By Michael Roberts
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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.
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 Huttneris 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 www.bigmedia.org, 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 news…but 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."
Other tips from News are just as straightforward. Activists need to figure out whom in the press to contact, the best times to do so, the deadlines under which they operate, and the sorts of things that will turn an event into Must-See TV. Just as important, they must be willing to employ "imagery, humor, conflict and celebrity appeal" to achieve their goals. "Would you deliver manure to politicians and tell them they are full of !!**@??!!," Salzman asks in print. "You probably wouldn't, but this is exactly how you need to start thinking to upgrade your media profile."
Dismissing such methods as pandering is a sure way not to be heard, Salzman believes. "Progressives need to package their stories and not be scared of staging stunts that are effective and timed appropriately to catch the media's attention," he says. "And they need to stop thinking so much in words, and more in symbols and actions. Progressives love words, but symbols drive debate and resonate with everyday people. And that's what you're trying to do."
The Rocky Mountain Progressive Network's Huttner agrees, and his enterprise has advantages that most liberal groups don't, most of which are connected to cash. Funders include Jared Polis, a State Board of Education member with a sizable pile of dough made before the dot.com bust. (Colorado needs RMPN, Polis says, "to help preserve our quality of life by exposing the extremism of the far-right hypocrites and making the case for a new way.") In addition, Donna Good, an ex-deputy manager of the Denver Department of Human Services who served as finance director for the mayoral campaigns of Wellington Webb, is actively searching for more dollars. No wonder the outfit's Web site, at www.rmpn.org, is overflowing with content after less than a month of existence.
The Independence Institute, the state's leading conservative think tank, has similar resources at its disposal, and under the leadership of Jon Caldara, it's been masterful at getting journalistic exposure for its projects. But Huttner, who dismisses Caldara as a "media hound who salivates at every opportunity to be in the papers," doesn't want to mimic the institute's tacks. He sees RMPN as a clearinghouse for progressive thought and would rather put media organizations in touch with experts in various fields than soak up the spotlight himself. "It's not about me," he says. "It's about finding cutting-edge ways for the media and the public to understand and hear about issues like getting more jobs for Colorado."
That sounds like an endorsement of the Salzman technique. But the first RMPN event, a rally targeting conservative lightning rod David Horowitz at Metropolitan State College on September 30, didn't entirely follow his precepts.
On the plus side, multiple press releases were sent to a gaggle of news agencies, and they were provocative enough to lure a hefty press contingent: the Rocky, the Denver Post, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Colorado Daily, channels 7 and 9, etc. The gathering certainly got Horowitz's attention. Prior to defending his "Academic Bill of Rights" before an audience at Metro, he railed against the protesters for attacking a speech they hadn't even heard yet. Never mind that he committed the identical sin by pillorying an event he didn't attend -- and forget, too, that he decried name-calling while at the same time labeling Peggy Lowe, a Rocky scribe who wrote several spirited and accurate articles about him, a "left-wing reporter."
Conceptually, though, the gathering was thoroughly staid and by-the-numbers. Individuals with placards reading "Defend Against Doublespeak" and "Don't Be Intimidated by Fear Tactics" were placed behind a lectern as visual props, but they were about as excitable as a sewing circle; participants in a flag-football game fifty yards away didn't once stop their contest to see what was happening. When Metro State Student Body President Felecia Woodson asked, "Have we forgotten about what freedom means?" the sign-holders offered such a muted response that she had to say "I didn't hear that" and repeat herself. Other speakers, including Metro State Faculty Senate President Joan Foster, lacked even that much rhetorical fire and droned on so long that members of the press contingent had to leave early to get to the Horowitz speech on time. Such gaffes may make journalists less enthusiastic about showing up for the next RMPN salvo.
Huttner acknowledges that timing was a problem and says he understands that creativity and even humor are powerful tools: "We're going to look at striking a balance of being witty and savvy and at the same time preserving our credibility on issues that matter."
If groups don't, Salzman feels, the choir may listen to the sermon, but few others will. "The mainstream media is looking for an entertaining story," he notes, "and if progressives told their stories in entertaining ways, they'd get in the news more."
