Transnational Protest, Media Bias, and Monopolized Airwaves: Best of AHA 2014, Part 2

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DC Public Transit at its finest!

In part II of ToM’s AHA 2014 coverage our correspondents begin with papers on the efforts of Latin American students, workers, and rebels of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970 to use non-violent activism as a means to gain greater rights and autonomy in the face of increasingly repressive regimes.  We end with talks on media bias, conservatism, Rupert Murdoch/Fox News and the NAACP. What does it mean if we have more voices and greater diversity with those appearing in the media, but more and more of the airwaves under the control of fewer and fewer individuals?

Remember, we went to the AHA so you didn’t have too.  For Part I of AHA 2014 – Bed-Stuy, The Illuminati, and the Importance of Fungus Identification, click here.

For coverage of the UHA 2012 and other academic gatherings, click here.

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Megan Strom, The Transnational Impact of la Mission Social: Students and Workers in Uruguay, 1950-1970

Few subjects in American history elicit sighs of lamentation like discussions of the 1960’s Left and its failure, particularly among college students, to court working class Americans.  The Left, the narrative follows, never wrestled with the inherent class differences that created a chasm of misunderstanding between them and their blue collar counterparts. Indeed, visions of middle class kids protesting and occupying the offices of Columbia in 1968 rubbed more than a few hardhats the wrong way.   To these Americans, the argument goes, their kids marched off to Vietnam while their better off counterparts smoked pot, had sex, and ran amok in the streets. Obviously, the real story, or more likely, stories, demonstrates a much deeper complexity.  Moreover, America’s experience need not be that of other nations.

With that in mind, University of California San Diego PhD candidate and Fulbright scholar Megan Strom explores a much closer and reciprocal relationship that existed between workers and a Uruguayan student organization known as the “Federation of Uruguayan University Students” (Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios de Uruguay in Spanish) or FEUU.  Established in 1929 at the University of the Republic, by the 1950s and 1960s, the FEUU had become the largest student organization on campus.  Its members embraced the “social mission” calling that Uruguay’s only institution of higher learning eagerly promoted. The “social mission” argued FEUU leaders and university officials, meant that the university should not exist in an ivory tower bubble but engage the public and take an active role in the lives of community members. In the context of the “social mission”, the university should not only educate, but also transform society.

From its beginning, the FEUU promoted understanding and interactions between workers and students.  For students, this meant building clinics, attending union meetings, and facilitating protest for worker’s rights and the like. In return, workers engaged student issues, sat in on meetings, strategized, and supported student protests.  To put it simply, the platform amounted to workers liberation championed by students and university reform supported by workers.

Critically, the FEUU’s peak period of activism, the 1950s and 1960s, intersected not only with Uruguay’s and Latin America’s university reform movement (dedicated to increasing school autonomy), but also the burgeoning Cold War conflicts of the day. FEUU leaders refused to align with capitalist or communist parties, while pushing for a “third way” platform that rejected the usual binaries of the day.  While the organization never truly defined what this “third way” looked like, it kept an eye on the transnational struggle of labor in an era of capitalist/communist competition that frequently undermined working class interests.   Nor did the FEUU only engage this third way during the Cold War. During WWII, the FEUU refused to align with Allied forces but hoped that Axis powers would collapse.  In 1944, it issued a May Day declaration that explicitly expressed solidarity with workers of the world. Throughout its existence and through various leaders, the FEUU consistently struck anti-imperialist, pro-labor stances.

In 1958 when the University of the Republic gained political autonomy, students appealed for and got a seat at the university’s administration table, a role that workers had promoted for their allies.   FEUU leaders reasserted their dedication to their working class counterparts by admitting articles supporting labor did not meet the necessary level of reciprocity: members needed to be more aggressive in their actions and work with workers and their unions.

Cuba’s revolution, at first, inspired FEUU members and leaders.   Fidel Castro and revolutionary Cuba embodied the “third way” the student organization had long fought for, yet soon after Castro’s alliance with the USSR frustrated members. While workers and the FEUU grew more radicalized they failed to make inroads into mainstream Uruguayan opinion.  Government repression, the violence of 1968, and soon after dictatorship, undermined FEUU efforts.

