Norman Solomon is the Executive Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and a longtime journalist working to expose media deception. As well as writing for big-name anti-corporate publications such as Extra! (published by media activist organization FAIR) and Z Magazine, Solomon was recently featured in the LA Times and has also appeared on the shows of corporate media news giants like CNN and National Public Radio. As one of the preeminent alternative journalists today, his work is an extremely valuable tool for all of us who want to understand how we have been lied to by the powerful. His most recent book is Habits of Highly Deceptive Media, published by Common Courage Press. I spoke with him in early August 2002.
Hans: A few years ago, you wrote an essay in Extra! magazine defending the basic tenets of San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series exposing CIA complicity in Los Angeles’ crack-cocaine epidemic. You focused in particular on the NY Times, the Washington Post, and LA Times’ attempt to discredit Webb’s story. Looking back, how many people do you think read and believed Webb’s story? How effective was the corporate media’s attempt to censor it?
Norman: I think quite a few people did read the series. I remember picking up the SJMN the day the first part of it came out and it was splashed right on the front page. I thought “this is not your garden variety corporate journalism in the daily paper”. I would guess that because of its prominence in the SJMN and being circulated from there, certainly several hundred thousand people would have read at least one of the parts of the series.
In retrospect, the media systems that exist in this country were much more successful trashing Gary Webb’s series than in “censoring” it per se. The extent to which major media outlets devoted appreciable resources and emphasis to denouncing Webb’s work was really extraordinary. I think something close to a major media consensus emerged about Gary Webb’s series. It emerged because previously there was some space.
I wrote a column very soon after the series was published, in which I said it was a very important series which seemed very solid. Soon after that there was some appreciable mainstream media coverage, which was not particularly negative. It was a mixture of media treatment and then of course there started to be a lot of radio talk shows, especially those with many black listeners. But the boom really got lowered. The NY Times, Washington Post, and the LA Times absolutely ended up really cutting the legs out from under that story.
Hans: Has there been anything in the media during the last couple of years that has talked about the series?
Norman: The particulars of Gary Webb’s story are on the record. He has a book that came out a few years ago through Seven Stories Press. But the story has largely been left behind.
In terms of mass media, I remember sending an email to Gary Webb soon after the story broke. I wrote something like: “The bust of you is being prepared at the pantheon of Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, and Robert Parry. I was partly joking, but that is of course what happened. In any event, the conventional wisdom has been established that Webb got the story wrong.
I think the truth is much more that Gary Webb got the story right. Maybe some of the packaging by the editors at the SJMN (headlines and so forth) was not as tight as it should have been. Webb pointed out that he was constrained by space. Even though it was a fairly large amount of space, he was forced by editors to reduce the length of the series in terms of the ground that he covered. This may have been a factor, but I think the fact that the CIA-backed Contras engaged in drug running is incontrovertible, and yet the news media on the whole decided that they didn’t want to go there, with a few exceptions.
Hans: You’ve quoted the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s 1988 statement to senior CIA officials proclaiming her desire to help the CIA hide “dangerous” facts from the US public. Throughout their history, how has the CIA and the rest of the national security state worked to manipulate the US media?
Norman: Agencies like the CIA have functioned on several different levels. There’s the overt manipulation: putting out disinformation stories, including what is referred to as “blowback,” where they plant stories in the foreign press, which then blows back into US media. Officially the CIA is not supposed to directly manipulate the news media. In his book Inside the Company, Phillip Agee talks about that going on several decades ago in Latin America. CIA fabrication of stories throughout the world still goes on.
I think there are so many other ways which not just the CIA, but the Pentagon and the State Department and White House and so forth are able to truly manipulate the news. Part of it is background briefings, sometimes semi-“off the record” which point reporters in directions. There are a lot of friendships between top government officials and publishers and reporters.
