Blogs, Alternative Political Systems, Funding

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There are
several topics I was hoping to write about today (and I will),
but there is a lingering issue which arose from my announcement
about moving to Salon
that I think is important and want to address. The vast majority
of people who sent e-mails and left comments were very supportive
of the move and recognize its benefits and the rationale behind
it (and, I am quite certain, the same is true for the much larger
group who read this blog but who neither comment nor e-mail).

the complaints and objections – though anticipated –
were voiced by a slightly larger group than I expected, and they
reveal some assumptions and underlying beliefs that are commonplace
but, I think, quite harmful. So I will try hard to set aside what
I confess up front is some mild personal irritation over the nature
of those complaints and instead focus on the more substantive,
far-reaching issues which they reflect.

The political
blogosphere is driven by many factors, but the predominant one,
I think, is a pervasive dissatisfaction with the dominant media
and political institutions in this country. The blogosphere is
essentially a reaction to that dissatisfaction – an attempt
to create an alternative venue where citizens can debate political
issues and organize and inform one another without having to rely
upon our country’s empty media stars and the myopic, corrupt opinion-making
institutions which have wrought so much damage and continue to
do so.

The principal
value of the blogosphere is that it democratizes our political
discourse almost completely. Anyone can become a “pundit,” find
an audience, report facts, create a community of like-minded citizens
and activists, and influence the public discourse – all without
having to mold oneself into what is demanded by The
Washington Post and without having to care about pleasing
the editors of Time Magazine.

In that
regard, the blogosphere enables a very potent freedom. Pre-blogosphere,
in order to have one’s voice heard, that voice had to conform
or be squeezed into the suffocating orthodoxies of the dominant
media outlets. That is no longer the case. They are no longer
the gatekeepers of the public discourse, and the blogosphere enables
people to say what they want, how they want, without caring if
that alienates or offends a small group of Beltway media elites.

But any
competing system that exists outside of the national political
and media institutions has to be financially self-sustaining.
The sprawling right-wing noise machine has sustained itself, in
large part, by constructing what Jane Hamsher (among others) calls
a vast “welfare” system. A huge portion of the right-wing pundits
and influence-peddlers
whom you see on television or read in newspapers have extremely
behind them that pay them to opine, to disseminate
the right-wing gospel, which buy their books in bulk and give
them away for free in order to create artificial best-sellers
– all of which enables them to work full-time spreading the
right-wing message without being preoccupied with earning a living.

There is
very little of that outside of that narrow, Bush-loving, (now)
neoconservative gutter (a very smart and talented political writer,
Ezra Klein, noted
just the other day what a paucity of opportunity there is in that
regard). As a result, other models need to be developed and supported
in order for competing networks to exist.

One cannot
constantly complain – at least not reasonably or coherently
– that the establishment media is horrible and corrupt and
demand that alternative voices be heard more, but then, at the
same time, oppose efforts to make alternative media financially
sustainable – on the ground that financial models somehow
render the efforts “impure” or “capitalistic” or because it imposes
some small inconvenience or denies what you think is your entitlement
to be provided with constant fulfillment and satisfaction without
having to make the smallest effort or endure the most marginal
inconvenience to help sustain it.

People who
express views outside of the prevailing orthodoxy – or who
do so in a way that does not comport to the demands of two-minute
cable segments or the vapid, conventional-wisdom-spewing emptiness
of a Time Magazine column
– have to find other ways to be able to work on political
advocacy and make a living at the same time. In his insightful
tribute to Molly Ivins today (h/t Atrios),
Rude Pundit notes
that Ivins “never became the regular TV pundit that so many other
alleged columnists became” because what she argued, and how she
argued it, was not what mainstream media outlets wanted.

So, in order
to read what she wrote, you had to (pre-Amazon) get in your car
and go to the bookstore and buy one of her books. Or, post-Amazon,
you had to order the book and then wait for it to arrive. She
didn’t go personally delivering her books for free to everyone’s
doorstep or placing it in their hands. She couldn’t have done
that. Those who thought she was a voice worth hearing had to expend
the most minimal effort to obtain and buy her books (or find and
buy newspapers that carried her columns). That’s how she was able
to devote her time to her punditry without compromising it and
still be able to live and eat and have a place to live. That’s
just the reality of how the world works.

If you’re
someone who rails against the dominant media institutions in this
country (as I do) – and who hails the critical importance
of blogs and other alternative venues as an antidote to the toxic
combination of the national media and right-wing noise machine
(as I do) – then it’s necessary to recognize that those alternative
institutions and the people who work to build them need to support
themselves (like everyone else) and to be supported by those who
believe in the work they are doing. Everyone wishes that were
not the case. But it is.

Some time
early last year, I was posting at Crooks and Liars when John Amato
began running a new form of advertising that was slightly more
intrusive than the prior type of ads. The comment section was
immediately filled with righteous indignation over how John was
“selling out” and outrageously subjecting the loyal C&L readers
to the evils of intrusive corporatist advertising (and, in the
Comment section to a C&L
about my move to Salon
yesterday, one finds the same sentiments).

