Monday, October 31, 2005

New Pub-casting Chief Completes Right-Wing Coup

Big Bird will be mine
The new president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has stacked the agency's offices with propagandists and White House loyalists in a bold-faced effort to carry forward Kenneth Tomlinson's right-wing crusade against public broadcasting.

(Update: Tomlinson is shown the door)

Since taking up her post as CPB President in June, Patricia de Stacy Harrison -- the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee -- has brought in senior officers from the State Department's "Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy" division, the group that oversees efforts to "advance U.S. interests and security and to provide the moral basis for U.S. leadership in the world."

Each of the new hires had previously served under Harrison when she was assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs and acting undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy.

"Public diplomacy" is gov-speak for propaganda. The packing of the CPB with individuals more comfortable with selling U.S. propaganda than with honest journalism sends a not-so-subtle signal to those working in public broadcasting that truth is out and government spin is in. Harrison's CPB hires include:
Tim Isgitt, now CPB’s vice president for government affairs, was a driving force behind the campaign to place pro-American propaganda in Arabic media worldwide to win Arab support for the war on terror. Before joining the State Department, Isgitt was a manager for international public relations giant Burson-Marsteller; the firm has a history of placing key players in George W. Bush's presidential campaigns into top public relations jobs across the industry.

Mike Levy, the new CPB vice president of communications, served as Harrison's chief of staff when she headed the RNC. At the State Department, Levy developed "pro-active media strategies" to increase support for U.S. counter-narcotics initiatives in more than 100 countries as part of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. He also previously worked as special assistant to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and as press secretary to several GOP congressional campaigns.

Helen Mobley, hired as CPB’s senior director of corporate communications and planning, worked closely with Harrison to manage the State Department's efforts to bring Afghan women to America to showcase new freedoms after the downfall of the Taliban regime. Mobley also was deputy director of scheduling during George W. Bush's first presidential run and has been active in GOPUSA.com, Bobby Eberle's Texas-based campaign "to spread the conservative message throughout America." Eberle became known earlier this year for having hired J.D. Guckert -- aka Jeff Gannon -- as his White House corresondent.
I have posted extensive profiles of these three at Free Press.

The CPB was created to shield public broadcasting from political interference, not to be a megaphone for the White House. Harrison's actions have made it clear that she and her right-wing cronies at the CPB will not be deterred from their quest to turn America's treasured public broadcasting system into partisan echo chamber.

Harrison got her own position at the CPB through her political connections to then-Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, who also heads the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, al-Hurra, Radio and TV Marti and other government-run international broadcasting. Tomlinson's successor, current CPB Chairwoman Cheryl Halpern, is another big GOP fundraiser who spent seven years as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Big Bird equals Mao
Tomlinson is currently being investigated for efforts to impose his political agenda at CPB by funding programming with a pro-government slant, secretly monitoring PBS and NPR for signs of "liberal advocacy journalism," as well as hiring unqualified political cronies like Harrison.

Inspector General Kenneth Konz is expected to present his findings -- which reportedly included ethical and procedural violations as well as misuse of funds -- on Tuesday to a closed-door meeting of the CPB board of directors, of which Tomlinson remains a member.

"CPB is being governed more like a private, secret society than an agency supported by taxpayers,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "As the hiring of former State Department propaganda colleagues by Patricia Harrison illustrates, the CPB has been ideologically hijacked."

Free Press, the Center for Digital Democracy and Common Cause have repeatedly called for greater openness and accountability at the CPB. Earlier this year, we delivered more than 150,000 petitions to the CPB, demanding Tomlinson step down and boardmembers end their partisan interference with public broadcasting.

To add your name to the petition visit the Free Press action page.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Geraldo: Crimes of 'Passion'

Prime Suspect
Roger Ailes is learning just how far Fox News Channel's "warrior journalist," Geraldo Rivera, will push his producers to "get inside a big crime story." Apparently, it involves committing crimes themselves.

In the month since producers began preparing segments for Geraldo's new true-crime program, Geraldo at Large, they have repeatedly crossed law enforcement officers -- attempting to break into crime scenes, getting arrested for driving under the influence and inserting themselves into ongoing police investigations.