In my review of Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography (the only negative one I’ve seen) that I did for The Progressive, I wrote about Robert Parry. He was a reporter at Newsweek and was told that a very tough and (as it turns out) accurate piece that he had prepared about the CIA role in Central America was put under extra scrutiny. There was some concern because Henry Kissinger was going to be Katharine Graham’s houseguest that weekend, and subsequently the editors thought it should be toned down. In fact, Parry says it was toned down before it went to print. That is just one example of self-censorship and institutionalized spinning that goes on inside media outlets.
The net effect is that these government agencies get a lot of what they desire out of the media. They don’t get everything. They certainly can’t spike all of the stories they’re trying to prevent. All in all, it’s part of an ongoing process that is very favorable to the powers that be in Washington, and for that matter, on Wall Street.
Hans: In last December’s issue of Z Magazine, you document extensive state censorship of information, even to the historically pro-US military, corporate media. One such example that you write about is the censoring of civilian satellite pictures of the post-bombing carnage. While the US media’s coverage of the Vietnam War was certainly not truthful or anti-US military, television news was known for showing some graphic and often heart-wrenching footage from the battlefield. In this regard, it was different from today. When did this shift in US media coverage of US wars begin happening? What do you think are the motives for this?
Norman: I think the shift has been partly shaped by the political climate and the extent to which there is a strong anti-war movement functioning inside the United States. I was 13 when the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed in 1964, so I have a fairly good memory because I was pretty alert at the time of the media’s coverage of the Vietnam War. It was really lousy for much of the war. As a matter of fact, during the first years of the war the media was terrible. They were suck ups to the Pentagon and the White House, and the State Department. The issues raised were largely tactical.
Early on there was not an emphasis on the carnage in human terms and I think you can make a strong argument that there was never a very good baseline of US media coverage of the war in Vietnam. Yes, there were some graphic photos, and certainly some of the coverage on television became grimmer and occasionally gruesome, and became not what the White House would have preferred. We’re talking here the late 60s and early 70s, but the war really escalated savagely by 1965 and there was a media climate that had very little acceptance of dissent in the mid-1960s and anti-war protesters and critics were often vilified when they weren’t being ignored.
Because of the anti-war movement and the horrific cumulative realities of the war in Indo-China, there was a shift in media coverage during the course of the Vietnam War. But, it’s hard to imagine that the coverage that we got in 1971 could have been the cold start kind of coverage. That’s not the default position of the US news media. I think in general when the flag goes up and the missiles start flying the reflex of the mass media is to close ranks around the war-makers in Washington. There have been some real changes and I think certainly more government restrictions have been imposed upon US media coverage in succession.
It was bad during the invasion of Panama in 1989. There were pools and it was very controlled. The Gulf War was even more controlled (having a pool system and so on). The coverage of the bombing of Afghanistan is even more controlled. There is very little that reporters seem to see or have access to in terms of the bombings that took place. They are always showing up (if at all) after the fact and have already written their stories on the basis of the stuff being spewed out from US government PR offices.
So, I believe that while US government restrictions and overt manipulations have been very important, there is also the key dynamic of self-censorship. The people with the power to make decisions in newsrooms across the United States overwhelmingly internalize the worldviews and outlooks of the people waging war at the Pentagon and their civilian superiors. With that sort of identification with the war makers, the major media outlets and the journalists that serve them are very ill positioned to engage in actual journalism. They’re doing stenography for the powerful and when it comes to times of war, those are very blood-drenched, powerful institutions and individuals.
As we speak here in August, 2002, I just wrote a piece in the LA Times about the contrast between the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings on Iraq that occurred on July 31 and Aug. 1 (where the questions from Senators were not even softball questions--they were beach ball questions) and the SFRC during the Vietnam War under the chair of J. William Fulbright, with a key member being Wayne Morse, who is just a heroic figure. Morse was vilified in the media, not so much because he warned that the war strategies would not be “successful”, but much more profoundly, he argued on moral terms. He wasn’t against it because it wasn’t winnable, but because it wasn’t moral. That again set it even farther outside the perimeters of mainstream media wisdom.
