A man watching a set of retro screens that have Means TV's new programming on them
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty, Shutterstock and Means TV
TV

The Revolution Might Be Televised

Anti-capitalist media has long struggled to find a way of existing within the system it rails against. Can Means TV change that?
April 2, 2020, 4:22pm

The chyron across the screen read “LLOYD BLANKFEIN: MASSIVE RICH DICK.”

Above it, Sam Sacks was reading read off a tweet that Blankfein, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, had posted days before, warning against taking “extreme measures” to stop the spread of coronavirus in the United States because they would decimate the economy—another danger to public health, Blankfein argued.

“It’s true that economic downturns have a negative impact on public health,” Sacks explained. “Though that can be mitigated by taxing rich dicks like Lloyd Blankfein.”

“Rich dicks” is a regular segment on Means Morning News, hosted by Sacks and his colleague Sam Knight. The show is one of the flagship products of Means TV, a self-described anti-capitalist streaming platform that its founders, Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes, have pitched as “Netflix for the 99 percent.” Like Netflix or Hulu, Means TV, which launched on February 26, runs on subscribers; a monthly subscription to the platform, which is available as an app in places such as Apple TV or Roku, costs $10.

But unlike other streaming services, Means TV offers free or discounted subscriptions for those who can’t afford the full cost. Burton and Hayes—a Detroit-based couple who previously worked in public relations and commercial film production, respectively—also don’t take money from corporate sponsors or venture capitalists, and they run the platform as a cooperative, meaning that the workers who make programming for Means TV have a stake in the business. Rejecting corporate money means the platform’s production costs have largely been subsidized through individual donors—as of this writing, the pair have crowdfunded a little more than half of their $409,600 goal.

Those who aren’t yet familiar with Means TV may be familiar with the video project that preceded it: In 2018, Burton and Hayes shot now-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign ad for her run against incumbent Joe Crowley, which was an instant viral success. At the time they were operating as Means of Production, a production studio dedicated to working class causes. After they finished helping Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, they shot ads for Kaniela Ing and Zak Ringelstein, two other democratic socialist candidates running for Congress.

The ads have a similar feel, beginning with the then-candidates talking about their experience growing up in working-class families. They're shot in their apartments and neighborhoods, at their bodegas and on their beaches. And they spell out exactly how corporate interests have worked against people like them.

“If you look at political ads, most of them don’t have a lot of authenticity,” Burton said over the phone one day in February. According to Hayes, this is because most candidates are delivering lines that get decided on in focus groups, where seasoned political strategists carefully calibrate messaging to key voter demographics.

The couple had a bone to pick with cable television, too. Though they both grew up watching the evening news, as they came to socialist consciousness, they grew increasingly skeptical of supposedly liberal networks like CNN and MSNBC. Any remaining faith they had in mainstream media was severed completely in 2016, when it failed to anticipate the rise of Donald Trump. But it wasn’t just the news networks that were untrustworthy: even fictional television seemed to largely depict comfortable middle- to upper middle-class lifestyles, rarely portraying the plight of everyday working people. Hayes calls this phenomenon “cultural gaslighting.”

“So many of us struggle to pay rent, access health care and childcare—we struggle in all of these different ways and then we turn on TV and we’re watching a family live in a house with 10 bedrooms, never worrying about money,” he said. “It’s trying to convince us that we live in a different world than the one we know we live in.”

Over the last few years, leftists have begun to address this discrepancy, primarily through podcasting, a medium with relatively low production costs. The most popular of these is Chapo Trap House, which reportedly brings in upwards of $170,000 a month, and has attracted nearly 40,000 Patreon subscribers. Other podcasts, some associated with leftist publications like Dissent or Current Affairs, have also earned loyal followings, serving as a home base for those who already consider themselves leftists or socialists and an easy point of entry for those with burgeoning curiosities since they can be listened to in private, at one’s convenience, and usually for free.

There has always been some dabbling in television on the left, even with a fair amount of success—the early aughts gave leftists The Young Turks; the late 2010s, Rising, the online news show hosted by former MSNBC host Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjetiand. But historically, the left has been mistrustful of television as a medium for the social change it envisions. In 1970, the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” echoing a popular slogan used by Black Power movements in the decade before, when television sets were becoming common fixtures of the American home. The slogan reflected a critical attitude toward television as a form of entertainment meant to dilute or outright ignore politics, dull the senses, and confine American families to their couches—unless it be to purchase a product advertised during commercial breaks.