The show, which premieres Monday night, is the first in a series of News Corp initiatives to remake Fox’s local broadcast stations in the image of their flag waving cable news outlet.

Earlier this year, News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch tapped Ailes to launch a Fox News Channel assault on broadcast news. Ailes turned to his ace in the hole, Geraldo Rivera, to take his brand of "patriotic" news and opinion to the airwaves. The launch of Geraldo at Large is just the beginning. Other Fox News Channel programs -- a lineup that includes Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity -- are waiting in the wings.

Geraldo at Large is not to be confused with Geraldo's other show, At Large with Geraldo, which airs weekends on the Fox News Channel -- though Rivera told reporters that the two programs are alike.

In a personal note to his fans, Geraldo said the new show plans to present "news with passion." Speaking about himself in the third person, he added that it will be about "Geraldo trying to get inside the big crime stories of the day."

And breaking the law to do so.

Earlier this week, police in Walnut Creek, California arrested Craig Rivera, Geraldo’s younger brother and a producer for his show, on suspicion of drunken driving. Craig is working with former Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman -- who allegedly planted evidence at O.J. Simpson's home -- to produce a Geraldo at Large story about the Pamela Vitale slaying. Before Craig Rivera’s DUI arrest, he and Fuhrman were turned away by police for attempting to gain access to a Hunsaker Canyon estate where victim Vitale had lived.

Prime Suspect

According to the Associated Press, authorities in Idaho are seeking Fuhrman for allegedly tampering with evidence in the investigation of another crime, a kidnapping-murder, while gathering footage and information for Geraldo’s show.

"He is a citizen, not a law enforcement official," Brent Robbins, an FBI spokesman, said of Fuhrman’s efforts to get inside a rural Montana home where two murders were believed to have occurred.

Rivera admits that he wouldn't be doing the syndicated show if it weren’t for Fox News chairman and CEO Ailes. Their collaboration dates back to 1994 when Ailes was chief of CNBC and Rivera Live was the network's top show. Rivera followed Ailes’ move to Fox News Channel. Now, with Ailes taking control of News Corp’s 35 TV stations, expect more Geraldo on our airwaves.

Since August, when the cable news impresario took charge of Fox's conglomerate of local televisions stations, Ailes has moved control of the broadcast network into the New York nerve center of Fox News Channel, announcing plans to translate the cable news network's brand of biased infotainment to local television audiences.

Though Geraldo at Large won't be a newscast in the traditional sense, Rivera told the Houston Chronicle that the resources of Fox News Channel will be made available to him when needed. The half-hour program has now been cleared to air on stations reaching 55 percent of the country.

In a promo for the show, Geraldo pledged "to take the story further. No one will work harder or risk more. . . That’s my promise…to you."

With his own producers leaving a trail of crimes and misdemeanors, Geraldo at Large might soon take on a new meaning.

= = = =
Nov 1 Update:
>>> Farhi Sizes Up and Dresses Down Geraldo
>>> B&C Beat Live-Blogs Episode One

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Getting Ready for Karl's Closeup

Run, Don't Walk
The prosecutor investigating the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson has secured at least one indictment in the case from a majority of the 23 grand jurors, lawyers and intelligence officials close to the case have told the raw story.

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's federal probe is expected to end Friday with indictments of White House officials. The situation remains fluid, however, as multitudes of bloggers, media pundits and other Washington watchers speculate about imminent action.

For its part mainstream media is preparing to shift modes from investigation to prosecution. Photographers are staking out Washington’s district courthouse for sightings of Fitzgerald and staff. More important, however, would be an appearance by any one the White House operatives fingered by the investigation.

According to Dan Froomkin at the Washington Post, if Fitzgerald takes any indictments to a judge today, he would be accompanied by his grand jury foreperson. "So keep an eye out for that," Froomkin advises the expectant media horde. "Also keep an eye out for senior administration officials showing up at the courthouse very, very late at night."

The defining image photogs are waiting for is that most damning of spectacles: the "perp walk."

A contact within the White House press corps tells MediaCitizen that defendants-in-waiting Rove and Libby have set their legal armies maneuvering to avoid the political damage such a public display would wreak for their clients and the White House.

