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October 05, 2007

Back To Normal

Sometimes in discussions about the (corporate-owned, advertiser-supporter) media you come across the idea that it used to be liberal, but not anymore. For instance, Jim Henley: "When I was a teen...and for a time after that, the media was very liberal."

I wouldn't agree with that, exactly. Rather than saying the media once was liberal, I'd put it like this: there was a brief period during the late sixties to the mid seventies when parts of the media weren't completely reactionary. And from this tiny real acorn grew an immense imaginary oak called the "liberal media." Still, I acknowledge the media has changed significantly over the past forty years.

But to me most everyone takes away the wrong point from this. Particularly among baby boomers, afflicted with too many viewing of All the President's Men, there's a sense the late sixties-mid seventies was the norm and today's situation is the aberration. Instead, the late sixties-mid seventies was the aberration. Now we're back to normal.

That's because (corporate-owned, advertiser-supported) media always has powerful conservative tendencies. It's in its DNA. What was different during our brief media glasnost wasn't the media's DNA, but the outside environment. Most importantly, America then was the most middle class it's ever been before or since. It made financial sense for advertisers to try to reach a broader audience. And so a somewhat different media became profitable. Large social movements clamoring to be heard also had an effect.

But then the empire struck back. The movements weakened, and the U.S. steadily became less and less middle class. Now we have economic inequality on par with the twenties—and thus a media like the twenties too. It could hardly be otherwise.

So the media's not going back to its "liberal" period unless the larger economic structures of the United States do as well. And we shouldn't be hoping for a return to that media era anyway. It was never that great to start with, and as we've since learned, it was extremely vulnerable to outside changes.

A much better plan is to accept the corporate-owned, advertiser-supported idea is inherently flawed, and come up with alternatives. Ezra Klein is thinking along these lines, and so is Bree Nordenson. Both articles mention what I believe is the best solution, Dean Baker's concept of "artistic freedom vouchers."

Baker's idea is simple: everyone would get a $100 tax credit that would go to whatever artistic or journalistic endeavor they designate. The recipients could do whatever they wanted with it, as long as they agreed to give up copyright to what they produced.

This could lead to a media without government control, without advertisers, and—most importantly—without PBS trying to appeal to the upper middle class white donor class via acoustic Eagles concerts. Everyone wins except the forces of evil.

There are likely other solutions, too. (Klein and Nordenson discuss some of them.) The important thing at this point is just to start understanding the problem and thinking about possible answers.

(The ball's in your court, Mr. Nielsen Hayden.)

Posted at October 5, 2007 12:21 PM | TrackBack

Yeah, but come on, Jon, there were actual rules in place to regulate corporate control of media, and rules to require good coverage. It used to be the case that TV channels had to provide a certain fraction of news and educational coverage. Heck, they even spent a significant fraction of their coverage on international news. This wasn't an "aberration", this was them being forced to do it because they were using a public resource (airwaves) to broadcast their shit. That "deregulation" led to corporate consolidation and the tripe that passes for news these days was not an accident, and we can blame that on conservatives in government, but the previous situation was the result of specific counter-measures.

Posted by: saurabh at October 5, 2007 01:54 PM

"Everyone wins except the forces of evil."

And The Eagles, Jon. They'll end this pipe-dream of yours.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at October 5, 2007 02:05 PM

And doo-wop. Can't forget them.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at October 5, 2007 02:06 PM

You mean "Mr. Nielsen Hayden", actually.

Posted by: David Goldfarb at October 5, 2007 02:40 PM

David, thanks. Will change.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 5, 2007 02:45 PM

You youngster.
There were liberal-to-left papers/writers in the late 1940s/early 1950s--in NYC--the PM and others, with Murray Kempton writing, and IF Stone.
The McCarthy period took a heavy toll, but there was independent thought within the media before the Sixties, quite a bit from the 1930s/WWII and City University of NY left-leaning types,some the red-diaper babies of European social democrats etc.
The Sixties brought a revival, in new clothes and with different emphasis and style. Alo, alas, short-lived.

Posted by: donescobar at October 5, 2007 02:46 PM
There were liberal-to-left papers/writers in the late 1940s/early 1950s--in NYC--the PM and others, with Murray Kempton writing, and IF Stone.

Sure, but wasn't that was mostly outside the corporate-owned, advertiser-supported media? My understanding is PM in particular was an attempt to deal with just these issues.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 5, 2007 03:07 PM

The entire premise of the mainstream media has always been that the politicians and others who wield power are good, that the establishment is good. Most of the people in power are psychopaths and have been since before the United States was founded.