You can see that now in the Congress where even supposedly best members of congress like Senator Paul Wellstone can’t find the voice to denounce preparations for a horrific war against Iraq. Media punditry and reporting is so overwhelmingly based on tactical debates. “How do we” instead of “whether or not” to wage the war, how it could be done effectively, rather than whether we as a country have any ethical basis for slaughtering people with an attack on Iraq.
Hans: MIT linguistics professor, anarchist, and anti-Vietnam War organizer Noam Chomsky often cites a poll taken where 70% of the US public thought that the Vietnam War was not a “mistake,” but “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” In light of the US media and military propaganda, what do you attribute this to?
Norman: Over a period of years, a strong anti-war movement developed in the US. Although disparaged often in the mainstream media, that movement with its many facets (most of them very positive) had huge effects on general public consciousness. So despite the role of the fourth estate (to an extent functional as a fourth branch of government during the Vietnam War), information flowed: first at a trickle and then gradually into a flood. It flowed from the grassroots.
Obviously there was no Internet then. Nobody had a computer during the 1960s unless they worked in some high-budget office somewhere. There were independent newspapers (what we called “underground” newspapers) and they were in literally hundreds of communities around the country. They had various outlets, such as Liberation News Service. They did this against great odds, and certainly with very little in advanced technology. I think the most advanced technology used at that time was the telex machine, which were very clunky and most of the underground newspapers didn’t have them. LNS would send out packets of news, and people would gather news in their own communities. The circulation of the underground newspapers went into the millions every week. There were a few independent radio stations at the time, (like the stations owned by Pacifica or the few community outlets), or the underground papers, and magazines like Ramparts.
To me, as somebody who turned 18 in 1969, magazines like The Progressive and Ramparts were extremely important. I read my first anti-war articles in The Progressive and they happened to be written by people like Senator Frank Church and Senator George McGovern. I read Ramparts magazine and its photos and articles about the war in Vietnam were very important to me as they were to a lot of people. We went to rallies and demonstrations often with hundreds of thousands of people and we learned from them. The effect was that we had a parallel society appear, as information flowed as moral outrage grew and a critique developed. That critique made its way (albeit in diluted form) into mainstream media outlets, even into outlets like Time and Newsweek, the largest daily papers, and even onto television. Subsequently, the official line on the Vietnam War was challenged over a period of many years. There were contrary views of recent history, which took root.
However, I don’t have a particularly rosy view how the public now perceives the Vietnam War. You’re going to find a lot of people who don’t have a clear understanding of the horrendous brutality of US policy towards Vietnam. Many really don’t understand what was wrong with it and that it directly correlated with what’s wrong with US society ongoing: the corporate power, the drive for profits, the lies from the government, the geopolitical efforts to dominate the planet, and the news media being dominated by Wall St. and Pennsylvania Ave. All those factors made the Vietnam War possible. Many people have a quite astute understanding, but a lot of people absolutely do not. That’s not surprising because even with the strength of the anti-war movement at its peak, the mainstream media and the propaganda structures still have enormous impact and reach.
Hans: This past July you appeared on CSPAN’s “Washington Journal” news show. You’ve also appeared on CNN, NPR, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel. When you’ve been on these mainstream news programs, do you feel that you were able to get your message out?
Norman: When I’ve appeared on the mainstream news outlets that you mentioned, they were almost always live broadcasts –which I always prefer. I felt that for those particular minutes, I was able to say pretty much what I wanted. I think that’s good. At the same time I try to keep it in perspective. Just because there are cracks in the wall, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wall. We should certainly utilize the cracks as much as possible, but still the wall exists and it acts as a constraint on wide ranging debate and the free flow of information.
Any advertising executive knows that the essence of propaganda is repetition. It is good that there are some progressive voices on TV networks and other major media outlets and we should strive to get more progressive voices onto more media outlets more often. But since the essence of propaganda is repetition, the occasional progressive voice in mainstream media doesn’t fundamentally shift the media systems of the country away from serving corporate and militaristic power. I think that power continues to be maintained by and through institutions that are about maximizing profit rather than about democratic discourse.
