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, February 02, 2007

Blogs, alternative political systems, funding

(updated below)

There are several topics I was hoping to write about today (and I will), but there is a lingering issue which arose from my announcement yesterday about moving to Salon that I think is important and want to address. The vast majority of people who sent e-mails and left comments were very supportive of the move and recognize its benefits and the rationale behind it (and, I am quite certain, the same is true for the much larger group who read this blog but who neither comment nor e-mail).

Nonetheless, the complaints and objections -- though anticipated -- were voiced by a slightly larger group than I expected, and they reveal some assumptions and underlying beliefs that are commonplace but, I think, quite harmful. So I will try hard to set aside what I confess up front is some mild personal irritation over the nature of those complaints and instead focus on the more substantive, far-reaching issues which they reflect.

The political blogosphere is driven by many factors, but the predominant one, I think, is a pervasive dissatisfaction with the dominant media and political institutions in this country. The blogosphere is essentially a reaction to that dissatisfaction -- an attempt to create an alternative venue where citizens can debate political issues and organize and inform one another without having to rely upon our country's empty media stars and the myopic, corrupt opinion-making insitutions which have wrought so much damage and continue to do so.

The principal value of the blogosphere is that it democratizes our political discourse almost completely. Anyone can become a "pundit," find an audience, report facts, create a community of like-minded citizens and activists, and influence the public discourse -- all without having to mold oneself into what is demanded by The Washington Post and without having to care about pleasing the editors of Time Magazine.

In that regard, the blogosphere enables a very potent freedom. Pre-blogosphere, in order to have one's voice heard, that voice had to conform or be squeezed into the suffocating orthodoxies of the dominant media outlets. That is no longer the case. They are no longer the gatekeepers of the public discourse, and the blogosphere enables people to say what they want, how they want, without caring if that alienates or offends a small group of Beltway media elites.

But any competing system that exists outside of the national political and media institutions has to be financially self-sustaining. The sprawling right-wing noise machine has sustained itself, in large part, by constructing what Jane Hamsher (among others) calls a vast "welfare" system. A huge portion of the right-wing pundits and influence-peddlers whom you see on television or read in newspapers have extremely well-funded organizations behind them that pay them to opine, to disseminate the right-wing gospel, which buy their books in bulk and give them away for free in order to create artificial best-sellers -- all of which enables them to work full-time spreading the right-wing message without being preoccupied with earning a living.

There is very little of that outside of that narrow, Bush-loving, (now) neoconservative gutter (a very smart and talented political writer, Ezra Klein, noted just the other day what a paucity of opportunity there is in that regard). As a result, other models need to be developed and supported in order for competing networks to exist.

One cannot constantly complain -- at least not reasonably or coherently -- that the establishment media is horrible and corrupt and demand that alternative voices be heard more, but then, at the same time, oppose efforts to make alternative media financially sustainable -- on the ground that financial models somehow render the efforts "impure" or "capitalistic" or because it imposes some small inconvenience or denies what you think is your entitlement to be provided with constant fulfillment and satisfaction without having to make the smallest effort or endure the most marginal inconvenience to help sustain it.

People who express views outside of the prevailing orthodoxy -- or who do so in a way that does not comport to the demands of two-minute cable segments or the vapid, conventional-wisdom-spewing emptiness of a Time Magazine column -- have to find other ways to be able to work on political advocacy and make a living at the same time. In his insightful tribute to Molly Ivins today (h/t Atrios), Rude Pundit notes that Ivins "never became the regular TV pundit that so many other alleged columnists became" because what she argued, and how she argued it, was not what mainstream media outlets wanted.

So, in order to read what she wrote, you had to (pre-Amazon) get in your car and go to the bookstore and buy one of her books. Or, post-Amazon, you had to order the book and then wait for it to arrive. She didn't go personally delivering her books for free to everyone's doorstep or placing it in their hands. She couldn't have done that. Those who thought she was a voice worth hearing had to expend the most minimal effort to obtain and buy her books (or find and buy newspapers that carried her columns). That's how she was able to devote her time to her punditry without compromising it and still be able to live and eat and have a place to live. That's just the reality of how the world works.

If you're someone who rails against the dominant media institutions in this country (as I do) -- and who hails the critical importance of blogs and other alternative venues as an antidote to the toxic combination of the national media and right-wing noise machine (as I do) -- then it's necessary to recognize that those alternative institutions and the people who work to build them need to support themselves (like everyone else) and to be supported by those who believe in the work they are doing. Everyone wishes that were not the case. But it is.

Some time early last year, I was posting at Crooks and Liars when John Amato began running a new form of advertising that was slightly more intrusive than the prior type of ads. The comment section was immediately filled with righteous indignation over how John was "selling out" and outrageously subjecting the loyal C&L readers to the evils of intrusive corporatist advertising (and, in the Comment section to a C&L post about my move to Salon yesterday, one finds the same sentiments).

