PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive TV?

Whenever I write about progressive TV, I inevitably get a healthy dose of criticism in the comments from folks who think that progressive TV should be dispassionate, non-partisan, objective, and truth-focused - essentially, a recreation of PBS.  (In fact, the last post featured a commenter who asked why more progressives don't just support PBS.)  I also get a reasonable amount of pushback every time I suggest some variant on the notion that progressives should develop a mirror image of Fox News - a hyper-partisan, foaming-at-the-mouth progressive channel.

For the record, I don't think that creating a mirror image of Fox News is a good idea, for several reasons.  One, I don't think progressives react well to that style of news, and a progressive channel that can't do well within the progressive base is a non-starter.  Two, I think Fox News isn't so much a conservative channel as a Republican Party establishment channel.  As Eric Boehlert pointed out earlier this week, Fox's cozy relationship with the Republican Party is now putting its audience share at risk, and I'm not sure I want that kind of future for a progressive TV channel.  Finally, I think the core tenet of progressivism - "we're all in this together" - simply doesn't have room for Fox's aggressive, divisive, insipid style.

On the other hand, I firmly disagree with the notion that progressives need to build their own PBS.  Many progressives seem to think that it's possible to build a TV channel which trades in fully objective journalism, and that doing so would benefit the progressive movement as much as Fox has benefited the conservative movement.  I think that it's both impossible and non-beneficial for the progressive movement besides. Follow me across the flip for details.


I think objective journalism is simply impossible, at every level of the journalistic enterprise.  At the highest level, which stories does a journalistic enterprise pursue?  On a given day, do we track the latest news about Britney Spears, or about the future of the wind power industry?  For a more substantive question, do we follow the debate on Iraq among Democratic presidential hopefuls, or the debate on taxes among Republican presidential candidates?  It's possible to build a truthful channel which focuses on any of those story lines, but the choice of story lines is certainly not objective, and does tend to promote certain value systems over others.

At a more granular level, there are questions regarding how a story is put together and packaged which make objectivity impossible.  What headline should we use to describe the Democratic presidential debate, or the State of the Union address?  Who should we call for comments on the bids in the FCC's 700 block auction?  With limited resources and space, it's impossible to answer any of these questions in a trully objective way.  Every choice along these lines introduces some bias into a story.

There is, I think, some nostalgia in progressive circles for the "golden age" of journalism, covering approximately the New Deal through the beginning of the Reagan years.  The story line goes that journalism during that time was honest, unbiased, and objective, and that government during that time was regularly hounded by the press and forced to do the right thing.  The pinnacle of this story line includes the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the unveiling of the Watergate conspiracy.  Believers of this narrative argue that we need to somehow return to that golden age, and all will be right with our media.

I think this narrative is deeply flawed.  This reading of history ignores the overwhelmingly white, male, and upper-middle-class nature of the power structure of those years, and the ways in which the news media often enforced that power structure.  While it's true that journalistic enterprises may have lavished more money on reporters and supported more in-depth coverage of important stories, the impartiality which news media rigorously claimed was actually deeply deceptive, and may have served to undermine emerging progressive movements of those times.  This is not unlike Pastor Dan's point on civil religion, namely, that it's really the establishment of the values of a certain segment of society (mainline Protestant denominations) as normative.  (Full disclosure: my wife is a once-a-week front pager at Street Prophets.)

Moreover, I think that even if it were possibe to develop a modern objective news channel, it wouldn't be much help to progressives.  Sure, such a channel could investigate the reality behind the talking points of each party, and could help viewers judge which politicians are lying and which aren't.  Sure, such a channel could put today's arguments in proper context, reminding viewers that we've heard the "six more months" argument countless times.  But what then?