In the end, Strom reminds us that the transnational Left of the 1950s and 1960s did not always founder on issues of class.  Uruguay’s example proves that armed struggle existed as only one form of leftist activism and that cross class political alliances remained a possibility in 1950s Uruguay and perhaps elsewhere today.

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James Shrader, The Argentine Vietnam? The Revolutionary Left, Mass Mobilization, and the Construction of a New Consciousness

When in 1970, the leftist Argentine guerrilla rebel organization known as the Montoneros (MPM) executed former dictator Pedro Eugenio as an act of retribution for past injustices by the state upon its citizens, many working class Argentines applauded. By 1975 however, the Montoneros no longer existed as the nation’s military enacted a campaign of forced disappearance, torture, and murder, referred to as the “Dirty War,” more or less erased the organization from existence.  The military’s ambush of a northern cell of the group in the Tucuman province (NW Argentina), resulting in the deaths of 14 Montoneros, served as a reminder of their short existence and the state’s zeal in eliminating threats to its authoritarian rule.   Yet University of California San Diego PhD candidate and Fulbright scholar James Shrader suggests that the violent image associated with the Montoneros fails to fully encapsulate the work of the rebel group. Instead, Shrader argues in Tucuman, Argentina, the Montoneros eschewed revolutionary violence and forged ties with the province’s most vulnerable workers. In this way, Shrader attempts to rehabilitate the Montonero’s history, presenting a more complex, and perhaps, humane insurgency rather than the one ascribed to the group by historians.

The historiography of the Montoneros can be summed up in one of three main theses. Thesis one: The Montoneros, consisting of middle class kids who naively took to the mountains to foment revolution, never found a way to align with their working class counterparts.  Thesis two: The Montoneros followed a highly verticalist organizational structure in which members obeyed a rigid military chain of command that foreclosed any ability to ally with unions and others. Thesis three:  The use of revolutionary violence (bombing police stations, assassinating corrupt union officials) alienated working class Argentines, particularly when the lower classes bore the brunt of state repression in response to such acts. Shrader, who conducted over 117 interviews with Tucuman Argentines, argues that in the smallest, but most dense province of Argentina, Tucuman, the Montoneros enjoyed a much closer relationship with its peasant class.

According to former rebels, the Montoneros in Tucuman never hoped to spark armed rebellion and had only taken to the mountains as a refuge from the army.  The 1975 ambush didn’t catch Montoneros descending the mountains to wage war, but rather to slip into the sugar cane fields filled with workers to escape military surveillance.   The “foco loco” theory, in which acts of violence against a sitting regime by small numbers of revolutionary guerrillas creates a focal point and consciousness for an oppressed population, failed to pan out effectively. Violence might earn sympathy from the oppressed, but it never coalesced into any sort of collective consciousness. Rather, the Tucuman Montoneros had adopted the ideas of Paulo Frerie and the “pedagogy of the oppressed”, which requires the downtrodden and defeated to articulate their own liberation, to recognize how structural violence affects them and to come up with their own answers for liberation. In this context, no amount revolutionary violence would free Tucuman or create any sort of consciousness.

The nation’s smallest, but densest province represented a real challenge. Tucuman’s economy, largely agrarian, and social relations in the 1970s could be described as “feudal” argues Shrader.  Unlike much of the nation which was largely urbanized, Tucuman remained much more rural. Its large loosely connected peasantry, differed from other provinces where cities consisted of unionized labor forces working in industry thereby allying to varying degrees, working class residents. With lower literacy rates and more or less tied to debt peonage, the peasants of Tucuman faced deeper levels of poverty and social isolation than their urban counterparts. The province’s support for Peron – around 70% of the province had voted for the exiled ruler — meant his successors viewed it warily.  With Peron in exile, the state amplified anti-communist and anti-Peronist rhetoric.  In the process, observers made Tucuman the “beta noire” for communist agitation.  In fact, notes Shrader, conservative leaders spoke of Castro and Peron as one in the same connecting the leftism of the Cuban Revolution with Peronism.

