When Truth Is Dangerous: The Power of Independent Media

Today, there’s a renaissance of independent journalism dedicated to holding power accountable. Political pressures are mounting to break up media monopolies and provide access to more voices. Independent and investigative media outlets are proliferating, often as nonprofits funded from the bottom up.

In this program, we hear from two veteran journalists who lead two of the most courageous and successful independent media outlets in the United States: Monika Bauerlein, the CEO of Mother Jones magazine, and Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!

Featuring

  • Monika Bauerlein is the groundbreaking CEO and former Co-Editor of Mother Jones, which since 1976 has stood among the world’s premier progressive investigative journalism news organizations.
  • Amy Goodman, host and Executive Producer of Democracy Now!, has won countless prestigious awards, including an I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence Lifetime Achievement Award and the Right Livelihood Award. She has co-authored six bestsellers, including Democracy Now!: Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America

Credits

  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Monica Lopez and Kenny Ausubel
  • Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Producer: Teo Grossman
  • Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris

Music

Our theme music is co-written by the Baka Forest People of Cameroon and Baka Beyond, from the album East to West.  Find out more at globalmusicexchange.org.

Additional music was made available by:

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.

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Transcript

NEIL HARVEY, HOST: In the midst of World War II, George Orwell, the author of 1984, wrote scathingly about the British Press for failing to print anything that could offend the governing class. As he observed, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip. But the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip. ”

In other words, outright censorship isn’t required when it’s crystal clear to editors and reporters that their newspaper or media outlet represents the interests of the governing class – including its owners. 

Eighty years later, the concentration of monopoly power in media has combined with the unprecedented power of digital technologies to project a reality distortion field. 

News has largely devolved into headlines, sound bites and clickbait. Serious journalism is easily drowned out in a cacophony of distractions, spin and ads. 

At the same time, the for-profit business model has gutted the economics of real journalism. When free speech becomes prohibitively expensive, it’s much harder to speak truth to power. 

In the face of this juggernaut, there’s a renaissance of independent journalism dedicated to holding power accountable. Political pressures are mounting to break up media monopolies and provide access to more voices. Like rain in the desert, independent and investigative media outlets are proliferating, often as nonprofits funded from the bottom up. 

In this program, we hear from two veteran journalists who lead two of the most courageous and successful independent media outlets in the United States: Monika Bauerlein, the CEO of Mother Jones magazine, and Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!

This is “When Truth is Dangerous: The Power of Independent Media”.

I’m Neil Harvey. I’ll be your host. Welcome to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature

MONIKA BAUERLEIN: So I’ve been a journalist all my life, and when I started out, I was living in Germany where I was born, and we spent a lot of time in Italy as well. And in those countries at that time, the memory of fascism and genocide and war was alive. And that gave me a real appreciation of how fragile democracy can be, and how dangerous it is to not fight for it at every step.

The Nazis, when they took power, one of the very first things, like all these other autocrats, they went after the press, and they melted down printing presses. And you know what they did to books. So this all seemed nonetheless really distant and sort of important but not present living history when I came to this country, and ended up in an incredibly vibrant, strong press landscape.

HOST: Monika Bauerlein is the CEO of Mother Jones magazine. Since 1976, the publication has endured as a premiere progressive investigative journalism news organization.

The founders of Mother Jones decided to publish the magazine as a non-profit, because they knew that real investigative journalism meant operating outside the profit-driven interests of corporations and the wealthy and powerful.

During the early 1970’s, Mother Jones was part of a much richer, diverse field of journalism outlets. Monika Bauerlein spoke at a Bioneers conference.

MB: In the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I spent a lot of my early years as a journalist, they had two daily newspapers, you know, two alternative weeklies, African American newspapers, Native American newspapers, Hmong newspapers, dozens and dozens of neighborhood newspapers. Those are just the papers. And there were, you know, television and radio outlets, and all of them with complements of journalists and sometimes investigative teams. So a huge amount of journalistic firepower directed at sometimes the powerful.

And I want to pause there to say that this was not the golden age of journalism that some people in my profession sometimes sort of wax nostalgic about, that there were a lot of blindspots. There were a lot of stories that were not being told. There were a lot of communities being ignored. The elite news organizations in particular were very bought into the status quo, and they were very white and very male.

