TV News in a Postmodern World

Of Liberals and Networks

by Terry L. Heaton
My father was a supporter of Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. I recall election night 1956 as one of the few times I actually heard him curse. Words are insufficient to describe his disdain for Republicans. Though he served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he thought Dwight Eisenhower was a "silk stocking" that ran the government for the rich. My father worked the furniture factories of Grand Rapids while my two brothers and I dined at his table. He was workingman, a churchgoer, a patriot, a traditional father and a regular white guy. He was a Democrat.

My father passed away in 1988, and along the way in his life, he never left the party, but it certainly left him. If he were alive today, my father would no more support the Democrats than the man in the moon. Gays and Lesbians? Atheists? Welfare and other liberal social programs? Disparate special interests claiming their own importance over the party's? Political correctness? A mosaic instead of a melting pot? I don't think so.

He would be a Republican, regardless of his distaste for the rich. Why? Because the GOP more represents his core values than the Democrats of today. Oh, he'd care about policies that help the rich and all, but not so much that it would force him into a roomful of people that would give him the heebie-jeebies. The left has taken the position that this discomfort is the problem of people like my father, and that it can be eased through education and tolerance. This is not only condescending but hopelessly naÔve.

I suppose you could say that the Democrats of today might not want my father or his kind anymore. After all, he was clearly homophobic, sexist, individualistic and religious. This is a blind spot for the party of my youth, for somewhere along the way, Democrats moved from the party of everyday people to one of special interests. They abdicated the position unawares through very smart marketing by their opposition, and it's why attempts to create liberal broadcast networks wonít do anything to reposition Democrats in the minds of the electorate. It'll only make things worse.

I was in the service during the late 1960s, but my heart was definitely counter-culture. Nevertheless, after the violence in the U.S. in 1968, including the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; relentless, escalating anti-war protests; and the Chicago riots outside the Democratic National Convention, I was glad to see Richard Nixon elected. Everything was just out of control, and I wanted some of that peace of the 1950s back. I wasn't alone.

After Watergate came the just-plain-weird, non-elected administration of Gerald Ford, followed by Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis. I was in the news business during this difficult time, and many Baby Boomers like me were grappling with the changing identity of the Democratic Party. Frankly, I was glad when Ronald Reagan was elected. I wasn't alone.

Through an odd set of circumstances, I went to work for the ministry of Pat Robertson shortly after Reagan was elected. I was hired to help transform The 700 Club into a news magazine show with a point-of-view. It was a good gig. I met some amazing people and did some good work. When I became Executive Producer of the show, I was given authority over telethons, so I needed to learn everything I could about Robertson's fundraising genius. The meeting I had with him forever changed my beliefs about religion, politics and human nature.

"Write this down," he said. "People give money for these reasons and in this order. How does it help me? How does it help my family? How does it help my neighborhood? How does it help my community? How does it help my state and region? How does it help my country? And finally, how does it help somebody else?"

All of our ads and program content reflected these beliefs, and it was brilliant. Pat's book, The Secret Kingdom, was a how-to manual on the "laws" that were written into the realm of the spirit to help those who believed. Why should you give money to a ministry? Because God blesses and prospers people who give. This exploitation of human nature wasn't, in my opinion, cynical or manipulative. It was simply what the ministry believed.

There's an old joke that the devil doesn't want Billy Graham, Oral Roberts or Pat Robertson in hell. Billy Graham would get everybody saved. Oral Roberts would get everybody healed. And Pat Robertson would raise the money for air conditioning. How true. One year, we raised $248 million in contributions.

After Pat ran for President and I left the ministry, I began to notice things about commercials for Republican Party candidates, especially at the national level. There was that familiar pitch: How does it help me? How does it help my family? And so forth.

This is something the Democrats do not get. It's as if they have blinders on, because the message of the Democrats is delivered with a naÔve, albeit altruistic, undertone of helping each other and righting wrongs that affect this or that. The truth is that the party of my father doesn't seem to have a clue anymore as to what really motivates most Americans.

South Korean voters recently ended 44 years of conservative rule in the country. Much of this liberal success can be traced to the work of visionary and entrepreneur, Oh Yeon Ho, who built a marvelous media experiment in citizen journalism called OhmyNews. Before creating the online media company, Oh attended school in the U.S. Given his politics, you might expect an Ivy League school or perhaps Berkeley, but Oh got his Masterís Degree from Pat Robertson's Regent University. As unlikely as that seems, Oh told the New York Times the decision was deliberate.

