For Whom the Bell Tolls: Freshman senator imagines a state without the media


Sam Bell (D-P, Providence) is a freshman Rhode Island Senator, known for his tenure as the head of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, and for serving in the legislature as a strong opposition voice to many of the seemingly institutionalist practices of the state’s political infrastructure.  

During a recent interview, Senator Bell suggested that Rhode Islanders would be better off without the current media companies that produce news and opinion with what he considers an extreme conservative slant, and that because of what he describes as a lack of progressive voices on radio, in print and on television, that he would not be disappointed to see the current media landscape fold.

Bill Bartholomew (Motif): You’re a freshman senator. How’s that been and what role has the media played in your first stint?

SB:  Well, it’s an interesting question. I would say that the Senate is a really awful institution in RI and we do a lot of damage to the state. I think on the whole, the thing I was happiest about all year was the motion to recess at the end. What I told my constituents and people would ask me, how are you going to get things done? I would tell people that I can’t, realistically, I can’t honestly get the things that I really want to get done in a state with such an extremist right wing political machine that runs the legislature. And so my goal has been to mitigate the damage, and I think we did a pretty good job of that this year. A lot of the scariest bills did not pass. We still took a couple of sucker punches to the state. 

BB: And the media component?

SB:  Well, I mean,  I think that there are a lot of good journalists within the media, but there are no decent, very few decent media corporations.

The media has a strong conservative, strong machine bias, particularly the media corporations. As you may have been able to tell, uh, since Sinclair media purchased Channel 10, they have forced out their sort of more unbiased reporters and sidelined them. You know, for instance, replacing Bill Rappeleye with conservative Gene Valicenti, who toes the line with the machine. Whereas there’s some of the WPRI folks who are more concerned about the corruption in the State House. Valicenti is the kind of guy that, you know, that [Senate President] Dominic Ruggerio brings in to give a speech about Italian culture. 

So he’s the guy that Sinclair Media brings in to replace Bill Rappeleye because Rappeleye is too much of an honest, ethical journalist, and also not enough of a conservative ideolog. That corporation, to the extent that they still have a union, I think it’s slowing down the damage there, but it’s very much on a pretty rapid track to being turned into explicit conservative propaganda. Obviously The ProJo was run by a right-wing corporation.

BB:  You came in swinging on day one, which has been well documented across the media. I wouldn’t say that coverage of what you’re doing has been unfavorable. It’s been, if anything, somewhat observational. But do you feel personally frustrated pushing the boulder up the hill as a progressive democrat?

SB: You know, I guess what I feel like I never get coverage from the media is people who are willing to provide specifically progressive opinion journalism. To some extent, the media has stepped in to do some basic ethics-based opinion journalism, which is important, and to some degree oversteps their traditional role of straight news journalism, which I think is fine. And I think that’s a good thing. It’s necessary, but there’s no one in the media who ever comes in and will analyze legislation. So, there’s no one there to provide a progressive perspective on the legislation we do. There’s no one, no single columnists, no one on TV, nothing to ever come in and provide that perspective. And so it’s really in the opinion journalism where we get completely crushed in the media. 

Facts tend to have a liberal bias. To the extent that we do well mostly comes from factual journalism, which covers realities, which always favor us. But in the media, no, I think the media definitely hurts us. It’s so much to the degree that we might even do better should the media die.

BB: Really? The fourth branch of government?

SB: I would say so, yes. Actually, I’d say it’s bad enough in RI that specifically the progressive movement, the degree to which the media companies we have here are so right-wing, it’s so bad that it’s a genuinely close call. 

Listen to the complete episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast featuring Senator Sam Bell on your favorite pod app, bartholomewtown.com or RIpodcast.com. Follow @billbartholomew on Twitter for daily updates.

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