This sort of journalism is obsessed with hunting down facts and reporting them, but not with examining social narratives and questioning or event overturning them.  Journalism of this sort is more-or-less incapable of questioning the political environment.  Instead, it accepts that environment, asks questions about the policy details, perhaps examines proposals for reform along the way, and doesn't do much more.  The result of this model of journalism is is technocratic liberalism, the governing regime of the late 20th century.  Technocratic liberalism is a regime primarily concerned with finding the best technical solutions to a variety of social problems, and tends to be remarkably wonky.  It's a a fine way to go, I suppose, in that it produces a government which does a reasonably good job at solving problems.  It's certainly a lot better than our current Shock Doctrine regime.  The trouble with technocratic liberalism is that it's technocratic - it tends to elevate bureaucrats and technical experts while disempowering ordinary folks, and doesn't address problems underlying the political environment as a whole.

If our only choices in political and journalistic models were, on the one hand, fear-and-gossip journalism coupled with Shock Doctrine politics, and objective journalism coupled with technocratic liberalism on the other hand, then I'd choose the second, in a heartbeat.  But it's not clear to me that, the second option is even possible.  That's not just a philosophical point about the nature of journalism, but an economic point about the business of journalism.  Now that Fox has unleashed dishonest, partisan, sensationalist journalism on our media landscape, it's not clear that the news media can return to the purported golden age of journalism without losing significant audience share to Fox.

Instead, I think that the solution is to take the model that we've developed and nurtured in the progressive blogosphere, and make it available in a more accessible format on TV.  Whereas the conservative model of journalism is "fair and balance (and dishonest)", the progressive model of journalism should be "biased, active, and proud of it."  Progressive TV should have a progressive bias, and should be proud of that bias.  Our journalistic enterprises should make their viewpoint obvious, and, from time to time, should remind viewers why it's a valid and worthwhile point of view to hold.  More than that, our journalistic enterprises should be action- and engagement-oriented, as the blogosphere is.  There may be good reasons for progressive TV to avoid explicitly endorsing candidates, as bloggers do, but there is no reason that progressive TV can't explicitly encourage viewers to vote, contact their elected officials, start their own blogs, and run for office.  Indeed, progressive TV makes a whole new kind of engagement possible, thanks to interactive TV formats like Current.  

If "objective" journalism creates technocratic liberalism, and fear-and-gossip journalism creates Shock Doctrine politics, then biased-and-active journalism will create, I hope, a highly engaged, populist, and tolerant politics.  After all, such a journalism is emphatic in its embrace of engagement, and encourages people to create and explore a diverse, Long Tail media landscape.  It tends to disempower powerful media enterprises; it tends to make debate on a very wide range of subjects possible, via the massively parallel architecture of the web; and it can support discussions which fundamentally alter the terms of debate.  This kind of journalism doesn't guarantee progressive victories in elections and policy per se, but it heavily rigs the rules of the game in our favor.

Naturally, such journalism still requires fact-finding, and all the resources necessary to do good investigation.  I am not suggesting that we abandon our zeal for rigorously collecting and analyzing hard data.  Instead, I'm suggesting that we do so with an explicit and transparent point of view, and that we attempt to reorient the structure of journalism and politics along those lines.

Tags: Fox News, journalism, Media, progressive TV (all tags)



Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

Yes, I read - and was heartened by  - Boehlert's post about the beginning of the end for Fux News.  Then I read TVNewser, and saw that Fux had 8 of the top 10 (and 12 of the top 20) cable news programs in January - even the repeat of O'Reilly is in the top ten - and I thought perhaps 2008 was not destined to be such a bad year for Rupert Murdoch after all.

by pjsauter 2008-02-02 05:29AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

Yeah, TVNewser is always good for a depressing read.  Boehlert is saying that Fox's control over certain events is declining, while TVNewser is pointing out that their overall audience share is still pretty hefty.  Put another way, CNN is regaining status as the go-to network for political events, while Fox can still reel in sheer volume.

