Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Brock, Walsh & Boehlert Deliver A Powerful Message for the Progressive Media & Citizen Journalists: Savor the Victories, But Strengthen the Capability

George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, was also a BBC journalist

[The bloggers] ushered in this whole revolution in media criticism, and holding the press accountable. And that sent shock waves through the mainstream press. For years they had heard 'liberal bias, liberal bias.' Now all of a sudden they had these new kids on the block that were sort of eating their lunch. Eric Boehlert, author of Bloggers on the Bus

Every issue that you care about right now is subject to a media, which despite the success that we have had in recent years, is still problematic. We just had an election night with a sweeping progressive victory, on which Tom Brokaw still declared that this is a center-right country. Our work isn't done. David Brock, Media Matters

It is worse than the Clinton years ... There is something worse out there right now, and we have all got to get our minds around the best way to fight it. Joan Walsh, Salon

Brock, Walsh & Boehlert Deliver A Powerful Message for the Progressive Media & Citizen Journalists: Savor the Victories, But Strengthen the Capability

By Richard Power

Imagine what the frayed fringe of the right-wing would make of this scene.

David Brock, CEO and founder of Media Matters, Joan Walsh, Editor-in-Chief of Salon.com, and Eric Boehlert, a Media Matters Senior Fellow and author of the newly released book, Bloggers on the Bus, three influential figures in the rise of the progressive media, coming together for a panel discussion on where we have been, where we are and where we are going.

The venue? On Market Street, in the twilight of a beautiful spring evening, in a modest-sized auditorium in the same U.S. government building that holds the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Why the Fed? Not because the progressive media is being floated by that "international banking conspiracy" that the frayed fringe fears so deeply. But because the building also houses Working Assets, a corporation that takes social responsibility seriously.

How did I end up here in the front row?

Well, what happened to Susan McDougal came to mind, and then what happened to Duval County, Florida, and then what didn't happen to the Presidential Daily Briefing of 8/6/01, and then so much more, a flood of insults and obscenities.

Prior to launching Words of Power in August 2006, I blogged as Liberation News Service from June 2003 until January 2006. During that period, I often signed off with the slogan, 2 + 2 = 4. It was, of course, a reference to George Orwell's 1984, in which "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used to get Winston Smith to accept that 2 + 2 = 5 because Big Brother said so. And in the dark heat of those wretched years, it seemed that we were engaged in resisting a collective brainwashing along similar lines. What Mike Malloy dubbed the "Bush-Cheney crime family" held sway over the incredible power of the national security state and the bully pulpit of the presidency, and could rely on not only the propaganda muscle of the "Republican noise machine" but also the complicity of the mainstream news media.

But now, in 2009, even though the right-wing's hold on the national security state has been broken, and the bully pulpit of the presidency has been wrested from it, we are still engaged in a great struggle. It is as if, with its command and control functions knocked it, this vast drone army is just flailing around and crashing into everything, still insisting that 2 + 2 = 5.

Healthcare? 2 + 2 = 5.

Climate change? 2 + 2 = 5.

As I have written in recent posts, we are at a critical juncture, we, as a people, must fix healthcare, and we, as a planet, must fix the climate. There is no wiggle room. There is no buffer. This is it. But a third of the populace, and worse, almost half of the U.S. Senate, is still in the grip of 2 + 2 = 5. How can a large group of people get anything done that demands collective action, if a third to a half of them at any given moment, do not accept the universal truth of mathematics, i.e., 2 + 2 = 4.

These are the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Meanwhile, elements of our body politic have reached unprecedented level of toxicity:

Three Pittsburgh police officers were fatally shot when they responded to a domestic dispute at the home of the alleged killer, Richard Poplawski, who had posted numerous racist and anti-Semitic messages on the white supremacist website Stormfront and elsewhere. Southern Poverty Law Center, 4-6-09

George Tiller, a Kansas physician, was shot to death in church on Sunday. He was one of only a handful of doctors in the United States providing late-term therapeutic abortions for women in need - women whose pregnancies threatened their lives or their health, and women who learned that they were carrying foetuses with severe abnormalities. Guardian, 6-1-09

Authorities have arrested a man who allegedly told bank tellers while cleaning out his savings account in Utah that he was on a mission to kill President Barack Obama. The Secret Service said Daniel James Murray, 36, was arrested Friday outside a casino in Laughlin, Nev., a gambling town 100 miles from Las Vegas on the Nevada-Arizona line. Huffington Post, 6-6-09