Hans: Do you feel that some media outlets today are more open to having dissident guests than others?
Norman: I do. I think that not all media outlets are the same even though they’re corporate owned. We can go specifically and look at Fox News Channel, which is basically terrible, and it runs from the center to the far right. If you look at CNN, I think that it is also very corporate-driven, very deferential to the corporate government in power in this country. There’s very little space for dissent if it’s not right wing. MSNBC’s news coverage in general stinks. At the same time there is more of openness. I should say that it has the lowest ratings of these 3 networks. The Donahue Show, which began in July on MSNBC is really a good program and has more progressives appearing on that program than on all of the rest of cable television (meaning CNN, MSNBC, and FOX). It’s an important experiment, and I hope that it not only survives, but also thrives.
There are I think some distinctions there. For instance, in the past I have been asked questions like: “What do you think is better? Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, or Tom Brokaw?” My answer is: “What do you think it better? Camels, Salems, or Winstons?” I think often we are encouraged (because the media terrain looks so bleak) to make distinctions that while they may exist, are not really measures of very much difference. Another way to put it is that we’ve been acculturated to have such low expectations that we see at times differences that do exist as being much more significant than they truly are.
If people listen to All Things Considered and they think they’re getting something from NPR news that is tough, independent, and wide-ranging journalism, they have been lulled into delusion. It’s very hard to shake out of that delusion if all you’re doing is tuning into All Things Considered. If you have the good fortune to turn on the radio and listen to the Democracy Now program that Amy Goodman hosts, then you can have a basis for seeing other possibilities. A lot of why “popular culture” remains so popular is because people don’t readily experience an option. You flip through the TV channels and all you see is the propaganda and the junk.
Another way to put it is that people can’t choose from choices that aren’t available to them. Whether I’m walking down the street in Philadelphia or San Francisco or anywhere else in this country, I don’t have a choice to walk by a magazine rack and buy a paper that is owned by the people who work there, that isn’t run for profit, and that challenges militarism instead of sucking up to it. There is no real choice. Some of the political rhetoric that is considered rational in the US is so over the top. You can hear people say: “The fact that I can walk into a supermarket and choose all these different brands of different foods is a metaphor for democracy”. That is the illusion of choice. That’s not reality in the sense that we have a qualitative diversity. Rather there is a quantitative diversity.
Hans: What do you think are 2 of the biggest lies propagated by the US media?
Norman: It’s a tough question. It’s hard to choose one or two, and we’re talking about the grim, the damaging, the destructive aspects of public information flow, which is to say “disinformation” flow. One of the very worst examples of propaganda in this country is that we don’t notice it. That there is constancy, scenery that is set up. The scenery is in place and it becomes the wallpaper of our world to a large extent.
My first biggest lie would be whitewashing the history of the Vietnam War. I think once the Vietnam War was over, I think the notion that it was an aberration was a very muddling and destructive illusion. This relates back to what we were talking about earlier, that it was bad because it was a mistake, because it didn’t turn out the way its architects had hoped: because it wasn’t “won.” That ambiguous overlay (which is a very damaging overlay) persists today.
On Aug 1, 2002, I was watching the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and there was an interview with Joseph Biden, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Paraphrasing, he said “If we had hearings like this, which just concluded, early on in the Vietnam War, maybe we would have had better results.” He didn’t say what a better result would have meant. He’s such a sycophant of the national security state and the military that even while he claims to be trying to analyze with integrity, he’s not even willing at this point to acknowledge what the Vietnam war was: invasion and protracted slaughter by the US. So he simply left it hanging. He leaves it hanging because he can’t make a forthright statement about the Vietnam War. I think this is very common still and very pervasive: that somehow it was bad because we couldn’t win. What’s implied is that if a few million people in Indochina had been slaughtered ---- as they were -- but the US had ended up militarily triumphant, we would be just talking about what a wonderful war it was.
