By Doug Moss // [print_link]
IN APRIL 2006, TV COMEDY SHOW HOST STEPHEN COLBERT closed out the annual White House Correspondents Dinner with a sarcastic speech that ridiculed both the Bush Administration and the U.S. press corps as they were finishing their desserts. A video of his remarks subsequently spread rapidly across the Internet, and became a subject of much debate on TV, though most of the controversy dealt with the acerbic nature of his remarks, delivered just two place settings away from President and Laura Bush.
But as caustic as Colbert’s remarks were, they could have been much more critical of the press community itself that was his captive audience for the evening. He got in a few good cracks, such as: “Over the last five years you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.” But for the most part Colbert avoided any real analysis of how the media in America have degenerated into a mean-spirited and cynical circus of entertainment, titillation, spin and lies (including major lies of omission), masquerading as “journalism.”
Writing in the Providence Journal last year, Quinnipiac University adjunct professor of journalism, John Motavalli, made the observation that most of the liberal viewpoints reaching the mainstream these days are doing so through the venue of comedy, like Colbert’s own show, The Colbert Report. Though I disagreed with his conclusions, which suggested that liberals (including environmentalists) stand for nothing today and are just “against everything,” his initial observation was spot on. Colbert, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Arianna Huffington—where else are liberal views, including pro-environmental ones, being articulated where they are not being shouted down by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity?
I’d go so far as to say that creating and building strong progressive media could well be the most important agenda item environmental and other social change activists have. Above all, it’s time the funding community got the message.
The right’s appalling behavior deserves the stand-up spanking it gets, but it does mean that progressive viewpoints, including those that seek to weigh in and enlighten the public about crucial environmental issues, have been largely relegated to the peanut gallery! And it may actually be counter-productive. Why for example, do O’Reilly, Chris Mathews and other conservative pundits agree to appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, venues you would think they’d shun as readily as George Bush avoids theaters showing “An Inconvenient Truth?” It is because the comedic element allows them to dismiss all charges as just light-hearted fun, but not serious. The hosts treat them with kid gloves and they go off completely unscathed, even looking good, when they should have been raked through the coals for the profound disservice they are providing to humanity.
This is a sorry state of affairs, and if the urgent environmental issues many of us work so hard to address are to get a fair hearing, we are going to need serious media reform. We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that anything has changed just by a temporary spike in global warming interest. Besides, there are countless other ills that persist due to longstanding media under-reporting.
And we should also not believe for a second that any changes will happen anytime soon without the full-fledged participation of the philanthropic (grant making) community.
In saying we need media reform I liken it to the need for election reform. The bottom line in seeking election reform is that we want good, decent people in power, people who truly serve global interests and not just special interests. And we go on the faith that if the system were to be made fair, that would naturally occur. Similarly the bottom line in media reform is that we simply need a much larger bloc of progressive media that will balance the right’s juggernaut. If they had the chance, equal time, “liberal” positions would be well articulated instead of shouted down and, I believe, the public would find them reasonable—without the need for punch lines.
But trying to reform media now by enacting legislation to halt media ownership consolidation, revamp Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule-making, force media to be accountable to the public interest and not corporate interests, and provide equal and free time to political candidates could take a lifetime. It should still be pursued, for sure, but we should not delay in getting the bottom line ball rolling by bolstering those progressive media “points of light” already in place that face daily struggles to survive and compete in the marketplace of ideas. After all, what good is “media reform” theory without practice?
It’s important, for one thing, to understand that conservative media actually don’t need philanthropy’s help, but liberal media do. The right’s views generally meld well with the advertisers that will support it, just as it is a cakewalk for the sexy, make-no-waves editorial offerings of the fashion/sports/celebrity media to obtain mass readership. On the other hand, liberal views and subject matter, because they are often critical of accepted doctrine or downright depressing (but sorely in need of discussion nonetheless!), cannot survive in the advertising- or “cool”-driven models.
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, in their 2004 book, Banana Republicans, argue that modern mass media have evolved into a “fourth branch of government,” an astute observation, I think, considering the direction it has taken in recent years: see-no-evil “embedded reporters” in Iraq, softball questions dominating press conferences, Fox News as the White House’s preferred network (and job candidate pool), and major radio networks like Clear Channel censoring musicians (like the Dixie Chicks) because of their political views. And we now know that the Bush administration had been both paying columnists to promote official viewpoints and producing their own “news” segments for TV stations to run, without divulging the true origin. When the Soviet empire did this, we called it “propaganda.”
Look, too, what the “Swift Boat” people got away with during the last presidential election, with media as accomplices. Their filthy, lying ads ran everywhere, while the major media outlets that ran them denied airtime to many a “Move On” ad that supported John Kerry. Moreover, the media then created a “news story” about the ad controversy, showing them over and over and over again in the news wells, likely giving them as much as 10 or perhaps 100 times the exposure they paid for. A similar chain of events happened more recently in relation to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s alleged schooling at a Muslim “Madrassa” school. A right-wing organization planted the story and then Fox News, the Fox-owned New York Post and Moonie-owned Insight magazine ran with it. Though CNN and other media quickly debunked the charge, such accusations tend to stick, as was the goal of those leaking the rumor.