There is, no doubt, a long way to go before we can really go toe-to-toe with Fox.  Fox has a loyal niche following among conservatives, and it has no widely accessible competition.  CNN and MSNBC still think they can be moderate, balanced, and objective.  Only channels like LinkTV are trying to compete for the progressive market, and they are not distributed widely enough to really compete with Fox.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 05:42AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

Does Fox have a big audience share in terms of actual households?  I mean, where I come from, Fox is on in every business establishment, every restaurant, every gym, and so forth.  Does this sort of "captive audience" get picked up in the statistics?

by Steve M 2008-02-02 08:11AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

I have no idea.  The TVNewser numbers are from Nielsen, and I'm pretty sure Nielsen has factored this sort of thing into their ratings.  But how they do it exactly, I'm not sure.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 08:45AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

agreed, just the facts with analysis that highlights the TRUTH for the little guy or gal.

by Chavez100 2008-02-02 05:41AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

While I love my Air America Radio and Nova M Radio, I am a bit ambivalent about a Progressive TV format.  I believe the interactive, two-way medium of the internet is where the Progressive movement is strongest, especially among the younger generations.  

by Mr Man 2008-02-02 06:14AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

i would like to see ala carte cable. my wife and i decided to live without any cable until that option becomes avaiable.

fox news is included in every cable package and i refuse to support that sort of thing, not because it has a conservaitve tilt but because of its shameless partisanship. the media should be in the business of keeping any administration in check.

the quality of all cable programing has been in decline for some time now.....i suspect deregulation has a lot to do with it. but what we really need is a channel that will play 24 hrs of documentary (without the t&a) thank god for netflix!

by citizendave 2008-02-02 06:37AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

what we really need is a channel that will play 24 hrs of documentary

Do you have access to PBS HD? That's pretty much what it is. Plus the nature stuff is eye-popping in HD. In many areas you can get it over the air on an antenna if you have a digital tuner.

by jimBOB 2008-02-02 09:15AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

That may be, but TV is still one of the best mediums with which to reach a large group of people.  Abandoning cable TV to conservative dominance essentially amounts to writing off a huge number of potential progressives.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 08:48AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

I wonder if this isn't the wrong approach. I agree with you that a progressive version of Fox would be better than Fox, but it would still probably be a bunch of middle aged white guys up in the sky telling us all what the think.  I like Keith O better than Bill O, but it's the same basic model, and one that is at its core hierarchical and conservative.

With more democratic ways to communicate like the internet now widely available, might it work to start trying to challenge the entire institution in more direct ways?  I don't know a ton about how the business model operates, but one reform I've heard of is guaranteeing "a la carte cable" (http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries /news/2004/07/64399)? Air America is a good idea, but I think licencing more low power FM (http://www.freepress.net/lpfm/) and reinstating the fairness doctrine (a long ways away, I know) would do more to destroy Clear Channel's business model than Air America could ever do to counter their influence.

Not that I think these are mutually exclusive, but rather than mimic their media structure (which is better suited to them than to us) I'd like to think one day we can just tear it down.

by Sam L 2008-02-02 06:31AM | 0 recs
evil evil clear channel
i own a small business and cannot find a single billboard in my area not owned by clear channel.
after their attempt to punish the dixie chicks by removing them from all of the playlists of the zillion clear channel stations, i would not let a single penny of mine fall into their pockets.
(i can't remember any politicians speaking out on behalf of the dixies...did they?)
by citizendave 2008-02-02 06:49AM | 0 recs
Re: evil evil clear channel

I really can't remember.  At the time I remember thinking the Dixie Chicks issue was the least of our worries, although it was really troubling.  Clear Channel is avowedly conservative, both in its donation practices and in its programming, but they do from time-to-time bow to progressive market pressure (they have a handful of AAR affiliates, I think.)

Billboards are a form of media that are virtually forgotten in media reform, and I must confess it's something I know close to nothing about.  But I do think a top priority for the next Democratic president should be breaking media monopolies, like Clear Channel's radio monopoly - there's no doubt at all about that.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 12:30PM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

A la carte is a tempting idea.  Quite a lot of people support it (I saw a poll once that had something like 50-60% in favor0, and I think we should at least give it a whirl to see what would happen.  Then again, the piece you pointed to is about three years old now, and even so the FCC is only dipping its toes in the water of wholesale a la carte, which is a whole different thing.

