When MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan announced late last week that his time at the network had “come to an end,” he took special pains to call out the left-leaning online activist groups that had dogged him for years.
Among the groups on Buchanan’s list were ColorofChange.org and Media Matters, who the conservative talking head called “thought police” that “seek systematically to silence and censor dissent.”
But for the groups who took on Buchanan, his message wasn’t anywhere close to thoughtful dissent. In their estimation, it was hate speech, packaged and delivered for a modern network audience.
“While there’s political debate we may not always agree with, Pat Buchanan has a history of passing off white supremacist ideology as mainstream political thought,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org and board member of the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com.
Buchanan had long been a target for his extremist conservative views. He has lamented openly about the “end of white America” and called interracial sex “white genocide.” In 2008, he insinuated that slavery was the best thing to happen to black people. Buchanan’s startlingly anachronistic views were out of sync with MSNBC; the network had already begun its ideological drift to the left, and in recent years have offered groundbreaking shows to white and black liberal hosts like Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and Melissa Harris-Perry.
Given that track record, it’s no surprise that Buchanan is one of a handful of conservative talk show hosts who’ve been targeted by online activists in an effort to hold them accountable for the bigoted views they display in the media. Lou Dobbs was booted by CNN in 2009 after Presente.org led a successful campaign against him, focused on his vehemently anti-immigrant views. Glenn Back left Fox after ColorofChange.org pressured over half of his show’s advertisers to jump ship and viewers grew tired of his outlandish conspiracy theories.
The efforts paint a fascinating picture of the changing landscape of political organizing for people of color, particularly those working toward media accountability. Though online activism, once labeled “clicktivism,” has at times been derided for seeming too easy compared to the in-your-face direct action of previous movements, these successful campaigns have uncovered just how malleable organizing can be, particularly when facing the veiled persistence of systemic racism. The NAACP used social media as a primary way to connect with its members during the effort to save Troy Davis from Georgia’s death penalty last September. The state executed Davis, but anti-death penalty campaigners say the case reinvigorated the movement to end capital punishment.
To be certain, the tools are different. For the online organizers, computers and emails have taken a more prominent place than printing presses and spirited town hall meetings. But the approach is similar to successful strategies popularized by civil rights and third world liberation activists in the 1960s and ’70s, and at times shows parallels with the divestment campaigns of activists working against South African apartheid in the 1980s. While the Internet isn’t a means unto itself, it has become a powerful tool that offers an entryway for members to take meaningful action on issues they care about.
“It’s important that there are multiple strategies,” says Robinson. “While we may initially reach out to our members online, we’re engaging them in multiple ways and giving them multiple opportunities to make their voices heard.”
Take the campaign against Pat Buchanan, for example. ColorofChange.org spread the word to hundreds of its online members. But those members then took physical action, bombarding MSNBC with phone calls expressing their outrage and demanding Buchanan’s termination.
In nearly each instance, explicit language was used to call out the targets’ racist rhetoric. Words like “bigot” and “white supremacist”—labels often hushed away in today’s tepid discussions about racial injustice—are used plainly and directly. And people respond.
Of course, there are drawbacks to online organizing. Plenty of people of color have a hard time getting online altogether. But it’s become a remarkably important tool in media justice advocates’ fights for accountability in cable news. And regardless of the form, the end result is fairly simple.
“The media likes to talk about how there are two sides to every debate, but there are not two sides to the dignity of black people,” Robinson says.