So that was already a problem, and it became more of a problem because of the way that these news organizations were owned. Because ownership, and then, you know, follow the money is what we say in my profession. The way we’ve paid for journalism in this country historically is by bundling up eyeballs, so all of you, gathering you up and tying you into little bundles and selling that attention of one minute or 10 minutes or two seconds to advertisers. And that was profitable for a really long time, and like any profitable activity, the people who were doing it, and particularly the people who owned the profit-making wanted to do more of it, and so there was an incredible amount of kind of corporatization and consolidation in the business.

HOST: A handful of mammoth media monopolies now dominate the mindscape, with familiar names such as AT&T, Comcast, Viacom CBS, and Disney. Not only does this media concentration stifle freedom of speech – it also throttles a diversity of countervailing viewpoints.

One prominent and fiercely independent countervailing news organization is Democracy Now!, founded by the award-winning reporter and broadcaster Amy Goodman.

AMY GOODMAN: I think having non-corporate sponsored media is absolutely critical. And this idea of viewer/listener/reader supported media, that, you know, is not brought to you by the fossil fuel companies like CNN, FOX, MSNBC – every seven minutes, you know, brought to you by the American Petroleum Institute – or the Sunday morning shows, after eight minutes, you know, where you have a general and a colonel on, redefining general news, rarely bringing you a kernel of truth. [LAUGHTER] Where they- by the way there are a number of generals and colonels who are deeply concerned about peace. You will actually not hear them very much in the corporate media.

And again, when it comes to issues about censorship, we don’t have a kind of censorship in this country where the corporation will call the anchor, because you’ll be asked this. You’ll often hear them in a panel, these media personalities, when asked: Are you being told what to say? They’ll say, No one calls me and tells me what to say. It doesn’t quite work like that. You just get a sense in your company of what will get you ahead and what will get you in trouble.

So, how critical independent media is when it comes to issues of climate change, that’s not brought to you by the fossil fuel industry, issues of war and peace that’s not brought to you by the weapons manufacturers, covering healthcare that’s not brought to you by the insurance industry and big pharma, the drug companies. It’s absolutely critical.

HOST: The Internet and its regulation have played an increasingly crucial role in efforts to make media access more democratic and diverse.

The rise of the Internet in the early 90s brought the promise of free and open horizontal communication – an end run around the handful of network broadcasters and gatekeepers who controlled major newspapers.

Ever since, that battle for democratic access to information has raged around the issue of “net neutrality”- a policy guaranteeing that all data flow freely over the internet, with equal access to small and big alike. In 2017, under intense lobbying by media monopolies, the Federal Communications Commission overturned net neutrality. Although the Internet was created and paid for by US public tax dollars, it’s now controlled by giant corporations. The information highway will start to act more like a toll bridge.

Amy Goodman and her team began broadcasting in 1996 as the only daily election show airing on public television and planned to wrap it up after the election was over. Instead, it was a free and open internet that allowed Democracy Now! to flourish. 

AG: But there was more demand for the show after than before. I mean, it was a way of getting grassroots, global voices out there. And the next year the network in Pennsylvania dropped us because we dared to simply air the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And they felt it was inappropriate. And, of course, we said, well, our job is to go to where the silence is; we’re not there to win a popularity contest. When we talk about criminal justice, we have to hear from people on both sides of the bars. When we talk about death row, where he was for more than two decades, we need to go behind the bars, behind the bars to hear those voices.

But then, after September 11th, we went on one TV station in New York that week on emergency broadcasting. It was a public access station, a Manhattan neighborhood network, and the show just took off. And it grew into what we’re doing now, which is on over 1400 public television and radio stations around the country and around the world. [APPLAUSE] And that is because very much of the Internet.

And we have to keep it open and free. I mean, it is the way we can globalize around the world. The corporations have been doing it for a long time. But the way—at the grassroots level, we can keep a conversation going. We have to ensure that this global resource, developed with public funds, remains public. It is critical to preserving this public town square.

HOST: The early Internet mantra that “information wants to be free” gave way to web and social media platforms that are now some of the biggest corporate monopolies in history, such as Google and Facebook. The public town square is not in their business model, and they have siphoned away the majority of advertising money that funded traditional journalism. Nor do they pay to use the news gathered and produced by media outlets. 

Major court battles are now underway in Europe and Australia for what amounts to information highway robbery. In an effort to avoid regulation in the US, Facebook has reversed its position and begun to pay news outlets.