On the whole regulatory reform is quite difficult under a conservative administration, and generally poses a chick-and-egg conundrum (which comes first?  progressive politics or an independent media?), which is why I've been thinking in terms of market mechanisms.  They can operate much more quickly than the government can, and they can make a few progressives rich, and thereby create self-sustaining institutions.

But I think fundamental regulatory reform is a fine idea, and I'd certainly like to see it happen.

By the way - in this post, I've explicitly stated that I do not support the idea of creating a progressive version of Fox.  Instead I advocate for taking the journalistic model developed on the progressive blogosphere and applying it to TV-based news media.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 09:01AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

Yeah, I understand your argument, and definitely think what you're describing would be better than what we have now (which is basically nothing.) Especially in the context of a Republican FCC and wimpy congress. I'm not sure I see it being successful as a business model in the way that it has been for the right, but at the very least it would somewhere to grow progressive voices who are media savvy. And of course, I agree that we can have honest progressive reporting without making the partisan propaganda crap that Fox produces.

I hope that next year we'll be able to return our focus to more institutional reforms that can truly alter the media landscape.

by Sam L 2008-02-02 06:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Advocacy journalism

I'd prefer an Advocacy Journalism approach.

I think it would have to be more substanative than Fox News to engage progressive minds, so the chance of it becoming a "Progressive Fox News" is minimal.

by Bush Bites 2008-02-02 06:58AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox?

By the way.

Glad you're not talking about a Donor Model of funding.

It should run as a business not a charity.

by Bush Bites 2008-02-02 07:00AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox?

I certainly agree that a for-profit mindset is probably better suited for progressive TV than the non-profit mindset.  Among other things, it gives progressive TV wider latitude to take sides and be activist.  That being said, I think channels like LinkTV have done quite well with the non-profit model, as it's given them a chance at wider distribution (via the regulation that satellite TV providers must set aside some portion of bandwidth for non-profit content, I presume.)

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 09:04AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

Interesting points. But the media is far, far worse than the picture you paint. It isn't just Fox that is the problem. It's all of them. All the nightly network news programs, all the talking hemmorhoids on cable, our major newspapers. The older you are, the more you know that the mainstream news of today is a pale immitation of real journalism.

You bring up some good points. 30 years ago, there was definitely a white male, elitist bias that had an effect on stories. How could there not be, since news reflected society as a whole? But today, it is many magnitudes worse. And it isn't just about societal norms. It is about blatant dishonesty, a very clear rightwing/corporate bias in all media, and a refusal to cover stories that don't promote this bias. 30 years ago, we would not have had a media that marched us to war in lockstep or who refused to cover the blatant dishonesty and lawlessness of the Bush administration. We wouldn't have a media that blatantly tries to pick our presidential candidates by demonizing some and making others into messiahs. This is very blatantly going on. It is no longer even subtle.

It won't change that to have a progressive network or show among all others. It all needs to be reformed. Because it has done a great deal of damage. Part of the blame for the past 8 years we have suffered through can be dumped right on the doorstep of the press. They are not fulfilling by any stretch of the imagination the role our forefathers envisioned. They are not a safeguard of our democracy. They have become little more than a propaganda machine. That won't change until we go back to the days when just a few corporations could not control all the media. Or when blatantly false stories came with a huge price to pay. Or when a fairness doctrine forced them to cover more than one propagandized side of the story. We need wholesale reform, not bandaids, I'm afraid.

by CognitiveDissonance 2008-02-02 08:22AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

What kind of reforms do you propose?  Are you talking about reinstating the fairness doctrine, imposing price controls, or breaking up monopolies?  For the most part I've focused on private competition as a way to change the media industry, but I certainly agree that legal reforms are necessary as well.  In this political environment, though, it's hard to see that happening.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 08:55AM | 0 recs
Awful diary. Sorry, Sachs.