Aside from the sheer magnitude of conservative in relation to liberal programming, progressive and pro-environmental media outlets must also compete with that great sea of media frivolity out there. Indeed, fashion, sports and celebrity magazines, ad nausea, and their broadcast and online counterparts have done a great job of hypnotizing the American public to where, as ratings will show, they readily choose to know more about Britney Spears’ troubles than the threat of melting glaciers. And is it any wonder why the average American male is barely able to conduct more than a 30-second conversation about anything else but sports?
Many of us in environmental advocacy work followed the “Death of Environmentalism” controversy in late 2004 and early 2005, following publication of a paper by the same name. The authors said the movement’s problems were largely in its leadership’s inability to publicly articulate a clear vision. But I think our movement actually does a pretty good job of laying out the problems and the needed solutions. But as long as the mainstream media, in cahoots with a conservative administration and other right-wing special interests, remain hell bent on discrediting or censoring any “liberal” or pro-environmental view, no variation on the spin is going to make a difference.
In spite of all this, I think there clearly endures a prejudice among environmental advocacy groups and the private liberal foundations that fund them that causes them to assign media a very low priority, largely because the impact of such work isn’t immediately measurable. But they need to stand back and take a longer view. Media is one of the strongest man-made forces known to man! And right now it is almost completely controlled by the conservative right. Although “never” is a strong word, I believe it is fair to say that those of us working hard for social, environmental and economic change are never going to win our battles if we don’t first (or concurrently) change that.
George Lakoff, the Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley whose work in large part inspired the “Death of Environmentalism” debate, has made some very astute observations about liberal philanthropy in relation to the right. He is particularly on the money in his analysis of the right’s shrewd capacity/infrastructure-building support for media, contrasted against liberals’ large avoidance of such efforts and preference for direct services.
Writing in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Lakoff says that liberal organizations have been “privatized by the right,” relegated to doing the work that government should be doing while, “in the right’s hierarchy of moral values, the top value is preserving and defending the moral system itself.”
I might add that it is no coincidence that conservatives are forever cutting social and environmental programs, pushing the burden instead onto the private sector, which largely includes private foundations. And I am also aware that the very origin of nonprofit 501(c)(3) status was to empower the private sector, by relieving it and its support base of certain tax obligations, to pick up the ball where the government was dropping it. But that is no more relevant today than the “right to keep and bear arms” that was extended over 200 years ago when foreign aggression, unlike today, went door-to-door on foot. Conservative, anti-environmental nonprofits today bask in funding for their advocacy through media.
Secretive billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife has been a prominent backer of the PRI. He’s also bankrolled Newt Gingrich, The Heritage Foundation, and scores of other reactionary individuals and foundations.
The Pacific Research Institute (PRI) is a case in point. Each year PRI publishes the “Index of Leading Environmental Indicators,” which, hiding behind an objective title, argues that ecosystems are in much better condition than the “gloom and doom” environmentalists claim. (And to the extent that anything has improved, they give no acknowledgement to the role the “doom and gloom” sector played in forcing those improvements!) Editors around the nation publish and cite PRI’s work as authoritative, when in fact it is highly one-note-pitched in favor of free-market approaches. And they reach, directly or indirectly, a sizeable part of the population with their messages, and are just one of numerous such organizations.
From PRI’s own website: “In 2003, PRI reached a circulation of more than 100 million readers, with its commentary published in more than 1,000 newspapers, magazines, and online outlets. PRI was featured by more than half of the nation’s top 100 print media, and was covered in all 50 states. PRI reached an audience of more than 23 million through radio and television nationwide…PRI policy staff has appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show”, CNBC, CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel. PRI’s work has been cited and published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsweek, Time, USA Today, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, Investor’s Business Daily, Washington Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and many other leading publications throughout the world.”
How many environmental advocacy groups can say the same of their work?
PRI’s funders include the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the ExxonMobil Foundation, the William H. Donner Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation, all known for their support for conservative causes and their very deep pockets. These foundations understand the need for organizations to speak their gospel free of funding worries.
Meanwhile, liberal organizations are left with little choice but to follow the money, pursuing grants “cherry-picked” in relation to foundations’ stated narrow interests. Measurable results? Sometimes. Relevant to the long-term struggle? Not very often.
We need to fundamentally re-examine—in both environmental advocacy and funding circles—the notion that media efforts are just “talking” while other advocates are “doing.” Case in point: I doubt that many people would dispute the notion that the recent upsurge in public interest in all things green is the end product of thousands of showings of (and news reports and public forums focusing on) the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” a media project if there ever was one!
Will Rogers famously said, “I only know what I read in the newspapers.” Social change is a process, not something that happens on Wednesday because we did something on Tuesday—and we need a continual marketplace presence to compete with all the wrong messages that are being repeated a thousand times a day.
The progressive philanthropic community needs to get behind efforts to reform media over the longer term while taking steps to bolster the health of the liberal media along the way. A Chinese proverb goes, “Give me a fish and I eat for a day. Teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” As this applies to the state of media affairs, we really need to do both—and to start right now—in order to level the playing field.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Doug Moss is founder of Earth Action Network, Inc. (EAN), based in Norwalk, Connecticut. EAN is publisher of E – The Environmental Magazine, the weekly e-newsletter OurPlanet, the website emagazine.com and the nationally syndicated weekly column EarthTalk, which is distributed to over 1,700 newspapers and other media outlets throughout the United States and Canada.
SEE ALSO OUR SPECIAL SECTION ON MEDIA