Ignoring the alternative media is our loss

Thomas Carlyle, 19th century Scottish historian, gives this neat description of the importance of the press in a democracy: “The nation is governed by all that has tongue in the nation: Democracy is virtually there.”

The task of expressing views often ignored by the mainstream media falls to the men and women who produce the alternative papers like this one. And it helps on occasion to remind us of how vital they are in airing minority and nonconformist views, defending and affirming those positions vis-à-vis the majority culture.

This year we celebrate the importance of getting a more varied perspective of our world with the 72nd birthday of Pacifica Radio, the first listener-supported radio in the US, which went on the air in San Francisco. Black Agenda Report, established in 1979, has been a strong and radical defender of Black causes in the US and around the world. The Real News Network still sticks to its promise “of rigor in  journalism dedicated to the facts, but unafraid to engage alongside movements for change, because we believe journalism and media making has a critical role to play in illuminating pathways for collective action.”

There are many others that never get heard in the mainstream, but without them we would be deluged, as we are, with a single view with hardly an attempt to acknowledge opinions that do not accord “their” facts.

The publishers of these alternative media had to “sleep with one eye open” because to keep this media afloat requires constant vigilance in order to survive. It gets worse when the economic system experiences its periodic recessionary cycle. Nevertheless they readily admit that they get a kick out of showing the big media houses that there is more news in “dem thar hills” than they want to tell us about, or provide an interpretation of issues that the big houses find inconvenient. 

Lest we think that only places like Iran or Afghanistan, where we fancy they need our democratic tutelage, and where publishing an alternative point of view would almost certainly get you killed, there was a time when doing so in many self-declared democracies like the USA was hazardous to your health. Now you simply get buried under a deluge of “official news” from corporate news rooms.

A classic example of sticking to the official line is the 18-month long coverage of the COVID 19 pandemic and the full court press to ensure that everybody gets vaccinated.

While we are not anti-vaxxers, and take the view that the pandemic must be taken seriously, many in the alternative media beg to differ, and provide views and information that are quite reasonable and can only help in making better sense of a complex subject if we dare to read it alongside the daily information we are provided with in the “official media.” But the presenters in the alternative media are summarily dismissed as conspiracy theorist fed by dissident and crackpot scientists. Doubt and curiosity have been squeezed out of what should be a rational and needed discussion.

While the alternative media are not innocent of bias and therefore must be read with care, it is certain that the truth lies somewhere between the alternative and corporate views. More often than not, in our experience, it lies closer to that of the alternative media; and, arguably, they serve democracy as well or even better than the big media houses.

For that we should toast the efforts of outfits like Pacifica Radio, Black Agenda Report, the Real News et al for surviving in a rough business, for continuing to punch above their weight, and for reminding us of Carlyle’s dictum: “The nation is governed by all that has tongue in the nation: Democracy is virtually there.”.

So, with gratitude to Mr. Carlyle, we continue to sleep with one eye open.