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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Decompressed

By Barbara O'Brien

[Update: I have to agree with what Robert Perry writes at Consortium News.]

I’ve had a few hours to recover from the back-to-back conferences, YearlyKos in Las Vegas and Take Back America in Washington DC, and I’m trying to sort out What It All Means.

I left Las Vegas feeling revved, empowered even, but left Washington somewhat deflated. To be fair, I experienced TBA through a growing fog of fatigue. I also felt a tad demoted in Washington. For better or worse, I have a rep among other bloggers. Much of the Washington crowd still doesn’t “get” blogging, however, never mind recognize individual bloggers.

For example, at TBA I encountered one woman who was clearly confused by distinctions between blogging and commenting, solo blogs and group blogs, and wanted to know where she could “find” blogs. (Note that this woman was younger than I am. Although most people are these days.) I gave her my URL and suggested she just visit and read and click blogroll links to see for herself what blogs are. But this didn’t satisfy her; she wanted a detailed explanation of the blog-reading experience. I got the impression she wanted assurance that reading blogs would be worth her precious time. I finally walked away; lady, it is what it is. And I ain’t your monkey.

The TBA conference organizers recognized bloggers by giving some of us press credentials, free access to conference events (although they changed their minds about letting us into the Gala Awards Dinner) and space in the Exhibit Hall in which to blog. There was also a good panel discussion on blogging chaired by Glenn Greenwald. However, most of the Democratic Party operatives and progressive activists in attendance at TBA showed little interest in us. By now bloggers and Democrats should be having substantive discussions about what we can do for each other. By now the Democrats should know who some of us are, beside Kos. Although our reach as individual bloggers is limited, I think the blogosphere as a whole is making an impact. And we have the potential of making a bigger impact in the future. We’re a multifaceted resource and talent pool growing right under the Dems’ noses, yet they don’t seem to see us.

I was particularly discouraged by the progressive media workshop/panel on Wednesday. There was acknowledgment that a progressive media infrastructure to rival the right-wing noise machine is sorely needed. Yet the chief presenter seemed unable to think beyond tip-toeing through the minefield of conservative media infrastructure to, maybe, deliver the Democratic Party sales pitch to enough of the public to make a difference in the November midterm elections. The YearlyKos convention was all about Vision and Big Pictures. Throughout the TBA conference, however, I heard copious chirping about talking points and framing but little about effecting real change in America’s political culture to make it more habitable for progressivism. The “pros” seem resigned to life within the toxic political culture grown by the Right.

Frogs being slowly boiled to death, indeed. Of course, I realize that spending three days with random Democrats inside the Washington Hilton doesn’t provide a view of the whole landscape. Nor do I see precisely how the Dems and the blogs ought to be interfacing. I don’t want the leftie blogosphere to become an auxiliary of the Democratic Party. This is for the party’s good as much as ours. Although I ’spect most of the Washington Dems would disagree, I say they need our honest criticism and feedback as much as they need our links to donation pages.

I took one useful thing away from the progressive media workshop, and that was a copy of the July 2006 issue of In These Times magazine. An article titled “Welcome to the Media Revolution” by Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke compared right-wing and progressive media:

Reinventing progressive media is an uphill battle. Progressives are competing against a ruthless right-wing media machine and a dominant commercial media sector that has honed audience-distraction tactics.

Many new progressive media projects have arisen in direct response to the dominance of the right’s media apparatus. As Rob Stein, David Brock and Eric Alterman, among others, have documented, right-wing funders and ideologues have over the past three decades created their own successful cadre of media and messaging organizations, from think tanks to magazines to radio and television outlets. They have infiltrated the mainstream media, rallying conservatives across the country.

“What conservatives thus enjoy,” writes Paul Waldman in Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success, “is a wide-ranging, multimedia apparatus that when tapped will vibrate like a gigantic tuning fork.”

Progressive media organizations, on the other hand, operate independently of each other. Thus, progressive media have not developed a “unified progressive narrative.” Progressives and Democrats must stop focusing on the usual scattershot policy proposals and work together to develop that narrative and bring it to public attention, say Clark and Van Slyke. Until the Big Guns in the Dem Party and progressive think tanks get involved and form real partnerships with progressive media and the leftie blogosphere, however, I am, um, skeptical we’re going to see real change anytime soon.

And there’s no time to lose. Peter Daou writes that we’ve reached a “watershed moment” in American media.

Anybody who watched Ann Coulter’s June 14th appearance on the Tonight Show had to realize that it was a watershed moment in the war between the establishment media and the progressive netroots, a community fresh off the successful YearlyKos convention. It was also a signal to Democrats that liberal ideology can be denigrated with impunity. Had the words “Jew” or “Christian” or “Conservative” been substituted for “Liberal” we’d be waking up to a national scandal….

… Careful not to violate Godwin’s Law, I’ll refrain from the obvious comparisons, but what we’re dealing with here is a dangerous inflection point in American politics. When this kind of opprobrium is peddled by major media outlets, it’s high time that the Democratic establishment and the larger progressive community understand that this is a make-or-break showdown with the media.

As Peter says, bloggers have been alone on the front lines of this fight for some time. Indeed, it was our frustration with media as well as with politics that got many of us into blogging. (My original inspiration for starting my own blog was the late, great Media Whores Online.) But we’re way outnumbered. We need the Democratic establishment and the larger progressive community to join us in this fight. As Jamison Foser writes, the media shape the way Americans understand issues and politics. An “MSM” that respects Ann Coulter’s twisted ravings as serious political discussion is not capable of fostering serious political discussion. The media establishment puts liberals at an extreme disadvantage, and it’s going to take a lot more than framing and talking points to overcome that disadvantage.

Just one example of How Weird Things Are — in today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius writes that there may be new “gravity” in the political center; “For a change,” he writes, “the extreme wings of the two parties aren’t calling the shots.” Hello? Which “extreme wing” of any left-wing party has been calling any shots? Show me the raving Marxists or anarchists whose voices are heard in mass media, who have won elected office, or who have any bleeping power at all in Washington or anywhere else in America?

I don't mean to endorse or denigrate raving Marxism and anarchism; I’m just saying that we liberals and most Democrats are “extreme” only in contrast to the extremism of the Right. Genuine left-wing extremism is marginalized even by most of the American Left. In truth, that part of the Left that has any political influence in America are moderates with feet firmly planted in historically mainstream political traditions. Ignatius sees a conflict between opposing political extremes. But the reality is that an aggressive right-wing extremism has appropriated media to slander, discredit and eliminate the moderate liberalism that used to be the center in saner times.

Like I said, it’s going to take a lot more than framing and talking points to win this fight. Peter Daou continues,

This latest Coulter incident should be a wake-up call to the larger progressive community and to the Democratic leadership. Parading Coulter on national television is a statement from the establishment media that we don’t matter, that our ‘pressure’ is meaningless, that our voices are worthless.

What’s the proper course of action in response to this challenge? For the netroots, it’s to keep growing and organizing, to hammer away at those in the media who enable the sliming of 9/11 widows, to respond to such media transgressions with ferocity of wit and will, and to badger elected Democrats and progressive leaders about the media problem.

I say we bloggers have the ferocity, wit, and will; what we need is amplification.

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