When Air America finally shut its doors early this year, it wasn't front-page news. Plagued by mismanagement and multiple ownership changes, the progressive radio network had failed to turn its respectable ratings into profits, even though it made a U.S. senator out of its first marquee personality, Al Franken, and a television star out of its last, Rachel Maddow. When it finally went off the air, most of the people who were supposed to be its target audience probably didn't notice.
Air America was part of a complex project the left began to undertake about a decade ago, one that involved millions of dollars and hundreds of activists, donors, strategists, scholars, and writers both inside Washington and around the country. It was no conspiracy -- its aims were declared publicly in every communication medium available: to duplicate conservatives' success in influencing the media. When this effort began in earnest after the 2000 election, progressives saw mainstream journalists cowed by pressure from the right; a skilled, aggressive conservative policy apparatus able to flood print and broadcast with its perspective; and a thriving right-wing media that managed to create its own alternative universe, with potent political effects. Progressives hoped to replicate it.
There are some ways in which the progressive attempt to reshape the media has succeeded. But it's the failures that may be the most instructive. Every effective political movement learns from its opponents. Learn their lessons too well, however, and the solutions to your political problems can seem clearer than they actually are. The left's media efforts may well have fallen short not because we didn't understand what conservatives were doing but because we didn't understand ourselves.
This story begins a half-century ago, when the right decided it had a problem with the media. Conservatives began from the premise that the press, particularly elite outlets like The New York Times and CBS News, were hopelessly biased against them. So beginning in the 1960s, they set out to not only establish institutions that could mitigate that bias -- think tanks to advocate conservative policies, their own magazines and newspapers to provide an alternative information source -- but also to wage a campaign against the press itself. The charge of liberal bias had a practical purpose, to "work the refs," as Republican Party Chair Rich Bond in 1992 memorably called it. But this charge was also woven deeply into conservative ideology, such that despising the media became part of what it meant to be an American conservative, even as the media became increasingly responsive to the right.
The left didn't agree with the conservative critique, but it didn't entirely disagree, either. Liberals believed in the fundamental mission of journalism and expected journalists to hold a broadly liberal worldview. Not that reporters were actively rooting for Democrats, but liberals saw them as advocates of government openness, inclined toward rationalism and skeptical of power. Progressives may not have thought journalists were on our side, but we did believe we were on journalism's side -- and that serious, substantive, and fair reporting would make the rightness of progressive ideas clear, without intervention. This assumption turned out to be extraordinarily naive.
After listening to conservatives complain about liberal bias for years, the left eventually realized it had its own issues with the news media. The disillusionment went through three distinct stages. The first was in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan seemed to manipulate the press with such ease. The story of the 1980s (told in Mark Hertsgaard's 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency) was that well-meaning reporters were led astray by Republican political operatives who understood their business better than the reporters did.
The second stage of liberal discontent with the media occurred during the 1990s. Conservative talk radio exploded after Reagan vetoed an attempt to revive the Fairness Doctrine (which required media to present "both sides" of controversial issues) in 1987, giving conservatives a forum the left couldn't match. Through a decade of scandal-mongering, the media trumpeted nearly every accusation Republicans made against Bill and Hillary Clinton, no matter how absurd, culminating in impeachment. During this time, progressives came to understand that conservatives wielded an integrated system of media management including The Washington Times, talk radio, and, of course, Fox News, founded in 1996 by Roger Ailes, who had been a media guru for Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
The 2000 election ushered in the third stage of liberal disillusionment with media. That race featured something new: reporters treating a Democratic candidate with barely disguised contempt. As Eric Boehlert documented in his 2001 Rolling Stone story "The Press vs. Al Gore," the reporters covering the campaign published one negative story after another -- many of them false, like the myth that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. Before that campaign, "deep down, the left thought the people at The New York Times or CBS or The Washington Post would do the right thing," says Boehlert, now a senior fellow at Media Matters for America (where I worked from 2004 to 2009). "It was the 2000 race that taught progressives that the media were not their friends."
That election was followed by Democrats' dispiriting losses in the 2002 congressional elections and the media's abysmal coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War. Progressives of various stripes finally decided that our political problem was at heart a communication problem. Rob Stein, a former Clinton administration official, began touring the country with a PowerPoint presentation he called "The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix." It laid out the system by which conservatives influenced the national discussion -- think tanks, advocacy groups, radio and television hosts -- and made the case for the left to create something similar. Though Stein's PowerPoint may have suggested a system more tightly controlled than it actually was, it convinced many of those who heard it that media was the way for the left to find its way out of the Bush era.
Meanwhile, some of the institutions that would form the base of the left's counter-effort were already being created. The Center for American Progress, which quickly became the left's premier think tank, was formed in 2003; the next year, Media Matters for America was created to monitor and expose extremism in right-wing media and document and refute misinformation in mainstream media. Both organizations were among the first to receive grants from the Democracy Alliance, a consortium of funders founded by Stein and others.
According to one person familiar with those donor discussions between the 2000 and 2004 elections, what many funders sought above all was a kind of central progressive war room, one that would craft talking points and coordinate communication among the disparate groups and individuals on the left. This, it was thought, could counter the blast-faxes and language discipline on the right, allowing progressives to present a unified message and exert a greater influence over the media.
