Building Media to Build Power: A Mass Media Strategy for DSA

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By Sean Duffy

At the height of their power during the first decades of the 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly referred to as the IWW or the Wobblies, had upwards of 90 affiliated newspapers and other periodicals in print, 30 of which were published right here in Chicago. The papers spanned 19 different languages, an extension of the IWW’s organizing strategy of building collective power and solidarity among immigrant workers of all different ethnicities and nationalities. It’s hard to imagine such a mass distribution of socialist literature ever existed in The United States, and it’s even harder to imagine replicating that model now.

By the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s deregulatory agenda—and its continuation by Clinton in the ‘90s—led to a massive consolidation of American media properties. This placed unprecedented media influence into the hands of a select few whose first priorities are profits and advancing their own political interests. With Trump and the Republicans in office, it’s very likely that we’ll see a similar consolidation over the next few years. In fact, the FCC, led by Trump appointed chairman Ajit Pai, is already in the process of enabling companies to do so. Sinclair Media Group controls an enormous share of US media, especially in the local TV-news market. The group is in line to sign a deal to absorb Tribune Media’s set of 42 TV stations that span from coast to coast. If the deal goes through, Sinclair’s reach would nearly double, from reaching 40 percent of American households to 72 percent.

Not only does Sinclair stand to benefit financially from this growth, but its influence will expand even further. Sinclair has already weaponized their massive reach to push a hardline right-wing ideology into the mainstream by producing editorial segments that are then funneled down to local stations as “must run” programming. By pairing their propaganda with local news coverage—the media that Americans regularly say they trust the most—Sinclair has the potential to impact a number of viewers that dwarfs even Fox News’ sizable base of influence.

A coming storm of right-wing propaganda infecting so many channels of mass media means that, now more than ever, we on the left need to take media into our own hands and on a massive scale. One major advantage of our times is that the means of producing media have never been more accessible. The quality of consumer products such as digital cameras has improved greatly, meaning that a small-scale media production can be both affordable and aesthetically impactful. There are also more people skilled in media production than ever before, many of whom are looking for an outlet aside from work to utilize their artistry, and to do in a way that empowers and emboldens them.

What DSA and other left organizations need to do is build our own independent media sphere, one that has reach across the country and is not limited to purely digital realms. DSA National’s Democratic Left is not enough; every local, or at least every state, should have its own publication. People trust their local newscasters because they feel like they know who they are, that they’re their neighbors. It’s one thing to hand someone a copy of a periodical with bylines by people they’ve never heard of and who don’t live in the area. But to hand them a periodical that’s locally based, touching on local issues and stories, and written and produced by chapter members who are already organizing in that community and establishing trust-based relationships could increase DSA’s visibility, legitimacy, and potential reach tenfold.

We may not yet have the power to stop the monopolization of media by the right, but our massive growth as an organization has given us an opportunity to start building our own means of mass communication. For instance, here in Chicago DSA, my comrades and I in the Communications working group have been working to relaunch our long-running podcast and print publication, as well as expand into other mediums such as this blog, video, and many more that are in the works. It’s been a slow and time-consuming process, but the work is paying off and the launch of our revamped outlets is within sight.

As one of the largest chapters in the country, Chicago DSA has the means and the membership to produce a large quantity of high-quality work. Our process, which is still very much a work-in-progress, cannot be easily replicated as a standard model for other chapters to follow, nor should it be. Our approach must be bottom-up, chapter to chapter, with National providing support both financially and by building a network of creatives that can volunteer their labor to help new publications and other local media get off the ground. The actual content and coverage, while still reflecting the core values of the DSA, must stay in the hands of locals and stay relevant to the areas they’re organizing within. It’s through this approach that the DSA can build power in every corner of the country, challenge popular narratives, and transform a burgeoning movement on the left into a full-on revolution.