May
01
2007

Make Your Own Damn Sign!

Why Democrats need to promote progressive media

It did not surprise me, during the 2004 election, when Kerry/Edwards supporters called in to my show on Air America Radio—though it did surprise me when they called in seeking yard signs.

I don’t have a yard, much less a sign. All I could think to do was to direct these callers to the Kerry campaign website, which is what I did until one exasperated caller protested that she could find no darn way to obtain a yard sign through www.johnkerry.com.

The caller was right. Not only was there no apparent way to obtain a yard sign through the Democratic presidential nominee’s national campaign website, but there was no obvious way to do much of anything besides make a dollar contribution and sign up to receive emails.

The state Democratic parties and coordinated campaigns were worse. When surveyed by the independent group Grassroots Democrats, shortly after the 2004 general election, half of all state Democratic parties had no website of any sort. Only three states offered downloadable organizing guides, and they were unreadable: 50 to 83 pages of turgid instructions.

In the last weeks of campaign 2004, I took to encouraging sign-less callers to pick up a hammer: “Make your own damn sign.”

I thought of Kerry’s dispirited yard-sign seekers in February 2006, when the senator from Massachusetts told the New York Times (2/8/06) that one reason the Democratic message fails to connect with the public is that Democrats have a smaller “megaphone” than the Right. “Our megaphone is just not as large as their megaphone, and we have a harder time getting that message out, even when people are on the same page,” Kerry complained.

The senator was undeniably correct when one considers right-wing talk radio, pay-to-say pundits, Fox News and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But playing blame-the-media is lame when you can’t even get your own people the tin-can communication tool of front-yard partisans. In some parts of the country, the yard sign is the most effective media for miles.

With friends like these

While establishment Democrats gripe and moan about media bias, in eight years in office, the Clinton administration not only did nothing to correct the tilted media playing field, they participated in shoving the tilt more sharply toward the right. Even when Democrats controlled Congress, the leadership did nothing to restore the Fairness Doctrine (which required broadcasters to dedicate time to public affairs and to air a variety of views, not just those they agreed with).

President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened already slack limits on the number of media outlets a single company could own in a community, and Clinton’s FCC approved “the great giveaway” of new digital broadcast spectrum, free to private companies. With friends like these, who needs Rupert Murdoch?

Clinton/Gore did see to it that the White House went online in 1994, and a Democratic Party website launched soon after. By that year, by contrast, the GOP not only had a website, it had a national, shared database. Throughout the 1990s, Republicans were developing voter-list sharing technology, and political websites—known then not as “blogs” but as “me-zines.” (Patrick Ruffini, the webmaster for Bush/Cheney ’04, started his own me-zine in 2001.) Already by 2002, many Republican field workers had access to an online voter file.

The RNC even pimped its ride: Reggie the Registration Rig. Reggie, a 56-foot customized truck, complete with fold-out stage, X-Boxes, video screens and all the gear needed to enlist new voters, showed up at college football games, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, WrestleMania and NASCAR races.

On the Democratic side, in an era of text-messaging, flash video and “mix tapes” (actually CDs, with political messages from popular bands), media old guard and new guard tussled for turf, and the old guard mostly won. If it weren’t for some innovative party outsiders, some of the greatest hits of campaign 2004 would never have seen the light of day.

Not following the consumer

Hollywood producer/director Julie Bergman produced a short video, “White House West,” with Will Ferrell for the 527 group America Coming Together (ACT). The video of Ferrell impersonating Bush was released on the Internet, with a tag urging viewers to check out the ACT website. According to Bergman, ACT’s data shows that after garnering millions of hits online, as well as free airings on news and entertainment TV shows, 33,000 citizens volunteered to work for ACT in battleground states.

“They didn’t expect this,” recalls Bergman, who believes the campaigns could have done more with video clips distributed by net-savvy individuals. A two-minute cartoon lampooning both Kerry and Bush put out by JibJab.com received 10 million viewings in a month—three times the number of hits on both presidential campaign websites.

According to the New Politics Institute, cable outpaced broadcast television in audience share back in 2001. Commercial advertisers long ago made the leap, but Kerry/Edwards didn’t. (Less than 2 percent of all campaign ad dollars were spent on cable by both parties together in 2004.) The disdain for cable makes no sense unless you are a media consultant: If a campaign spends $2 million on TV time, the consultant who produced and placed the ad receives 10-15 percent—that’s $200,000 to $300,000—on top of that from their client. It works for the consultants, but it didn’t work for the Democrats. (You don’t get a dime, by the way, for putting up yard signs.)

“It’s just so frustrating,” sighed Malia Lazu. Before 2004, Lazu served as the National Field Coordinator for the Young Voters Alliance, a collaboration of seven youth groups that coordinated efforts to increase young voter turnout in battleground states. “Democratic consultants resist the very strategies that work every day for commercial advertisers,” Lazu told me. Even as the Kerry campaign test-marketed messages with young voters, party consultants utterly ignored the way that young people actually communicate. “They’d rather blame the consumer for not paying attention than go to where the consumer is,” said Lazu, who finished second in the Showtime reality TV series American Candidate.

