Over the past quarter century, the conservatives/Republicans have built a huge, permanent media machine â€“ a vertically integrated structure that puts out the conservative message on TV, with newspapers, through magazines, over radio stations, in books and via the Internet.
Through all these forms of communication, in large cities and small towns, the Rightâ€™s media is there for its listeners, readers and viewers every day, year round, not just during election cycles. Its impact is especially important in rural areas that donâ€™t have easy access to the variety of media found in urban centers.
Indeed, the conservative mediaâ€™s role in firming up rural America as a â€œredâ€ Republican bastion is often overlooked. The incendiary rhetoric on conservative talk radio has been a major factor in convincing millions of these Americans that â€œliberalsâ€ are demons who hate their country and love killing babies.
Meanwhile, trying to position itself in the center, the mainstream or corporate media keeps tacking rightward to avoid offending conservatives, who aggressively trash individual reporters and news organizations if they are deemed to show any traces of liberalism.
Most notably, the major mainstream news outlets â€“ including the New York Times and the Washington Post â€“ bent to George W. Bushâ€™s will when he was marching the country to war in Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003. But even earlier â€“ during Bill Clintonâ€™s administration in the 1990s and Al Goreâ€™s presidential campaign in 2000 â€“ the supposedly â€œliberalâ€ mainstream press led the attacks on the Democrats. [For example, see Consortiumnews.comâ€™s â€œGore v. the Media.â€]
Yet, as the conservatives were building their imposing media infrastructure, the Democratic or liberal side was doing next to nothing.
For various reasons, American liberals have opted against investments in media, favoring instead grassroots activism and various charitable endeavors. Some of the Leftâ€™s thinking goes back to the early days of the labor movement when newspapers were seen as the domain of plutocrats that could only be countered by the organized masses.
What makes the liberal/Democratic strategy so dangerous today, however, is that media saturates every corner of this disparate American society. It has become the way for many millions of Americans to understand the world around them and to bond with political leaders and ideas.
Indeed, a great success of the Republican/conservative movement has been to use media to organize average Americans to vote for candidates whose platforms objectively harm those very same Americans. Theyâ€™re ready to follow Rush Limbaugh because they have become comfortable with his daily message as they drive to work, go out on errands or jump into a cab.
On another front, one cannot explain the pervasive misinformation that is guiding much of the American population if the conservative media is not considered.
Millions of regular listeners to Fox News, for instance, base their judgments on verifiably false information, such as the Bush administrationâ€™s propaganda about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein collaborating with al-Qaeda. Even after those claims were debunked, recent polls showed that the falsehoods were still accepted as articles of faith by large majorities of George W. Bushâ€™s supporters.
Conservative outlets also cooperate with each other, achieving a â€œsynergyâ€ that some media corporations could only envy. When conservative talk radio and TV promote a book by a right-wing author â€“ think Ann Coulter â€“ itâ€™s almost sure to hit the best-seller list and get a prime spot in book stores. [For more on the Rightâ€™s media strategy, see Robert Parryâ€™s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
So, a crucial challenge facing â€œblueâ€ America now is to get back in this media game, to challenge the current dynamic of an aggressive conservative media forcing the mainstream press to scuttle ever rightward. Given the conservativesâ€™ quarter-century head-start, the liberals have their work cut out for them. But here are a few suggestions for making wise investments in media:
- Turn to professional journalists with a track record of honesty and courage. The way to counter disinformation from the Right is NOT to put out propaganda from the Left. Good journalism that is both reliable and interesting will be the key â€“ and professional journalists are the ones who can best provide credible information by maintaining high standards for accuracy.
- Invest the money where it is most needed, in the information-warfare front lines, the media centers of Washington and New York. For too long, what money liberals have put in media has gone disproportionately to rear-guard cities, such as San Francisco, Boston or even Madison, Wisconsin. By contrast, the conservatives invested heavily in outlets based in Washington and New York, giving their media operatives better access to government officials and TV appearances.
- Work with existing media outlets that have national reach, including the likes of Amy Goodmanâ€™s â€œDemocracy Now,â€ which airs both on Pacifica radio stations and on satellite networks, Link TV and Free Speech TV. On the AM dial, Air America is demonstrating how a liberal talk radio format can be both informative and provocative.
- Perhaps most importantly, show urgency. The warning signs about the power of the conservative media have been out there since the 1980s. But alarm bells certainly should have gone off in 1994 (the Gingrich revolution, which made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the House of Representatives); in 1998-99 (the impeachment of Bill Clinton); in 2000 (the stolen Gore-Bush election); and in 2002-03 (the Iraq War propaganda). Past delays have been very costly; future delays could prove catastrophic.
The next four years are almost certain to be dangerous ones for the American people and the world. The victorious George W. Bush will interpret his three-percentage-point victory as a resounding mandate to continue his right-wing policies at home and abroad. After all, he lost the popular vote in 2000 and still treated that as a mandate.
Though publicly the Bush victors are talking about the need for national unity, privately conservatives already are vowing to take a sledgehammer to the federal government and stack the courts with reliably right-wing judges. In Iraq, Bush appears determined to bring the full weight of American military might down on Fallujah and other insurgent strongholds. Bloody crises are almost certain to follow in other parts of Iraq and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East, such as Iran.
In these next four years, more than ever, the American people will need honest information, produced by courageous journalists and delivered by media outlets that wonâ€™t flinch in the face of political pressure. There is much work to be done â€“ and it must begin now.
Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has written a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com.