So this has the ripple effect on what has been called the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Vietnam is a country where the death toll ran into the millions, where the poisoning with Agent Orange, dioxin and other chemicals is still very real, where there are unexploded bombs -- as is the case in Laos -- where the US hasn’t bothered to clean up where a quarter of a century ago Jimmy Carter said that the US did not need to make reparations because “the destruction was mutual.” So when we talk now about the scenarios for present US military actions, we keep hearing the news media and the politicians say that they’ve “left behind the Vietnam Syndrome.” They just got the wrong syndrome, because for them Vietnam was an abstraction, a poker chip in the big games that were being played.
The net result is an enormous pollution of the national discourse. The Vietnam Syndrome, unless we are delusional, has to be put in moral terms. The Syndrome has been defined by mass media and most politicians as “We have to go in with clear objectives. If you can’t go in with clear objectives, don’t do it. If you can go in with clear objectives that are achievable and the war is winnable, then you just give it everything you’ve got. Kill as many people as you need to do it and get what you want, then: God Bless America.”
One of the tragedies we still need to work to mitigate and eliminate as best we can is the assumption that as long as the US can “win” a war, it’s a good war.
When the first Bush said in 1990, that we weren’t going to have a Vietnam experience, that was a war shot. At first, a lot of people mistakenly saw it as a more peaceful attitude. What Bush basically meant was: “We’re going to win.” That’s one of the worst areas of lasting propaganda that are still with us.
Another major lie is that fighting for economic rights is to engage in something destructive called “class warfare.” Of course this realm of propaganda has many different damaging aspects to it. The other night I was watching The Donahue Show on MSNBC and he was holding a town hall meeting in Houston with some former Enron employees and at one point there was a union member who spoke, and Donahue said (paraphrasing): “Unions get trashed so often, we have to realize that labor unions are crucial to our society.” He said, “Unions are as American as apple pie.” As I listened, I realized that after decades of watching network television, I rarely heard anybody say that -- least of all a host of a major TV show.
The attacks on the notion of unionization have been so unrelenting in news media that it’s a constant pre-emptive shot across the bow. When politicians in the least begin to talk against corporate capitalism and to really strongly advocate for the low-income working poor and unemployed and homeless (especially in the context of corporate domination and enormous concentrations of wealth in this society), they are more often than not accused of engaging in class warfare.
The point was made by Adam Smith in his writings more than 200 years ago, that LABOR CREATES ALL WEALTH. Although it’s not put this way, the message in so many different ways from mass media in this country is that wealth creates all labor. This is a useful myth for the corporate elite and the wealthy, but it really has nothing to do with reality. Everything is created by people’s labor and if you had somebody insisting loudly and pushing the point that labor creates all wealth, it’s very difficult for that person to get much space in major media outlets. One of the measurements of just how extreme the situation is, can be gauged by the enormous number of investment programs that have sprung up on cable television serving the investor and the lionization and praise for the investor and others who have accumulated great wealth, -- the Bill Gates’ of the world.
This is really the flip side of contempt for working people and I really think is one of the most pernicious things about our mass media, this implicit question which of course dovetails with commercialism, advertising, the consumerizing corporate pressure. The message is that you have to keep asking yourself how much you’re worth and buying what you’re worth. The meaning is dollars and what your financial assets are. It’s a fundamentally anti-humanistic message because it redefines what it means to be a human being. It redefines creativity by saying you can measure it with dollars and material accumulation. It redefines human worth by insisting that it be gauged according to dollars instead of more spiritual and ethically based values.
It’s a club constantly pounding people wherever they tune into the news media and that’s even true of so-called non-commercial programming. You’ll see a tremendous emphasis on investment and the stock market on PBS, and on NPR where they have the NPR Business Update on the hour. Right after the news cast, the next part of it is “Now on NPR Business Update…” They don’t have a daily NPR Labor Update, let alone an hourly one. So it tells you about business preempting and trumping other realms of existence. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has become much more extreme in the past 10 or 15 years.
