Earlier today, I noted the joy that can be heard in the voice of Ed Schultz now that he has severed ties with MSNBC (amid speculation that Schultz ran afoul of MSNBC management by strongly condemning the Trans-Pacific Partnership). I did not note the sorrow and anger in the voices of those who have written to MSNBC management to condemn Schultz’s ouster.
The folks who wrote these letters feel betrayed by MSNBC, and I was struck by the intensity of their anguish. In their view, Schultz’s show was a lifeline, a call to action, a cry for help from the suffering working class to the elite political class. By removing him from the cable airwaves, these writers suggest, MSNBC is saying that working men and women don’t really matter.
The controversy over Schultz’s departure (and the rumored reasons for it) highlights anew the imbalance between progressive media and right-wing media in the United States. Why is Schultz off the cable airwaves after only six years, while Bill O’Reilly has been able to prattle his propaganda for nearly two decades of decadence? Why is it that an extremist like Erick Erickson has such clout in American politics, while progressive media figures are shoved to the social sidelines?
Yes, we may be in a progressive age, but the gains progressives have made in the United States cannot be preserved unless and until there is a significant expansion of progressive media. The right wing’s media megaphone is still far too loud–and the progressive voice has yet to drown it out.
Last year, I marked the 43rd anniversary of the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s memo urging the financing of a right-wing media apparatus to counteract the perceived influence of progressive voices such as Ralph Nader. Powell was truly an evil genius; his memo was a blueprint for the establishment of the skewed media culture that allowed the Sarah Palins and Donald Trumps of the world to become political superstars.
A few years after the Powell memo was written, a Nixon operative named Roger Ailes joined an effort to expand the right’s reach. As Tim Dickinson noted in a 2011 Rolling Stone profile of Ailes:
In 1974, his notoriety from the Nixon campaign won him a job at Television News Incorporated, a new right-wing TV network that had launched under a deliberately misleading motto that Ailes would one day adopt as his own: “fair and balanced.” TVN made no sense as a business. The project of archconservative brewing magnate Joseph Coors, the news service was designed to inject a far-right slant into local news broadcasts by providing news clips that stations could use without credit – and for a fraction of the true costs of production. Once the affiliates got hooked on the discounted clips, its president explained, TVN would “gradually, subtly, slowly” inject “our philosophy in the news.” The network was, in the words of a news director who quit in protest, a “propaganda machine.”
But TVN’s staff of professional journalists revolted over the ideological pressure by top management. So the fledgling operation purged 16 staffers and brought in Ailes to command the newsroom. “He was involved in the creation of the effort,” recalled Paul Weyrich, a leading figure in the New Right who had close ties to Coors. “He was sort of the godfather behind the scenes.”
During the time he spent at TVN, Ailes began to plot the growth of a right-wing network that looked very much like the future Fox News. The network planned to invest millions in satellite distribution that would enable TVN to not just distribute news clips but provide a full newscast with its own anchors – a business model that was also employed by an upstart network called CNN. For Ailes, it was a way to extend the kind of fake news that he was regularly using as a political strategist. “I know certain techniques, such as a press release that looks like a newscast,” he told The Washington Post in 1972. “So you use it because you want your man to win.”
Under Ailes, TVN even signed an open-ended contract to produce propaganda for the federal government, providing news clips and scripts to the U.S. Information Agency – a hand-in-glove relationship with the Ford administration that Ailes insisted created no conflict of interest. But TVN collapsed in 1975, depriving Ailes of the chance to implement his vision for a right-wing news network. “They were losing money and they weren’t able to control their journalists,” says Kerwin Swint, author of the Ailes biography, Dark Genius. Ailes would have to wait two decades to launch another “fair and balanced” propaganda machine – and when he did, he would make sure that the journalists he employed were prepared to toe the party line.
Ailes’s Fox triumph was a tragedy for this country, and when then-MSNBC star Keith Olbermann emerged as a staunch critic of the Fox agenda in mid-2000s, there was hope that MSNBC could ultimately become the anti-Fox. However, as David Pakman notes, there were structural reasons why MSNBC could never really be the anti-Fox:
So this is the media landscape today: MSNBC has jettisoned bold progressive voices such as Schultz and Alex Wagner in favor of CNN-style news coverage. Jon Stewart has left the building. While there is a growing progressive presence online, let’s face it: many Americans still get their news from broadcast and cable television, as well as radio–where a bold progressive presence simply cannot be found.
Looking back, one wishes Al Gore had never sold Current TV in 2013, and had instead recruited more progressive investors and hosts to build the network into a vigorous, anti-Fox media entity. One also wishes that more had been done to salvage Air America Radio before its 2010 demise.
However, the goal of an expanded progressive presence on American cable television and radio cannot be abandoned just because of what happened to MSNBC, Current TV and Air America. Frankly, an expanded progressive presence in American media is needed now more than ever.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the savage inequalities that continue to plague American public education.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the effort to ensure that black lives matter.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the silent sexism that continues to assault the aspirations of American women and girls.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the continued mistreatment of the LGBT community.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the effort to restore democracy in the wake of the Supreme Court’s chicanery and hypocrisy.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the anti-poverty efforts led by progressives of faith who believe that Jesus stood for justice, not judgment.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the labor movement’s struggle for survival.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the concerned mothers and fathers fighting with passion in their souls for reasonable gun control.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of immigrants, both legal and undocumented, who have come to this country with hopeful plans to forge a better life in our welcoming land.
The right-wing media and the mainstream media will not and cannot tell the full story of the climate-justice advocates who are trying to hold accountable those who have polluted with impunity our most vulnerable communities.
Now more than ever, we need a Lewis Powell of the left to lay out a vision for expanded progressive media in the United States…we need a Roger Ailes of the left to implement that vision…and we need a Rupert Murdoch of the left to underwrite that vision.
Yes, progressive gains have been made in this country, but those gains are tenuous at best without a greater progressive media presence, especially in cable television and on radio. He who can control the media narrative of the country can control the politics of the country. Right-wingers proved that years ago. It is long past time for progressives to prove it as well.