PBS or Fox? What's the purpose of progressive TV?
by Shai Sachs, Sat Feb 02, 2008 at 05:07:20 AM EST
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.