Journalism has been described as the “first draft of history.” While it may not be literally true, in the course of daily life most of us acquire a significant portion of our knowledge of current events from a news source such as television, newspapers, radio, magazines, or, more recently, news websites. The “fourth estate” is considered a crucial institution of modern democratic societies, which require a professional system of informing the public about relevant facts. Generally, we can classify institutions of journalism as governmental, private, public, and independent. This paper will present an analysis and overview of a subset of independent journalism, that of the radical left. A necessary preliminary task will be developing a useful definition of the “radical left.” This analysis will examine the role which radical left journalism has played in modern society, the relationship of this journalism to democracy, and a possible trajectory by which radical journalism might become a more prominent voice in society.
In European history, the political “right and left” as conceptual terms originated with the National Assembly of France in 1789. Opponents of the Monarchy sat on the left half of the assembly with the king’s supporters on the right side. In the 19th century, two political tendencies emerged on the radical left: socialists who opposed capitalism and anarchists who opposed the state itself. In the 20th Century social movement struggles against systemic dominations related to race and gender gave birth to newer elaborations of radical left politics, such as feminism and Black Power. In terms of US politics, if the Republican Party represents the conservative Right, and Democratic Party the Liberal Left, we can define the radical left as those who substantively reject both parties in terms that advance a more egalitarian social order. Not all movements and journalists identified here as radical left reject the Democratic Party in total, but may also act as a “left bloc” in some sense within it. The radical left therefore includes various sorts of Socialists, Anarchists, Feminists, Black Radicals, Greens, and even some Pacifists.
Radical left journalism operates outside mainstream journalism which typically reflects the assumptions of the “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.” This oppositional stance results in nearly all radical left journalism being conducted on a non-profit basis, often unpaid. Such unpaid journalism is viewed as a necessity in many cases, though some publications do make an effort to pay their writers. For a radical left publication to afford paying its writers, they have to rely on subscribers, donors, and grants to maintain their payroll, rather than advertisers and investors, which leads to the difficult task of expressing radical left perspectives effectively enough to draw public support and remain viable without compromising their oppositional viewpoint. More than one left publication has disappeared over the last century and a half due to financial limitations, such as The Guardian (U.S.) in 1992.
The tension that most on the radical left feel with mainstream journalism also exists as a real tension with the level of political awareness within the general public. Radical left journalists tend to hold that mainstream coverage of political and social events is biased in fundamental ways by an acceptance of the operation of social systems generally viewed by leftists as fundamentally unjust. These systems are understood differently – often dramatically so – by the type of left philosophy held by the journalist or publication. Anarchists often view political events quite differently from most Marxists, especially where the operation of state power is involved, such as the fall of the Egyptian government. Regarding the Egyptian revolution, Marxist Alan Woods declared in 2011, “The struggle for complete democracy will permit the construction of genuine trade unions and workers’ parties.” Whereas anarchist Nigel Gibson wrote also in 2011,
“In this age of gated cities, of ordered cities, surveilled and policed—what have been called “global cities”—the Egyptian people have opened up political space, as an ongoing public debate in the squares, outside the parliament, in the streets. It has become a global space.”
Both may support the fall of an existing regime, but will differ over their analysis of the aftermath and struggle for power that ensues. Whereas Woods focuses on unions and parties, Gibson highlights public spaces and spontaneous assemblies. Mainstream journalism, however, will pay more attention to the formation of a political partnership with business interests, the military, and those aspiring to form a new government. This is reflected in the conventional wisdom that the Egyptian revolution required the installation of a democratically elected government that unites – or rather nullifies the conflicts between – diverse class, religious, and ethnic segments of a population. As reported by the New York Times in 2011, “Now the military, which owns vast commercial interests here but has not fought in decades, must defuse demonstrations, quell widespread labor unrest and rebuild a shattered economy and security forces.”