Much of the lies are told implicitly --which is really a powerful way to lie. Aldous Huxley wrote in his introduction to Brave New World that the “greatest triumphs of propaganda,” involve “silence about truth.” As long as the patterns in society are not openly remarked upon, that’s a very strong message, which ends up being quite manipulative. Running along beside that is: what becomes expected, what becomes routine and simply presented as the way the world is, so therefore let it be. When I was at the World Social Forum at the beginning of 2001, I heard a talk by Eduardo Galeano; as he put it, the power systems tell us that “tomorrow is another word for today.”
That’s a way of saying that the essential power relations are taken to be immutable, with only fine-tuning being realistically contemplated. Essentially every daily newspaper in the US has a business section, but none has a labor section. That is simply another message about what the priorities should be. NPR is so deferential to business but can’t even set aside something that would be called a “labor update.” It says a lot that every twitch and fluctuation of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and NASDAQ is big news but how many people are waiting in emergency rooms for 2 or 4 or 6 hours because they didn’t have the money to see a physician, how many people have suffered as a result, or how many injuries on the job took place and could have been prevented, we could have an hourly update on that. But the priorities are not there, obviously.
Hans: You’ve written a lot about racism in your books. I’m wondering how well you think white people within the progressive community have worked to address white privilege and challenge white supremacy?
Norman: With some exceptions, not very well. I think that sometimes the sloganeering has gotten in the way. Progressives generally know that racism is bad and sometimes simply repeating the buzz phrases impedes rather than advances our ability to deal with racism. One of the things I think is so outrageous about racism in our society is the way in which it is intertwined with class. Race and class are intertwined. I often wince when I hear about “The Problem of Race.” That’s often a phrase. I know Bill Clinton popularized the phrase. I don’t think race is the problem. Rather, I think racism is the problem. The fact that we have different (what we call) races is not the problem. It’s racism that’s a problem. It’s history that continues into today that is the problem. Slavery and all kinds of other less brutal, but still pernicious forms of brutality, often utilize race as a lever.
We in progressive movements may sometimes mislead ourselves into thinking that because we have different values that we are largely able to deflect the impact of the society around us, but there are so many ways that the political economy and the cultural environment of our country shift and often distort our own lives and progressive institutions.
We don’t have overt racial discrimination in this country as much as we have class discrimination. But at the same time people of color generally don’t have as much money as others in this country. So the failure to confront the violence of class (the multi-faceted brutalities and injuries and gross inequities of class) it seems to me is intertwined with the failure to confront racism. We have a semi-Bantustan country to a large extent. The barriers are mostly -- though not totally -- economic in that they frequently track on the basis of race. The extent to which people’s prospects for advancement and even survival are restrained or enhanced by economic class and access to wealth. All of those factors have an enormous effect on progressive organizations.
We talk about building a new society within the shell of the old, but it’s very difficult. There is certainly a lot of racism existing on the personal level and we (all white people) have that conditioning that we have to fight against and never accept.
Hans: Your talking about the intersections of race and class reminds me of your essays documenting the corporate media’s massive distortion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s revolutionary politics of 1967 and ‘68. Almost entirely erased from our historic memory is King’s militant declaration that white supremacy could never be abolished until both capitalism/poverty and militarism were also abolished.
Norman: The reasons that the last few years of his life have been largely obliterated (which the mass media of this country have so much to do with) are linked to his broadening recognition of the interplay between poverty, racism, and militarism. In terms of corporate capitalism, Dr. King was a declared dissident and opponent. He did not believe in the accumulation of wealth and the continuation of poverty. He was anti-imperial. He was denouncing what the news media in this country today hold as sacred: the simultaneous accumulation of wealth and the immiseration of large numbers of people from lack of basic resources that can bring adequate nutrition, housing, education, health care and so forth.