Station to station: KNRC talk-show host Enid Goldstein is a liberal who recently learned Salzman's lesson the hard way. Her tediously strident, one-note style of progressivism appealed to true believers who tuned her in during the afternoon-drive slot, but those less convinced that the sky is falling stayed away as a matter of course. Finally, on September 15, she was replaced by Doug Kellett, a glib conservative whose opinions consistently incense the left-of-center crowd. For her part, Goldstein moved to the noon-to-3 p.m. time period, where she spent day one bellyaching about the switch and urging those who were upset to voice their displeasure to the station.
Hundreds of people did, which Tim Brown, who's CEO of Newspaper Radio Corporation, KNRC's owner, sees as a good sign. KNRC, at 1150 AM, slipped to a negligible .2 ratings share among listeners ages twelve and over in the most recent Arbitron trend, but the e-mail barrage shows that people are actually listening. And while Enid fans may not like what happened, Brown suspects that they appreciate the station's willingness to let her air her grievances. "We actually encouraged her to say how she felt," Brown says. "She was very honest, just like she always is."
Brown demonstrates these same qualities when he talks about Newspaper Radio's other frequency, KCUV-AM/1510. He says the company twice had it under contract, but both deals fell through -- so he and his associates decided that instead of just letting it sit there, they'd try something new. At 8 a.m. on October 15, they'll introduce "Country's Underground Voice," a station that will concentrate on the alternative-country genre. Acts like Wilco, Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams will sidle up alongside C&W mainstays Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and so on.
Yep, it's a gamble. Alterna-country has a loyal cult following, and Austin's KGSR has done well playing such music, but Denver's country leader, KYGO, is a juggernaut that helps support KYGO-AM, a classic-country signal just up the dial from KCUV. Regardless, Brown is excited about KCUV's prospects and believes that good word of mouth and jocks like Radio 1190 grad Danny Birch will round up enough cowpokes to make it profitable.
"We're trying to run it lean and mean," Brown concedes. "Hopefully, a lot of people who are disenfranchised with local radio today will appreciate hearing some really good music."
Careful with that ax: After reporter Dave Minshall was fired by Channel 7, he filed a discrimination lawsuit against the station and picketed its headquarters. Channel 7 vice president and general manager Cindy Velasquez defended the broadcaster against Minshall's accusations, all of which dealt with matters that took place the year before her 1997 hiring, but she must have been paying attention to the approach that ultimately netted him a jury award of over $500,000. On September 30, Ed Quinn, president of the McGraw-Hill Company Broadcasting Group, which owns Channel 7, arrived in Denver and promptly handed Velasquez her head. Two days later, Velasquez supporters staged a protest in front of Channel 7, and sources say she's exploring her legal options. She could not be reached for comment.
Whether Velasquez deserved to be sacked depends upon the criteria by which her Channel 7 tenure is measured. She took over the station at a time when the news operation was a laughingstock thanks to a format dubbed "Real Life, Real News" that was, in fact, real stupid. (Irony alert: Gannett newspapers have just launched a program called "Real Life, Real News.") Over time, she made many intriguing personnel decisions, like elevating Anne Trujillo to anchor, wooing Denver vet Mike Landess back to town and hiring weatherman Marty Coniglio away from Channel 4. Not everything she did worked (intolerably smug Fox Sports Net veteran Lionel Bienvenu is a lousy fit), but her efforts resulted in the resurrection of Channel 7's reputation. Today its newscasts are generally as solid as those offered by other Denver stations. Too bad their audience shares trail in virtually every time slot -- especially at 10 p.m., where bragging rights are established.
There were indications aplenty that things were getting desperate in the weeks leading up to Velasquez's firing, including a promo bragging that Channel 7 led the Rocky Mountain News in its coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal. Not only did this spot prompt raised eyebrows among journalists who know that a Westword article about the academy appeared about two weeks before Channel 7 took its first swings, but it virtually guarantees that the Rocky will avoid giving the station credit for its reporting whenever possible. (An October 2 article about the ousting of a cadet who ran a porn Web site is an example.) Besides, Channel 7's been bragging about its impressive Air Force coverage since February without experiencing any noticeable ratings bump.
In other words, this Hail Mary pass fell incomplete. What's left is to see if Velasquez will get a rematch in court.