Locked in isolation, millions of people around the world have entered permanent binge mode. From February to April, internet usage was up roughly 70%, as users flock to the FANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google – to fill their empty calendars. But in the long scroll, few have come to question which stories have actually been reported; which voices have been heard; and which perspectives have been shut out from view.
These are not frivolous questions. Ownership of the means of media production not only shapes what we think about each day, but how. And the international media – more than most industries – borders on oligarchy.
Consider the fact that the richest man in the world – who has built an empire on exploiting warehouse workers, who extorted a city into ending a tax intended to fight homelessness, and whose fortune has grown by $24 billion since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – also owns one of the United States’ most influential newspapers. Then consider the fact that we have been asked to believe that his ownership exerts no influence whatsoever on the paper’s direction.
But the political stakes are exceedingly high, and they are global. As right-wing nationalism surges around the world, corporate media outlets have repeatedly kneecapped progressive challengers and circled wagons around the defenders of the status quo. They have responded to the existential threat of the climate crisis by first casting doubt on its very existence, and now on the radical change needed to solve it. And in the midst of a pandemic, they have turned champions of the 1% into media darlings while all but ignoring the socioeconomic conditions that have fueled the disease’s spread.
In short, the landscape of the international media is one of the greatest obstacles to our prospects of building a world for the many.
This week, the Progressive International launched the Wire to change that. Building a coalition of progressive publications from around the globe, the Wire translates and disseminates local stories and critical perspectives – a wire service for the world’s progressive forces. And in doing so, it aims to strengthen the bonds of global solidarity at a moment when pandemic threatens to sever them.
Who controls the media?
Over the last half-century, the media market has made local, independent, and critical media a dying breed. In few places is this clearer than in the United States.
There was once a time when the US media market was diverse and competitive. Though the left was never the dominant force, alternative outlets – community-owned papers, union rags, and media cooperatives – thrived. That all changed with the Telecommunications Act. Signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, the Telecommunications Act gutted regulations on concentration of media ownership and paved the way for a series of mega-mergers that left six corporations in control of up to 90% of the media apparatus. Uruguayan writer and anti-imperialist activist Eduardo Galeano wrote at the time: “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”
The rise of digital heralded a new age of alternative media. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection could become their own “citizen journalist.” One of the most inspiring outcomes of this period was Indymedia, a media platform born out of the Seattle WTO protests. Informed by the anarchist-inflected political thought that dominated the left at the time, Indymedia is a decentralized network of autonomous media centers that provide resources for journalist-activists to upload their own content onto a shared platform. At its peak, there were over 150 Indymedia affiliates in fifty countries, providing a critical resource of information for the alter-globalization movement.
But even in this new decentralized and digital age, the overall trend toward corporate consolidation has continued.
For the most part, the digital media industry has failed to hit upon a model that reliably marries quality journalism with profit. Venture capitalists have found that there’s more to be made in the short term by buying up local and independent outlets, busting unions, laying off reporting staff, and stripping assets. After years of being picked apart by vulture capital, chasing the trends of social media algorithms, and falling for the false promises of the “pivot to video,” independent outlets have begun shuttering at alarming rates (in some cases helped along by the vendettas of billionaires or the aversion of supposedly “progressive” think tanks to editorial independence). All told, more than one in five newspapers in the US have closed in the last fifteen years. Those that get bought out by billionaires willing to take a loss in exchange for control are the lucky ones.
The media represent the interests of their owners and managers. Given the sorry state of the US media landscape, it should be of little surprise that coverage often acts as propaganda for the 1%. Despite the best efforts of many honest journalists caught up in the structures of a capitalist media market, the vast majority of Americans have been left with only two choices for their news: the blatant falsehoods and overt xenophobia of the reactionary press – the Fox Newses – and the more subtly insidious corporate centrism of the supposed liberal alternatives – the MSNBCs.
A global challenge
The choices may be few, but at least there is a degree of contestation in the coverage of national news. The same cannot be said for international coverage. When US publications cover international issues, the close-knit foreign correspondents' club renders the camps even less distinguishable. Whether echoing the Bush administration’s lies and trumpeting the march to war with Iraq, cheerleading the coup in Bolivia, praising the market-friendliness of Jair Bolsanaro, or simply failing to ask debate candidates how they will pay for war, the mainstream media has proven near-unanimous in its support for US empire.
This is hardly unique to the United States. The corporate consolidation of the media is an international phenomenon, and nowhere is it more perfectly embodied than in the sprawling empire of Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News and the New York Post in the US, The Sun and The Times in the UK, and almost two-thirds of the newspaper market of Australia. For decades, Murdoch has shamelessly used this empire to push the entire Anglophone world to the right. The election of Margaret Thatcher, Brexit, the repeal of the carbon tax in Australia, New Labor, Trump, and, of course, the Telecommunications Act – Murdoch played a leading role in all.
But there are alternatives to the Murdochs and Turners of the world. Against daunting odds, publications that offer critical analysis, progressive reporting, and coverage of issues that the mainstream would never touch exist across the globe. In the face of neoliberalism’s encroaching hegemony, these publications have been a lifeline for the left. The role that they play in the countries in which they are based should not be overlooked. But their resources are also limited. Unable to maintain worldwide teams of on-the-ground reporters, constrained in their ability to pay to reach new audiences, and stifled by language barriers, alternative publications too often remain confined behind national borders.
As the world confronts a hydra of existential crises – crises that are global in scope – it is more critical than ever that the press reflect this globality. When South Africans fight for World Bank debt relief, when Filipino workers in industries outsourced from America go on strike, and when protestors take to the streets of Iran to oppose US intervention, it is not just South Africans, Filipinos, and Iranians who should be empowered to know. The whole world should. But for the most part, the corporate media has been unwilling, and the alternative media unable, to play that role.
Fortunately, whenever disparate and disconnected progressives find their power limited in confrontation with the goliath power of capital, there is a solution: to organize.
The Wire International
The Wire International is a new global project to challenge the corporate stranglehold over the means of media production by building an international network of left-wing publications to exchange content and build collective power. Members contribute select content to the Wire International on a regular basis. That content is translated into multiple languages and republished by other leading left publications from around the world: Jacobin in the United States, Nueva Sociedad in Argentina, Lausan in Hong Kong, The Elephant in Kenya, Jadaliyya in Lebanon, and many more. In return, partners gain access to and share select works from others in the network.
Readers, for their part, can access the full collection directly on the Wire’s site. In its first week alone, readers can find an overview of the historical trajectory of the Hindutva movement, an exploration of the EU’s outsourcing of border policing to North Africa, an analysis of the recent Taiwanese presidential elections, an interview with former Brazilian president Lula da Silva, and more – all in English, Spanish, French, Russian, German, and Portuguese. What Indymedia was for the decentralizing politics of the early 2000s, we plan to be for the collective power politics of the resurgent internationalist left: an anti-Murdoch, globalizing the alternative media.
Of course, this alone is not enough to confront the exigencies of the current global crisis. But the Wire is only one pillar of the Progressive International. Supported by an advisory Council that includes figures like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, Rafael Correa, and Alvaro García-Linera, the Progressive International aims to unite, organize, and mobilize progressive forces around the world. Along with the Wire, the other PI pillars include the Movement (to build the connective tissue between activists across borders) and the Blueprint (to unite thinkers and activists to develop a bold policy vision). Collectively, the Progressive International aims to help build a broad, global progressive front to fight the twin forces of fascism and free market fundamentalism.
In the struggle to remake our world, the winds of the corporate media blow strong against us. But with the launch of the Progressive International, the world’s progressive forces will have the Wire at their back.