Tactics first, ideas last


Back when I was a college sophomore, a disillusioned freshman wrote to the campus newspaper: "It seems to me that this college is all about what's going to be on the test and whether the professor is a hard grader. Where are the ideas and the passion?"

He didn't get ideas, but he did get passion: For weeks, the paper was filled with letters telling him that in a tough world, only grades matter. "'Engaged in lots of intellectual chitchat" won't look good on a resume," he was told.

A bunch of my old college classmates must have been at the Media and Democracy Conference held earlier this month in San Francisco. The 600 participants had no time for intellectual chitchat. We already knew the answers to all the big questions in American life. Our job as progressives was to create better tactics: send more timely faxes, get lots of foundation support, speak with one voice and spread the truth by a liberal USA Today.

If ideas had to be talked about, then that distasteful task should be done quickly, and only through the prisms of gender, race and sexual preference. "Please raise your hand if you're gay, lesbian or bi," one speaker asked.

Lack of curiosity about ideas and the outside world was on display at every session. In a snippet of a documentary on Rush Limbaugh, one earnest young follower - a "dittohead' - told the camera: "Rush speaks to me. He's the first person I ever heard on the media with whom I reverberate."

When the lights went back on, we non-dittoheads might have explored Limbaugh's appeal. Why else had the Institute for Alternative Journalism and the Nation, Mother Jones and Utne Reader and the other co-sponsors gathered us together? But we couldn't have that discussion. We couldn't ask how Limbaugh managed to become a major opinion-shaper almost overnight, and without any capital. It was impossible for the audience to take Limbaugh or his supporters seriously, or even to see them as fully human.

Sandy Close, who runs Pacific News Service in San Francisco, tried to open up the conference. She told a packed session that it was her job as an editor not to know all the answers. She said that when Tom Brokaw of NBC asked her to put him in touch with a "remorseless killer" she refused and told him that "remorseless killers aren't evil - you're evil ... Because you think you know the truth."

It was a provocative anecdote - it went to the heart of what the alternative media's approach might be - but it was ignored. The audience probably thought she was attacking major media.

The major media were flagellated and talked of with contempt, but they were not thought about. As with every other issue, the conferees knew the truth long before the conference opened. CNN, CBS, Time and the others have nothing but size and money. We, the alternative media, know the truth, but people won't listen. What was the conference's solution? Say what we have been saying since the 1960s, but say it louder, and with more money that will come from foundations and other, unspecified, sources.

At a panel titled "Framing the Future: Toward an Issues-Oriented Approach," one panelist praised immigration, whether legal or illegal. So I described from the audience HCN's story on Colorado ski resorts' tactic of bringing in French-speaking people from Africa to keep wages down. I also said, since I momentarily had the floor, that we were letting conservatives do all the thinking.

The audience looked shocked and the panelist told me that immigration benefited everyone economically, and that was that. I was also told that the only ideas conservatives had were about how to destroy the poor.

When the moderator rephrased my question by saying, "Perhaps we progressives aren't communicating well with Americans in general," a woman of color responded angrily. "Who are these "Americans in general?" They're white males, and they're not part of the America I care about." That ended the discussion. Her moral authority and anger had cowed us. Pat Buchanan can start with the truth about this country - its harsh economic injustice - and then lump together and attack minorities and banks and immigrants. But a group of progressives couldn't talk about immigration or about how to appeal to a broader America.

The Media and Democracy Conference was my second stop in the Bay Area. My first had been a talk to law students in a public-lands course at Stanford. Together we went over recent issues of HCN: the servant economy issue about African workers in ski towns; the battle between the Hispanic grazing co-op in New Mexico and the Sierra Club Legal Foundation; the Utah wilderness battle; and the Colorado resident who fights prisons in rural areas.

One student said the articles were interesting, but didn't lead to a single conclusion. They didn't give him a clear picture of what was happening in the interior West, or who he should support.

In the Utah wilderness struggle, environmentalists were embattled underdogs, wearing white hats. But in the fight between the Sierra Club Foundation and the grazing co-op, the environmentalists did not look like protectors of rural areas and economies. In the battle over prisons on wildlife land, traditional environmentalists were nowhere to be seen. And in the story on ski town immigrants, he didn't see an environmental angle. Taken together, he said, the articles were a puzzle.

He was right, of course. A few years ago, the major issue in the West - the fate of the land - was obvious and friends and enemies were clearly defined. But as the region suburbanizes, as towns become either colonies for the affluent or worker housing, as commuting becomes a way of life, it is more and more difficult to pretend that only wildlands and livestock grazing and endangered species matter.

Environmentalism is beginning to see the bigger picture. Judging by the Media and Democracy Conference, the broader movement that calls itself progressive is still firmly back in the 1960s.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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