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.


Peter B. Collins
Peter Werbe
White Rose Society
Radio Power
Head On Radio Network
Free Speech Radio News

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.

News Aggregators

Common Dreams
Consortium News
Daily Kos
Democratic Underground
Liberal Oasis
Raw Story
Wayne Madsen Report

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.


Democracy Now
Link TV
Current TV

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.

Public Broadcasting

Morning Edition
All Things Considered
Fresh Air
Washington Week
Bill Moyers

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

The Real News
Free Speech TV

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.

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A very comprehensive and enlightening article Nellie, well done!

I wonder if some of the changes in Progressive outlets has something to do with the oppression of the Bush years.

People can become conditioned after a while. Going 8 long years under such a horrible regime could have contributed to the adversarial role becoming deeply imprinted over advocacy.

And maybe some of the purist Dems are suffering from PTSD so they’re just continuing their behavior.

I certainly learned from blogging at HP that people can seem to be colleagues and allies as long as that common enemy exists but once Bush was gone, some folk turned on their own pretty quickly.

As you illustrate though, there is a business and financial element here that is very powerful. Web sites want to make money and grow, they need to pay their bills and try to build up their business.

The sad fact is that conservative or progressive, sex, violence and exploitation will attract greater audiences than insight, wisdom and principle.

Once the commercial, highly funded versions of radio programming and web sites set their roots down, they sucked up audience. But they have investors and a big hungry budget to satisfy so it is natural that the financial pressures would eventually outweigh all others. And using exploitation is the quickest and easiest path to growing and retaining audiences.

Then, all the outlets that want to compete, have to appeal to the Walmart shoppers or go out of business.

However, I think there will always be a niche market for those folks who have genuine concerns, principles and standards.

KQµårk 死神

It’s sick over there with all the ads. I just wanted to read a good article on how the recovery act was helping a small business and a huge full page ad popped up. Then reading the comments was sickening. You had people regurgitating mindless Obama loves Wall Street rhetoric denying the reality that the recovery act is pumping billions into small businesses.


Progressives repeating slogans like Bush lite and making comments that had nothing to do with the stimulus just shows how Huffy created left leaning trolls. When did Bush invest a dime in infrastructure, clean energy and energy conservation?


I know what you mean. HP looks like a parody of itself now with all the ads (even ads for the CoC opposing Obama), Twitter garbage, Bing searches, Facebook crap and pop ups, listings of other HP articles all over the page…

…it’s A.D.D. paradise.

As for the commentary and tone of discussions, there are occasional sharp insights from bloggers in a sea of dumb snark and petty hatred.

It’s nice to be on a sane Planet.


I really like this article, Nellie, and totally agree.

I used to listen to Air America all the time, too, but after awhile I burned out because all it seemed to be was thrashing of the Republicans and FOX pundits.

It was fine and fun for awhile, but I grew tired of hearing nothing but complaints, even done in humor, without any solutions or actual discussions.

I’ve been staying away from reading progressive sites online in depth for the same reasons as yours.

Yesterday though, I did happen to read an article from Raw Story about Keith Olberman and his dispute with O’Reilly, and the article was about O’Reilly reading a Playboy magazine on an airplane with women and children on board, and I just found that to be so silly and childish, and to make it worse, Olberman’s source was one person that was on the flight.

I do not care if that story is true or not, but it stooped to a low when it comes to trying to provoke.

As you say, I want to read the actual news and issues, and that’s one reason that I’ve been getting more into local politics as it seems a tad more honest in the reporting.

KQµårk 死神

Here’s an article worth reading regarding how progressives fail to be a loyal base for the Democrats.



That was good. he’s spot on. (I never knew about the Eisenhower Civil Rights legislation.)

KQµårk 死神

Eisenhower was the last good Republican in my eyes. He had a very hard time deciding to run as a Democrat or Republican. Actually the biggest thing that turned him off about becoming a Democrat was the number of Dixicrats in the party.