The Democrats’ most reliable base is minority voters, but the consultants at the top of the party haven’t shown much interest in the media those groups use either. According to recent data, ethnic media reach 51 million Hispanics, African-Amer-icans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans and Native Americans—almost a quarter of all American adults.

Of these, 29 million (13 percent of all adult Americans) not only use them regularly but favor ethnic media over their mainstream counterparts, reports Sandy Close, director of New America Media, a consortium of some 750 newspapers and media (radio and TV) serving various ethnic and immigrant communities. Yet while the Bush campaign, reportedly encouraged by George W. Bush himself, broke tradition to pursue minority groups through their media, Kerry/Edwards waited until late in the summer to announce a $3.5 million ad-buy in black and Spanish-language media.

Like pulling teeth

It’s not true that progressives don’t have media. Even before the mainstreaming of the Internet, progressives had a world of media. The highest-placed Democratic candidates choose mostly to ignore it.

In the summer of 2000, I had the pleasure of participating in a week of independent reporting on the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, followed by a second week of broadcasts from outside the Democratic National Convention in LA. Some 1,200 independent journalists, photographers, film makers and radio reporters registered at the L.A. Indepen-dent Media Center for the convention. (There were 800 in Philadelphia.) A daily newspaper was published, and a 24-hour online radio station built. Each morning Amy Goodman would broadcast her crusading Democracy Now! program (which has gone on to be syndicated to over 500 TV and radio stations internationally).

I hosted Crashing the Party, a nightly broadcast, which went out live via the satellite channel Free Speech TV to about 200 public-access cable stations, a few local PBS stations and the Internet. While viewers were turning away from the ever-shrinking and largely stultifying coverage on network TV, our independent broadcasts, produced on a pittance, reached 10 million households on DISH network and 11 million homes on DirecTV.

Yet, as more than one reporter found, it was like pulling teeth to get candidates to talk to Indymedia reporters. That was still true in 2004, as Davey D. found at the Democratic Convention in Boston. Davey D., a writer and broadcaster with deep roots and reach in the hip-hop community, had no trouble interviewing Republican leaders, including Newt Gingrich, at the RNC in New York. In Boston, though, he was given the run-around even by Barack Obama’s staffers. “The Republicans get something the Democrats just don’t get,” he told RadioNation afterwards (11/13/04).

Low-tech megaphones

Megaphones don’t have to be high-tech to have impact. Woodburn and the Willamette Valley houses Oregon’s most concentrated immigrant population. The right has three radio stations in town, and another nearby. Listeners say the hosts attack immigrants 24/7, for everything from the price of gas to terrorism. In the summer of 2006, Oregon’s largest Latino organization, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) did what liberals long balked at—they bought and paid for their own radio station.

With the Prometheus Radio Project (a group that successfully sued the FCC for the right of low-power broadcasters to secure legal licenses), PCUN invited hundreds of volunteers to participate in what they called a radio barn-raising. “There are simpler ways to start a radio station than have 250 people who’ve never turned a screwdriver before stick their hands in,” says Pete Tridish of Prometheus. “But the birth of a station is a momentous occasion for social movements. Having everybody involved makes it clear that it’s everybody’s radio station.”

Low-power FM is the farmworkers’ equivalent of the blogosphere, says PCUN’s Ramón Ramirez. He got a sense of the power of radio when he’d go out into the fields and the air was filled with the sound of scores of transistor radios tuned to the World Cup soccer tournament: “You can’t take TV sets or computers into the fields.”

John Kerry could have had a megaphone if he’d wanted one. As Air America Radio reveals, liberals could have their own talk network if only, like the right, they were willing to pay for it. As it is, “make your own darn sign” is pretty much what people on the center and the left have done, and the result is a plethora of new media, with the blogosphere making the most massive mark.

Media is a plural noun, an interactive ecology. As the right learned long ago, media have the most impact when they work in alliance. The new challenge for liberals and also the left isn’t only (still) structural (having to do with which few corporations control the majority of the biggest outlets). It’s also substantive. New Media are growing in diversity and variety, but the more they increase, the more they—and their audiences—fragment.

“How do we communicate with one another across racial, ethnic, class and age boundaries on a horizontal axis that connects us, not just as blogger ‘I’s’ but as entire communities?” asks Sandy Close of New America Media. Finally, new or old, big megaphone or small, when it comes to making change, the media are only as good as the messages they carry. Progressive media exist, but they need movements to make the message.

This is an excerpt from Laura Flanders’ new book Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics From the Politicians (Penguin Press). Flanders is former co-host of FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin; her show Radio Nation can be heard on Air America Radio or at LauraFlanders.com.