That’s why he’s largely been reduced to a martyr on a postage stamp. That’s why he is most promoted in news media as someone who gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. When I think about where we are now and all of the really difficult and often upsetting world events that are occurring, I think of what he spoke about at the end of his life: “POVERTY, RACISM, AND MILITARISM.” The last 35 years only deepened the relevance of what he was saying in 1967 and 68. When I was just turning 17 I went to see the Resurrection City encampment (which was the last stop of the Poor People’s Campaign) just a few weeks after Dr. King was assassinated. It’s really quite disturbing to me that 1/3 of a century later, those issues of widespread poverty and racism, and huge expenditures for the military, are all with us and with us with a vengeance. To me it verifies and underscores the prophetic nature of his work, which also can encourage us today because as bad as things are, we have tremendous human resiliency that is manifested every day.
When I went to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre [Brazil] in early 2001, I was really thrilled to be around people from literally all over the planet who were organizing and fighting against what people there kept calling neo-liberalism: basically imperial corporate policies. In the depth of the despair that I shared with many people at the election of George W. Bush, I was really overwhelmed by being around the energy, vitality, and really optimism at the WSF. I think in that sense the perspective that Dr. King expressed with his words and his actions in the last years of his life is still very much alive and still should give us enormous resources for hope.
Hans: Could you please tell me about your work with the Institute for Public Accuracy? How did the IPA begin and what is it doing today?
Norman: I’ll start by saying that theories are always just theories and I’ve been discovering over the years that we often really don’t know what is possible. We may have all kinds of theoretical ideas about what be can accomplished. They may be well-grounded assumptions, but conditions may be shifting in ways that we can’t really comprehend. Maybe by embarking on a process that’s both flexible and determined, we can help to change the conditions upon which we are operating.
As somebody who’s put a lot of effort into media criticism and worked from the outset with the media watch-group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) as an associate, I certainly haven’t felt that the mass media could be transformed into a very vibrant environment for democratic discourse, and so forth. However, I have also come to feel during the 1990s that people on the left were generally not putting enough energy, creativity, and resources into fighting for space in a wide spectrum of media.
In the mid-1990s, I went and did some interviews at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. As I talked to a couple of people that worked for the major PR operation, I was really struck by how they had millions of dollars to play with -- 40% of the 20 million dollar budget at the Heritage Foundation was going to some form of media outreach or public mis-education. Not only that, but they had an approach (supported by their funders) that said: “we’re in this media battle for the long haul. We are going to build our media outreach, and we’re going to find ways to communicate on the daily basis with media outlets left, right, and center, small, medium and large across the country and beyond.” They weren’t like a train starting and stopping: they were ongoing. I walked out of their office building and thought: “These guys are getting away with murder. They have the money and the resources, they’re not being challenged, and they have many corporate media outlets that are sympathetic to their conservative message. But they also (to give credit where credit is due) have really planned and followed through and planted their own poisonous propaganda crops.
From that experience (I wrote a column about it and a piece for FAIR’s magazine EXTRA! about the Heritage Foundation), I got the idea for IPA, and was fortunate enough to get some initial major funding from the Stern Family Fund, what they call the Public Interest Pioneer Grant.
It started with the idea that there are literally thousands of progressive (what we would call) experts in this country: people with enormous expertise. They’re researchers, scholars, activists, and policy analysts. They know what they’re talking about because day to day they’re on the ground doing things, researching, and keeping up with a wide range of issues. The IPA really was set up to help get those progressive voices into the “media”. We mean all kinds of media: left, center, and right media. We go to the small community radio station as well as the large TV and radio networks. We just feel that all of those media outlets should have access to and should be offered a wide range of progressive voices.
We soon found out what worked and what didn’t. Initially we thought we could simply put out news releases challenging the right-wing think tanks. We didn’t find that very effective. But, over a course of years now, we’ve found that if we can (in a timely way) offer progressive voices to producers, editors, reporters and as a result, it’s possible to get a lot of people into news media. We’ve put out more than 500 news releases since we were founded and went into operation in early 1997. We’ve found that not only are many progressives ready, willing, and able to be articulate experts to appear on radio and television and go through print interviews, but there are substantial cracks in the media walls. There are many radio stations and networks around the country that routinely use our news releases and call people on them and do extensive interviews as a result.