But you are right I wish more people would read this article and realize leadership works two ways. A leader needs people to follow them even if they don’t agree all the time.


Outstanding post Nellie

I recently watched the history of Pacifica on FSTV. I used to listen to them when I was in the Bay Area.



KQµårk 死神

I’m watching typical progressive media spin right now on Rachel. She’s complaining the Obama gave into a Republican idea on offshore oil drilling. Now the last polls I saw on offshore oil drilling was that about 60% of the country favored it and this was taken before the election. So I guess now 60% of the country are Republicans Rachel?

The NY Times has a much more balanced editorial on the issue that actually talks about some of the policy details.


Like usual both sides are sensationalizing this issue. One side is saying it’s not enough and the other side is saying it’s too much when it’s finding middle ground.


I saw that too, KQ and felt the same. Chris Hayes really let me down, and only at the very end, did he say that POSSIBLY Obama was trying to get ConservaDems aboard.

However, she did a fabulous job explaining the corporate money behind climate change denial!


KQµårk 死神

My wife and I affectionately call Rachel Sybil. She can be all over the place in the same show. I thought putting those two stories one after another showed the disconnect in her logic. She assumes it’s easy to get the climate change bill through with no compromises and then shows how hard and dishonestly the other side is fighting the issue.


KQ, I didn’t actually compute the disconnect until you mentioned it. I was just posting about the good reporting on Koch Industries and didn’t see how ironic it was–thanks!


I for one am turned off by the screaming type of stuff. There was a few shows on AAR at night that I just couldn’t stomach.

The only problem I have with Counterpunch is it can get a little too “Infowars” for me.

What I’ve seen of The Real News gives me hope. It genuinely makes me feel smarter, with a fresh perspective. Also, Pepe Escobar is one charismatic voice they have.


Bravo, Nellie. Excellent points — and I will take some time to check out your links. I’m not familiar with a number of these. I’ve reached the point (well, maybe I’ve been there a long time) where I believe almost nothing I read on news sites or see on TV, etc. I’m sure I disbelieve things I could safely believe.

As you know, I share your distress at the hysteria and outrage “product’ that poses as news. It is so incredibly manipulative. So much of it is just propaganda. Propaganda is a helluva lot easier to create than real accurate information. Maybe one reason why it’s taking over is because of the 24 hour news cycle–they’ve got to keep everyone’s interest for 24 hours a day now and doing real research and well-thought out stories would just be too expensive. Propaganda is cheap and easy. I often think of poor old Rush Limbaugh and that THREE HOURS of blathering he has to come up with every single day — week after week, month after month, year after year. I’m willing to bet he doesn’t even listen to himself any more.

Probably because the subject interests me, I tend to focus on the slant of the “news” rather than the story itself. (I’m jaded.) So many of the “stories” just seem like the same junk reworked from last week (HP is particularly guilty of this).

And what constitutes the vast majority of “news” now? “HP’s Sam Stein says XYZ.” That’s a real headline (well, he said something besides XYZ but I don’t remember what it was). How the hell is that “news?” “New Survey says XYZ.” “So and So disagrees with XYZ.” “So and So Says Such and Such About XYZ.” “So and So Wants So and So to Apologize for XYZ.” Gawd…it’s all just noise.

I remember going to a seminar once about how to make money writing magazine articles. What I came away with was that I could write a zillions versions of “Ten Ways to XYZ” or “Ten Things Never to Say to Your XYZ,” or “Ten Hints for ABCing Your XYZ.” Then you just re-work the articles for nurses, cat lovers, airline pilots, teachers, etc and sell the articles to magazines aimed at those groups. That’s when I decided I didn’t want to write magazine articles. That’s the kind of useless bullshit wanking crap the media comes up with to fill up all those pages and hours every day.

The fact is, “news” is entertainment. They don’t have the least bit of interest in “explaining” anything. Well, Rachel likes to explain things and she does a good job and I respect her for it. (However, I don’t give a damn about her boring fight with Scott Brown and can’t figure out why she gives it so much air time).