In order to maintain that site, John (like many, many bloggers) works between 12 and 15 hours per day, 7 days a week -- literally -- and has substantial bandwidth expenses to host the large readership and all of the video content. And yet some of the same people who benefit from that site and who believe it contributes valuable content to our political discussions complained bitterly because he found a way to generate some modest income to sustain his work.

This mentality is not only petty and self-centered -- though it is that -- but it is also extremely self-defeating. For better or for worse, the reality we live in is such that any individuals or institutions, in order to be effective, need an economic model to fuel it. Effective projects, including political movements and political advocacy, need to be funded.

The example of Salon is instructive. There are not very many models for independent online magazines to generate sufficient income to sustain themselves (for many years, Slate had its substantial losses subsidized by its corporate parent, Microsoft, and is now the corporate property of The Washington Post Company). But Salon wanted to remain an outlet for independent journalism and political analysis. And it has repeatedly faced the prospect of bankruptcy in the past. The one model that they have found that seems to work is the dual-choice of (a) paid subscription or (b) spending 10 seconds (or 30 seconds), once a day, clicking through an ad in order to access all of its content for free.

The alternative is Salon's non-existence. As Juan Cole said, Salon publishes articles -- and pays the writers who write them -- which would not be published in very many other places, certainly not ones with the readership of the size Salon reaches. So enduring an ad (or subscribing to avoid the ad) seems a small and necessary price to pay to enable the existence of punditry and reporting outside of the approved orthodoxies of Time and The Washington Post. Salon doesn't have an ad wall because they are evil, amoral corporatists trying to bombard people's brains with tools of capitalist manipulation. They have an ad wall because that's the only way they can continue to offer the content they offer for free to people without ceasing to exist.

And I just want to underscore -- these points are not specific or unique in any way to my move or Salon. Obviously, there are plenty of perfectly valid and legitimate reasons why someone might choose not to continue to read this blog at Salon. There are some bloggers I read regularly whom I would be willing to pay to read, or watch 10 minutes of ads if necessary in order to read. And then there are other bloggers I read somewhat regularly who, if they moved somewhere that I had to pay or watch ads in order to access, perhaps I wouldn't continue to read them. Those are just perfectly legitimate time-allocation choices, and these comments are not at all addressed to people who make choices like that. Nobody is entitled to a readership.

But there is a more nefarious sentiment underlying some of these complaints, and it is pervasive and significant. There is a strain of belief, found among some on the left (and again, I think it's a very small minority), which perceives issues like funding and income-generating models as some sort of insult, as something unethical and impure. And then there is another strain which is about unbridled personal entitlement -- the belief that they are entitled to access whatever they want, and have everything they want, without the slightest amount of expenditure or effort on their part (all the effort, expenditure and sacrifice should be from others).

I'm sorry that there are people who think that clicking through an ad (or subscribing to avoid it) is a grave insult and an outrageous imposition. It also can be an inconvenience for bloggers (or political analysts or activists of any kind) who -- driven by passion and a desire to contribute in some way to improving the state of the country -- spend 3 hours per day or 8 hours per day or 12 hours per day on their work without being able to earn a living. To begrudge someone the ability to do so -- or to act as though they are engaged in an act of betrayal or even some kind of corruption -- because they find a way to work on behalf of their political ideas and earn a living doing it is truly bizarre.

The national corporate-backed media is a huge, sprawling, powerful network. So, too, is the multi-headed right-wing opinion-making monster composed of think tanks, subsidized magazines, and well-fed pundits. To compete with that, to battle against it, requires the building and maintaining of strong systems that are sustainable, which means, at minimum, that they are funded and financially viable.

If there are bloggers that you enjoy reading and/or whose writing you think deserves wider circulation, contribute to them or buy ads on their blog or encourage others to do so. If there are magazines or independent journalists which you think are producing valuable reporting, subscribe to them or donate to them or, for those who can't afford that, support them in other non-monetary ways. Encourage political campaigns and organizations to buy ads on blogs rather than in mainstream media outlets. In our society, money and funding are the fuel that enables machines to work potently and effectively. That's just how it is.

Denying that, or detatching oneself from that reality, can generate satisfying sensations of purity, but it also renders one ineffective, impotent, and irrelevant. And more to the point, complaining about the "corporate media" or the "right-wing noise machine" while begrudging and impugning efforts to create alternatives seems to be nothing more than self-regarding rhetoric without any meaningful action behind it.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein adds some important and interesting insights (and, as always, the terms "liberal" and "progressive" are elastic; they have come to mean "Bush critic" or "opponent of neoconservatism" more than anything else, but that is another topic altogether). And I have a summary of my responses to many of the comments to this post, here.

And I just want to re-iterate that the vast, vast majority of comments and e-mails have been extremely supportive, which I genuinely appreciate. And again: this post is not directed at everyone who expressed concerns or even objections concerning the move, but instead is directed only to those who voiced the specific complaints I am responding to in the post.

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