Means TV hopes to harness television for the opposite ends. The programs on the platform—which include news shows, comedic shorts, man-on-the-street videos, and feature-length documentary and films—are meant to be as entertaining and engaging as capitalist television. But instead of lulling viewers into political complacency, Burton and Hayes hope the platform will equip them with a robust understanding of anti-capitalist principles such that they can then leave their homes and act on them. After all, conservative outlets have long since made it clear that television can sharpen ideology, as networks like Fox News transform the way people interact with and view the world.

“I think there are limits to everything—to the effectiveness of streaming, film and TV,” Hayes said. “But what I’m always struck by is just how effective it is. It’s so fucked up that TV and film are controlled largely by companies that are trying to sell you drinks and soda and shit. It’s been so perverted that we’ve lost sight of what film and TV are—tools for empathy and solidarity.”

The Means TV homepage. Courtesy Means TV

When I first spoke to Burton and Hayes, in February, MSNBC host Chris Matthews had just apologized for comparing Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ victory in Nevada to the Nazi takeover of France during World War II. On the left, the remarks were considered the apotheosis of the network’s ongoing anti-Sanders campaign, which had been characterized by other explicit digs at the candidate from Matthews and others: Earlier that month, Matthews had insisted that while Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren would stop their cars to help someone lying hurt on the side of the road, Sanders would not; Joy Reid said the Democratic Party needed to figure out “what the hell they’re going to do” about Sanders’ then-sizable lead in the race; and some MSNBC news anchors were visibly exasperated when they reported on Sanders’ landslide on Nevada caucus night.

Now, watching MSNBC and other mainstream news outlets cover a global pandemic, the Means TV founders saw a similar bias—cable news hosts continued to adhere to the logic of capitalism while at the same time refusing to identify it as the source of the chaos that has ensued. If they did, it would inevitably upset their corporate sponsors and stakeholders.

“That was something that was so terrifying when I listened to cable news growing up,” Burton said. “Everything felt so chaotic because news anchors can’t provide the real answer for why this is happening and how everything is connected. You need an analysis of capitalism.”

Aside from the “Rich Dicks” segment, Means Morning News takes a somewhat conventional form. On the March 26th edition of the show, Sacks reported news about the growing number of coronavirus cases in the U.S., calls to release incarcerated people amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the massive relief package the Senate had passed earlier that week, which included plans to spend billions bailing out the airline and hotel industries, among others. He went through the legislation point by point, explaining that the massive economic stimulus to address coronavirus will operate much the same way the 2008 bailout did, making big banks bigger, and enriching their executives and shareholders.

Nearing the end of his summary, Sacks—who has been pre-recording the show from his apartment, a blue padded moving blanket and a “Means Morning News” sign serving as his backdrop—said: “We’ve already described about two-thirds of what’s in the bill and you’re probably wondering, Well, where’s the relief for working people?”

The story of the coronavirus—one that has laid bare the class divides in our country—is the perfect story for Morning News. Just as “reality has endorsed Bernie Sanders,” according to a March New Yorker headline, so it has Means TV, making it clear that it is impossible to provide cogent reporting without acknowledging the way wealth and privilege organize our society.

“If you watch MSNBC and CNN, the stories around the failures of the Trump administration, like most news stories in this era,” Sacks said, of those networks' coverage of coronavirus. “But that’s only part of the story. The larger answer to why the U.S. is so bad at responding to this pandemic and why our economy is in free fall right now is capitalism, and that’s just not something you’ll ever hear on cable news.”

Knight and Sacks both come from the world of left podcasting. Their daily news podcast District Sentinel Radio started out as a digital left-wing news co-op the two D.C.-based journalists launched in 2014. The podcast came three years later, around the same time as Trillbilly Workers Party, another leftist podcast whose creators have found a second home on Means TV.

At the same time as they contribute to Means, the Sentinel duo continues to regularly record their District Sentinel Radio shows, just as the Trillbillies do. Much of Means TV’s other content is sourced from other existing YouTube and radio shows still in production, like Street Fight Radio, a longtime anarchist comedy podcast, and Zero Books, a YouTube off-shoot of the leftist book publisher of the same name.

But while there may be several successful podcasts and blogs for the socialist-curious to consume across various platforms, Sacks says the ultimate result is a fragmented media environment for leftists, which can make for a fragmented political movement.