We now jump on breaking news on a regular basis. For instance, we’ve had many experts on national TV and radio this week in response to the 2 day Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about Iraq.
It’s been a very exciting process. We have an office in the National Press Building in DC, and an administrative office in San Francisco. We have developed communications with literally thousands of progressives in our database.
An important thing for us is that we don’t want to be a high-profile organization that bottlenecks. We intentionally put phone numbers and email addresses of experts on our news releases so that journalists don’t have to go through us to contact these people. One of the benefits is that over the years, IPA’s work is resulting in putting a lot of experts into the rolodexes of TV and radio producers, journalists, and so forth. After all, that’s really what we want. We don’t want to just push forward the careers of a few writers or professors. We want to change the media terrain in the society as a whole. IPA is very pleased to not have its own institutional name in lights. We want to facilitate rather than re-invent the wheel.
There are not only thousands of great progressive policy analysts and researchers in this country. There are also thousands of organizations that do wonderful work on a wide range of issues, but don’t have the resources for a media outreach operation inside their own organization. So rather than these organizations simply having to try to make do and start up the train when they have some news release material to put out, IPA’s up and running all the time. So for me as a media critic, its been very exciting to work as executive director of IPA and be part of a process that has been trial and error: finding out what works. At this point, any time there’s a major breaking story that we jump on (and we do an average of 3 news releases a week), there are several thousands producers, editors, and journalists who within a matter of minutes receive it by blast fax or email. That’s been having some cumulative effects so that we feel this is definitely worth doing and it’s an experiment that has been evolving over the years.
Hans: Is there anything else you would like to add for the interview?
Norman: Yes. Broadly defined, media work is really central to social change. We can benefit by paying attention to what works on an ongoing basis throughout the society. In other words, if we evaluate our successes by what’s in the NY Times day to day, then we are making a big mistake. The right wing has at times been very successful because they believed in grassroots activity. Take for instance the Pat Robertson campaign in the late 1980s. The right wing fundamentalists did a hell of a lot of work at the grassroots: they networked, they burrowed into communities. Obviously I don’t agree with their agenda, but the fact is that in some sort of perverse way they believed in grass roots community action much more than a lot of the liberal funders who spread some money around to liberal and leftist organizations --but where the emphasis has so often been on high profile and expensive PR operations in New York or Washington oriented towards influencing elite opinion.
I have nothing against influencing elite opinion, but I think if you’re going to make substantial social changes, you have to make substantial progressive movements at the grassroots. That’s the only way you can sustain it. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of these elite individuals and institutions that hold so much sway and power because they have the bucks and the huge influence.
We should renew our active engagement with social change in communities across the country. It’s a false choice as to whether we are going to do national organizing or grassroots organizing. We have to do all of it. One without substantial energy with the other is really not going to sustain itself effectively over the long term. Not only is democracy not a spectator sport, it is not about getting the elite to like you. It’s not about persuading elites because you can make them feel comfortable with you. Democracy is about challenging elites by organizing at the grassroots.
If democracy is going to come into being in this country (in a significant and far-reaching way) it needs to tear down the economic inequities that are making democracy in many respects impossible. That’s obviously a huge task and it may often seem intangible but the struggle for wide-ranging media discourse is part of a broader effort. We sometimes wonder why progressives don’t have more effective media institutions. My answer would be that that’s because progressives don’t have a stronger movement in the country as a whole. So we are facing the challenges of building progressive media institutions at the same time that we need to build progressive movements as a whole. To separate one from the other is just not going to pan out.
Hans Bennett is an anarchist and independent photojournalist currently working with Philadelphia's INSUBORDINATION and AWOL magazines.
Photographs by Hans Bennett. Protest in Washington, DC, April 20, 2002.