This metaphor is going to sound pretty druggy but the media reminds me of a school of fish, moving in a clump, flashing here and there and spinning in circles. They’re all following somebody apparently but nobody knows who. One of them turns and the rest of them all turn and then when there’s nothing there, they all suddenly lurch in the other direction.

Ahhh! Mute button!

KQµårk 死神

This metaphor is going to sound pretty druggy but the media reminds me of a school of fish, moving in a clump, flashing here and there and spinning in circles. They


I agree it was perfect.


Brilliant analogy, E’Cat!

KQµårk 死神

Excellent article nellie. To be honest my first choice would be to go back to the real 4th estate which reported facts and was adversarial to anyone in power equally. Right now the status quo is maddening. One side is a cheerleader for Republicans no matter who is in power and the other side is adversarial to anyone in power. This reality just gives Republicans a huge huge advantage that cannot be understated. It drove me crazy when progressives said Democrats were lame because they lost the messaging war during the HCR debate. Well fucking duh. Democrats can never ever win the messaging war the way the media is structured now and progressive media is a huge reason why Democrats lose the messaging war. Conservatives had a simple message, destroy universal HCR at any cost while progressives were arguing the details of reform until the very end.

I don’t have a solution for promoting progressive causes through the democratic system using the media. I just think that progressives hate the system so much they will never support any major political party that has any viable chance to win major political office, let alone have enough power to govern. Frankly I welcome being independent of progressive media just as much as right wing media. Both ends of the spectrum are just noise to me lately.


This is an outstanding evaluation of progressive media, Nellie. Thanks for the thought that went into it.

I loved Al Franken when he was on because he would cite chapter and verse of whatever it was that was being discussed. I learned a huge amount from his careful use of “mouthnotes” saying what his sources were. I like that about Olbermann and Maddow, and, though we don’t have an Air America outlet any longer, I liked Randi when she dropped the harangue and started doing the same. I like to learn, not just hear badgering.

In the print media, I read The Nation, but I find the same tendency to sniffy over generalization. I happened to meet Christopher Hayes at a conference last week and really liked him, and he is one whose work I think does the discernment necessary, but columnists such as Katha Pollit give me fits. There is too much deliberate digging up of an issue to bash someone about, even when the bashing is utterly nonsensical.

I wish I thought we were in the middle of growing pains, but you’re so right that the very sources upon which we once relied have themselves become corrupt, and I also am not seeing places where good analysis holds sway. I keep reading stories about the US practice of torture as if it’s still going on – only to read cases that are years old. And yet people assert “oh, sure, we still do it” without a shred of fact to back that up. The same is true as it was on health reform – oh, it’s a corporate sell out, oh, it’s not ever going to pass, oh, Obama doesn’t want this, won’t support that – and when it passed, there were progressives (not even single payer folks) who were ANGRY because LOSING and being a martyr is a much more familiar place to be.

I think the whiny hype and adversarial edge comes from not having a clue how to be in positions of real change. ALL the people I know who deal with social justice, community revitalization, direct services to those in need – WE all think this nation is making significant progress. The adversarial media don’t because they are into form, not substance. They can afford to bash Obama and Congress for lack of ideological purity. Like to see THEM try to run this nation as a nation for ALL people without making compromises!

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out HP. I look at it once in awhile, but my devotion to it has given way to the utter boredom of smug rejoiners and the persistence of trolls. You are quite right that it has become sensationalized, and there are no good links to good stories anymore. Even their religion section has too many wussy or conservative voices. You’d think they’d court some REAL progressives, but noooo.

I find I learn the most here at the Planet. I’ve gleaned amazing data and information and views from everyone. It’s a marvelous combination of incisive reporting, good analysis, and lovely humor and humanity. For this time in history, that’s hugely important. It’s a great place to be.

KQµårk 死神

Spot on CL. It’s all a game to so many people these days.