, "Fox's cozy relationship with the Republican Party is now putting its audience share at risk, and I'm not sure I want that kind of future for a progressive TV channel."

Apparently no one is taking the time to look at the recent cable ratings. If you are going to reference someone, please be sure it is factual and not fiction.

by joliepoint 2008-02-02 09:11AM | 0 recs
Confusing propaganda with ideology

A progressive channel needs to be infused with progressive ideology. Too much of today's political discourse is played out on grounds prepared by neo-classical economic theory that start from the position that other things being equal market solutions are preferable to governmental solutions. Which is exactly why the other side can shut down any discussion by inserting any term based on 'socialism'.

It is not propaganda to point out that pricing power over everything from wages to coffee is distorted by power relations. It is not propaganda to point out that Social Security financing is in fact on a much sounder base than any other component of government and is the best argument out there for single payer universal health coverage. It just sounds like propaganda because the rhetorical battle ground was established by the other side.

Well the New Deal was not a failure nor on balance was the Great Society and you get nowhere by starting from the 'objective' position that they were. Which is mostly where we are now. A progressive media channel is going to sound shrill for the same reason that Krugman sounded shrill early on about Iraq. He was pushing opinions that went against everything people 'knew'. Well it turns out that many of those things they 'knew' they didn't really know at all. The pervading notion is that truth starts from the center assumes that center opinion has not been dragged away from objective reality.

We are actually in a situation where the President insists we need to cut payments to doctors while continuing to subsidize Health Insurance companies by paying more for private  Medicare Advantage plans. These guys are playing hardball, they  are not going to engage on arguments drawn from questions about relative efficiencies between private and public solutions to social problems, they want to drown government in Norquist's bathtub.

If you walked into a bathroom and saw someone holding your baby under water the answer is not to tap the guy on the shoulder and say 'Let's talk'.

by Bruce Webb 2008-02-02 10:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Confusing propaganda with ideology

In addition to neoclassical economics, I'd argue that progressive TV should also be dedicated to refuting the ideology of cultural supremacism and intolerance that seems to rule the day on Fox, Lou Dobbs's show, and so on.

But otherwise, I agree entirely.  As Howard Zinn says, you can't be neutral on a moving train.

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 12:34PM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

Several points.

First, we all know that the major media outlets have declined precipitously in the quality of their news coverage in the last several decades. One obvious example is media concentration. We all know about the huge merger movement that the FCC and SCOTUS have endorsed in recent years. But it goes beyond that. When I was much younger, every medium-sized city had two or more daily newspapers. True, some were chain-owned, especially Hearst, but the norm was at least one locally-owned daily. Even more important, though, there was a world of smaller papers, foreign language based, ethnically based, church based, all competing, all with independent editorial control. And the picture for television and radio was similar.

We have lost something in excess of 90 percent of the variety of editorial voices in this country in the last 40 to 50 years. (There has been some offset to this loss in increased numbers of magazines, and more recently, the internet.)

The remaining voices are far more controlled by major corporate power. When GE and Disney control networks, they can and do filter the news to benefit their own corporate interests, which touch almost every aspect of our lives and economy.

Second, news coverage on TV and radio has become a profit center. Cut the number of reporters, analysts, editors and your return increases, particularly when you know the other guy will be doing exactly the same thing.

One way to reverse this trend would be for the licensing process to once again demand quality of news programming as an essential factor for stations to be relicensed.

Third, the lifestyles of Americans have changed. We are the MTV country now, with shortened attention spans and a deep desire to see explosions, cleavage and scandal every 45 seconds. Real news, presenting nuance and analysis, is losing out to sensation in those places where it is still available. Check any local TV news coverage.