Following the shooting of a Holocaust Memorial Museum security guard allegedly by a white supremacist on June 10, Fox News commentators disagreed about whether the shooting validates a recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report alerting law enforcement to an increased threat from "rightwing extremists," including "white supremacists." Media Matters, 6-11-09

The leader of Minutemen American Defense (MAD), a nativist extremist group that conducts vigilante patrols on the Arizona-Mexico border, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder Friday for her alleged role in the May 30 slayings of a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter in Pima County, Ariz. Southern Poverty Law Center, 6-15-09

Here are some highlights from the Brock-Walsh-Boehlert dialogue:

Swiftboat 2004 vs. Swiftboat 2008

To illustrate how far we have come, Brock contrasted the swiftboating of John Kerry in 2004 with the swiftboating of Barack Obama in 2008.

"With Obama Nation, you saw the results of our work on the air. We got our the facts into the hands of everyone interviewing the author or writing about the book. We looked at every news story written about [Unfit for Command] the anti-Kerry book published in August 2004, more than 80% of those news stories wrote right off the book, and took those allegations, and gave them a free ride. But in 2008 looking at the same variable, i.e., all the news coverage of Obama Nation, it was flipped, more than 80% of the stories were focused on the lack of credibility of the book.

"I have been privileged to witness, over the last four or five years, a big shift, maybe even a revolution in the way information is moving on-line, and with the progressive capacity to deal with everything I just described.

"Three things have been accomplished, broadly speaking: first, the capacity to push-back and marginalize the Republican noise machine, which had been operating with total impunity until this response came along; second, to hold the mainstream media to account, to make them realize that both sides were watching, when I started this they were under scrutiny only from the right, and so balancing that has not only strengthened journalism but strengthened democracy; and third, the progressive ability not just to criticize, but increasingly make and shape news. None of that existed until fairly recently."

Smearing of Anita Hill vs. Smearing of Judge Sonia Sotomayor

Continuing, Brock contrasted the efficacy of attacks on Anita Hill vs. those on Judge Sonia Sotomayor:

"I participated in the smearing and savaging of Anita Hill in 1993, and there was really no response at that time from progressives or from much of the media. We were able to go on a rampage and get away with it. An entirely different situation rolled out with the Sotomayor nomination. As soon as the nomination was made the right was like a moth to a flame, and portayed her as a dumb, affirmative action pick. Pat Buchanan called her a 'Quota Queen.' Rush Limbaugh compared her to David Duke, and said the way you get promoted in the Obama administration is 'hating white people.' Karl Rove said he knew 'stupid people who graduated from the Ivy League.'

[NOTE: Joan interjected 'He sure did,' and the audience responded with sustained and raucous laughter.]

"We went to work. I had always thought instinctively that someday we would get to the point when the Republican noise machine would begin to work for us. So right out of the box, Limbaugh calling her a racist, and Gingrich twittering that she was a racist really helped framed the story and show the opposition as unreasonable and unhinged, and also it made Republicans in the Senate kind of scared about what their own spokespeople and their own media was doing. There was aggressive fact-checking not only by Media Matters but by places like Salon to get out the truth about her record ... When you look back on it, I believe that without the independent effort that we have created, not the White House's effort, but the independent effort, that week would have played out very differently. That is the kind of capacity we have built up, and we need to continue to build up. Every issue that you care about right now is subject to a media, which despite the success that we have had in recent years, is still problematic. We just had an election night with a sweeping progressive victory, on which Tom Brokaw still declared that this is a center-right country. Our work isn't done."

Worse than the Clinton Years

Brock framed a question about the toxicity level of the right-wing:

"Eric Boehlert was on CNN with Tom Tancredo when Tancredo compared La Raza to the KKK. Joan Walsh had an interesting experience with Bill O'Reilly last Friday night. All three of us are close to what happened in the Clinton years. What is going on? Where is this coming from?"

Joan Walsh shared a compelling historical perspective:

"It is worse than the Clinton years. Many of us had criticisms of Bill Clinton, and thought he was too much of a triangulator. But he really did have a social democratic agenda, he really was in his way trying to lead the country to the left ... he had a controversial way of doing it, for the left, people didn't always like it, but he drove the right crazy.

"I sit here as someone who remembers the wilderness, when Salon was in the wilderness, and the New York Times was just going "Whitewater! Whitewater!" "Steno Sue" Schmidt was just sitting outside Starr's office saying "What do you have?" Reporting on the investigation totally uncritically. And we stood up with Joe Conason and Gene Lyons and said, "This is really ridiculous, you're paying a bunch of grifters from Arkansas to testify falsly."

