much about personality as it is about issues. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, and even Rachel Maddow, trade on their charisma as much as their content. They tend to rely on the adversarial format because Nielsen ratings — just like Arbitron and internet site clicks — incentivize that kind of script. Charisma and celebrity thrive in an adversarial framework. No one could accuse Amy Goodman of playing to the cult of personality. But Amy Goodman is unlikely to find herself on a commercial network any time in the future.
For many years, conservative talkers and pundits have accused public broadcasting of pandering to the left. In reality, public broadcasting depends heavily on corporate sponsorship, and this is often reflected in the point of view of their reporting. Yet, many progressives listen to NPR or watch PBS thinking that their programming has a liberal slant. The calm and sober tone gives public programming a veneer of objectivity that many critical thinkers like, and because of that, tend to patronize without questioning content.
The loyalty that so many liberal media consumers show public radio and television suggests that these media consumers are not looking for adversarial broadcasting. They are looking for information, entertainment, and, in my opinion, reassurance. These are listeners who are not looking for a side to be on. They are not looking for someone to blame or a repository for their anger. They are looking for the comfort of dialog, logic, and evidence — these are the interface tools of most politically engaged people. Public broadcasting provides that framework.
It does not, however, provide the advocacy that is so important to the progressive movement.
A New Format
It would seem progressive media has missed a tremendous opportunity by taking up the adversarial format. Even though individual programs have enjoyed great success and have succeeded to a large extent in countering much of the vitriol and misinformation coming from corporate-funded conservative talk radio, they have not improved the media landscape. If anything, the “progressive format” has overshadowed those few outlets that dig for unreported stories, while presenting itself as one of those very outlets. It has, to a large extent, replaced advocacy with sensationalism and front page hysteria. It has made progressive media bigger and shinier — but not better.
I would like to think we will see the advent of yet another format geared to the progressive community, one that emphasizes advocacy. The advantage to this format is that it is not angry and it doesn’t need to blame, meaning that it can attract NPR audiences that avoid adversarial formats. It focuses on issues and how to solve problems. It can keep an audience energized by bringing to light situations that may be ignored by the mainstream media. And it can give audiences a sense of purpose. There is certainly room for anger when it comes to our social ills, but our reaction should not stop there. Progressive media was headed in that direction before it was co-opted by a few big guns that used conservative media as their blue print. Progressives are about progress, making changes, getting things done. The conservative format is not optimal for that kind of engagement.
The best journalistic infrastructure is still found at the larger news agencies, like the Times and the Post. If a key story is going to be broken, it will likely be broken at one of the big shops. And it will be highlighted or buried there. Progressive news aggregators serve an essential purpose in making sure we know the non-corporate storyline. I’d like to see progressive media even stronger in that role, combined with a broadcast format that keeps people involved as well as informed. That will require a shift in framework and media style. I hope someone, somewhere, is working on this approach.
A Post Script on Subscriber-funded Enterprises
I’d like to close with brief praise for subscriber-based media. These are the networks that do true public service. They are usually struggling, devoid of flash, and sometimes serious to a fault. But they never fail to deliver more depth than their commercial or corporate-sponsored counterparts. The emphasis from sponsored news is usually neither right nor left. It is reporting, discussion, and analysis.
The Real News is the latest addition to the roster of viewer/listener sponsored reporting. Its goal is to develop an international base with enough paying subscribers to support the very expensive enterprise of investigative reporting. They have been on the air for a few years now, and their audience numbers in the millions. They are still transmitting via internet, but hope to find a location on television. If their growth continues, they could become a force in changing our journalistic landscape.