Despite sporadic attempts to create it -- and conservative charges of a left-wing media conspiracy -- the dream of one central war room never came to pass. That failure reveals one of the key hurdles the left faced in duplicating the right. Progressives often pointed to the weekly meetings at the offices of tax advocate Grover Norquist, where dozens of conservatives would gather to discuss strategy and share information. But it wasn't a meeting or a memo that forced Republicans to use the same talking points and speak in the same terms. It was something more organic and harder to duplicate. To put it bluntly, conservatives are all on the same page because they want to be. The right contains as unruly a collection of voices and interests as the left. The fact that conservatives seem better able to stick to a message defined from above or repeat poll-approved terms is more psychological than organizational. As anyone who has tried to get progressives to work together knows, you can lead a liberal politician to your talking points, but you can't always (or even usually) get him to repeat them.
The understanding of this essential psychological difference between the left and the right would take some time to form, however. What emerged from that period in the early 2000s was a fairly coherent set of objectives. First, there should be more progressive policy experts and talking heads, trained to be effective on radio and television and backed by a communication apparatus to push them into the media. Second, there should be a concerted pushback against the right's ability to move inflammatory stories into the mainstream, convince media to adopt their language ("death tax," for one), and intimidate reporters with charges of liberal bias. Finally, there should be an effort to bolster the progressive media, supporting existing institutions and creating new ones to advance liberal ideas.
On all three goals, there has been demonstrable progress. But on none of them has there been the complete turnaround for which progressives have hoped.
The shortcomings of the left's media project notwithstanding, there are some successes in which progressives can rightfully take pride. Many progressive think tanks, particularly those concerned with economics, have grown more media-savvy and are getting quoted more often in the news. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a progressive group that opposes media bias and censorship, reports that progressive groups have seen their proportion of media citations steadily rise in recent years.
But the left is still chasing the right. The Center for American Progress is probably the signature success of recent liberal institution building; its 2008 budget was $26.3 million. But the Heritage Foundation, its closest competitor on the right, spent $64.6 million that year. The left's think tanks get quoted more than they used to, reports FAIR, but the right's think tanks still get quoted more than the left's. In 2008, conservative think tanks made up 31 percent of all think-tank citations, while progressive think tanks made up 21 percent. The gap has narrowed but not disappeared.
When it comes to countering the right's constant pressure on the media, the left has a similar combination of successes and failures. Media Matters has brought attention to conservative extremism in the media and provided progressives with research refuting conservatives on all manner of issues and controversies. One of the central running topics of the left blogosphere (as it is on the right) is the mainstream media and its shortcomings. High-profile progressive media figures like MSNBC host Keith Olbermann also regularly criticize the press. Today, progressives see monitoring and critiquing the media as a central part of the political enterprise.
Individual reporters tend to be dismissive of these kinds of efforts to influence their coverage, but the overall effect has been undeniable. "I do think the left has caught up, in terms of deliberate, cynical ref -- working," Ben Smith of Politico says good-naturedly. "There are things Media Matters and others on the left have done very well," he adds. "One is simply catching things that go out on the broadcast airwaves and that used never to be seen or heard again. Now radio hosts, in particular, face a new kind of accountability. Another is -- when they can -- documenting the inaccuracy of a given claim, and trying to nip a story in the bud."
What that amounts to, Boehlert says, is "playing defense" -- countering stories the right is pushing before they erupt into major mainstream controversies. Nevertheless, "what the left has no real ability to do is sort of create news or manufacture news the way the right does," he says. "Very few stories make the leap from the liberal opinion media or the blogosphere to the mainstream." Why is that? Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia University, says the key is Fox News. "The membrane between the outside and inside media is porous, but it's not nonexistent." On the right, he says, "it's Fox that makes the difference." While MSNBC's evening schedule features three liberal hosts (Olbermann, Maddow, and Ed Schultz), it doesn't have the same around-the-clock consistency of both ideology and story selection that Fox does.
Fox does more than amplify the conservative message; it builds momentum for a story by hammering it over and over for days or weeks until the mainstream media finally feels compelled to discuss it. While Maddow may take an interest in a particular story other media are ignoring, she won't be backed up by six separate MSNBC shows doing a dozen segments a day on her new pet topic. But Fox routinely takes that all-hands-on-deck approach. Recently Media Matters counted 95 separate segments on the New Black Panther Party voter-intimidation case -- a contrived story conservatives did their best to trump up -- in a period of two weeks on Fox. This kind of relentlessness doesn't work every time, but it works often enough. Eventually, many other news outlets covered the voter-intimidation story.
Mainstream news organizations also tend to see conservatives like Rush Limbaugh as legitimate representatives of a portion of the population whose beliefs and concerns they need to heed. But there seems to be no similar feeling about liberal outlets, whether it's Daily Kos or Mother Jones. Mark Halperin of Time magazine recently wrote, "The conservative new media, particularly Fox News Channel and talk radio, are commercially successful, so the implicit logic followed by old-media decision makers is that if something is gaining currency in those precincts, it is a phenomenon that must be given attention." That's partly because of the size of their audience -- Limbaugh has been the most widely heard host in America for years.