In order
to maintain that site, John (like many, many bloggers) works between
12 and 15 hours per day, 7 days a week – literally –
and has substantial bandwidth expenses to host the large readership
and all of the video content. And yet some of the same people
who benefit from that site and who believe it contributes valuable
content to our political discussions complained bitterly because
he found a way to generate some modest income to sustain his work.

This mentality
is not only petty and self-centered – though it is that –
but it is also extremely self-defeating. For better or for worse,
the reality we live in is such that any individuals or institutions,
in order to be effective, need an economic model to fuel it. Effective
projects, including political movements and political advocacy,
need to be funded.

The example
of Salon is instructive.
There are not very many models for independent online magazines
to generate sufficient income to sustain themselves (for many
years, Slate had its
substantial losses subsidized by its corporate parent, Microsoft,
and is now the corporate property of The Washington Post Company).
But Salon wanted to remain
an outlet for independent journalism and political analysis. And
it has repeatedly faced
the prospect of bankruptcy in the past. The one model that they
have found that seems to work is the dual-choice of (a) paid subscription
or (b) spending 10 seconds (or 30 seconds), once a day, clicking
through an ad in order to access all of its content for free.

The alternative
is Salon’s non-existence.
As Juan Cole said,
Salon publishes articles
– and pays the writers who write them – which would
not be published in very many other places, certainly not ones
with the readership of the size Salon
reaches. So enduring an ad (or subscribing to avoid the
ad) seems a small and necessary price to pay to enable the existence
of punditry and reporting outside of the approved orthodoxies
of Time and The
Washington Post. Salon
doesn’t have an ad wall because they are evil, amoral corporatists
trying to bombard people’s brains with tools of capitalist manipulation.
They have an ad wall because that’s the only way they can continue
to offer the content they offer for free to people without ceasing
to exist.

And I just
want to underscore – these points are not specific or unique
in any way to my move or Salon.
Obviously, there are plenty of perfectly valid and legitimate
reasons why someone might choose not to continue to read this
blog at Salon. There
are some bloggers I read regularly whom I would be willing to
pay to read, or watch 10 minutes of ads if necessary in order
to read. And then there are other bloggers I read somewhat regularly
who, if they moved somewhere that I had to pay or watch ads in
order to access, perhaps I wouldn’t continue to read them. Those
are just perfectly legitimate time-allocation choices, and these
comments are not at all addressed to people who make choices like
that. Nobody is entitled to a readership.

But there
is a more nefarious sentiment underlying some of these complaints,
and it is pervasive and significant. There is a strain of belief,
found among some on the left (and again, I think it’s a very small
minority), which perceives issues like funding and income-generating
models as some sort of insult, as something unethical and impure.
And then there is another strain which is about unbridled personal
entitlement – the belief that they are entitled to access
whatever they want, and have everything they want, without the
slightest amount of expenditure or effort on their part (all the
effort, expenditure and sacrifice should be from others).

I’m sorry
that there are people who think that clicking through an ad (or
subscribing to avoid it) is a grave insult and an outrageous imposition.
It also can be an inconvenience for bloggers (or political analysts
or activists of any kind) who – driven by passion and a desire
to contribute in some way to improving the state of the country
– spend 3 hours per day or 8 hours per day or 12 hours per
day on their work without being able to earn a living. To begrudge
someone the ability to do so – or to act as though they are
engaged in an act of betrayal or even some kind of corruption
– because they find a way to work on behalf of their political
ideas and earn a living doing it is truly bizarre.

The national
corporate-backed media is a huge, sprawling, powerful network.
So, too, is the multi-headed right-wing opinion-making monster
composed of think tanks, subsidized magazines, and well-fed pundits.
To compete with that, to battle against it, requires the building
and maintaining of strong systems that are sustainable, which
means, at minimum, that they are funded and financially viable.

If there
are bloggers that you enjoy reading and/or whose writing you think
deserves wider circulation, contribute to them or buy ads on their
blog or encourage others to do so. If there are magazines or independent
journalists which you think are producing valuable reporting,
subscribe to them or donate to them or, for those who can’t afford
that, support them in other non-monetary ways. Encourage political
campaigns and organizations to buy ads on blogs rather than in
mainstream media outlets. In our society, money and funding are
the fuel that enables machines to work potently and effectively.
That’s just how it is.

that, or detaching oneself from that reality, can generate satisfying
sensations of purity, but it also renders one ineffective, impotent,
and irrelevant. And more to the point, complaining about the “corporate
media” or the “right-wing noise machine” while begrudging and
impugning efforts to create alternatives seems to be nothing more
than self-regarding rhetoric without any meaningful action behind

3, 2007

Greenwald [send him mail]
is the author of How
Would a Patriot Act?
See his blog Unclaimed
, where this first appeared.

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