On a similar line, a feminist publication may analyze a mass murderer who targets women somewhat differently from the mainstream press by stressing the gender and sex systems of society and their culpability in the event. Jessica Valenti analyzed the May 2014 killing of 6 persons by Elliott Rodgers in Isla Vista, CA, thusly, “The truth is that there is no such thing as a lone misogynist – they are created by our culture, and by communities that tell them that their hatred is both commonplace and justified.” Rodgers’ characterized his own motives for the murders as revenge for his sexual frustration at the hands of women in his college. Mainstream publications emphasized the likelihood of mental illness, not systemic misogyny. For example, New York Times writers emphasized how Rodgers’ parents, “ferried him from counselor to therapist, urged him to take antipsychotic medication and moved him from school to school.” Whether it is possible to find the “sole cause” of this horrific killing, the ongoing backlash against Jessica Valenti and other feminists of similar conviction has revealed an often overlooked subculture of anger and outrage at women. Many women responded via a twitter hashtag campaign “#YesAllWomen” to highlight the constant barrage of sexualized male aggression women experience almost daily in our society.
Comparing left journalism to mainstream reporting raises the question of why left views are usually minority voices with little influence. The answer pursued here will draw from left-wing sociological theories of power and social systems developed to understand how economic, racial, gender, political, and other systems of power operate to control society. From a radical left perspective, society is not a level playing field in which the necessary means of life are distributed according to a rational and just meritocracy. Radical left theory holds that the world we live in is structured by systems of power that work to effectively control and limit the ability of most human beings to exercise their creative freedom to challenge and fundamentally change these systems. Theorist bell hooks’ term, “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” vividly names three of these systems as race, class, and gender. Anarchist analysis identifies political domination via the State as yet another of these systems. Patricia Hill Collins has developed what she calls an “intersectional” analysis that emphasizes that all of these systems of power are interlocking. She writes,
“Intersectionality refers to particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation. Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice. In contrast, the matrix of domination refers to how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized. Regardless of the particular intersections involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression.”
William Domhoff’s sociology of power systems in the US also reaches the conclusion that most of the effective exercise of power is carried out by a minority of collaborating forces in society embodied in military, economic, and political organizations. He writes,
“Since human beings have a vast array of “purposes,” they have formed an appropriately large number of organizations. But only a few of these purposes and organizations weigh heavily in terms of generating social power.”
In contrast, the majority of the populace has very little power to create their own alternative organizations of power. Hill Collins’s analysis expands Domhoff’s analysis of organizations of power by emphasizing that military officials, economic actors, and political officials are overwhelmingly white males of the privileged economic class.
Turning to journalism, we see the organization of the mainstream media reflects the white male capitalist domination of all important social institutions. Journalistic institutions are also under the control of capitalist corporations that seek to turn a profit. At the same time they command most of the resources to determine what is published as news and to starve the ability of dissenting voices to have an effective voice in the carefully controlled “public square.” From the radical left perspective, the claim of liberal democracy to foster a free exchange of ideas is a blatant lie falsified by the systems of wealth that determine what is said and who is allowed to say it.
One classic study of the structure of mainstream journalism’s embeddedness in systems of power and domination is the “propaganda model” advanced by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their classic 1988 text, Manufacturing Consent. The propaganda model enumerates five “editorially distorting filters” that condition the limits of mainstream journalism’s operations. They are:
1) Size, ownership, and profit orientation
2) Advertising support as implicit license to publish
3) Bureaucratic Sourcing of Content
4) “Flak” Enforcement of Boundaries
5) Dipolar Lens (War on Terror/Anti-communism)
The Propaganda model begins from the similarity which mainstream journalism shares with other corporate capitalist industries. It relies on profitability, requires an economy of scale for developing its content, and is ultimately beholden to stockholders and investors to survive. Therefore any news reporting that would support the replacement of capitalism by a more egalitarian system is automatically suspect. For example, during the Cold War, journalism in the US reported on events in the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and other socialist identified nations in a constantly negative light.
Next, television, radio, and print journalism in the mainstream rely heavily on advertiser revenue to pay their costs of business. This reinforces the bias towards muting criticism of capitalism. Advertisers can withdraw their business if a paper publishes articles too critical of a specific industry or business. One example is the way that mainstream journalism has to report “both sides” of the climate crisis debate, even though only one side has any scientific credibility. Since the clear solution to the climate crisis is to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and convert to solar and wind power, petroleum and automobile manufacturers have vested interests in forestalling that transition. With their huge advertising budgets, these corporate interests can inject their influence into how mainstream journalism covers the climate crisis.
