You Need to Know More About Alternative Political Media--the Future of Democracy Depends On It

Fortunately I have written a book about that--which is yours for free with a new subscription

Today is the one-year anniversary of my book launch for Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). Perhaps you remember what was going on this time last year: COVID-19 was raging unchecked, the nominating conventions went online (no invitations to comment there!) and most importantly, momentum was gathering for massive protests around the nation—and the world—to address the structural racism and endemic police violence that results in the unjust death, detention, and incarceration of African-American people. There wasn’t much air for anything else—and that was as it should have been.

So I want to take the opportunity of this first anniversary to re-launch the book from which this newsletter takes its name, with a post derived from the introduction. And there’s a bonus round: until July 14, anyone who is a free subscriber who converts to a one-year paid subscription, or any new paid annual subscriber, will receive a free copy of Political Junkies. In addition, any subscriber who currently pays and gifts an annual subscription to someone else will also receive a free copy of the book.

At the beginning of August, I will host a conversation about the issues the book raises and where we go from here—for paid subscribers only. So let’s get started!

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You don’t think of the PBS NewsHour as alternative media—but it is. That’s in chapter 2 of Political Junkies. Photo credit: Joshua Barajas/Wikimedia Commons

I had always been interested in alternative media. Still, it was not until I attended a major conservative event in 2018 that I really understood how it was shaping our political environment. Wandering the convention hall of this agenda-setting annual conference, I quickly grasped how little of this vibrant and eclectic event was being covered in the mainstream media, even in conservative publications like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Examiner. On Broadcast Row, an exhibit hall of alternative media outlets outside the main stage, producers like NRATV (a now-defunct media arm of the bankrupt National Rifle Association) were broadcasting live as crowds of conference attendees looked on.

Podcasts of the keynote speakers were dropped on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Google Play minutes after they ended. On the lower level of the exhibition hall, I dodged a cardboard cutout of Senator Elizabeth Warren wearing a Plains Indian headdress and bumped into two talkative young women who, as college students, had established a thriving web magazine aimed at the campus right called Lone Conservative.

Why is alternative media so important to understand? Because whether it is emanating from the right or the left, it is anti-institutional—and despite the ouster of Donald Trump, our institutions are still very much under siege.

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Alternative media outlets, right and left, position themselves against the so-called mainstream media, a collection of news outlets that they view as aligned with the interests of corporate and political elites. Also known as “old media,” “traditional media,” or “legacy media,” these newspapers and broadcasting companies are or have evolved from family-owned corporations that predated digital distribution. Most importantly, the mainstream media is viewed by alternative media outlets and the activists that patronize them as insufficiently ideological, part of a political, media, and corporate establishment that cannot be trusted to tell the truth or hold the powerful to account.

Since its origins in the 1950s, alternative media has sought to recruit readers who were passionate about politics, jolt Americans out of their apathy, and cultivate activist information networks. And they have done this in the interests of a more transparent, inclusive, political system that they believe is fairer and more attuned to just outcomes.

Yet, the words “fair” and “just” can mean many things to many people.

Indeed, by 2016 it seemed that many digital alternative media organizations had acquired a sinister power over the electorate. Sites designed to distribute fake news heightened animosity between the partisans they targeted, undermined the electoral process, spread disinformation, and divided voters into acrimonious factions. By the 2018 American midterm elections, over a third of Democrats voted not to endorse their own party’s policies but to oppose Republican rule. More than a quarter of Republicans voted, not for their own party’s policies, but to keep Democrats out of power.

By 2021, it seemed reasonable to many of these right-wing partisans that Joe Biden, who defeated Donald Trump by millions of votes in elections often certified by Republican officials around the nation, had prevailed by elaborate schemes of voter fraud.

Here’s the paradox: the media that drew us into politics, that urged us to participate and care, have made us angrier at, and more contemptuous of, our democratic institutions than any time since the Civil War. Although we consume news all day on our digital devices, the vast majority of Americans are so alienated from each other that we can’t talk about it. From talk radio to Twitter, right and left stay in their red and blue lanes, mainlining ideology, shouting insults across the political divide, and seeing conspiracies everywhere.

These are the questions that we must face before 2024 when the MAGA forces will throw everything they have at taking back a country that Donald Trump nearly destroyed: How has political talk become so extreme and political engagement so anemic? How has a partisan alternative media that is just as profitable and entrenched in many cases come to be perceived by many as equally or more reliable than an establishment media that invests billions of dollars a year on reporting, writing, and broadcasting the news?

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And how has American democracy, founded on the idea of a free press and free expression become so broken?

Political Junkies is a history of how Americans got hooked on alternative media and ended up craving satisfaction that politics can never deliver. It is about how, beginning after World War II, some alternative media channels repurposed mass media technologies for political work, imagining new forms of journalism that appealed to a specialist audience critical of the political and media establishment. It’s essential reading—now, and for the political decisions, we will have to make sooner than anyone will be ready for.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


Short takes:

  • When everything is officially tallied, Eric Adams is projected to win the New York City Democratic primary. There are three lessons in this: one is—never listen to me. I pick losers repeatedly because I vote for women when I can, and I imagine that someday a majority of voters will find a woman candidate for executive office likable and competent. The second lesson is that you should always call my friend, Rutgers historian David Greenberg and ask him what he thinks, as he generally has his finger on the pulse of the liberal Democratic voter. The final lesson is that most Black voters are not radical—they are pragmatic and only moderately progressive. This ought to be causing the Democratic party to form a strategy for 2022 around this fact.

  • Charlie Sykes at The Bulwark piles on J.D. Vance, a Republican primary candidate for Rob Portman’s Ohio Senate seat. As Sykes demonstrates at length, Vance was distinguished early on by his principled resistance to Trump, and now he is trying to “out-MAGA” a field of MAGA candidates. One wonders whether this does not point to the outsized role of political consultants in packaging candidates: I know one of Vance’s, a guy in charge of the Vance super-PAC, who is a full-on MAGA dude. One wonders, however, if Trump is simply a suit that a candidate can take on or off at will—and what happens if a large field of candidates is all wearing the Trump suit? How are voters expected to distinguish between the stupid? (July 7, 2021)

  • Taxes—they’re not just for the little people anymore! Don’t buy it that Alan Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, has committed a petty crime by accepting part of his pay as “fringe benefits”—private school tuition, cars, free apartments. First of all, these are not small things. Second of all, many of us have been paying taxes on “fringe benefits” for years. Why? Because it is officially part of a person’s compensation, not a birthday cake on your special day! This makes Alan Weisselberg a crook, not—as Heliane Olen puts it in this very witty opinion piece—” the Millionaire Next Door.” (Washington Post, July 2, 2021)