Conservatives have spent the past 20 years consolidating control of the news media -- particularly radio and TV -- since Ronald Reagan's Federal Communications Commission did away with the Fairness Doctrine. The past few election campaigns show progressives can't expect to get a fair shot from Disney's ABC, General Electric's NBC or Viacom's CBS, much less Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, New York Post or Weekly Standard.
Writing off network news, we're left with the cable offerings of Jon Stewart's Daily Show on Comedy Central, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and Lou Dobbs on CNN. Five hundred channels net three decent commercial news programs -- and one of them is fake news. With Bill Moyers retiring in December to devote more time to writing and PBS expected to cut his NOW program to a half-hour, progressives need to get more aggressive in defending journalism against corporatism.
Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of The Texas Observer, said at Dec. 4 symposium in Austin on "The Role of the Media in the 2004 Presidential Election" in conjunction with the Observer's 50th anniversary celebration, "The structural failure of American democracy ... is the structural failure of democratic media." He called Fox News "a propaganda mechanism disguised as a network, which is a disgrace to American news and an outrage to the American people." Dugger advocated license challenges to Fox affiliates and a boycott of Fox News.
Amy Goodman, anchor of Pacifica's Democracy Now!, which is on 300 radio stations and cable access channels, blamed the sound-bite culture that limits arguments to eight seconds and only lets a small circle of pundits in on the debate. "The media in this country should be a sanctuary for dissent," she said. "Instead the media simply acts as a megaphone for the people in power."
Progressives can suggest -- if not demand -- that struggling local radio stations pick up Air America Radio, which debuted on five stations in March with an all-day liberal lineup anchored by Al Franken's mid-day show as well as veteran talker Randi Rhodes in the afternoon and actress/activist Janeane Garofalo and Sam Seder in the evening. After a rocky start, Air America has blasted the conventional wisdom that liberal talk shows cannot attract a mass audience. Franken's show, beamed from WLIB 1190 AM in New York, doubled Bill O'Reilly's July ratings in New York among the highly-prized listeners aged 25 to 54. Garofalo's and Seder's Majority Report was the top evening talk show in New York.
Air America also made KPOJ 620 AM the number three overall station in Portland, Ore. The network has expanded to 40 stations nationwide, including 11 of the top 20 markets, as well as both Sirius and XM, the national satellite radio services. Free Internet streaming is available at airamericaradio.com. That's still the only way you can listen to those liberal talkers in Austin as well as most of the rest of the country, but there is hope that a local programmer eventually will read the industry news about the ratings out of New York and Portland and take a chance on Air America.
Wall Street may control who owns the airwaves, but the First Amendment still lets the rest of us start our own newspapers (and nowadays, produce our own websites and weblogs to connect far-flung progressive media).
The Texas Observer (texasobserver.org) was founded in 1954 by a group of liberal Texas Democrats who were frustrated with the establishment media that routinely ignored their standard-bearer, Ralph Yarborough, during his runs for governor in 1952 and 1954 against conservative Democrat Allan Shivers. Although the Observer never had many subscribers, and losses of perhaps a quarter-million dollars were subsidized by East Texas timber heiress Frankie Randolph, Dugger's muckraking reporting and groundbreaking coverage of racial and economic justice issues focused attention on the corruption in state government. It helped Yarborough organize progressive Texans for the 1956 governor's race, when Shivers didn't seek re-election. In the Democratic primary runoff, Yarborough lost to US Sen. Price Daniel by 9,000 votes. But those three races for governor helped Yarborough win a 1957 special election for Daniel's Senate seat. In 1958 he won a full term with the campaign slogan, "Put the jam on the lower shelf where the little man can reach it." Yarborough he went on to a distinguished 13 years in the Senate as a supporter of Great Society programs for health education, the environment, civil rights and veterans' benefits. His tenure would have been worth the fight if for no other reason than his angling the appointment of the legendary William Wayne Justice as a federal judge in East Texas who understood the Bill of Rights.
Texas has seen progress in many areas over the past half-century. There were even signs of progress in Texas journalism until the early 1990s, when newspaper wars in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio ended with the capitulation of the Times-Herald, the Post and the Light, leaving those cities, and the state they divided among them, at the mercy of monopolists. Once again there were stories no other news outlet in Texas would touch. Observer Editor Nate Blakeslee continued the magazine's tradition of being the muckraker of last resort in 2000 as he responded to the arrests and prosecutions on drug charges of 46 citizens -- all but seven of them black -- in Tulia, a small town in West Texas. Blakeslee's review found holes in the drug cases big enough to interest everyone except the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Observer stories got the attention of national media, including the New York Times, which put pressure on Gov. Rick Perry. In 2003, he finally pardoned the 35 who had been unjustly convicted.
Working for a small, independent publication such as the Observer (which I did from 1991 to 1995) or The Progressive Populist is not a good way to get rich. Molly Ivins joked that one year the Observer showed a profit, so she and co-editor Kaye Northcott drank it up with a couple pitchers at Scholz's beer garden. I can't say I've played a significant role in getting a good guy or gal elected senator -- though we try to separate the wheat from the chaff -- and I haven't gotten an innocent convict sprung from the calaboose, either. But we do what we can and occasionally I get a note from somebody in the middle of a red state, thanking us for letting them know that they weren't the only ones who "thought like that." If all we do is throw isolated liberals an occasional spiritual lifeline, the job is worth doing.
What Can We Do For You?
Should The Progressive Populist switch to weekly publication? The Populist is in good shape entering its sixth year as a twice-monthly publication, after four years as a monthly. Weekly publication would let The Progressive Populist report on a more timely basis on issues of vital interest to workers, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers. Many of our most popular writers are syndicated and already produce more columns than we are able to use in our current twice-monthly schedule. A weekly schedule would let us publish more of those favorites as well as our other contributing writers and new features from websites and syndicates such as Salon.com, TomPaine.com and AlterNet.org.
We know many of our readers already are hard-pressed to keep up with the 24 full-tabloid pages we publish, but we would rather give you too much news instead of too little. However, if you prefer the twice-monthly format, that suits us fine; the decision is up to you, the readers.
Our survival is a tribute to your hunger for news that you can't get from the corporate media. We will continue to send you the meat and potatoes, as well as dessert and snacks. Please fill out our survey on page 23 or at our website at www.populist.com/survey.html. (Also see www.populist.com for more on the Observer bash.) -- JMC