The third and final piece of the left's media effort was to create a parallel system from which progressives could get information and which would also influence the broader mainstream media. Here, too, the glass seems half full at best. The failure of Air America called into question the entire model of duplicating conservative media success. Air America's mistake wasn't in attempting to create a progressive talk-radio network (there were, and are, numerous successful liberal radio hosts) but in believing it could succeed on a scale that would make it a political force comparable to conservative talk radio.
As Gitlin says, conservatives' Manichean worldview creates "an arresting, kick-ass style of discourse that makes for better drive-time radio." For better or worse, that kind of rhetoric is neither what progressives excel at creating nor what we are particularly interested in listening to. Instead, we seek out outlets like National Public Radio that are less combative and more factual. It shouldn't be surprising that a substantial body of social-psychological research has found that conservatives tend to be less tolerant of ambiguity than liberals.
The result is that progressives get news that helps us understand the events of the day, but conservatives are more likely to get news that not only tells them what's going on but also reinforces their worldview. Though it may not have been intentional, the right's outlets are also deployed across the population in a politically meaningful way. Stein argues that the right has a few large demographic groups that form its base -- white men, gun owners, conservative Christians -- and has developed self-sustaining media that can "maintain a 24/7/365 conversation with them." The progressive media, in contrast, aren't as focused on the demographic groups that are central to its coalition. Daily Kos may get a half million visits a day, but its readers are activists. There isn't a way for progressives to maintain a conversation with, say, unmarried women (one of the most reliably Democratic voting groups) -- at least not on a scale that has the same deep political effects. Left-wing media "are not narrowcast to specific demographics, so they aren't as electorally powerful," Stein says.
They are also more likely to struggle financially. Tracy Van Slyke, project director of the Media Consortium (a coalition of independent media outlets including the Prospect) and co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media, notes that "the failure of Air America scared a lot of funders off." While there are incredibly wealthy foundations with broadly liberal agendas -- the Pew Charitable Trusts or the Ford Foundation, for instance -- they are often reluctant to fund explicitly progressive media.
The arena where progressives have had the most success is the one that has received the least investment and planning: the Internet. While establishment Democrats were focused on creating institutions and enacting strategies to mirror those of conservatives, entrepreneurial progressives were creating new forms of journalism and commentary that the right hadn't yet attempted. Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, which began as a blog, is now a full-fledged news organization with a staff of reporters that regularly breaks important stories -- and sometimes moves them into the mainstream media, as it did with the Bush administration's firing of U.S. attorneys. And as one recent study showed, progressive blogs are more likely to provide a conversation between bloggers and readers and also to be used as platforms for mobilization around elections and issues.
No assessment of progressive media in the last few years is complete without mentioning The Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington's site has plenty of critics who complain about its lengthy excerpts of other outlets' content and its generous helpings of celebrity gossip. But the site's success is undeniable. It employs skilled reporters who have broken important stories (and been called on by the president in White House press conferences), and its audience is enormous. Numerous Web traffic analyses rate it as the most-viewed blog on the Internet; earlier this year it reported 40 million unique visitors in one month.
While The Huffington Post may be sui generis, it may hold some lessons about the natural limits of news sources focused exclusively on politics and policy. "I would like to see progressive media more invested in combining pop culture and politics," Van Slyke says, which "would open them up to new audiences." That would certainly play to the left's strengths -- remember The Hour News Hour, Fox's abysmally unfunny attempt to create a conservative version of The Daily Show? If there's one thing liberals have, it's entertainers.
Underlying any discussion of influence in the media is the fact that the American news business is facing an existential crisis. Many newspapers have closed down, audiences for network news have shrunk dramatically, newsroom staffs are being slashed, and traditional news outlets haven't figured out how to make a profit in online journalism. Whereas conservatives are consistently on the attack, bashing the media for its alleged misdeeds, progressives have a more complicated relationship with mainstream journalism. As Gitlin says, "Where there are fewer resources for serious reporting, then the watchdogs are gone, and that's bad for the left." Herb and Marion Sandler, who have been benefactors of progressive groups like MoveOn.org, have committed $10 million a year to Pro Publica, an emphatically nonideological organization that undertakes large investigative-journalism projects. "I've seen a lot more interest among foundations in funding public media, which is distinct from progressive media," Van Slyke says.
But, in our decade-long quest to influence the media, progressives have found that our greatest limitations have not been money or organization, the main things we envied the right for having. Instead, progressives have been held back by our own personalities and predilections -- our interest in particular progressive causes rather than "progressivism" as a cause, our concern for the future of journalism, our demographically messy coalition. These things are unlikely to change.
When it comes to coordinating messages or pressuring the press, the best the left can probably hope for is to fight the right to a draw. But in online and alternative media, liberals are years ahead. The right's media may give it the ability to communicate with its core demographics, like white men and Christian conservatives, but these groups are shrinking as a proportion of the population with each passing year. If progressives are nimble enough to keep adapting to changes in the media world, conservatives will be the ones devising broad strategies to catch up.