MEDIA SHAPES OUR VERY LIVES. It tells us what products we need to buy and, by the quantity and nature of coverage, what is “important” and what is “unimportant.” Media informs us as to the scope of what is “realistic” and “possible.”
When we see constant coverage of murders and brutality on television, corporate media is telling us that crime and violence are important issues that we should be concerned about. When there is round-the-clock coverage of the Super Bowl, we are being informed that football and the NFL deserve our rapt attention. When there is very little coverage of the suffering of the 43 million Americans living in poverty, or the thousands of Americans without health insurance who die each year because they can't get to a doctor when they should, corporately owned media is telling us that these are not issues of major concern. For years, major crises like climate change, the impact of trade agreements on our economy, the role of big money in politics and youth unemployment have received scant media coverage. Trade union leaders, environmentalists, low-income activists, people prepared to challenge the corporate ideology, rarely appear on our TV screens.
Media is not just about what is covered and how. It is about what is not covered. And those decisions, of what is and is not covered, are not made in the heavens. They are made by human beings who often have major conflicts of interest.
As a general rule of thumb, the more important the issue is to large numbers of working people, the less interesting it is to corporate media. The less significant it is to ordinary people, the more attention the media pays. Further, issues being pushed by the top 1 percent get a lot of attention. Issues advocated by representatives of working families, not so much.
For the corporate media, the real issues facing the American people— poverty, the decline of the middle class, income and wealth inequality, trade, healthcare, climate change, etc.—are fairly irrelevant. For them, politics is largely presented as entertainment. With some notable exceptions, reporters are trained to see a campaign as if it were a game show, a baseball game, a soap opera, or a series of conflicts.
I saw this time and time again.
Turn on CNN or other networks covering politics and what you will find is that the overwhelming amount of coverage is dedicated to personality, gossip, campaign strategy, scandals, conflicts, polls and who appears to be winning or losing, fundraising, the ups and downs of the campaign trail, and the dumb things a candidate may say or do. It has very little to do with the needs of the American people and the ideas or programs a candidate offers to address the problems facing the country.
According to a study of media coverage of the 2016 primaries by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, only 11 percent of coverage focused on candidates' policy positions, leadership abilities and professional histories. My personal sense is that number is much too high.
The “politics as entertainment” approach works very well for someone like Donald Trump, an experienced entertainer. That kind of media approach didn't work so well for a campaign like ours, which was determined to focus on the real problems facing our country and what the solutions might be. For the corporate media, name-calling and personal attacks are easy to cover, and what it prefers to cover.
While I was still considering whether or not to run, I did a long interview with a very prominent national newspaper writer. Over and over I stressed that I wanted to talk about my assessment of the major problems facing the country, and how I proposed to address them. And for 45 minutes, that's what the discussion was about. The reporter appeared interested in what I had to say, and I thought we had a good conversation. At the very end, as he was leaving, he said: “Oh, by the way, Hillary Clinton said such and such. What's your comment?” I fell for it. Needless to say, that one-minute response became the major part of his story. And that occurred time after time after time.
On a CNN show, an interviewer became visibly angry because I chose not to respond to her questions with personal attacks against Secretary Clinton. The interviewer opined that I didn't have “sharp enough elbows” to become a serious candidate, that I wasn't tough enough. Identifying the major problems facing our country, and providing ideas as to how we could address them, was just not good enough.
In fact, I was gently faulted by some for having excessive “message discipline,” for spending too much time discussing real issues. Boring. The result of all of these factors is that while I was getting coverage, it was far less than what other candidates were getting.
In a Dec. 11, 2015, blog post for Media Matters for America, Eric Boehlert wrote:
ABC World News Tonight has de voted less than one minute to Bernie Sanders' campaign this year.
In his article, Boehlert also reported that:
Trump has received more network coverage than all the Democratic candidates combined. ?
Republican Jeb Bush received 56 minutes of coverage.
"With Donald Trump as President, Americans Are Flocking to Socialism" by Kate Aronoff, In These Times 1/23/2017
One evening the week before Christmas, about 100 people squeezed into a room in the Brooklyn Free School, located on one of central Brooklyn's posher streets. The private school's chair collection exhausted itself within minutes as attendees packed the room for the monthly meeting of the Brooklyn chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—which, just a month earlier, had fit easily into the same space.
Since Nov 8, 2016, thousands have joined DSA. The organization has ballooned to over 14,000 members, more than doubling in size from 6,500 members in May 2016. DSA National Director Maria Svart says of new sign-ups, “You could literally see the moment when Trump was declared the winner.”
