With Dick Flacks' manifesto before me, I shrug with frustration as
The New York Times carries a front page report saying that forces to the left,
if not on the left, are silent and ineffective as the right-wing dominated Congress
rolls over welfare and cuts the safety net. One subhead says it all: "In Centers
of Power, Fewer Voices on Left." There are interviews with advocates who admit
that they are unskilled in using the media, framing issues, and deploying technology.
(To be fair, the mass media has not been reporting on dissenting voices much
less the resistance that does exist.) How does Flacks' manifesto respond to
this crisis? He does offer intellectual formulations that acknowledge past failures,
but his focus is limited. What he hasn't done is discuss how and why progressives
must harness two of the most powerful forces of our time -- popular culture
and the media.
As a media professional with a unique vantage point, having worked in alternative
and mainstream media, print, radio (WBCN in Boston), and television (CNN,
ABC News and Globalvision), I am always struck by how the right properly positions
media strategy at the top of its strategic plan, while the left thinks about
the media as an afterthought, if at all.
Dick Flacks speaks eloquently about the need to promote democracy and challenge
corporations that pursue global interests while abandoning national priorities,
but nowhere in his charter is a discussion of how media fits into all this
-- as both a hegemonic force of domination and an indispensable tool for outreach
and organizing. We cannot even talk about changing America without confronting
and remaking media power.
I have been thinking about these issues as I try to make sense of my own
media adventures in a forthcoming book, The More You Watch, the Less You
Know, that is both a personal story and critique of my own experience
in commercial and non-commercial media.
We live in a media culture where the issues we discuss are framed by media
coverage and echoed through the popular culture. When an issue is not on television,
it doesn't exist as such for most Americans.
One reality is that most Americans like television. They watch it for hours.
It transports them out of their day to day lives. Often, the stupider it is,
the more popular it becomes. We have to understand why -- and make sure that
our criticisms of the media industry do not become attacks on the people who
consume what one writer once called "the plug-in drug"-- knowing as we do,
that viewers choose between alternatives they have been conditioned by constant
repetition to accept. They can't respond to what they are not allowed to see.
Many insurgent alternatives are not presented in a compelling way, not promoted,
marketed, or accessible. It is far too simplistic to assume that because viewers
watch so much TV that they like what they are seeing. We can't become self-righteous
or as arrogant as the TV industry itself.
Media businesses may be booming, but they are also inherently unstable;market
forces and new technologies are forever shaking their dominance. Just look
at the accelerating changes in the last quarter of the century in almost every
sphere of communication, from telephones to satellites, from TV to cable --
and now in the "new media" arena, the world of computers.
Everyone's banking on the new technology, evolving visions of the seemingly
unlimited potential of cyberspace. Ironically, just as big media merges to
become more concentrated and centralized, a decentralized Internet is devolving
power. Technologies with awesome powers of communication are potentially in
the hands of ordinary people.
If the economic forces within the media industry generate acute contradictions,
political pressures are also at work as the impact of mass media increasingly
becomes a political issue. Opinion polls continue to register mounting dissatisfaction
with the products of our commercial popular culture as well as much of the
news media. More and more people are now complaining, writing letters, feeling
distressed and even outraged. Public protest is building, steaming up from
The politicians who play to this sentiment, in effect running against Hollywood
and the news media, have tapped into a growing popular vein, however demagogic
and hypocritical their stance. We need to speak out on these issues too.
The first step is to build awareness. Happily, even seasoned professionals
are now speaking out, coming to terms with their own roles and responsibilities.
Writer Carl Bernstein, who rode high as one of the reporters credited with
unmasking the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post, is among them.
"We are being dominated by a global journalistic culture that has little to
do with the truth or reality or context," he was quoted as saying in Editor
and Publisher, a trade paper aimed at the newspaper industry. "The result
of the misuse and abuse of free expression in Western democracies actually
disempowers people by making them more cynical about public life."
This cynicism leads to passivity and political abstention. It reflects itself
in low voter turnouts, in public indifference and ignorance. Already, a Harvard
study has equated more TV watching with a drop in civic participation. For
young people "what's cool" is often more important than what's important.
We need to move beyond criticism to consciousness and creative action. The
shallowness, superficiality, and vapidity of so much of our media has to be
redefined as a political challenge, as an issue to mobilize around. Challenging
the media's priorities must become a central element on any progressive agenda
The right to information has to be presented as a human rights issue. Article
19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks of it as such, linking
the right to speak out with the right to take in. "Everyone has a right to
freedom of opinion and expression," it reads. "This right includes freedom
to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information
and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers." In America, the Carnegie
Commission that gave Public Television its mandate spoke of a "freedom to
Democracy itself can only thrive when and if an electorate is informed.
The Institute for Alternative Journalism expresses concerns that it hopes
to find support for among the public at large. "We believe that democracy
is enhanced, and public debate broadened, as more voices are heard and points
of view made available," they write. "In today's political and media environment
we are especially concerned about increasing media concentration, and about
the success of conservative and far right ideas and personalities in framing
the issues relevant to us all."
They and many others, including a newly organized cultural environment movement,
are sparking a debate about media and democracy.
Dick Flacks -- we need your input.