"And in the Florida recount, when Eric worked for Salon, and we were looking at Duval County, and we were really alone. Donna Brazile sent us a desperate e-mail, 'Oh my God, keep it up, thank you so much.' We were saying, 'Fight! Count the votes. Go to every county. 22,000 black voters had their votes cast aside.'

"Today, there is a lot of hatred and demonization that is really terrifying. Bill Clinton was called a hound dog and a womanizer, but this is different.

"The great thing is that when I go on Bill O'Reilly, unbidden, people from Media Matters, as well as the whole left-wing blogosphere, sending me facts. There is a textural infrastructure, there are all of these researchers that know every time he every said 'Dr. Tiller the Baby Killer.' We didn't have that in 1998.

"So, it is so much better, and yet, at the same time, there is this tenor of hatred and demonization that is arguably and I am careful about saying this but seems likely to have contributed to a climate of violence, in which we have our first abortion provider murdered in a lot of years, and have someone go into the Holocaust Museum and shot an African American guard, and someone killed the police in Pittsburgh because he thought Barack Obama was going to take away his guns.

"There is something worse out there right now, and we have all got to get our minds around the best way to fight it."

Silver Lining

Boehlert went into a further elaboration of the bad news and then articulated the good news:

"It is worse because, if you look at the Clinton coverage early on, to find the really hateful, crazy, loony stuff, you really had to look. There were fax networks. People were sending around faxes. They would stand by their fax machines and wait for the new crazy stuff to come over. They could get a handful of AM talk radio show hosts to repeat this stuff. The Wall Street Journal would sort of wallow in some of it. It was not in the mainstream. Rush Limbaugh had a syndicated TV show for two years, he did not do any of that stuff. It was considered just beyond the pale to really traffic in that kind of hate. But now you just turn on Fox News almost any hour of the day, or Limbaugh, or Savage, or the others, what I have been calling the 'Militia Media' rhetoric, it is the same sort of vigilante-style rhetoric of the 1990s that said Bill Clinton was going to usher in 'the New World Order' and take your guns, and things like that, but now we are seeing it just dumped into the mainstream in a very dangerous way. That's what is worse. That what is so dangerous. And that is what has created this really frightening climate. But on the flip-side, as Joan said, Salon was all alone, there was nobody else writing the things we were writing, we were battling the New York Times, they were the problem.

[NOTE: Walsh interjected, "the liberal media," which brought more laughter from the audience.]

"Yeah. They were the engine driving all of this stuff. But today, as Joan said, talking about her appearance on O'Reilly, and all the twittering, I can't tell you how many Facebook friends I have that posted that clip within 15 minutes last Friday night. It was everywhere. It was just going around and around. That obviously did not exist ten years ago, it did not really five years ago. If this same group of people had gotten together five or ten years ago there would have been no way for them to communicate with each other in an effective and efficient way. That is what the silver lining of the last decade, the creation of this Netroots community and the Blogosphere. Media Matters has become an absolutely central part of the Netroots community, and a sub-section of that has been this wild growth of the liberal Blogosphere."

Legends of the Blogosphere

Next, Brock focused the conversation on Boehlert's book, and on the impact of progressive bloggers in general:

"Let me lay out a little bit of the landscape. We have institutions like Media Matters and the Center for American Progress. Then you have for-profit media, e.g., MSNBC, the Huffington Post and Salon. But [Bloggers on the Bus] is about the third category, the kind of accidental empire of the bloggers, who with a few exceptions, are not affiliated with organizations or institutions, and didn't have blueprints or plans to do what they have done."

Boehlert continued:

"A lot of them started at Salon: Jerome Armstrong of MyDD, Digby at Hullabaloo, Duncan Black whose blog is Atrius at Eschaton. They all got their start at Salon in Table Talk. That was just the very simple early days of just going on-line to find other progressives. 'There just have to be some out there.' No one was seeing them on TV. No one was seeing them on MSNBC during the impeachment fiasco. And between the impeachment, and the Florida recount, and the run-up to the war, people just couldn't throw anything more at the TV. They weren't hearing a liberal voice anywhere on TV. So they turned to their laptops and said, 'I am just going to start writing.' If I don't, I am literally going to go crazy, and this will be my outlet. That's when people begin to realize that probably the most important lesson of the decade was that they were not alone. The media was telling them that they were alone, the politicians were telling them that they were alone. The pundits weren't writing anything they were interested in, or waging the fights, even the so-called 'liberal' columnists. Despite all of that, they went on-line and discovered that there were an enormous number of us. 'We can start this community, we can start fact-checking the press, and start launching our own progressive initiatives. And where it is now is almost unrecognizable from where it was in 2002 or 2003.