Organizations such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood are reporting a similar spike in new members and donations in the wake of Trump's election. But interest in socialist groups, grown accustomed to being small and isolated in U.S. politics, appears to be surging in a way it hasn't in decades. Many of those joining are young people who don't have their parents' Cold War hangups about socialism. Politicians like Bernie Sanders—an avowed socialist whom many supporters are looking to for an effective counter to Trump—have further sparked their interest in a politics outside mainstream Democrats and Republicans.
That puts DSA in a promising, if uncertain, position in the wake of Trump's election. “People … are looking to DSA as an organization that full throatedly supported Bernie Sanders in the primary and has the potential to be a serious part of the fightback, both to Trump and to the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party,” says Svart.
Founded in 1982 out of the remnants of the '60s New Left, DSA also has roots in Eugene Debs' Socialist Party of America, which at its height in 1912 boasted 113,000 dues-paying members. Eager to avoid the pitfalls of insular ideological squabbles, DSA strives to work with community organizations and social movements. Following the election, DSA chapters have mobilized to support organizing by communities threatened by Trump and his supporters, including local mosques and immigrant rights organizations. DSA is also working on building a multiracial membership—its current members are predominantly white—while supporting existing organizing by communities of color. Brooklyn DSA's Racial Justice working group, for example, is partnering with the New York-based group Communities United for Police Reform to help pass the Right to Know Act, aimed at increasing transparency and accountability on the part of the NYPD.
Ultimately, says Svart, there's agreement within the organization about “the need for a multi-racial, anti-capitalist movement that is in touch with the grassroots.”
For now, DSA is proving an on-ramp for those frustrated with Trump and the Democratic establishment alike. The Brooklyn meeting on Dec 22, 2016, was the first for Hannah Silverman, a New York native who worked on local Democratic campaigns in high school but grew disillusioned with politics before heading off to Brown University, where she graduated in 2015.
“I was afraid [the meeting] would feel futile,” she said as chairs were being collected toward the end. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised by the tailored facilitation—after a discussion of the importance of organizing “openly as socialists” at the local level, the meeting broke out into smaller committees on everything from affordable housing fights to climate justice—and the high attendance. “Looking at Trump's election, the only way to spin it positively is that it compelled a lot of people to become politically active,” she noted. “It created a sense of urgency that was missing.” She plans to attend next month's meeting. In New York City alone, DSA now has 1,000 members.
But deep-blue Brooklyn isn't the only place where democratic socialism is undergoing a resurgence. Local organizers are in the process of getting six new chapters off the ground in Florida and four in Ohio, both of which went for Trump in November. DSA's tiny national staff, funded entirely by dues and small donations, has been overwhelmed by requests to create new chapters around the country and is looking for ways to expand accordingly.
Tom Tilden, 59, is among those DSA members setting up shop for socialism deep in Trump country. Tilden is a DSA veteran, having joined when he lived in Chicago in the late '80s. But when he moved to Nebraska in 1993, Tilden says, he didn't consider starting a new chapter there, though he remained a member of the national organization. When people talk about “the Left” in conservative Nebraska, Tilden explains, they're referring to “people in the middle of the Democratic Party leftward. ‘The Left' is progressive. People don't usually think in terms of socialist.”
But that may be changing after Sanders' primary run, which “changed the nature of the Democratic Party in the state” while stripping away some of the taboos that plague socialist politics, says Tilden. In Nebraska's March 2016 caucus, Clinton won just 10 of the state's pledged delegates to Sanders' 15, and he successfully won over some of the state's most rural counties. Since the caucuses, Tilden has been working to get a new chapter off the ground in Omaha, and another has sprung up in nearby Lincoln. About 30 people attended the first meeting in December 2016.
Like many other DSA members around the country, Tilden sees potential in building institutions outside the Democratic Party, but is also a firm believer in trying to stage a takeover from the inside. This fall, he joined Keystone XL pipeline opponent Jane Kleeb on the ticket to run Nebraska's Democratic Party. She's now the party's state chair. Tilden is second associate chair, and has similar goals for his work in this position as he does as a local DSA organizer; Reaching working-class voters, especially those who went for Trump but might yet be won over to the kind of anti-racist, anti-capitalist movement that DSA hopes to build.
“People in rural Nebraska are more progressive than they realize,” Tilden reasons. While door-knocking during the Sanders campaign, he and other volunteers found that many rural voters took firm stands against corporate agriculture and attacks on public education. “I think once we work with them on their issue, they'll see that the people on their side are not the Republicans.”
Instead, Tilden hopes, they just might embrace an entirely different shade of red.