The process by which bureaucratic institutions are able to source mainstream media has been most evident in wartime. Although some within mainstream journalism did come to criticize the Vietnam War in the 1960s, that criticism was not widely shared within the media and resulted in conflicts with those who took a critical stance. When the First Gulf War began in 1991 amidst significant opposition around the world, most reporting in mainstream press was kept on a short lease with controlled information from government officials and agencies.
In addition to the sticks and carrots of advertising revenue, the press is also subject to campaigns of public attack. While many on the liberal side of society have used such tactics to pressure media to take a more balanced perspective on issues, it can be argued that the conservative movement has been able to elevate letter-writing and phone campaigns to a high art. The recent controversy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban capture through a negotiated exchange of Taliban prisoners held by the US is an example of a conservative “flak campaign” designed to distort the truth.
The Propaganda Model was first elaborated in the 1980s when the US was engaged in a vigorous arms race with the Soviet Union. Chomsky and Herman identified the Cold War and Anti-Communism as a dipolar worldview that distorted reporting about events around the world in terms of which side of the Cold War was perceived to be most liable or at risk. In 1997, Chomsky proposed that the “War on Terror” was replacing Anti-Communism has the governing dipolarity that was shaping new coverage.
This review of the Propaganda Model shows that it closely aligns with the classical Socialist and Anarchist far left’s view of media. From the perspective of intersectionality, we would need to elaborate further dimensions of media embeddedness in systems of male and racial domination. It can be succinctly observed that mainstream media are predominantly controlled by white males with economic privilege, so that not only are the interests of the State and Capitalism defended by mainstream media, so are the viewpoints of elite white males.
The captivity of mainstream journalism to corporations and government control of information is further supported by the ineffective public education system in the US. Our population largely trails behind other industrialized nations, even as we are home to the world’s largest military and wealthiest corporations. The constant battles over funding for public education, attacks on overworked school teachers, and the pervasive presence of corporate media and entertainment in most US homes serves to ensure that most citizens receive little education or encouragement to think critically about the issues that constrain their life conditions. As Pauline Lipman states,
“The assault on public education, teachers, and their unions has been evolving over the past thirty years as part of the neoliberal restructuring of the global capitalist economy, but the current crisis of capitalism has accelerated this assault.”
Rather than a free flow of ideas, news and information about relevant social issues is literally spoon-fed to the public at the whim of mainstream journalism.
However, despite the severe conclusion reached by this analysis of contemporary power systems and their choke-hold on the freedom of information, the hope for change is not lost. Radical journalism is a necessary contribution to the struggle against the conditions of ruling class domination. Radical journalism sides with the majority of humanity against the organized power of the ruling class. Left journalism turns a critical eye to the events of the world and tells the darker truth of injustice and suffering.
Radical left journalism originates primarily in non-profit activist organizations. As activists struggle to change perceived social injustices, a number are lead to become journalists for the sake of reporting news the way those who suffer from systems of domination experience current events. One significant activist who turned to found nonprofit journalism ventures is Michael Albert, a co-founder of South End Press, Z Magazine, Znet, and ZCommunications all of which are dedicated to the express purposes of left journalism and social change. Michael Albert’s memoir details both his entry into activist causes during the Vietnam War era and his pursuit of creating viable vehicles for activist journalism. Albert described his motivation for founding his projects,
“Part of creating changes is, as the famous anarchist Mikhail Bakunin insightfully instructed, nurturing seeds of the future in the present. The future, in other words, can only contain what we put into it today. Often this means having our movements respect and embody the values we favor for a new society. Sometimes it means creating book publishing houses or magazines or institutes or other institutions in the present that operate as we favor for the future. We do this as experiments to learn from. We do it as projects to benefit from. We do it as models to emulate. We do it hoping our efforts will last into the future, providing some of its infrastructure.”
One element that binds the projects of radical left journalism is a commitment to a more egalitarian and radically democratic society. A world in which the dominant institutions are created by wealthy white males is not democratic in the most elementary sense of representation of the real needs and interests of the majority of the earth’s inhabitants. Most of the world is not white or wealthy. Women are half of the entire population and yet decisions that make the news like war, politics, and economic policies are predominantly under the control of men. Radical left journalism seeks to illuminate the effects of the systems of power despite the real fears of reprisal by those powers.