Television for the 99% & Reverse Media Imperialism

It is no surprise that American television news networks that consistently cover the Occupy Movement in detail tend to be liberal or progressive in political persuasion. Current TV’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Free Speech TV’s Democracy Now!, Russia Today’s The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, and Al Jazeera English all spend considerable amounts of their valuable time bringing the voices of Occupy to televisions in America. Similar funding strategies and political intentions unify these four networks. Each receives cultural, political, or economic support from various national governments. With this communication power, these networks proceed to critique American capitalism and imperialism through direct discursive confrontation or through emphasizing resistance movements such as Occupy. I run the risk of sounding a little conservative by posing it but my question is: what is the cultural meaning of the presence of state-based, anti-capitalism television and internet video? From the successes in Wisconsin, to Wikileaks, Anonymous, and Occupy Wall Street we are living in a golden era for progressive television and internet video.

Two moderately state-backed television news network set the domestic context for this televisual critique of capitalism: Current TV and Free Speech TV. Current TV is the least state-driven, instead it was founded by a career politician and the son of a career politician, Al Gore. Current, like all media companies, is the recipient of a federally divvied broadcast spectrum. On this channel, liberal talk show host Keith Olbermann daily reports on the goings-on of Occupy. Free Speech TV, as a not-for-profit television network, exists on Dish and DirecTV because these satellite networks are required by the state to have a small percentage of their broadcasting be for the public good. Most of these public interest channels go to evangelical Christian networks but some go to progressive networks like Free Speech TV, on which progressive newscaster Amy Goodman reports on Occupy. Both of these networks self-define as independent, that is, not a facet of a consolidated network, and therefore capable of being less partial and more liberated to speak “truth to power,” as Gore says in a video welcoming Cenk Uygur to Current. This is Cenk describing why he is at Current. Independence, again and again, is the reason.
Current and FSTV are both proud anomalies in American broadcasting as the only domestic, independent, and progressive television news networks. As social movement-driven they both have a tenuous relationship to capitalism, practically and ideologically. They both have difficulty staying profitable or sustainably in the red with their ideological resistance to the negative impacts global capitalism’s has on the less wealthy. Current and FSTV’s independence and resistance to capitalism aligns them against actions of the state such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which drastically increased media consolidation and boosted profits of the major telecommunications companies while excluding independent television networks.
The contradiction is that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was a state-initiative to reduce the influence of the state through deregulation. Today, these two networks, with state-based affiliations and progressively ideological allegiances to strong central governments, resist the results of this deregulation, which, they think, is the reason for the decaying of democracy through the corporatization of news. These contradictions—states electing for deregulation, corporations doing the social work of the state, state-supported media companies criticizing state-based capitalism—are they examples of how democracy and capitalism are entwined? To explore this question and to introduce the second two examples of state-supported international news networks critical of American-style capitalism, I invite you to watch Russia Today’s series CrossTalk and their program “Unelected Capitalism” and consider whether the foundational question of whether capitalism and democracy are too entwined might be seen on such staid domestic networks as CNN.

The political economic complexities of state-run corporate critiques provides a look at two international television and internet news networks, Russia Today and Al Jazeera. It is here we see a new phenomena like reverse colonization or counter media imperialism and the consequences of a deregulated internet. It also shows us the contradictions in neoliberal fundamamentalism that seeks to prohibit “foreign” media while be supposedly being ushered about by the invisible hand of the market.

Russia Today, is partially financed by the Russian government and Al Jazeera was seed-financed by the Emir of Qatar. Both networks are even more critical of American capitalism or imperialism than Current or Free Speech TV. On Russia Today, for instance, is The Big Picture, hosted by progressive host Thom Hartmann, and Adam vs. the Man, hosted young progressive Iraqi war veteran Adam Kokesh. Their audience is potentially much larger than Current, Russia today has 597 million views and Al Jazeera English 320 million views on YouTube. Compare that to Current’s 130 million views and FSTV 230,000 downloads on YouTube. Current TV and FSTV are potentially in more American television homes than Russia Today and Al Jazeera but I’ll leave adjudicating “impact” to the mass communications scholars. The point is that these two international news networks are state-supported, they consistently criticize American capitalism, and are the recipients of a deregulated economy of internet video. These networks are developing their audience online by streaming in HD the same feed that goes to the satellites that transmit their content to television. They are strategically increasing their presence in smaller, more independent, American cable and satellite markets not yet subjected to post-1996 Telecommunications Act consolidation.

