The Medium's Power to Persuade
by Claire Potter
June 24, 2021
This interview with Claire Potter, professor of history at the New School for Social Research and the co-executive editor of Public Seminar, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
frank | Can you define alternative media versus mainstream media?
Claire | Sure. Alternative media has taken a little journey from the mid-century to now.
When it began, alternative media was distinctly anti-corporate.
You can look to newsletters like I. F. Stone's Weekly, or the alternative weeklies of the 1960s produced by the New Left or by feminists. Even the Village Voice was seen as an alternative to corporate news. What alternative media does, that the mainstream doesn’t do, is speak directly to you. Alternative media chooses its audience and it speaks directly to the needs of that audience. It makes itself accessible to that body. And by doing that, it works against the larger structures of power, like politics or corporations.
The other thing I would say is that alternative media has a broad range of forms. It is not just the newsletter, but also radio, direct mail or internet blogs. In general, alternative media operates as a counterweight to the stories being told in the mainstream, which is why it is so powerful today, not just on the right, but on the left.
Are the funding models or business models distinctly different from their mainstream counterparts?
That's a great question. Back in 1952, Izzy Stone was the first person to crowdfund a publication. He's been fired from the last progressive newspaper that will employ him. This is the McCarthy era, and he's more or less blacklisted from the mainstream press and he doesn't know what to do.
He decides to take his severance and start his own newsletter. He takes out a little ad in the New York Times that says for $5 a year, I will write a four-page newsletter for you every week. He gets mailing lists from progressive publications and sends out flyers all over the place.
Miraculously, people start writing him back: all of these envelopes with a $5 bill in them come to his house. He gets some from Hungary. He gets some from Japan.
Marilyn Monroe subscribes to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and she buys a subscription for every single member of Congress.
J. Edgar Hoover subscribes, just to keep an eye on Stone. These $5 bills add up so that Izzy and his wife, and eventually an intern, produce a four-page newsletter every week. He actually makes as much money as he's ever made in a regular job, and this sort of funding model carries itself forward to something like Substack, for example. If you haven't found an investor with a hundred thousand dollars, maybe you can get 20,000 people who have $5 to give you.
I'm curious how you see partisanship reveal itself through alternative media. In the description of the origins of alternative media, it sounds like a “left” reaction to the cultural atmosphere in the United States — but the right does alternative media really well. How do you view partisanship here?
Today, we see the far-right and some conservatives saying, “No one will print the truth about us, so we have to have our own outlets.” This has been true since the 1930s. Conservatives have consistently believed that in order to tell the truth, they need to have separate publications.
This is why conservatives like Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich develop and perfect the model of the mailing list. Richard Viguerie starts his mailing list in 1964 by going to the FEC and copying down as many names of people who contributed to Barry Goldwater's political campaign as he can. He gets like 12,000 of those and that's where he starts. As the sixties and seventies progress, and culture war issues begin to emerge, Viguerie comes to understand that if you promote a conservative social issue, you aren’t just promoting conservatism, you can get more people on your mailing list.
So it's a win-win. You can collect money to support the 1977 Briggs amendment in California, which is meant to keep homosexuals out of the public schools, and by collecting money, you will also get addresses so that you can begin to pinpoint where to send more political direct mail. It’s efficient because you send this alternative media to the Republicans who already want to hear from you and you activate them. In the 1960s, we see the move of “direct marketing” from advertising to politics, and partisan alternative media like radio, TV, and newsletters feed that machine.
I read this book called Messengers of the Right a while ago that really leans into him.
I’m not sure this is an important question, but I'm wondering if you think founders and producers of this alt-media are true believers?
I actually think all of these people are true believers. I mean, one of the things that we have seen revealed about MAGA Republicans is they actually do seriously believe things that seem outlandish to many of us. But that has always been true. For example, the idea in the 1950s that America was riddled with communists and that those communists were going to take down the Catholic church, was all ideology and nothing to do with facts on the ground. Now, a lot of it was also promoted by the federal government, which made it seem more real--and that is similar to what happened in the last presidency.
What I think changes over time is the money to be made from alternative media once it goes on the internet. You know, publications like William F. Buckley's National Review always operated in the red. The Buckley family supported that for decades. Similarly, Phyllis Schlafly's book, A Choice, Not an Echo, is not a moneymaker. She writes it because she wants to be a player in the Republican party as Goldwater is on the rise. And, in fact, it makes her into a player.
So these alternative media publications in general, are not really making money until we get to the internet. Then, all of a sudden the capacity to distribute ideas very widely and the ability to collect data that lets you know who's interested and who's not begins to become very profitable.
For example, Matt Drudge and the Drudge Report — he is working in the gift shop at CBS. His father comes out to see him and tells him he has to do something with his life, buys him a computer, and tells him to figure it out. Matt starts doing an email newsletter that begins to be so popular he then builds a website for himself. And by building that website, he can then run ads. That site, which still looks pretty much the way it looked originally, is still probably the most profitable media property of its size in the country.