“Means TV might be one of the first sort of outlets that have a vision of pulling leftists together—socialists, communists, anarchists—to get their ideas and projects out in front of a mass audience,” Sacks said. “I like the quote ‘too small to fail’: You’re not trying to scale up so fast that you’re losing sight of your workers and creators. You can make things work.”

There aren’t many previous examples of what anti-capitalist (or, to use Burton and Hayes’ preferred term, “post-capitalist”) television can be. The socialist television apparatus of Soviet Russia is one place conservative opponents might cite. But the lessons of Soviet television are surprisingly complex. There are, of course, obvious differences: In socialist states at the time, television was—much like its capitalist equivalent—intended to convince viewers that the political system in place was the correct one. Soviet television didn’t rouse people to socialist revolution, because socialism was already the dominant political ideology; instead, it encouraged a cozy, domestic life, showing viewers that it was possible to be content without the decadence that Western capitalism promised.

“People often associate socialism, and therefore socialist television, with propaganda, isolation, and brainwashing, and that was never actually the reality,” said Anikó Imre, a cinema and media studies professor at the University of Southern California, and the author of the 2016 book TV Socialism. “Mostly it was about lifestyle and education—not even about the education of explicitly socialist principles, but about things like proper etiquette, or how to raise children.”

“I find that most of the things that are branded for the left kind of cringey"

Still, Soviet leaders struggled with many of the same questions Burton and Hayes considered when developing Means TV: “They had to ask themselves, ‘What is really distinctive about socialist culture?’” said Christine Evans, the author Between Truth and Time: A History of Soviet Central Television. “‘Should it mobilize viewers? If so to what ends? What if people don’t want to watch it? Do you need new formal strategies or can you use the old ones? Can you make a socialist soap opera, for example, or is the soap opera in itself an exploitative capitalist form you have to reject?’”

In the end, the Soviet Union decided the old forms would do just fine. Socialist television featured soaps, dramas, TV movies, and even game shows, where the prizes weren’t money, but rather the honor of a job well done. (A Jacobin contributor recently argued that this is part of what makes the British baking competition show The Great British Bake Off socialist viewing.) Many of the genres Soviets developed for television in the 1960 and 70s eventually made their way to the West, and some—like the reality TV show—still make up the dominant forms of contemporary American television.

At the core of socialist TV shows, no matter their genre, lay certain essential values: solidarity, collectiveness, internationalism, and utopianism. Explicitly socialist politics may have never made it onto American television (and in fact continue to be maligned by politicians on either side of the aisle, and by large swaths of the general public despite its growing favorability among young people). But those values that informed them did; Evans and Imre both agreed that the closest analog to Soviet-era socialist TV in the West is public television, stations like PBS and the BBC.

Like its socialist counterpart, public television encouraged education, the goal being to create an informed and engaged citizenry. Contemporaneous with Soviet television, philosophers like Foucault and Lacan appeared on French public television, and “if you watched socialist TV in Hungary or Yugoslavia in the 70s or 80s, it wasn’t that different from what you would’ve seen on Belgian or Dutch TV, or on the BBC,” Imre said.

Later, in the U.S., children's shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were pitched in direct opposition to mindless or violent cartoons on corporate networks, and PBS, the country's public broadcast service, is still home to educational children’s programming as well as civic-minded documentaries and films.

Education is one of Means TV’s primary goals as well, be it through a documentary about the United Food and Commercial Workers’ 16-year union drive to organize a North Carolina pork-processing plant, or a satirical cartoon about a weapons manufacturer trying to market their product to the LGBTQ community.

“We need to arm socialists and arm working people with the knowledge they need to exist in this moment,” Hayes said, referring to the crisis resulting from the coronavirus. He talked about creating content around the mutual aid projects that have been springing up across the country, and teaching people how to protect themselves from police when it becomes safe again to gather en masse for protests: “It’s time to use this media platform to mobilize."

Soviet television program being broadcast on the American Discovery Channel cable system from decoded satellite transmissions. Photo by Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images.

One evening in February, I attended Means TV’s Brooklyn launch party, which took place just two days after the platform had gone live. I got a seltzer from the bar and milled around a crowd of around 100 people before gathering in front of the stage in the back of the venue.

Jake Flores, the host of the podcast Pod Damn America—a play on the liberal Crooked Media podcast Pod Save America—hosted the event, opening with a 10-minute standup set. “We’re doing leftist Hollywood shit,” Flores said. “All of the stars of left Hollywood are here—oh wait, they don’t exist because you’re not allowed to do that.”

