History Ideas Labor

Liberating Thought: Toward an Independent Mass Media

By Steven Fake

The present effectiveness of the United States propaganda system may well be without historical parallel. Its ability to shape public perceptions of events and issues and to garner support for ideologies that undergird the political and economic structures of society has been amply documented.

The Tea Party phenomenon is driven to a substantial degree by a consensus among media across the political spectrum to devote considerable coverage to it, far outside of what is warranted simply on the basis of its size. Yet far larger protest movements on the political left are routinely ignored.

The effect of this disproportionate coverage is to set the agenda for discussion in the country, even, to some extent, on the radical left. As the anti-war movement can attest, it is difficult to overstate the demoralizing impact of attending massive demonstrations, only to find that the media, and by extension the country, barely noticed.

It is far from the only example. Immigrant parents recently conducted a 43 day occupation of a Chicago elementary school’s property and successfully compelled the school to commit to building a library. It was a significant expansion of the occupation tactic beyond the workplace to public school issues. Yet the national media scarcely covered the story. The coverage blackout belies the purported objectivity of the media, revealing the interests which dictate what is deemed newsworthy.

Prospects for democracy are dependent upon the growth of an independent media with wide exposure in the general population comparable to that of the corporate press.

Little imagination is required to comprehend the impact of a mass circulation newspaper (or radio station; television would be a more substantial challenge) reporting daily on social movements and labor struggles, doing follow-up reports, not to mention investigative reportage. A large, independent media would have influence far beyond its regular consumers, compelling more extended coverage (even if negative in tone) from its corporate competitors.1

Certainly, there is precedent. The 19th century labor press was vibrant, diverse, and had considerable reach into the populace. The Labor Press Project at the University of Washington informs us that, “By the end of the 19th century, working-class newspapers proliferated in cities across the country. Between 1880-1940, thousands of labor and radical publications circulated, constituting a golden age for working-class newspapers.” The most successful of these papers had, at its peak, 750,000 subscribers. To put this in perspective, despite the nation’s much larger size the Washington Post currently only has some 665,000 subscribers, while the Boston Globe’s weekly circulation stands at 368,000.

Today, almost all remnants of the labor press have been wiped out. One of the last, the Racine Labor Paper, based in the city of Racine south of Milwaukee, folded in 2001.

Perhaps the most successful contemporary independent media program, Democracy Now!, is of uncertain utility as a replicable model. The program appears to be predominantly reliant upon funding by large donors. Whether such donations would expand to support an array of other sizable journalistic endeavors is doubtful.2

Many proposals have endorsed a public funding model to replace the severely contracted corporate newspaper industry. However, while this would likely be a positive step, it is evident from the records of National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service that public control, as well as funding, would be crucial in ensuring a modicum of independence from special interests connected to wealth and power.

One avenue, as yet moribund and long forgotten, would be to revive the once thriving labor press. The principle hurdle is that it would require the participation of at least one major labor union. American labor unions, dominated by conservative, bureaucratic tendencies for many decades, have shown no interest in such an idea.

Yet the financial wherewithal is there. When the New York Times Co. was desperately trying to sell the Boston Globe, the bidding prices were in the neighborhood of $35 million, plus $59 million in pension liabilities. In Philadelphia, the city’s two major dailies, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News tabloid, were recently sold for $139 million. For comparison, a single union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), spent $91 million on the mid-term Congressional elections this fall.

Rather than funding Democratic Party politicians across the board, regardless of their support for labor, why not use that money to purchase and subsidize a labor newspaper? Admittedly, the established unions are currently neither independent from the Democrats, nor much to their left. Yet precisely the sort of leftward social dynamics that would make it likely for unions to actually revive the labor press would also facilitate a shift in union politics further to the left, hopefully opening up spaces for views independent of the Democrats. One of the values vital to any mass community media is a big tent philosophy that encourages the airing of a wide array of views from within the left. No mass-circulation left media can really develop without a sustained uptick in social struggle. Part of what we on the left must build in preparation for and during rising popular struggle is the groundwork for this mass media.

Of course, a newspaper operating without advertising would run on very different business model, and many factors would impact the feasibility of a union purchase of a newspaper. Independent media, accountable to consumers rather than advertisers, must, by definition, be financially dependent upon their subscribers or cooperative members.

One option might entail partnering with the staff of a newspaper to purchase the property and run the paper with a lower profit margin, as was suggested in the case of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Much of the crisis in the U.S. newspaper industry results from requirements by media conglomerates like Hearst that newspapers increase their profits to new heights. Papers with merely respectable profits are shuttered.

Revitalizing the labor movement – radicalizing and democratizing it as well as expanding membership – must be a crucial component of any successful social movement for a more civilized society. The creation of an independent, mass circulation community and labor press should go hand-in-hand with that goal. The freedom and independence of the population from ideological domination by elite interests is dependent upon it.

Steven Fake is coauthor of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books) and a member of Workers Solidarity Alliance.

  1. It may also compel a shift in the spectrum of political debate in the media, much as Fox News has successfully shifted discussion to the right. []
  2. Incidentally, there are also deviations from the preferred organizational structure. Employee self-management within the workplace should be seen as a sine qua non for building a prefigurative movement. []

2 comments

  1. An interesting entry on Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federated_Press
    Federated Press
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    The Federated Press was a left wing news service established in 1920 that provided daily content to the radical and labor press in America.
    [edit]History

    The People’s Council for Peace and Democracy, established in New York City in May 1917 and headed by Scott Nearing and Louis P. Lochner, produced a monthly publication called People’s Council Bulletin, which featured international news with an emphasis on the doings of the peace movement. The editor of this publication was William E. Williams, press spokesman of the People’s Council.[1] This bulletin proved the inspiration for the International Labor News Service, itself a news agency for the radical press, as octagenarian Scott Nearing, recounted in his 1972 memoirs:
    “One day…a big, sturdy chap just past middle age came into our New York People’s Council office and showed credentials from the Western Metal Miners. He had been reading our Bulletin and liked the material, especially that dealing with international affairs. ‘If you will put this material into a regular news service,’ he told us, ‘our organization will help pay for it and circulate it. Here is our first contribution’ and he put a $20 bill on the desk.”[2]
    In Milwaukee, Wisconsin a similar concept was being tested by Edward J. Costello, Managing Editor of Victor Berger’s socialist daily, the Milwaukee Leader. This news service, called the Federated Press, was founded on January 3, 1920, and was intended to supply copy to labor and radical newspapers around the country. The two news agencies decided to join forces under the Federated Press banner, with Costello holding down the post of Managing Editor of the Service and Lochner acting as Business Manager. Nearing provided the service with regular installments of his writing. The service grew steadily and was ultimately mailing news releases and picture mats five days a week to some 150 labor and radical publications.[1]
    In August 1920, conscientious objector and university instructor Carl Haessler was released from federal penitentiary after serving a two year sentence. He took over the job of Managing Editor from Costello, who left the employment of the service. Haessler remained at this position until the service was terminated in the 1940s.
    Nearing continued to produce content for the Federated Press until 1943, when he was fired for his anti-war politics, which Managing Editor Haessler deemed to be “childish.”[1]
    The service was discontinued after the end of World War II, when the more conservative labor papers terminated their use of the service.
    [edit]Footnotes

    ^ a b c Scott Nearing,The Making of a Radical: A Political Autobiography. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1972; pg. 173.
    ^ Nearing erroneously recalls this event as having happened in 1921, that is, a date after the merger of the International Labor News Service with the Federated Press. Nearing,The Making of a Radical,” pg. 173.

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