None of these three trends is essentially political, although the loosened rules for mergers and acquisitions of public bandwidth and for the standards required for those who hold that bandwidth has certainly benefited, and been driven by, the wealthy and the corporate.

As a side note, my first impression on looking at this post was that it contained an assumption that PBS SHOULD BE a progressive news organization. I'm  not so sure that the post really states that on further review, but I do think that is a misunderstanding of what public broadcast should be. Until the recent infiltration of neocon ringers into the CPB, I think PBS and NPR have done great work of giving Americans essentially non-partisan programming. Some viewpoints have been mildly progressive, and some have been mildly conservative, but there has been a decent balance, and the overtly partisan has been for the most part excluded.

I don't need or want public broadcasting to champion causes like global warning, poverty, the inadequacies of our education system, to name a few topics. It serves us well when it provides reasoned, thoughtful news and analysis of such issues, and lets the various contenders for our passions have their say.

All this said, I think there is a real place for progressive television, with a mix of programming that is largely information and entertainment, but also includes advocacy, clearly labeled as such. I think that one thing it could do better than any other outlet is to cover the "missed" stories. Some of the stories that never see the light of day in the mainstream media are important, compelling and easily understood. That allows for differentiation, and can eventually build trust with viewers who come to see that the other outlets don't cover those stories at all. It's worth a try.

By the way, I hadn't heard of a la carte cable service before, but I think it is a great idea.

by anoregonreader 2008-02-02 10:15AM | 0 recs
Re: PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive

As far as the three trends you point out, I think the first two are real and very troubling.  As for the third tend, I'm not so sure.  Certainly news media have been trending towards that kind of junky programming, but that might be more a product of what's easy and cheap to cover, rather than what people organically desire.

Progressive TV can do a lot of interesting things, I certainly agree with that.  In addition to differentiation in terms of stories covered, it can also be more transparent, accountable, and explicitly activist.  And of course, it can offer viewpoints which are virtually unavailable on cable TV.

I don't think PBS should be progressive, per se, although I do think that honest and thorough discussion of public issues will, these days anyway, tend to favor progressives (we being the reality-based community and all.)

by Shai Sachs 2008-02-02 12:24PM | 0 recs
Thanks Everybody

Thanks for all the great analysis and thoughtful comments, y'all.

This year, we probably can't change the FCC or have Congress make any major changes. But, assuming Democrats win big in November, next year we should demand a lot of changes: restore Fairness Doctrine, require real public-interest news (not celebrity junk and propaganda), break up media monopolies, expand small-scale radio outlets, etc.

In the meantime, developing progressive TV sounds great. If a network simply went around to each of the progressive non-profits in Washington and asked them what they were doing and why, it would make for fascinating TV: lots of issues and solid, progressive solutions that are never covered by the mainstream news now. We have good solutions, but no one knows about them. It is so frustrating.

by RandomNonviolence 2008-02-02 01:04PM | 0 recs
PBS news "coverage"?

Upthread Anoregonreader states:
"[Public broadcasting] serves us well when it provides reasoned, thoughtful news and analysis of such issues, and lets the various contenders for our passions have their say."

We only get PBS on our rabbit ears, and we watch Newshour most nights.  We have been pretty disappointed by their political coverage.  For example, after NH, they ran the same story as everyone else--Clinton won and the polls were wrong.  The analysis was about the polls.  Seriously, who cares?  I can get that info here or on Open Left.  What I'd rather they cover are the substantive differences between the candidates on each side.  I guess we rely on the analysis of David Brooks and Mark Shields for that, but they mostly talk about he-said, she-said stuff too.  The early coverage was basically, Clinton=experience, Obama=change, Edwards=anger with maybe some progressivism.  %coverage of each was about 45-45-10.

PBS may say they covered the Edwards or Clinton or McCain health plan in October.  So what?  Cover it again, that is the information that voters deciding now need.  Not horserace baloney.

by The lurking ecologist 2008-02-03 05:38AM | 0 recs


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