These digital media platforms are also largely unregulated, and not subject to standards of journalism. In reality, their main profit center is your data, which are now the most valuable commodity in the world
For all these reasons, political pressures are mounting to break up media monopolies and rein in surveillance capitalism. Monika Bauerlein has witnessed first-hand the anti-democratic consequences of censorship by algorithm.

MB: It’s algorithms that are programmed by humans, and you know in Facebook’s case, for instance, the algorithms are programmed in such a way as to maximize profit for Facebook. That’s what they’re there for. So the way Facebook makes a profit is the more people spend more time on the platform and share and like and engage, the more money they make by them being the people who do the bundling of eyeballs and selling them to advertisers.

HOST: Mother Jones first saw a dramatic growth in its web site traffic and subscriber engagement, only to see it plummet when Facebook changed the algorithm.

MB: And it’s not falling off a cliff because people stopped being interested in news. In fact, there are more people now who follow Mother Jones on Facebook than there were then, but because Facebook tweaked the robots and the algorithms in such a way that you see less news in your feed even when you have told Facebook that you want to follow news.

HOST: Beginning in the early 1990s, the onset of 24-hour cable news and subsequent round-the-clock internet news feeds radically disrupted the journalism playing field. It led to a never-ending election cycle with a massively profitable relationship between big media and politicians. Monika Bauerlein spoke with us at a Bioneers Conference.

MB: Political journalism has become dominated to such a large extent by the sort of cable news style of conversation—and particularly now that cable news conversation also has this kind of soap opera quality that people can’t take—or Nascar quality that people can’t tear themselves away from. It really does color how we think about politics.

I’d say as a counterpoint, we actually forget, especially those of us who follow this stuff closely, we forget that a lot of people really do not follow it closely. Like the audiences for cable news are actually tiny. Even the audience for FOX News is not that large. And so just like there are many, many more voters who are not necessarily motivated to vote in a normal election year, and where you really have to think about what might engage them and what might have turned them off in the first place, so too there are a lot of people who are not news junkies, and who we need to go to and engage, and find ways of telling them news stories about politics and other things that mean something to them, and that don’t feel to them like the same kind of talking heads over and over again.

HOST: A lucrative media ecology has coalesced around the business of politics and the politics of business. Although FOX news has a relatively small primary audience, its message is amplified on social media like echoes ricocheting in a box canyon. 

Nor are all the media circus dogs jumping through the hoops by their own volition. After the large conservative outlet Sinclair Broadcasting company acquired local TV stations across the United States, it forced a monoculture of daily ideological talking points on formerly autonomous local anchors and stations.

To make matters worse, says Monika Bauerlein, governments and corporations are increasingly targeting journalists and whistleblowers who expose corruption.

MB: And one of the first things that these leaders do inevitably is they go after the press. This is in Turkey, which is incidentally the worst jailer of journalists in the world. In India, in Denmark, in Hungary, in all these places, sometimes the journalists are murdered, sometimes they are put in prison, sometimes the oligarch gets their cronies to buy up the news organization and get rid of the troublemakers, sometimes it’s just a constant war of attrition and attacks on credibility and cries of fake news.

In fact, you know, the United States has fallen every year now in the last three years in the press freedom index that Reporters Without Borders puts together, because this is now a country where journalists are under attack all the time.

And why do these autocrats do this? Why are they so obsessed with getting control of the press? It’s because the truth is really, really dangerous to them. It is one of their worst enemies. And they can’t have it, which is also why the people who wrote the Constitution, with all their flaws and all their blind spots, but they were trying to prevent anti-democratic governance. And so in the fight against tyranny, they saw journalism and a free press as a really essential ingredient.

And so, too, the kind of rise in civic energy that we’ve seen in this country in the last few years has been among other things a rallying to journalism and to the role of truth in empowering an engaged community.

I am convinced after everything that I’ve seen in this story of what has happened to news in this country and around the world, that the only way we are going to have journalism that serves the public, that serves the democracy that it’s a part of is for the public to take ownership of it.

HOST: Indeed, the truth can be dangerous to the powerful. A healthy democracy requires a robust free press, and innovative models are beginning to emerge at the same time that political pressures are mounting against the corporate media monopolies that are hacking democracy. 

When we return, the models behind non-profit media enterprises such as Mother Jones, Democracy Now! and other grassroots media, are signaling new ways to free the press and restore democracy.

I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.

The Founders of the United States considered the free press – the Fourth Estate – so fundamental to democracy that they enshrined it in the First Amendment to the Constitution. After rebelling against a monarchy, they knew all about circus dogs.

