Take Your Money, Set It On Fire

AlterNet is running a two-part feature on the need for better progressive media in the United States. The sentiments are nice, but they replicate old and tired refrains that money will fix many ills.
First comes a piece from Rick Gell, wherein he laments that if only progressive America had a television network of its own to rival the majors, everything would be better in the political world. Specifically, progressives need a for-profit television network, as the corporate sector is where all the money is.
Gell says we need to wake up and stop believing that “progressives are still the back-to-the-country, anti-automation, communal-living hippies of the sixties and not the Starbucks-drinking, iPod carrying, SUV-driving people many of us really are.” That’s the first hint of a problem. The Starbucks-drinking, iPod carrying, SUV-driving people like Rick aren’t really progressives – they’re Leadership Council Democrats, who sully the term “progressive” by appropriating it. Progressivism represents a way of life, not a lifestyle descriptor.
Gell criticizes media reformers for running “conferences steeped in policy, but void of creativity and absent of people who could greenlight any media projects.” Actually, the creative media-producer types were not overtly welcome at the last “media reform” conference because conference organizers felt that trying to tackle more than the policy angle would have made the conference unwieldy in size and scope (a questionable decision, but one not made lightly).
Like many pieces of this sort, “alternative media” is portrayed as some sort of hinterland where progressives can camp out and preach to each other; the insinuation is that alternative media is ineffective. Surely written by someone who’s never actually worked with alternative media, of the sort where the empowerment of people to speak for themselves is the goal. That creates media literacy, which fundamentally shifts peoples’ perspectives on their place in the media environment, and is ultimately more effective than progressive messages wrapped in a network-TV format.
Indeed, near the end of the story we discover that Gell’s spent the last year “pitching a weekly progressive newsmagazine show for cable with a former cable-news president on board as Executive Producer,” and is frustrated that he “can’t get to first base.”
Don Hazen, AlterNet’s executive editor, chimes in to bolster Gell’s refrain. But Hazen’s more pragmatic: “Much of progressive media remains ‘alternative’ media, speaking mostly to its secure audience while some of its political clout is hindered by the legal limits of most organizations’ nonprofit status.” Alternative media does not exist to accumulate and exercise political clout. I agree that, in many ways, being involved with alternative media at any level may be a political act, but its production is not necessarily designed with a political goal in mind, and very seldomly at the national level that Hazen and Gell imply. In fact, whether a given media outlet qualifies as “alternative,” in many ways, depends on the scale of your point of view.
Hazen also takes issue with the inordinate amount of time spent on media policy reform, while conveniently ignoring that policies like network neutrality are fundamental to his progressive media infrastructure-growth desires, and require immediate attention. He also ignores the historical fact that the structure of media regulation has a built-in bias against non-corporate players.
Spending money on building a media infrastructure of your own is definitely a better investment than trying to buy one’s way onto the air. But going into such a plan with the notion of copying an inherently undemocratic model of communication seems to defeat the purpose, especially if your purpose is fundamental change and not simply message parity.
While Gell and Hazen give lip service to “alternative media,” their apparent definition falls woefully short of what that universe entails. It includes Air America and bloggers, but not Indymedia, wikis, and the inherently granular, powerfully personal forms of media production: stenciling and street theatre, microradio, remix culture. Both write about changes they’d like to see without the experience of getting their hands dirty in the the independent media universe that exists today. All they seem to care about is that it is not big enough and not sharply focused enough on electing more Ds than Rs in 2008.
As a commenter to Hazen’s story noted, “wanting a progressive media without progressive reality is just another form of masturbation.”