Railing against a dark period of American politics
By Nicole Robson
As another Bush era draws to a close, Theodore “Ted” Hamm, founding editor of monthly paper “The Brooklyn Rail,” tracks the rise of liberal media in his new book, “The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, Jon Stewart and Company are Transforming Progressive Politics.” His polemic against “the madness of King George” reads like a humorous op-ed, echoing the didactic, activist and satirical voices that yielded their success. Combining diary and reportage, Hamm chronicles the outlets’ influences and limitations, concentrating not only on what happened, but how humor got us through this “dark time.”
The wavy-haired 41-year-old, moved to Williamsburg in 1998 when it was still a burgeoning art scene. Started with four other Rutgers graduates, “The Brooklyn Rail” began as an open forum for discussion on arts and politics. Each week 500 double-sided A4 sheets were Xeroxed and distributed around local bars and restaurants. In 2000, the paper went nonprofit, morphing into a full-fledged free publication with a circulation of more than 15,000. Here, the Chicago native discusses the “Rail” and his decision to document these liberal commentators.
How is the Rail different from other local NY papers?
Since we’re not dependent on advertisers it gives us more freedom to be critical, as we’re not worried about developers buying ads in our papers and so on. The nonprofit model is liberating because we can say and do what we want and not worry about what our advertisers think. The downside is that we’re not thriving financially.
What’s the Rail’s political agenda?
We lean towards the left and try not to be another cheerleader for development, but strive to maintain an independent perspective. As a nonprofit we can’t endorse any candidates, but our sensibilities are left of the Democratic Party.
What inspired “The New Blue Media”?
It started by watching how these media were growing as a model for the Rail. Although we’re not as commercial as some I write about, I had an eye out for how they chose to position and define themselves.
I was actively engaged in the 2004 ‘Anyone But Bush’ campaign and observed the work of Michael Moore, MoveOn and Jon Stewart. Much of their coverage mirrored my opinion that John Kerry was flawed in his inability to make up his mind on the main issue of the campaign the Iraq War. His only clear message became that Bush must go, or as The Onion called it, Kerry’s ‘One Point Plan for a Better America.’
I came to this project thinking here’s this movement that failed to oust Bush, but where does it go after 2004? Their agenda was not only about targeting electoral politics, but drawing attention to media and the government. The more a media outlet keeps pressure on the Democratic Party, and holds them accountable for their decisions, the better.
How did you approach the book?
As a historian I wanted to capture the rise of significant players on the political scene, but also evaluate how media can transform politics. I insert my perspective, so it’s a mix of criticism and reportage.
I didn’t set out to write P.R. for these media outlets and do outline their failures. Most criticism occurs when they start playing ball with the Party, as when MoveOn which rose to prominence as an antiwar group in 2006 started supporting candidates who weren’t taking a clear position on ending the war. These media are most effective when they act as an insurgent voice than just going along with the mainstream.
Is there a common thread between the new blue media?
In their own ways they’re contributing to a new approach, matching the activism component with the entertainment side of politics. Although The Onion probably wouldn’t endorse that interpretation, they, like ‘The Daily Show’ and Colbert, present material through satire. Their goal is to make audiences skeptical and question what’s going on.
Although most of these media started in the Clinton years, they grew exponentially after 9/11. People realized they couldn’t rely on an ineffectual Democratic Party and had to mount their own counterattacks against Bush. In the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, it was ‘just vote for the Democratic Party,’ but these media have changed that mentality. Now it’s about holding the party accountable and ensuring it’s acting in the best interest of the voters.
New blue media includes print, web, film, television and radio, but singles out talk radio as the only area liberals haven’t been successful. Why is that?
Air America’s business model was flawed. They started nationally instead of as a syndicated network, trying to provide around-the-clock coverage and paying their hosts exorbitant amounts. In reporting, they were a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. At the time, the party had nothing to say and turned off a lot of left-independent thinkers.
Is Internet campaigning the way of the future?
Certainly. Right now McCain is an old media character, relying on his relationships with journalists to get his message across. Ron Paul and Huckabee utilized the Web a little, but in the future Republicans will have to make better use of the Internet. Obama’s candidacy is a perfect example of the netroots’ influence. MoveOn cranked out volunteers, who showed up at caucus states that were pivotal to his victory. These media are more than just a force, and actually impacting what is happening in politics.
In this exciting time for Democrats, do you wish you’d waited to write the book?
No. I watch the changing events daily and think how I could have incorporated what’s happening into my chapters, but my book is about a specific time and not forgetting the Bush years.
I relay that these outlets need to keep a mindful eye on the pro-war and pro-corporate wings of the Democratic Party. Just recently, Obama came out supporting an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act bill, which would grant legal immunity to telecommunication companies who participated in government eavesdropping since 9/11. MoveOn and the liberal bloggers went after him and forced him to backtrack. He has since flip-flopped, but this is exactly what these media need to be doing, calling him out when he moves too close to the center, especially on economic issues. The new blue media are most effective when ‘sticking to their principles,’ rather than blindly supporting the party.