In this deregulated environment of internet video and satellite systems, Russia Today and Al Jazeera are enacting a form of reverse media colonization, establishing studios and audiences in the United States where they can critique the foundations of American democracy and American capitalism. This is excellent for the 99% but bad news for the 1% and their ideologues. For example, America’s Survival, a neoconservative and neoliberal nonprofit educational organization, features a page of videos, petitions, and letters to Congresspeople to stop Al Jazeera and Russia Today’s expansion. They think these networks are extension of the Cold War Kremlin and Al Queda. This argument is jingoistic at best while blindly ignoring the other cornerstone of neoliberal ideology: the deregulation of economic liberalism. The contradiction of this right-wing position is that the free market they support is the reason why Russia Today and Al Jazeera have networks in America.

Neoliberalism is not only an economic theory. It is also a theory of the state that is as high on deregulation and as it is hip to privatization. This is of particular significance when considering the American television spectrum, a federally-managed public resource that has been unmanaged for the public and given to the corporations. After decades of conservative or blandly “objective” television and corporate consolidation leading to tame and pro-corporate media, it is exciting to identify the presence of progressive media. That these four networks, all have explicit backing from state functions should remind us that the media exist because of government-backed cultural capital, as in the case of Al Gore and Current TV, the federal management of public resources, as we see in the case of Free Speech TV, and in the case of explicit funding, as we see in Russia Today and Al Jazeera. Some say, like progressive media activists Robert McChesney and John Nichols, here on Democracy Now!, that the salvation of journalism is through state-supported initiatives, others, such as the Knight Foundation, are attempting to engineer and revive a new American journalism through private foundations. Media has always been a state supported initiative. Deregulation of the media is a re-regulation of the public resource for private gain.

All media is state supported, the media companies that receive the federally managed public resources of broadcast or broadband spectrum, can use their pulpit to turn a profit, change minds, or attempt to do both. It is no surprise that those who are critiquing capitalism have economic difficulties if they are in a context like America with extremely successful capitalism for a few paired with one of the weakest tradition of public interest media funding in the developing world. While those that are flourishing and critiquing American capitalism exist outside it in Qatar and Moscow. This is not ideology in the Althussarian sense (I hope). As progressive as I am, I must tip my hat to the free market to allow for such powerful structural criticism. Capitalism has its contradictions, and as Marx said, this will be its downfall.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

5 thoughts on “Television for the 99% & Reverse Media Imperialism

  1. This is very interesting. May I suggest another alternative? I’m trained as an anthropologist, and am part of the Toronto Media Co-op, which is part of federated structure across Canada for reader-owned grassroots media. We are trying to build alternative networks to the current structure, and believe that as long as corporations and state’s own media networks then we will get what states and corporations want us to hear.

    That said, it was really cool when Russia Today dropped by Occupy Toronto. They have great coverage of human rights – as long as you aren’t within Russia of course. People at occupy were really suspicious they were saying “ya right, they SAY they are sympathetic media”, but I assured them that I’d been following RT’s coverage of social movements and they are indeed sympathetic. Their political angle actually is kind of as though the USSR never died, they are always interviewing maoist-influenced rappers and the like- they are less for human rights than for the fall of the American system (or something. its so weird). I’m glad you noted RT here, I feel like Al Jazzera gets all the attention, where RT is in many ways more interesting.

  2. I was surprised to read here that Current TV has broadcast spectrum. I tried to check this but could not find any evidence of a broadcast affiliate, even in NY.

  3. You say “Similar funding strategies and political intentions unify these four networks. Each receives cultural, political, or economic support from various national governments.” I don’t get it. The similarities seem slight and the differences large, in terms of the dimensions you define, with the exception of political intentions, so “unify” seems quite an overstatement.

  4. Most of what comes across a television set is garbage, toxic waste, and is all the more distressing to realized that this profane, stupid, garrulous inequitist media and use of the media destroys large numbers of young people and infatuates large number of older people who should know better and causes them to waist their time and jade their own moral convictions.

  5. I think a little context is important here. The media outlets you list (Current TV, etc) probably make up a fairly insignificant portion of the media landscape that includes broadcast networks, Fox News, CNN, talk radio…all of which are not state sponsored and are (especially FOX News and talk radio) overwhelmingly conservative. It would be nice if you could put up some numbers so we could get an idea what percentage of the population listen and could be influenced by such sources as Russia Today, Current TV, and the others you mentioned. Until then, I’m not sure it makes any sense to be speculating about a golden age of progressive television.

Comments are closed.