Belaboring the Obvious

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Progressive Bloggers in Search of...

... their purpose in life. That's what YearlyKos was partly about, and why so many bloggers saw it as essential to attend the recent Take Back America conference.

But, maybe they should be considering something else. Bloggers, first and foremost, have been concentrating on what's in the news and how it's being reported. What has made an enormous difference in how news is reported is apparent, if one will only look. Consolidation of media has given fewer people more clout (note, for example, what just an initial 17% stake in Knight-Ridder accomplished--it was enough to bust up a newspaper chain with what was one of the better investigative reporting teams in print publishing, by forcing the company's sale). The right-wing megaphone is powerful--look at the recent study on how often right/center/left think tanks are cited in the news.

And reporting is burdened by those forces. How many times does a story not get followed up, or a follow-up question not get asked, because the reporter either gets censored, because someone's been upset by a story, or self-censors because he or she knows it will upset someone--particularly a source of revenue, such as an advertiser?

That's always been with us, to a degree; it's just worse now than it was in the past, precisely because of the vertical integration Robert Parry describes here.

And, it's what bloggers are upset about. Most people blogging about politics depend upon MSM reporting. They don't like it, but they don't have much choice--they don't have the resources--either in terms of money or sources--in many cases, to do reporting themselves, although there are notable exceptions.

Progressive bloggers are exceptionally sensitive to reporting that smells bad, and they aren't afraid to say so, and this is what has gotten a lot of names in the news upset. Leaving a lie, for example, to stand as counterpoint to the truth without noting it as such seems to be the sin most commonly complained about, and yet even the likes of Jim Lehrer won't admit that reporting should point out the obvious lie, even though the object of reporting is to fully inform the public. That's how far even the non-commercial public model has drifted from its original charter, precisely because of the intrusion of commercial interests and the dependency of that model on government funding which has been subject to Congressional whim.

Parry's complaint is worth reading, because he does get to the crux of the biscuit. You can't report the news without money. You have to pay salaries and benefits, and buy, beg, borrow or rent infrastructure. If not satellites, then satellite time. Studios, wire services, internal communications, legal services, and all of it costs.

It doesn't matter if your intent is to assemble a cast of reporting characters that will not be swayed by either governmental or commercial forces if you can't fund it. That's IWT's problem right now. I think Turner's share of CNN at its sale was something like $6.5 billion, and the total sale was higher than that--that's what a turnkey 24-hour news operation costs. If George Soros and his ilk (wealthy so-called liberal types) chipped in a billion apiece, you could have just such a network, but they won't do it--and certainly not on non-commercial terms, because it wouldn't be self-sustaining. Sure, the right wing would scream bloody murder about a few wealthy guys having their own news network, precisely because it would threaten the control someone like Rupert Murdoch has over the news.

And there's the rub. News is expensive to produce and an independent, non-commercial outlet will continue to drain resources. A highly corporate model is at present the only way to provide the ongoing revenue stream necessary to operate such a service, which, in turn, would make it susceptible to the same forces that have turned news in this country into either a sideshow, a government mouthpiece, or both.

I think most bloggers, even if they don't understand the details of it, still intuitively understand the problem. They want the news providers to change their ways, but also know they won't. That's frustrating. They know the news is incomplete and full of shadings meant to avoid conflict--particularly with this administration. They know it, because they take the often voluminous amount of time required to figure it out from what is reported from multiple sources.

So, commercial interests and public broadcasting can afford to produce the news, but neither will do the sort of reporting that is desperately needed.

Okay, a million bloggers give $50 a year. That's 50 million bucks. That pays for 2-1/2 weeks of CNN's expenses.

But, there's a possible different model that the wealthy could afford and which wouldn't empty their fortunes and hopefully would buy more than just a year or two of news production.

They could easily afford, if they could be convinced, to provide the basics of the infrastructure. According to the ADEC model, a transponder lease for five years costs $10 million. Four would be required for national coverage--one digital and one analog for both east and west. Studio and work space in, say, ten locations around the world--suburban Washington, DC, suburban NY (stressing suburban locations to keep costs down), Los Angeles, somewhere in the midwest to get coverage of the center of the country, outside Paris, Beirut, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Jakarta, Moscow.

You've got the basic infrastructure for a rudimentary service good for five years for about $250 million. Pay salaries from other contributions and small monthly subscriber fees to satellite providers and cable companies. An alternative model might be to skip the foreign correspondency at first and concentrate on investigative reporting inside the US and depend upon wire services for international news.

There are dozens of different possibilities implicit in that basic model.

Maybe what I'm getting at here is that bloggers may simply be wasting their time in trying to get commercial news to do the right thing. I'm not saying that they should simply give up on taking news outlets or individual reporters to task for sloppy or disingenuous work. That ought to go on, as usual. Places like are essential to the process.