"So like Joan said the bad news is that the hate has been taken up to an extraordinary, and very dangerous degree. The only good news is the rapid response, and the infrastructure, and the organized push-back that absolutely did not exist until Salon came along, and then bloggers on their own decided we can do this.

"The pioneers, like Atrios (Duncan Black), Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald, Crooks and Liars, people like that, really revolutionized, even before Media Matters, media criticism. Media criticism had mostly been the province of academic journals, and just a handful of mainstream writers. The bloggers targets were the Bush administration and the press, and they couldn't decide which one they were more angry at. And they just started holding the press accountable, in a very serious, factual, insightful, and sort of shit-kicking way. If you read early Digby and Jane Hamsher, they were just not going to take this stuff anymore. They ushered in this whole revolution in media criticism, and holding the press accountable. And that sent shock waves through the mainstream press. For years they had heard 'liberal bias, liberal bias.' Now all of a sudden they had these new kids on the block that were sort of eating their lunch.

"It was completely unplanned. They had no money. No blueprint. A lot of them didn't even meet each other for years. It really happened in spite of itself, as compared, for example, to the Christian Right, with all the money and infrastructure that they had.

"John Amato was a professional saxophone player. He toured in Europe with Duran Duran. He grew up in Queens. He started an eight piece band in high school and started playing discos. He moved to Los Angeles, and started a computer supply company, while he was on the road with other bands he would sell parts from his cell phone. He had a very serious injury in 2004, and he was bed-ridden. He was watching Bush's re-election. He was watching way too much Fox News. He was going insane, and he didn't want to break his TV. He said, 'I am going to start a blog,' and his friends said, 'you are crazy, don't start a blog.' He said, 'I am going to start a blog, and I am going to put videos on it.' You have to understand in 2004 there was no You Tube, you couldn't put video on a blog. Whatever video was on-line, Comedy Central or CNN, was specifically put there in a way that you couldn't edit it. There was no way to get from the TV to the two-minute clip that we all take for granted now. John was reading all of this great media criticism, but he came from this entertainment and creative background, and he thought 'If people see what Bill O'Reilly is doing, if people see what Lou Dobbs is doing, it will have ten times more of an impact. But there was no way to do it. So he called a tech buddy of his, and they just sort of started hacking away ... they figured it out, the first video was the size of a postage stamp, and it took about four to get it from the TV to the computer, and you couldn't even really see it. But he thought it would change things, and it did. The site went up in September-October 2004, by the next summer, it was one of the most linked-to web sites in the Liberal Blogosphere ... It was a classic blog site, it reflected his personality, it had a lot of music, it was about him, it wasn't just wonky, and it wasn't just policy."

Walsh added some insights into another of the legends of the Blogosphere, Glenn Greenwald:

"We approached him and we asked him if we could affiliate his blog, and he asked for absolute freedom, which I gave him, I definitely give him ideas, and he is often really responsive, he can't be reigned in, because the only reason I would stop somebody is if they were inaccurate, and he never makes mistakes. I have made some media friends, because I go on these shows, and they will call me and they will be like 'Oh my God, Glenn Greenwald is saying the most awful things about me,' and I am like, 'OK, is it false?' Because we really will correct our facts. 'So what's the problem, if there is anything false we will correct it?' 'No, it's just not what I think about myself.' He has been so invaluable to us, because we really had taken on the issues, separate form Glenn and predating Glenn, we were the ones that released the second set of Abu Ghraib photos, and in addition to doing that, really delved deeply into the question of 'Was there really an investigation, and why did only the lowliest of the low go to jail, and no did no one higher than military police wind up in jail? Glenn brought so much intellectual and legal firepower to those inquiries. It was a great fit. He top two trafficked writers everyday, generally, except for my O'Reilly appearance, gets more letters than anyone else. He brought a kind of do it yourself mentality in the people who write letters. We actually created our own blogging site, called Open Salon, and some of Glenn's letter writers have gone over there, and started their own blogs. He really did inspire a generation of people to think, 'I can do this myself with research, and intelligence, and integrity, and develop an audience and make a difference. It has been a great collaboration."

For Words of Power's archive of posts on Corporate News Media Complicity, Power of Alternative Media, Propaganda & Freedom, click here.

Richard Power's Left-Handed Security: Overcoming Fear, Greed & Ignorance in This Era of Global Crisis is available now! Click here for more information.

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