Posted by: Mark Miller at October 5, 2007 03:25 PM

Well, they too had ads, if not near as many, but what was striking was that these papers ,as I recall, two out of NYC's ten, were available on all newsstands and could be seen in the hands of subway riders. Kempton's take on American politics (in the ! NY Post !--another beast then) was known and not as marginalized as anything not mainstream is today.
As the Cold War got into high gear, corporate propaganda and the "socialism gonna get yo momma" sentiment took over. They got stronger and stronger, and that's one reason why the Sixties get blamed by the mainstream media for every problem in America. "Liberal" was not a pejorative in 1949. Half a century later, it was.
As the hero of one of the very few TV shows about a working class stiff used to say, "What a revoltin' development."

Posted by: donescobar at October 5, 2007 03:43 PM

Thoughtful post, good stuff.

Posted by: Batocchio at October 5, 2007 04:24 PM

OK, on PM. It and Star and Post ran together in my mind (I was kid, then, learning English from these and other papers).
Still, advertising alone was not what drove the abandonment of "independent" thought in the media.
It's a piece of it, even a big piece, but Tricky Dick alo understood one other big piece: the "Silent Majority," and the yearning for comfort as the kids challenged and the folksingers and new age gurus pushed. The corporations and their consultants and boys in Congress understood that most Americans, enjoying the comforts the '50s had brought, didn't want to upset things too much. The sexual revolution had it rewards for middle-aged men, but other revolutions threatened to take the comforts of capitalism away.
There never was the same sense of "community" in the new world as in the old, for better and for worse.

Posted by: donescobar at October 5, 2007 05:01 PM

So Johnathan,

Rather than wait for a single person to write the paper on the grand unified theory of the independent press, I think it's better if we all organized ourselves to all work simultaneously in parallel. Tap into the collective overmind if you will.

I think we start by hosting a conference to discuss all possible implementations of running truly independent news services. The conference has a two fold purpose. Gather people with ideas and people interested in supporting those ideas in one place, and then fund raise among those people during that conference for seed money for the ideas that attendees and donors vote on to be executed.

If we look at Reddit for example, Paul Graham runs a boot camp, (a conference) twice a year for people who have sent him their ideas. He then takes a small amount of his own money to fund these ideas for a couple months, say $5000 a head per person per startup. Some make it some don't, but everything reasonable is tried by everyone interested and everyone learns.

It's time to do the same thing here and now. Let's host a conference say post Turkey Day weekend in November, create a new web site for people to submit their ideas and to organize the weekend conference, and register people who want to go. And then specify the minimum amount desired from each attendee for the pool of cash for the best set of ideas that will get voted on by everyone who participate.

We may not individually have Paul Graham's millions, but I bet if we collective work our networks we probably go get enough capital to get some ideas up and running for a few months. I mean what is the cost for a 2 person start up for two months. $20,000 tops especially if you are working out of an apartment, or even cheaper if people work from where they live.

Posted by: smacfarl at October 6, 2007 12:36 AM

You know, people keep harshin' on the Eagles. I like the Eagles. I wish people wouldn't keep doing that.

Posted by: Mike at October 6, 2007 02:24 AM

Please stop conflating corporate-owned with advertiser-supported. I agree whole-heartedly that corporate-owned media in the US pursues a single-minded agenda to keep Americans misinformed or, worse, uninformed.
ABC's "Path to 9/11" is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Advertisers quickly pulled their support for that piece of garbage, yet ABC STILL went ahead and aired it on prime time not to make money, but to keep people misinformed.
Look at how many awful talking heads are on the air, such as Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson and even Chris Matthews, despite terrible ratings. Since advertising revenue is generated from how many viewers are watching a program, the networks are losing money just to keep their lies on the air.
Normally, Keith Olberman's success would have translated into similar programs popping up on MSNBC and other networks to help boost their ratings and draw advertisers. I haven't seen it happening.
The corporate-owned media is battling normal market forces to keep their drivel on the airwaves and that's one of the reasons why the blogosphere has been so successful in drawing advertiser support while giving us the information and opinions we simply can't get through MSM.

Posted by: Craig Cipriano at October 6, 2007 07:17 AM

What's the reference to Patrick Nielsen Hayden? The link doesn't go to a specific post. I read Making Light regularly, but can't imagine how he comes into this discussion.

Posted by: Nell at October 6, 2007 09:17 AM

The Umpire Strikes Out.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 6, 2007 02:01 PM

I assume that Jonathan is linking to me because we were arguing a while back over his skepticism of whether advertising-dependent business models can support a politically healthy media culture. I pointed out that monopolistic or near-monopolistic distribution-and-retail models threaten diversity in their own way.

I'm not sure why the "ball's in my court," though. A $100 artistic-freedom voucher sounds good, but a world in which we could get something like that enacted would be a world in which we'd need it a lot less already.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at October 6, 2007 02:17 PM

Thanks, PNH.

I tend to agree with your last point. As structural changes go, I think public campaign financing for federal elections is closer to being within our grasp...

Posted by: Nell at October 6, 2007 04:23 PM