A revival of grassroots journalism with a multiplicity of viewpoints can create a virtuous cycle that strengthens democracy. It can help compensate for the loss of traditional political beats and laid-off reporters. It can inform communities and re-engage citizens at local and state levels where people have more access to actually influence politicians, policies and decisions. Monika Bauerlein says that public funding is key to supporting journalism that’s produced in the public interest.

MB: We were started 43 years ago as basically a crowd-funded nonprofit magazine, and today we are much larger than we were, but 68% of our revenue, comes from our readers in the form of a subscription or a donation. And that gives us a totally different set of incentives, and a totally different group of people that we are accountable to, because it is not shareholders, it’s not Rupert Murdoch, it’s not even a well-meaning billionaire like a Jeff Bezos, it’s you.

And that gives you, gives us, a newsroom that serves you, that can go and do things like send a reporter to work inside of a private prison and find out what’s really going on in these for-profit jails and prisons and detention centers that a lot of people, especially black and brown people, are locked up in.

And when you do that kind of journalism, it—again, because it is so threatening to the powerful, it’s threatening because it has impact.

HOST: Monika Bauerlein says public funding is crucial, and in fact other nations are doing exactly that. At the same time, solutions need to be holistic.

MB: You know, in some countries there is public financing of media in some form or another. We do very little of that in America via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. There are problems with that, as we see you know, every time when they want to cut the CPB funding and they have to trot out Big Bird and bring it over to Capitol Hill. But that is something that, for instance, in Canada has been used successfully to compensate for the withering of daily newspapers.

If the monopoly digital platforms were no longer monopolies, there might be ways for news organizations to have sponsorship revenue because advertisers don’t necessarily rely entirely on those digital platforms. I think it’s going to have to be a mix. It can’t just be like everybody hitting you up for another subscription. That’s not going to do it.

HOST: The Coronavirus pandemic has grimly shown that accurate information is literally a life-and-death matter. It has also underscored how vitally necessary good local news is so that you can know the truth of what’s happening in your community. The renaissance and proliferation of more localized news outlets not driven by corporate balance sheets could hardly come at a more critical time.

MB: There are now more than 200 nonprofit news organizations all over the country. I’m sure there’s one where you live. There are ones focusing on particular issues, there are ones focusing on particular communities, there are ones that have two journalists, there are ones that have 20. There are in total 2,000 people now working in nonprofit newsrooms all over America, and this movement is [APPLAUSE]—Thank you.

You can find them if you want at the Institute for Nonprofit News, INN.org, and you can look at what they’re doing, whether there’s one in your town. They all do fundraising at the end of the year, so there are ways to get involved at any level that you want. But the great news is this is a movement that’s spreading. It’s actually spreading around the world.

And you can easily see, you know, from 2,000 to 20,000 is only a factor of 10x. That’s something that could happen over a period of five or 10 years, and then we would have replaced a lot of the capacity that we lost, but we would replace it with something much more democratic, accountable, transparent, and diverse, and we would have replaced it with something that serves you.

HOST: For Amy Goodman, building a community-supported media landscape is a vital antidote to the anti-democratic forces that are on the rise. The history of reactionary attacks on the Pacifica Radio Network that airs Democracy Now! is a reminder of how critical independent media are to democracy – and how dangerous they are to authoritarian terror.

AG: Pacifica, five stations, KPFT in Houston, was blown up twice by Ku Klux Klan, only station in the country. I can’t remember if it was the grand dragon or the exalted cyclops. [LAUGHTER] I often confuse their titles. [LAUGHTER] But he said it was his proudest act because he understood how dangerous independent media can be. Dangerous because it allows people to speak for themselves.

And whether it’s a Palestinian child or an Israeli grandmother, a Native elder from Standing Rock Sioux, or an uncle in Afghanistan or Somalia or Niger, when you hear someone speaking from their own experience, it breaks down the barriers, the caricatures, the stereotypes that fuel the hate groups. I’m not saying you’ll agree with what you hear. How often do we even agree with our family members? But you begin to understand where they’re coming from. It makes it much less likely that you will want to destroy someone. I think that understanding is the beginning of peace. [MUSIC UP] I think the media can be the greatest force for peace on Earth. Instead all too often it’s wielded as a weapon of war, which is why we have to take the media back. We will not be silent, Democracy Now! [CHEERS]

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