Politico Magazine is up with a big story this week that should scare any progressive who cares about winning the war of ideas. It is ostensibly about how the right is copying the success of liberal outlets like the Huffington Post or Upworthy with viral videos or sexy slideshows. In reality, it is a good reminder of just how badly the right is trouncing the left when it comes to media infrastructure.
I used to be a media skeptic. I got my start in campaigns, trying to get good people elected. After seeing good leaders left with nothing but bad choices too many times, I tried grassroots advocacy in an attempt to tilt the policy landscape. Along the way, I was dismissive of mere attempts to educate, or inform, or entertain.
To produce progressive change, I told myself -- to win equality, or action on climate disruption, or dignity for all working people -- you can't count on facts or persuasion alone. You also need to build inescapable pressure on elected officials to act as you wish, not merely persuade them that it is the right thing to do.
In other words, when you're in the middle of a fistfight, you need to punch back, not toss out prose. I have no doubt that this view is quite common among Democratic and progressive strategists, organizations and funders. But it is also, I have come to believe, terribly short-sighted. Punching back is only half the battle.
The media dictates what we talk about each day, and this is even more true for our politics. There are infinitely more problems in this world than can be discussed on any given day, much less acted on by our elected officials. Media outlets -- as tumultuous, overlapping, fragmented and interlinked as they are today -- collectively decide what filters to the top (Duck Dynasty, anyone?) and what goes ignored (anyone remember the last set of front-page stories on the school-to-prison pipeline?).
Build a big enough media infrastructure to discover, amplify and discuss the stories you care about, and you set the agenda in Washington. As Reid Cherlin, the author of the Politico Magazine piece, put it, "All together, these outlets add up to a movement with sufficient mass to make a measurable difference in how politics is reported."
Why play the refs when you can become one yourself?
In fact, setting the agenda goes beyond deciding what politicians care about -- that assumes they even know about all those other problems. Daniel Kahneman, the only psychologist to win a Nobel prize, popularized the concept that "What You See Is All There Is," or WYSIATI. Our first instinct is to assume that what we see and hear is the extent of the world. It takes a conscious thought process to imagine something beyond that. We also conflate memories that are easy to retrieve with things that are true.
Read story after story about food-stamp freeloaders and the national debt? It will be no surprise if you end up thinking welfare spending is driving our deficit, and cutting back is more important than ending Wall Street tax loopholes and spending the money on job creation. We allow conservative media to define reality itself, then lamely issue contrarian reports and demand that Democratic politicians go out in a blaze of righteous glory, "leading" against the tide of public opinion.
I take little reassurance that progressive messages are popular. Any advertising executive will tell you that you need to repeat a message endlessly for it to stick. Progressive funders have invested in polling firms and research to craft persuasive messages, but we lack the infrastructure to get them out there. As Van Jones puts it, "We don't need better messages, we need bigger megaphones."
And I wonder what if we don't set strategy based on some ideal of how people should make decisions, not how they actually do? Yes, some people think Rush Limbaugh's word is gospel, but that's because audiences connect emotionally with people, not ideas. Yes, most people on unemployment are active job seekers who can't find a job, but the human brain is wired to give way more weight to an anecdote about a lazy cousin who is cheating the system. Yes, policy papers are great, but people respond and remember stories.
Reid Cherlin's Politico Magazine piece focuses on how a new generation of conservative media entrepreneurs are copying the success of their liberal equivalents. But this is taking place while right-wing talk radio and Fox News remain dominant forces. Progressives carved out a toehold in a conservative media landscape with blogs and digital media, and now are ceding that ground due to a failure to invest.
Some may point to the collapse of Air America, the fledgling attempt at liberal talk radio, or MSNBC's continuing ratings struggle, as evidence that there simply isn't an audience for progressive media. I don't buy it. Few progressive media outlets have been funded well enough or long enough for a fair evaluation. The Daily Caller has only been making money for over a year. The Washington Free Beacon is funded by a 501(c)4 nonprofit, which "offers freedom from worry about traffic," according to a source in the Politico piece.
The argument that there is barely audience enough for Huffington Post, Think Progress, and MSNBC doesn't hold up, either. Look at Upworthy's exponential growth. African-American radio is going strong, and there is no group of voters more reliably Democratic. It is not like there was a torrent of investment flowing into liberal blogs even in their heyday, and they still do not lack for readers.
Conservative media are overcoming this same critique, with the New Hampshire Union-Leader's Drew Cline telling Politico Magazine that the conservative movement is "richly varied" and so are its members' reading preferences. Is anyone doubting that the Democratic big tent is even more richly varied? Glenn Beck was kicked off Fox, and now The Blaze gets 20 million page views a month and he has his own television channel.
As for the return on investment: "You could spend $5 million on a week of ads, and what do you get for that?" Cherlin quoted one conservative saying. "For $5 million you can launch a newspaper and beat up the administration all year."
It goes beyond that. All those writers, editors, bloggers and radio hosts go on to form a talented pool of recruits for television, which still rules. Rachel Maddow started on Air America. Campaigns and coalitions, funded one-by-one, often last until the bill passes (or, more often, doesn't) and then fade away. Lasting media institutions not only help push legislation, but remain to shine a light on implementation and share success stories (wouldn't a bigger army of such outlets have come in handy during the Obamacare roll-out?).
The investment won't just pay off, it is badly needed. We're already behind. And if progressive campaigns against Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck scare advertisers off of all "political" content, not just conservative, rich right-wing types will fill the gaps. The same should be true of progressive funders, but it doesn't appear to be.
The underlying truth is that change happens slowly. Conservatives build institutions to shape and promote Republican values. Progressives build infrastructure to get Democrats elected. Is it any wonder that sweeping Democratic electoral wins have, with a few exceptions, failed to translate into truly progressive policymaking? We need to be launching a dozen more ThinkProgress's and Upworthy's, funding the blogs and talk radio that already exist, and shifting our thinking about the best way to invest in long-term change.
"We have no right to be boring or irrelevant," Tucker Carlson said of his Daily Caller.
If progressives don't invest in media, we will be both.