Introduction: For More Than Fifty Years, I Have Been a Progressive Media Activist
This book combines the lessons I’ve learned with vignettes from my life, which largely parallels the story of the modern Left in the United States. I started as a teenage, high school dropout photojournalist shooting riots and rock stars for the underground press of the ’60s. Then I became a hippie activist, living in a commune that took over the Ann Arbor, Michigan, city government in the early 1970s, when we legalized pot and opened free day care and medical centers. After working at High Times and Rolling Stone magazines, I coproduced the 1979 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In 1982, I created the first public relations firm dedicated solely to progressive causes—Fenton Communications. We helped many activist groups reverse the nuclear arms race, free Nelson Mandela from prison, end apartheid, boost sales of organic foods, fight the death penalty and a racist criminal “justice” system, oppose America’s imperial adventures abroad, and fight for clean energy and a livable climate. The firm is still at it, and so am I.
During my half century of activism, I’ve learned how to use the media for social change, starting in the late 1960s, an era when idealists, activists, and utopians did so brilliantly, even dominating popular culture. Alas, today that’s all changed.
Reflecting back on a lifetime of media organizing, here is what I have learned, the precepts that can power progressives to success. Unfortunately, today’s Republicans apply them much more effectively than Democrats and progressives. Please note: Good ideas do not sell themselves. Use the following principles to advance your cause.
I started thinking about all of this as a high school dropout in New York City. At that time, Martin Luther King was choreographing television to spread the moral imperatives of civil rights into every home. Anti-Vietnam War campaigners and draft resistors often achieved equal billing with the war itself, using brilliant tactics to get news coverage. The Black Panthers were on TV resisting police violence, spreading Black pride, and feeding breakfast to poor children. In 1970, millions turned out for the first Earth Day, leading to landmark environmental legislation. The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, and so many other musicians spread progressive values—and personal liberation—to huge audiences.
In the 1960s, political and cultural progressives often dominated popular culture and the news. But then, the Left started to lose its connections with the US public, while the Right eventually triumphed with think tanks, talk radio, FOX News, and a sophisticated online disinformation machine. We built no such infrastructure. So, we went from flower power to President Donald Trump.
The accomplishments of the ’60s have been lasting and profound: greater personal freedoms, more rights for women and the LGBTQ+ population, the end of Jim Crow segregation, the election of the first Black president, almost the end of pot persecution, greater sexual freedom, freedom from stultifying religious and cultural norms, and the end of drafting hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight against popular uprisings abroad. We still have a long way to go on these issues, but we have made so much amazing progress.
However, the failures of the ’60s still haunt us. We totally failed when it comes to the most important political imperative of all, gaining power.
Reactionary, right-wing monopoly corporate forces are more in control of our country today than ever. They have brainwashed a large portion of the population. (As Jane Mayer concludes in her important book Dark Money, “What the Koch brothers really did was pay to change how Americans think.”) And now they threaten our democracy and even the very survival of humanity by attacking science while profiting from heating the globe with fossil fuels. All for a few companies and billionaires, while systemic racism still dominates America.
Why have progressives and Democrats been so much less effective at pub- lic communications than the right? Partly because people on the left look down on the idea of “selling” ideas. People from the liberal arts (or law or the sciences) are inculcated with the false belief that the facts persuade by themselves. They are up against people on the Right who go to business school and who, to advance their careers, have mastered marketing, communications, and cognitive science to sell products and services. Ironically, they have triumphed by using communications principles we pioneered in the ’60s, then largely abandoned.
Now, we are in a new era of activism, as young people rise up to conquer racism, protect science, ensure a livable planet, and fight for economic, racial, and gender justice. If we pay attention to the principles above, I’m convinced we can win again. To ensure civilization’s very survival, we must.
The great free-form radio newscaster of the 1960s, Wes “Scoop” Nisker of KSAN in San Francisco, coined a slogan we could all try to live by: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make your own!” So, I did.
David Fenton, Berkeley, California, January, 2022