By 1966, the new dictatorship hoped to squash any remnants of Peronism while consolidating its right wing anti-communist credentials. Tucuman’s open support for Peronism and mestizo identity made it a prime “laboratory” for how to modernize and break the Tucuman identity. Using economic development models like U.S. led modernization efforts in Puerto Rico (Operation Bootstrap) and the counter insurgency strategies of American forces in South Vietnam, Argentine leaders adopted transnational communist fears and battled them with transnational programs of industrialization and anti-insurgency.  Unsurprisingly, attempts to rapidly industrialize the region failed and resulted in massive dislocation of residents while also radicalizing the population.  If the Montoneros truly eschewed revolutionary violence for Frerie’s theories, the military’s decision in 1975 to treat the province as a laboratory for counter insurgency, primarily through death squads and torture, ended any such hopes and locked them into a historical narrative that Shrader hopes to alter.

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Nicole R. Hemmer, Conservative Media, Liberal Bias, and the Origins of Balance

Nicole R. Hemmer, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Miami and frequent commentator for US News & World Report (among many other publications), offered this glimpse into her forthcoming book Messengers of the Right.  Hemmer noted how, during the long twilight struggle between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and other GOP aspirants, a few conservatives claimed about the bias of Fox News—its liberal bias, that is.  “Fox News is morphing into just another liberal voice,” one conservative complained.  The liberal bias trope has been around for years, of course, though seldom had it been applied to Roger Ailes’s mighty megaphone of the Right.  Several years ago, historian David Greenberg linked the conservative cry of liberal media bias to the Right’s perception that the national media favored the civil rights movement in its coverage of the 1960s.  In contrast, Hemmer argues that conservatives built their own media pre-1960s, but realized they need to delegitimize the mainstream media only after the stumbles of the Goldwater campaign.

Indeed, conservative media had been around for some time prior to the flowering of the New Right in the tumultuous 1960s.  Influential conservative publisher Henry Regnery believed that liberals controlled the media, meaning that they controlled ideas—and “everything else.”  He and his allies like William F. Buckley poured resources into institutions such as Human Events, National Review, the Manion Forum, and so on.  When Human Events was founded in 1944, its supporters feared that their ideas were being shut out by the mainstream; some had been opposed to the US getting involved prior to the war, thus, any criticism of the WWII effort, they felt, was being excluded by journalists.  A “subtle regimentation of public opinion,” noted one conservative. Editors on the Right favored a “fact based approach,” according to Hemmer, at least in their own view.  They saw their own publishing efforts as a way to counterbalance the distorted and truncated version of the facts presented by the dominant media of New York, DC, and Los Angeles—hence, the impulse behind Fox’s slogan of “fair and balanced.”  In the process, conservatives distinguished between objectivity and impartiality.

In time, though, conservatives began to believe that they weren’t simply giving the part of the story that the liberal establishment either deliberately or unconsciously left out.  Rather, they begin to see that liberals were actively promoting liberalism through the media, not just excluding conservatism.  Hemmer argues that leaders on the Right increasingly began to see all media as innately ideological.  If Buckley decried the “decadent, lukewarm mood of indifference” of the mainstream press, the National Review lambasted the New York Times as a propaganda machine, “anti-anti-Communist, pro-welfare state, pro-Zionist.” (This criticism of Zionism from the Right strikes the contemporary ear as odd, given ironclad support for Israel among most mainstream conservatives, but that’s a story for another day.)  In short, conservatives believed they needed to balance the mainstream media’s liberal bias with their own propaganda machine.

Several events helped propel conservatives in this direction, according to Hemmer.  One concerned the complex history of the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC standard that was meant to encourage discussion of controversial issues by requiring broadcasters to present differing views on matters of public interest.  In the 1960s, some broadcasters simply attempted to avoid touching on controversial issues, since doing so would require them to give away precious air time to alternative perspectives—better not to address an issue than to have to fritter away time for two or more sides of the debate.  Conservatives felt that, by excluding controversy, broadcasters were excluding right wing voices altogether.  To many on the Right, Hemmer said, “objectivity” was just a “mask” for liberal bias.  Conservatives also tried to persuade the FCC that their broadcasts were responses to the liberal bias already present in ordinary news reporting, therefore conservative programming did not itself require a counterpoint under the doctrine.  The campaigns of Goldwater and Nixon in 1964 and 1968 also helped crystallize a perception that the “eastern liberal press” was slandering conservative candidates, though, as Hemmer points out, Nixon’s resentment of the press was all about Nixon, and not so much about the idea that his conservative values were under attack.  Many conservative activists simply could not understand how the population got so bamboozled by liberal Democrats, particularly in Goldwater’s landslide defeat, and liberal bias became the ideal explanation. “There was no chance for a choice,” said one activist, due to “left wing press.”

