The Message

Hard Progress

In decades past, many of those on the right side of the political continuum blustered themselves blue on the subject of the media's alleged liberal bias -- and while such griping has lessened of late, it hasn't vanished. The coverage of separate controversies swirling around professional bigmouth Rush Limbaugh and CIA operative Valerie Plame has prompted plenty of accusations that journalistic left-wingers care less about the facts than they do about furthering their nefarious agendas.

More prominent, however, are complaints from ideological southpaws who feel the current media landscape now slants markedly to the right. Democratic operatives routinely demonize conservative talk radio and the Fox News Channel, the ultra-popular dream come true of Republican spinmeister Roger Ailes. Indeed, the typical attack on Fox doesn't just border on the hysterical; it is hysterical. For proof, check out the September 20 column by University of Colorado at Boulder professor Michael Tracey, the Rocky Mountain News's latest media critic. In the piece, Tracey charged that Fox is a "threat to national security" because its bellicose coverage of the war on terrorism builds anger and resentment in folks from abroad who disagree with U.S. policy. Under this logic, MTV's Cribs could also lead to America's downfall, since its displays of conspicuous consumption might inspire poor people across the globe to launch a communist revolution. If it happens, blame Snoop Dogg.

Tracey, who's perhaps best known for assembling a documentary that argued for John and Patsy Ramsey's innocence in the death of their daughter, JonBenét, is no stranger to debatable statements. In June, The Independent, a British publication, quoted him describing HBO as "the nearest thing the Americans have to public-service broadcasting," which should make admirers of Real Sex 30: Down and Dirty and G-String Divas feel better about themselves. Nonetheless, Tracey's views on press prejudice are typical of those filtering from liberal camps these days. Although loads of lefties whine about how news organizations are marginalizing or blackballing them, they seldom take any responsibility for this state of affairs.

Jason Salzman wants progressives to get their 
message out.
Mark Manger
Jason Salzman wants progressives to get their message out.

They should. Bottom line, Fox News and the neo-con blabbers who dominate radio earn healthy ratings because they're livelier and more engaging than their competition -- and if a television or radio network with completely different political values were just as interesting, people would tune that in as well. Yet the most prominent person to discuss creating such an undertaking is quintessentially dull presidential loser Al Gore, who embodies everything that's wrong with media liberals in the eyes of many information consumers.

Changing this reputation won't be easy, but two locals have taken up the challenge anyhow. Once a Westword intern, attorney Michael Huttner is the driving force behind the newly formed Rocky Mountain Progressive Network, a venture that he says will "stand up to the far right" via a highly organized effort to get alternative views into wider circulation. Meanwhile, Jason Salzman is out with a revised and updated version of his book Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits, which is designed to help protesters and the like better use the media. Salzman's core advice is simple. As he explains it, "We progressives have to recognize the reality that both journalists and the public want stories that won't put them to sleep."

Salzman knows his way around the info battleground. In 1994, he and the late Paul Klite co-founded Rocky Mountain Media Watch, which specializes in critiquing the press in ways that actually garner press attention. In 2001, for instance, RMMW cheekily petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to "declare advertisements promoting Denver's local TV 'news' programs as false and deceptive" because "the entertainment-oriented content of the local TV 'news' programs cannot be considered news." Concurrent with his efforts for the Watchers, whose work is documented on the Web at, Salzman fronts Cause Communications, a public-relations firm whose client roster includes do-gooders such as Ben Cohen, of Ben and Jerry's fame.

The knowledge Salzman gained from these experiences is distilled in Making the News, whose current edition, available from Boulder's Westview Press, sports a front-cover rave from filmmaker/gadfly Michael Moore. Still, Salzman isn't a political snob when it comes to learning from good ideas, or at least good execution. "Look at what the George W. Bush administration did when it wanted to invade Iraq," he writes in News's introduction. "It developed a meticulous marketing plan."

Along these lines, Salzman doesn't spank the media for basing its coverage decisions on something other than the justness of a particular mission. In a section of News bluntly titled "Stop Being a Bore," he points out that "it's easy to complain about mayhem and fluff in the newsÖbut the truth is, every citizen shares the blame with the news media. We do not offer journalists enough opportunities -- in the right packaging and at the right time -- to cover causes and important issues."

The wild-and-crazy procedures pioneered by the likes of Abbie Hoffman, who once caused pandemonium at the New York Stock Exchange by hurling dollar bills onto the trading floor, don't come naturally to many liberals. "They tend to take themselves too seriously," Salzman allows. Likewise, he continues, progressives are often clueless about mainstream television because "they never watch it. They criticize it and feel it's distorting what they do, but personally they prefer the soothing oasis of National Public Radio, and that's not where most people get their news. There are libraries filled with academic treatises about what's newsworthy, but if you don't watch a station, you're not going to know how to get covered by it."

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