But, what they should be doing, if not on a day-to-day basis, then week-to-week and month-to-month, is developing ideas amongst themselves and the people they know in their communities about how to create effective competition for the news sources which now dominate, and how to fund that competing news source. The non-profit model works reasonably well for the UK Guardian, and might here, too, on the broadcast end. But, getting people with money together with people with ideas means both using the blogosphere and going outside it.

It might be that it's going to be the only way to change the direction of the country. This notion goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who had said, in many different ways, that an informed middle class (the "yeomanry," as he put it) is essential to the preservation of democracy. That's one of the reasons why he started the University of Virginia as a free university. And the news, the way it's presented and the subjects it chooses to cover, is part of that process of informing the public.

It's appropriate to note that the visual news media isn't doing its job when it spends 90% of its broadcast hours on missing white girls, lurid murders and celebrity gossip. But noting that hasn't convinced the network and cable press to change how they report the news and on what stories they concentrate their efforts. As it stands, cable news is likely the worst offender, in that most outlets seem to be in the midst of a downward death spiral in their attempts to join Fox in the gutter, and the over-the-airwaves networks seem not far behind. Despite the evidence that fewer and fewer people are tuning in to national news, the news purveyors haven't figured out why. They listen to the same media consultants, and they emulate the lowest common denominator if the worst of the bunch gets a slight blip in the ratings.

It's appropriate to call a lie a lie, when the evidence supports that charge, but it hasn't changed the tendencies of the press in that regard (about the most creativity you'll find in the news business today is in the number of synonyms for lying used to describe whatever Cheney said yesterday).

It's appropriate to ask why the press won't ask the questions which need to be asked, but it hasn't changed the inclination of the press to remain silent at critical junctures.

The only way to correct those problems is to compete with current news sources--to do the news better, more honestly, without regard for those forces in society which have used their economic or governmental power to evade the detection of wrongdoing or used the government and politicians to further their own economic interests, to see good investigative journalism as a virtue and a civic duty, rather than an unnecessary expense.

Right now, it seems to me, the politicians are trying to find the hooks and straps on the blogosphere so they can grab onto it and use it to their advantage. How about the blogosphere using its power, instead, for what it most wants--a lot more truth on the airwaves and in print. With that, most all else follows--including better candidates. The only way to obtain that truth, however, may be to work toward a common goal--an entirely new news outlet on a par with--in terms of technology, production values and scheduling--current news operations. Wanting the likes of Katie Couric or Brian Williams or Juan Williams or Cokie Roberts to actually ask probing questions and demand honest answers is, as they say in Texas, just pissin' on your own shoes.

IWT News may be on the right track toward that end, but they seem destined to ultimately fail for lack of funds, in part because the very wealthy in this country simply won't put out enough cash at one time for an effective debut of such an operation. Results count, and the surest way to kill good investigative journalism is to not adequately fund it. Same with the overall delivery and packaging of that news. Everything has to work together to grab and keep viewers. These days, despite what I and others might think, the simple truth, though always essential, may not be enough to do that.

Maybe bloggers can help with that task. What is going on now is akin to treading water--democracy's still afloat, but barely. Water wings underneath that waterlogged body politic would help, but a speedboat would a whole lot better.

Organizing is admirable, and finding better candidates is preferable to not challenging the bottom-feeders in government. But, the problem is systemic, so the solution will have to go to the heart of the system. Progressive blogging is, in a way, a kind of advocacy journalism. It expects truth, and it's been pretty good, thus far, at challenging misinformation and in identifying viewpoints slanted toward government or corporate interests; those attributes advocate for the public interest. It's not been too bad in policing itself in those regards, too. I see a lot of people misquote something or jump on a story, only to find they or their sources were in error, and have been prompt to apologize and correct themselves--even when it turned out later that they were right.

But, expecting the mainstream media to be an advocate for the public interest, expecting it to change in the direction progressives might wish, is fanciful. The media, particularly television, are exceptionally powerful in shaping public opinion today, and the only effective challenge to that power is to compete with it on equal terms. Truth and the preservation of democracy may be the object, but money is the vehicle. If bloggers spent as much time raising money for and awareness about effective alternative media as they do for individual causes and candidates, the results might be truly astounding--and more meaningful in the long run.

Advocacy journalism has a bad name today mostly because it doesn't advocate for the interests of the powerful. Let's be honest--most of the news media today does advocacy journalism, so let's not think of advocacy journalism as a bad thing. They advocate for a status quo which enables fraud, corruption and the primacy of the corporation in government affairs, and have been greatly influenced by the right wing, which has been pouring money into its public opinion outlets for more than thirty years and continues to do so, because, in overall political and economic terms, the return on investment is incredibly high.

Finley Peter Dunne wrote, maybe a hundred or so years ago, that the obligation of the newspaper was to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Progressive bloggers are trying to do that, to the extent that their venues allow. But, wouldn't a news network reach many more people more effectively?


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