When somebody like Drudge, for example, transitions from newsletter to site to show or, whatever that path might look like, does it stop being alternative news at some point? When you start running as many ads CNN, does it change?
That's another important shift: alternative media becomes corporate too. What preserves its identity as the “alternative” is its opposition to the majority view and its ability to sell itself as made especially for you, rather than a mass audience.
Opposition to the status quo is really the common thread over time. You see that right now in something like One America News or Newsmax or Fox, which actually going after their own people if they deviate from the far-right line. If somebody has become the establishment within conservatism, then they're not reliable anymore and you have to go after them because that's what demonstrates loyalty to the audience.
Do you find that sort of aggressive behavior on the left?
Yes, you do. Nowadays it's hard to know where the left ends and the right begins. I mean, Glenn Greenwald seems to have completely and totally lost his mind and he used to be thought of as the ultimate progressive journalist, certainly in his Snowden years and in the years in which he was co-founder of the Intercept.
But, although you find it on the left, the left alternative media has a broader ecosystem. Five-Thirty-Eight relies on research and data and getting smart people to crunch numbers. That is not sensational at all, but it's written for political junkies. It's written for people who care more about how politics happen than the average Joe. They want to be in the know. But you also have the growth of the "dirtbag left:" mostly male populists who go after people who aren’t left enough, and who seem to have a particularly tough time dealing with women.
I was waiting for the dirtbag left mention.
I mean, I would count podcasts, which the dirtbag left specializes in, as alternative media. A lot of that style comes out of talk radio and sports radio. There's a kind of edgy, nasty, dark humor that draws an audience in because they are projecting a lot of the hostility that their audience is feeling. The dirt-bag left uses the same techniques — which is to incite paranoia, to attack people groundlessly
People can tune in and say, "I'm right to be this angry because Joe Rogan is angry too. He thinks I ought to be angry." You see the same style with Tucker Carlson or Steve Bannon.
The worst part of this, and it is more prevalent on the right than it is on the left, is that they have taught politicians to behave in this way too.
The link between right-wing alternative media and politicians themselves is now so tight that they share a similar style, and I think that isn’t true on the left. It has become a matter of pride among right-wing politicians to say, "I'm not respectable like those other people in government. I don't want to be. I want to be like ordinary people." Which is how you get Ivy League guys like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz pretending that they have just stepped off a ranch somewhere.
Do you feel like success requires a star? A lot of these examples are centered around a personality or a persona — that obviously makes audience building easier, but is it necessary?
Absolutely. I think charismatic individuals are at the heart of alternative media. If you're not going to get an audience by getting investors and advertisers and shilling yourself out, what you have to be able to do is put forward a convincing point of view that creates audience support--and that requires a persona. I think we could go back as early as the 1930s, and Father Coughlin on the radio. He was an anti-Semite, an America Firster, and he positioned himself as one of the chief defenders of the Catholic church against the New Deal, which he increasingly saw as a form of communism. Father Coughlin was so popular that people used to say that you could walk through a working-class neighborhood while he was broadcasting and never miss a single word because every radio in every house was tuned to him. And he had a magnetic personality, so yes I think personalities are important.
Then, sometimes you get a personality who stays in the background. I think about someone like Paul Weyrich. He doesn't actually put himself out there as some kind of immediate, conservative star: he works behind the scenes to create other stars. It is Paul Weyrich who persuades Jerry Falwell, that the Christian broadcasting he's doing should be a national network and that it should be tied to a political project. And so Falwell becomes the national figure identified with the Moral Majority, not Weyrich. By the 1980s, there is this whole range of political consultants whose job is to make someone else the star — Lee Atwater is one on the right, Joe Trippi on the left.
When you bring up someone like Greenwald, it’s a bit hard to separate his reporting from what he thinks. Is this problematic for journalism?
I think that's always been a characteristic of alternative media: much of it has always been opinion writing. But it’s also part of the decline of objectivity as an intellectual ideal. For decades, mainstream newspapers were clinging to objectivity, even though many of their reporters and editors didn't believe in it after the 1960s. Nevertheless, it remained a style that distinguished mainstream, trustworthy news from alternative news or propaganda. Alternative media has never pretended to be objective: it always has a political or social task to perform.
Alternative media is defined by the fact that it actively takes a point of view and it calls to others with that same point of view. Now, I think we're seeing a new phase of that because of social media where alternative media outlets can get to you whether you want them or not through channels that you've already got open. You don't have to choose it. It chooses you.
So there's one whole audience for alternative media outlets that are already persuaded, and then there are the others they are actively trying to draw in. I think this dynamic really came to a head in the January 6th insurrection. It wasn't just those who committed the insurrection who were culpable for the lies that drove that disaster. It was the layers and layers and layers of people around them who would never dream of doing anything like that, who nevertheless falsely believed that Joe Biden had not won the 2020 election. And that's actually a pretty scary inflection point.
