Back to normal

Sometimes in discussions about the (corporate-owned, advertiser-supporter) media you come across the idea that it used to be liberal, but not anymore. For instance, Jim Henley: “When I was a teen…and for a time after that, the media was very liberal.”

I wouldn’t agree with that, exactly. Rather than saying the media once was liberal, I’d put it like this: there was a brief period during the late sixties to the mid seventies when parts of the media weren’t completely reactionary. And from this tiny real acorn grew an immense imaginary oak called the “liberal media.” Still, I acknowledge the media has changed significantly over the past forty years.

But to me most everyone takes away the wrong point from this. Particularly among baby boomers, afflicted with too many viewing of All the President’s Men, there’s a sense the late sixties-mid seventies was the norm and today’s situation is the aberration. Instead, the late sixties-mid seventies was the aberration. Now we’re back to normal.

That’s because (corporate-owned, advertiser-supported) media always has powerful conservative tendencies. It’s in its DNA. What was different during our brief media glasnost wasn’t the media’s DNA, but the outside environment. Most importantly, America then was the most middle class it’s ever been before or since. It made financial sense for advertisers to try to reach a broader audience. And so a somewhat different media became profitable. Large social movements clamoring to be heard also had an effect.

But then the empire struck back. The movements weakened, and the U.S. steadily became less and less middle class. Now we have economic inequality on par with the twenties—and thus a media like the twenties too. It could hardly be otherwise.

So the media’s not going back to its “liberal” period unless the larger economic structures of the United States do as well. And we shouldn’t be hoping for a return to that media era anyway. It was never that great to start with, and as we’ve since learned, it was extremely vulnerable to outside changes.

A much better plan is to accept the corporate-owned, advertiser-supported idea is inherently flawed, and come up with alternatives. Ezra Klein is thinking along these lines, and so is Bree Nordenson. Both articles mention what I believe is the best solution, Dean Baker’s concept of “artistic freedom vouchers.”

Baker’s idea is simple: everyone would get a $100 tax credit that would go to whatever artistic or journalistic endeavor they designate. The recipients could do whatever they wanted with it, as long as they agreed to give up copyright to what they produced.

This could lead to a media without government control, without advertisers, and—most importantly—without PBS trying to appeal to the upper middle class white donor class via acoustic Eagles concerts. Everyone wins except the forces of evil.

There are likely other solutions, too. (Klein and Nordenson discuss some of them.) The important thing at this point is just to start understanding the problem and thinking about possible answers.

(The ball’s in your court, Mr. Nielsen Hayden.)