Of course, as Hemmer argues, both the Left and the Right came out of the 1960s increasingly distrustful of mainstream institutions.  Anti-war protesters also agreed that the news was too controlled by establishment forces, so conservatives weren’t alone. “The Left produced its own critique,” she says, which eventuated in books like Manufacturing Consent  and What Liberal Media?  But conservatives made the critique of liberal bias far more central to their own organizing and consciousness than the Left ever really did about conservative or corporate bias in the media.  They turned to data, charts, and other tools to prove the bias they perceived.  Edith Efron, most notably, was a writer from TV Guide who analyzed 1968 presidential election coverage, comparing the treatment of Nixon and Humphrey on three nightly news networks.  She determined that half of the comments positive were for Humphrey, whereas Nixon was favorably presented only 10%.  Though her methodology and conclusions may have been dubious, her subsequent book The News Twisters became an unexpected hit—in part because Nixon ordered his underlings to buy up all copies in stores that directly influenced the composition of the NY Times Bestseller List.  Now prominent, a national conversation about bias came into being, and mainstream TV and newspapers began to add more conservative commentators.  The result, according to Hemmer, was the pervasive practice today of “substituting ideological balance for objectivity as journalism’s governing value.”

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Allison Perlman, Wily Like a Fox (Broadcasting): The Contested Terrain of Media Diversity Policies

In this deliciously provocative paper, Perlman, an assistant professor of TV and Film Studies at UC-Irvine, digs in to the nitty-gritty of how deregulation and the corporate consolidation of American media occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.  Her story hinges on an episode in which the NAACP took on the growing Fox media empire.  The story began in 1985, when Murdoch, an Australian media tycoon, got the opportunity to buy six stations in major media markets.  US communication law at the time forbade alien control of broadcast stations, and regulations also limited the ways in which an individual entity could own different types of media in the same media market.  In typically expeditious fashion, Murdoch became a US citizen and created the 20th Century Holding Company as a domestic front for his activities.  He also petitioned for a waiver from the rules preventing him from a newspaper and TV station in the same area and more than one station in the media market shared by Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey.  The NAACP filed petitions in opposition to these waivers, worried that the growing influence of one foreign media magnate would stymie efforts to create greater diversity by incentivizing ownership of media outlets by people of color.

To make a long story short, Murdoch got his way.  Fox may have fudged some of its financial documents in order to obscure its international ownership structure and limit its exposure to taxes, but the media giant still ultimately triumphed in persuading the FCC to bend the rules for its own sake.  The story was one part of a longer transition, Perlman argues, from the federal government supporting greater diversity of media ownership and control along racial or ethnic lines to a new, arguably neoliberal policy that emphasized a diversity defined by a multiplicity of options.  As long as there were many alternatives available in the marketplace of ideas, the thinking went, racial equity was not a serious concern.

Fox is the perfect exemplar of this trend.  The Fox broadcast network launched in 1986 as a long-awaited alternative to the dominant big three (ABC, NBC, ABC) of American TV.  As many TV viewers will remember, Fox decided early on to pursue a strategy of “counterprogramming,” pitching shows to younger viewers and racial minorities who were chronically underrepresented on the existing networks.  Ironically, the network received multiple NAACP Image Award nominations for its portrayals of African Americans and other groups on TV, even as the group and the corporation were fighting it out in the regulatory arena.  Fox argued that its broadcast network was in the public interest because it increased competition.  As Perlman argues, diversity had long been a key value for the FCC, but it had been rooted in an appreciation for competition and localism.  With stations and papers under local control, a variety of ideas would be heard; diverse owners meant diverse perspectives.  In the 1960s and 1970s, FCC extended this doctrine to mean not just how many were speaking, but who was.  Under this ethos, devising policies to promote black and Latino ownership of media served the greater good.  However, the story of Fox and the NAACP illustrates how efforts to promote greater racial diversity and inclusion ran headlong into deregulation, “neoliberal market enthusiasts, and culture warriors” since the 1980s.  The NAACP sought to assert the continued significance of racial discrimination through battles over media policy, but accomplished relatively little.  The result?  An American media landscape dominated by behemoths like Fox and Clear Channel, with a diversity of options but not a diversity of ownership—and, perhaps, a paucity of truly different ideas.

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