What do you think that turns into?
Well, I think it turns into a situation in which there is a potential for fascism.
I know the right is all about slamming the Frankfurt School, but I actually think what early media theorists like Theodore Adorno understood was that the medium itself has the power to persuade.
It doesn't actually even matter what information is being conveyed. It's the warmth of the medium and the sense of connection that draws people in. I think unless we are able to make decisions as a society about what we want our media world to look like, we're in danger of this country fragmenting, not over reasonable differences of opinion, but between people who believe things that are true and people who believe things that are false. We may already be there.
Our shared reality has disappeared. Do you have a long view of what you would like to see, how you think this should function?
I'm one of the people who think that Section 230 needs to be revised. Right now, platforms cannot be held accountable for what's on them. If Facebook spreads a defamatory or dangerously false story it is not responsible at all. Furthermore, Facebook is making a lot of money doing that. I think one of the things we have to remember about alternative media that spreads disinformation is that it's highly, highly profitable. There are all kinds of people who spread disinformation, not because they are partisan, but because they know that they can make money from the clicks.
Section 230 imagined the internet as this neutral place where experimentation would produce great things, and that people should be free to do that without censorship from anyone. That world is gone: we need to reckon with the world that we're in, which is one in which people are using the protections of Section 230 to make a ton of money by doing profoundly destructive things.
I am on the side of people who believe that the internet needs to be much more highly regulated, as it is in Europe and Australia. I think the other thing we're seeing is that by allowing big tech companies, particularly Facebook, to make their own rules and find their own solutions we are not getting ourselves to a better world. For example, Facebook has put severe limits on distributing political stories. That's their solution. Well, that means that somebody like me can't actually distribute her own writing on Facebook, even though what I am writing is as true as I can make it, even though it's not politically or socially irresponsible. Because it's "political", Facebook won't distribute it. I can't even pay Facebook to distribute it. So, Facebook is not taking responsibility for circulating good information either.
They are sticking with no information.
Yes. One of the things that's interesting is we saw Twitter and Facebook finally throwing Donald Trump off after the January 6th insurrection. It has been very difficult for Donald Trump to get back on the air in any way. Okay. So what does this teach us? That alternative media is actually now in the driver's seat in terms of regulating itself. And I don't think that's a good thing. I don't think we should expect people who are making billions of dollars from fake news to even want to know what is right and what is wrong.
I do think conservatives have a good point in this regard — it shouldn't be up to corporations to decide who gets to speak and who doesn't get to speak.
Rather we need to make some hard decisions about requiring people to tell the truth. The fact that Donald Trump and his allies lied and lied and lied and lied about the election and that the internet just spit it out is just horrifying. I think this is a sphere for government action because it is producing severe threats to public safety. And the FCC has been largely toothless since the 1990s. I think we need a revived FCC to begin to promote ethical guidelines and rules to ensure that what is actually being spread over alternative media is responsible.
Our physical reality and our online reality are so blended now. The way Trump feels absent because he doesn’t have a Twitter account is actually jarring to me. It’s also scary, as you mentioned, that some guy in Palo Alto can turn off a President.
I think that's right, but this is also not a situation that we had, for example, in the early years of blogging. Blogging starts around 1998 and begins to peter out by about 2012. In that interim period, you had these very lively, mixed communities of people talking to, and fact-checking, each other. When I had a blog and I published something that was controversial, it would get linked to by a conservative blogger, his followers would come over and read my blog and they would leave comments, and then my commenters would respond to them. And then they'd go over to the other guy's blog. Politically, there was a lot of intermingling.
Social media has now separated us all via algorithm, and you're right, for many people their social media world is the world.
People don't really talk on the telephone anymore either. A lot of our political campaigning was not done in person anymore, even before the pandemic. So much of it is telephoning, postcard writing, texting, and phone banking, using lists that exclude most people who are not known to be supporters already It separates us.
I have often thought that when somebody says, I don't know anybody who thinks the vaccine is safe, it's probably true. And for that, we can thank the expert segmentation of audiences by alternative media. For that, we can thank these "filter bubbles” we live in. From that perspective, it's not difficult for people to say, "Of course the election was stolen, nobody believes Joe Biden is president."
It's also another example of these corporations having such tremendous power. They decide what we see in our feeds.
I think that's true, and we didn't just get here in the last five years. There has been this moment of, "Oh my god, how did this happen?" But in fact, we got here over a period of 75 years in which audiences gradually moved to accept alternative media as a truth-telling instrument.
And in some cases, alternative media does have a history of telling truer stories than the mainstream media. But there has been a cost across the board. The acceptance of the idea that the establishment is always lying and that alternative media will tell us what we really need to know has been decades in the making. That’s why writing history matters: people need to understand that if they're going to undo this, there are specific lessons in what worked and what didn't work that can help us take a look at where we are today and change it.