"Pat Robertson and I are very different in temperament and ideology, but we are very similar in strategy," said Mr. Oh, who became what he calls a serious Christian during his stay in the United States. "They are very right-wing and wanted to overthrow what they saw as a liberal media establishment. I wanted to overthrow a right-wing media establishment, and I learned a lot from them."

One thing Oh carried away with him was Robertson's gift for communicating directly with people. Issues in Korea have been framed by OhmyNews in a way that speaks to why a liberal government is in the best interests of the readers and viewers. The young people of the "2030 generation" turned out in droves on election day — and encouraged their friends to do likewise — because they believed it was in THEIR best interests to do so. They weren't carrying the torch for some seemingly righteous and distant vision. The energy was there, because they wanted things fixed NOW, so that they could enjoy a better life for themselves. There's nothing wrong with that.

Moreover, OhmyNews considered itself to be the voice against the establishment. In South Korea, that was the conservatives, led by a conservative press. Robertson and the Republicans of the Reagan era successfully painted liberals into the establishment corner here. And the establishment, be it liberal or conservative, can be demonized as the enemy of all.

And now, in this country, we have the efforts of Al Franken and other liberal entertainers to create a liberal radio network. Air America launched a few months ago amid considerable fanfare, but even liberals are having a hard time with it. Top executives have quit. Thereís a problem paying bills, and a lot of folks are predicting it wonít last much longer.

Then there are complaints about the content. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, liberal columnist David Shaw said he spent what "may have been the most boring day of my life" listening to the network from 6am to 11pm one day. His essay, "All-left radio is lacking the right stuff for success," said the network just won't work. "Most of the programming was as earnest as C-SPAN," he wrote, "and as dreary as a lecture on agriculture price supports, albeit filtered through a liberal sensibility."

Shaw went on to describe the very real disconnect with Americans that most liberals can't seem to see. "In a country in which 64% of the public say they attend weekend worship services at least once a month, mocking religion might not be the most effective way to win converts — and yet, on Good Friday no less, that's exactly what the various Air America hosts repeatedly did."

But the problem with Air America goes beyond its inability to communicate with those it wishes to convert. It's trying to make that conversion by shouting down from a mountaintop, and the working end of any top-down communications model is an audience that will listen. This is exactly the wrong time in history to be attempting such a thing. We've entered an era where the listener/viewer/user is in charge, and audiences are no longer captive. The Internet is destroying the whole top-down, mass-market concept, so this experiment has about the same chance of success as a salmon swimming upstream in molasses.

Al Gore is launching his new cable news network soon — one that caters to younger people and will doubtless offer Gore's personal perspective. He's going to hire smart young people and turn them loose on the culture. I like his idea, but I disagree with his delivery mechanism — a cable news network. It has the same problems inherent with Air America, only it's going to cost about ten times more. Besides, top-down is passť. OhmyNews is the model, and online is the way to do it.

Joe Trippi, one of the authors of Howard Dean's phenomenal early campaign success with the Internet, is currently making decisions about what to do with his "Change for America" franchise. He would be well advised to thoroughly examine Oh Yeon Ho's remarkable success in South Korea.

The enemy of the left isn't Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. The enemy of the left is the establishment press, who would like to see a "real" liberal press come along, so they could point a finger and say, "See, we told you we were in the middle." There is no middle, because there is no such thing as objectivity — journalismís artificial hegemony that has governed the "professional" press for nearly a century. People intuitively know this, and each time CBS or The New York Times criticizes Fox News, they wave a banner to the public acknowledging they are on the other side. Therefore, attempts to create a "liberal voice" are anti-intuitive, foolish and extremely counterproductive.

The Democratic Party needs a new manifesto, one that takes into account the values and beliefs of people like my father. In so doing, the party will discover it's not nearly so inclusive and tolerant as it thinks it is. After that painful process, it needs to learn how to talk to people in ways that communicate the personal, familial and community benefits of voting out the new establishment.

If the Democrats don't do it, somebody else will. The Uri Party in South Korea was powerless and virtually unknown just four years ago. It is now the party of power. The countryís parliamentary form of government made such a dramatic change easier, but that doesnít mean it canít happen here. No third party here has ever had the Internet.