The Progressive Press Is Facing Mass Extinction
Deadspin, Splinter, and ThinkProgress are gone. The mainstream media is hopelessly neutral. Who’s left to check capitalism?
About a month before Deadspin was throttled by its new private equity owners, those same owners shut down Splinter, the progressive politics website I contributed to for a little over a year. Last week, at an emergency all-hands meeting, G/O Media’s editorial director, Paul Maidment, elaborated on the decision to kill Splinter. Progressive politics “is a very, very difficult sector to operate in,” he said, according to audio of the meeting provided to me. “And it’s a sector that’s essentially operating at a bigger and bigger deficit.”
Maidment said, in my opinion, a lot of dumb shit during his seven-month tenure as editorial director. (He resigned last week following the Deadspin implosion he set off.) But he’s not entirely wrong about progressive media, thanks in large part to pushing a largely anti-capitalist agenda in a ruthlessly capitalist industry.
This trend has been devastating across the journalism industry. Some 7,200 jobs have disappeared this year alone. I have been laid off. Almost all of my friends have been laid off, at least once. This has happened across mainstream networks, local newspapers, alt-weeklies, and online web empires, but its effects have been felt acutely in recent months by outlets writing from a defiantly leftist point of view.
When the mainstream press does cover contentious issues, it often paves over clear moral distinctions in favor of “impartiality.”
Salon, struggling for years, was forced in May to sell its assets to undisclosed owners for just $5 million. In September, ThinkProgress, one of the longest-running sources for progressive news online, was abruptly shut down by the liberal think tank behind it, Center for American Progress, as the Democratic machinery circled its wagons for the 2020 election. That was that: no more lefty blogging. Splinter followed the next month, ceasing publication in the middle of a Democratic presidential primary pitting two of the most progressive presidential candidates ever, including one democratic socialist, against the poster child for outdated centrism. Deadspin, which had for years incorporated irreverent, left-wing takes on politics, pop culture, and anything else its deranged writing staff chose to write about, was told to “stick to sports,” which promptly collapsed the site.
While leftist websites are far from the only publications struggling to adapt to the pressures of online capitalism, they’re one of the most endangered species in an extremely hostile ecosystem. For the past two centuries, there have been left-wing, radical, and pro-labor publications in the United States. These publications argued from across the spectrum of leftist ideology, but often pushed for progressive goals in the workplace and a rejection or skepticism of capitalism. Upton Sinclair worked stockyard floors undercover for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, publishing his work before it was turned into The Jungle and spurred the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Ralph Nader launched his crusade for auto safety in a 1959 article for the Nation, years before Unsafe at Any Speed. In 1967, the “new left” magazine Ramparts published a blistering, full-color pictorial of the effects of U.S. napalm bombs on Vietnamese children, which Martin Luther King Jr. said convinced him to publicly oppose the war. In this century, Mac McClelland was one of the first reporters to expose grueling working conditions in Amazon warehouses for Mother Jones; her colleague Shane Bauer worked undercover in the private prison system for months on another exposé. Amanda Sperber, writing for the Nation earlier this year, reported on a U.S. bombing campaign in Somalia causing widespread civilian casualties that Army leadership previously denied. These are investigations that most mainstream newspapers do as well, but often members of the leftist press got there first, because they know who the public’s enemies are.
When the mainstream press does cover contentious issues, it often paves over clear moral distinctions in favor of “impartiality,” something a leftist press has always understood is not a necessary prerequisite for journalism. People mostly assume that the mainstream media “leans left,” but that only really holds up if you hold that Fox News’s open calls for a white ethno-state are the center. John F. Harris, a founding editor of Politico, realized this in a remarkably self-aware column last week: The mainstream media is biased toward status-quo centrism, not toward “the left.”
The problem with punching up is that the people above you have all the money.
Truly progressive or leftist publications don’t fall into these traps, but in doing so, they often violate the norms that most of the mainstream press adheres to. In short, as Alex Pareene wrote for the New Republic, they’re fucking rude. The problem with punching up — the core aspect of leftist writing — is that the people above you have all the money.
And the people with the money don’t tend to be all that leftist. Billionaires who do fund journalism, such as the Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos and the Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Soon-Shiong, aren’t putting money behind work that threatens their net worth — they own safe, mainstream publications. Pierre Omidyar’s support of the Intercept is the closest to crossing that line, but even then, a billionaire’s whims are fickle.
The right wing, unfortunately, does not have this problem. They are propped up by big-money donors who are content to let Breitbart News, National Review, the Federalist, and many others publish basically whatever they want. Charles Koch gives a massive amount of funding to right-wing media sources, including the Daily Caller News Foundation, which mostly churns out content that goes on the Tucker Carlson-founded Daily Caller. The Koch Institute also runs a private journalism fellowship that mostly funnels graduates into right-wing and libertarian think tanks, PR shops, and media outlets.
Just this August, Splinter reported on leaked emails that showed several journalists at well-known right-wing institutions, including the Daily Caller News Foundation, were participating in a close network of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Some of the people Splinter exposed lost their jobs, but the outlets they worked for are doing just fine. The left, in other words, is getting its ass kicked by the worst people in the country, who have the financial support and moral flexibility to abuse America’s fucked-up relationship to a free press.
Things are not yet so dire that the left lacks for choice. The Young Turks has developed a loyal following online by embracing new mediums, from podcasts to Twitch streaming, and mainstays like Democracy Now! still chug along on public radio stations. Putting out the level of content required to keep up with the daily news cycle, however, requires resources usually outside of many outlets’ reach. Magazines are perhaps slightly more healthy: The New Republic, traditionally liberal, went on a poaching spree of leftist writers earlier this year, including Pareene. The Baffler, a 30-year-old leftist standby, just started a labor column called “Working Stiff” written by labor journalist Kim Kelly. Jacobin has quickly become a must-read for the generation of young people who swelled the Democratic Socialists of America’s ranks following the 2016 election. Mother Jones veers a bit toward mainstream liberal sensibilities, but is a home for electric advocacy reporting, and the Nation continues to reliably publish leftist writers at length. But they’re all vulnerable to the same crises facing every magazine in the country.
The leftist press can’t rely on ranks of billionaires to dump in funding. Instead, we need to look for new ways to support the tradition in all its rude, flippant, and profound glory. These could be worker-owned collectives, nonprofit newsrooms, or publicly owned, editorially independent media networks — or some combination of all three. It also needs electoral measures — and elected leaders — that support journalism or candidates who have a plan to break big tech and finance’s grip on the industry.
If the media’s lesson from the Trump era is to retreat into a shell of flavorless, craven impartiality, taking “both sides” to the clear injustices at play, the right will continue to eat up every inch of space it’s given. It’s every progressive’s job to make sure their own press doesn’t get left behind.