The crowd laughed at most of Flores’ jokes—Bernie Sanders, his pick for the Democratic nominee, was like an old car you need to get you to work. “It doesn’t need to get home,” he said. “You’ll figure it out.” Then Flores dove into a long anecdote about how “toxic misogyny” had prevented him from learning about poppers; as the story went on, I felt myself inwardly cringe.

Watching a March episode of Means Morning News, the cringe feeling returned. Delivering a news broadcast about how U.S. sanctions on Iran were making it more difficult for the countries to fight coronavirus. After airing a clip of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sachs added: “Suffice to say, if the question is, ‘Are we the baddies?’ the answer is, ‘Yes, we absolutely are.’”

“I find that most of the things that are branded for the left kind of cringey,” said Sam Adler-Bell, a freelance journalist and co-host of the leftist podcast Know Your Enemy. “When the left speaks to itself the language is usually very insular and alienating, or else it’s treacly or cringe-inducing. It’s either some kind of ironic nostalgia for Soviet shit or Yes magazine-style approach, like, Everything is going to be great, we’re going to win!”

On a level, he understands the rhetorical mode; the left is trying to get more people onboard, he said, and inspire people to take personal risks for one another to make a better world. But it won’t appeal to everyone. But Adler-Bell said he’s a fan of Means TV because—though at times it might cross over into this territory—for the most part it takes his preferred attitude toward our late-capitalist environment: cynicism.

“One of the defining characteristics of young people is that we have an extremely cynical and dark sense of humor because there’s no hope for our future—we’re totally fucked so all we can do is laugh at it,” Hayes said. “It’s hard for Netflix or some other corporate platform to react to that in the same way.”

Still, it may be hard for even the most class-conscious among us to resist the lure of corporate television. We know that platforms like Netflix and Hulu are designed to keep us watching—bingeing—for hours. We know that, even when it’s not overt, we’re being marketed hundreds of products every time we turn on a show. We know that even if a program appears to reflect progressive values, it is likely the doing of a media conglomerate with a conservative figure head—six of them own 90 percent of media.

Means TV doesn’t expect to single-handedly fell these media giants; after all, they've raised less than the equivalent of the annual salary of just one the stars of those networks. They’re playing a long game, one that is hard to gauge because it requires considering different metrics than the ones we're used to looking at. Burton and Hayes plan on using the cooperative model Means TV is founded on to build a cooperative radio network and a video game co-op, to start off. “The idea is to continue to expand and build capital for a movement—to build opposition,” Burton said.

“There’s no media institution being handed down to us as young people,” Hayes added. “We need to find ways to pull ourselves out of these capitalist systems.”

After Flores finished his opening set, he introduced Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil, the two filmmakers behind the documentary Sarasota Half in Dream. It was a surrealist film set in Sarasota, Florida, their hometown, a once-popular tourist destination in decline. “[The surrealists] were mainly engaged in finding ways to look at your life day-to-day, to enjoy it and unleash your imagination,” Murphy said. “[They wanted to] do it on a societal scale to encourage utopian thinking, and break out of capitalist realism … I’m getting into theory right now but the film doesn’t; it’s not that dry.”

The documentary began with old commercials clips of young families and retirees touting the many riches of Sarasota—the beaches, the resorts, the golf courses. “I’m in a relaxation coma!” exclaims one senior citizen. Then the film cuts to present-day Sarasota. Many of the resorts are in decay, having been taken over by toxic molds, wasps, and other living creatures; the tennis courts and golf courses are in ruin. On a long walk through a wealthy part of Sarasota, a young person named Elliot tells the camera that there is little for young people to do in a city that was built for old people and wealthy elites from out of town.

There are long shots of aquatic life washed up on shore, of thousands of crabs making their way into the sea, and of the elements impinging on what was once a tourist paradise. Watching it, I didn’t think about contemporary socialist politics in the U.S., at least not overtly. Instead I thought about the beauty of the natural world, and our futile attempts to control it. I thought about how, together, we could be stewards of nature instead of extracting its resources for material gain. I thought about how nice it was to be in a room with about 100 other people on a Friday night, who might be thinking these thoughts too.

Follow Marie Solis on Twitter.

Update 4/3/20: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the Means Morning News segment on U.S. sanctions.