Whether Rove will be indicted or not is unclear, Froomkin writes. "But here's what you need to keep in mind: There is every reason to think that Rove is throwing every move he's got at Fitzgerald in an attempt to escape criminal charges."

The anticipated indictments will list the crimes the defendants allegedly committed and describe the facts the government believes support those allegations. Lawyers close to the investigation say Fitzgerald is considering perjury, obstruction of justice and false statement charges. Fitzgerald’s grand jury indictments would be returned to the DC District Court, which would then issues warrants for arrest.

How soon arrests would follow is unclear. The timing of arrests is often at the discretion of the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction. In the case of well-represented defendants, arrests are negotiated with prosecutors to limit the public humiliation of the perp walk.

Some prosecutors are more willing to let certain defendants come to court on their own and not in manacles. In 2003, Martha Stewart was allowed to turn herself in without a public display. Six months before Stewart's arrest, authorities with guns seized 78-year-old Adelphia Communications executive John Rigas and his two sons and marched them in chains before the cameras -- even though their attorneys offered to surrender the trio. When former Enron Chairman Ken Lay surrendered following indictments in July 2004, photographers lined up by the dozens to take his picture.

Shit Eater
After a warrant was issued for the arrest of Congressman Tom DeLay (R-TX) his lawyer skillfully outflanked the media by switching DeLay’s surrender from one courthouse to another. Reporters and photographers, who had staked out the Fort Bend County Jailhouse for days, were left in their news vans as Delay waltzed into the courthouse in adjacent Harris County. But Delay's perp-walk dodge backfired when he gave the media a present from the vaults: a shit-eating mug shot that’s proved equally his undoing.

Crime media thrive on such moments. Criminal trials by their very nature don’t offer up the visual dynamics that television news craves. There are no getaway cars careening down county roads, police (and news) helicopters in tow, no flood waters washing away SUVs and mobile homes. Instead we’re left with reporters squinting before the kliegs outside a courthouse. If cameras are allowed inside, they depict a defendant dully seated at the table, lawyers and judges shuffling papers. In the often somnambulant universe of court TV, the perp walk ranks as high drama.

Karl Rove has hired "battle-tested" Washington litigator Robert Luskin to make his client's case before the cameras. Luskin -- who brings powerhouse firm Patton Boggs to Rove's aide – has a talent for burnishing client reputations before the media. Roll Call gossip columnist Mary Ann Akers writes that Fitzgerald was spotted Tuesday paying Ruskin a visit at his plush Washington offices. Could a plea deal be in the works?

Chances are high that Rove and Scooter Libby could face real prosecution. But they’ll also undergo trial by media, which, for many a seasoned politician, is a penalty far worse than incarceration. Being photographed in handcuffs is political cyanide for any hopeful entertaining a future in politics. For veterans such as Rove and Libby these images may become their tombstones.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Will Rove and Libby Walk the Perp?

Run, Don't Walk
According to The Washington Note and others, as many as five indictments will be issued today in the investigation into White House leaks regarding CIA agent Valerie Plame. The targets of the investigation received letters from Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald on Tuesday, The Note's Steven Clemons reports, and their indictments will be sealed and delivered to the courthouse today.

If indeed today is indictment day, the media’s image machine will shift gears from investigation to prosecution and line up their photographers to capture the defining event -- that most damning of spectacles: the "perp walk."

Broadcast journalists reportedly have been staking out the courthouse all day. But, according to Dan Froomkin at the Washington Post, if Fitzgerald takes any indictments to a judge today, he would be accompanied by his grand jury foreperson. "So keep an eye out for that," Froomkin advises the media horde. "Also keep an eye out for senior administration officials showing up at the courthouse very, very late at night."

A contact within the White House press corps tells MediaCitizen that defendants-in-waiting Rove and Libby have set their legal armies maneuvering to avoid the political damage such a media display would wreak for their clients and the White House.

Froomkin puzzles over Rove's fate: Whether Rove will be indicted or not is unclear, he writes. "But here's what you need to keep in mind: There is every reason to think that Rove is throwing every move he's got at Fitzgerald in an attempt to escape criminal charges."

The anticipated indictments will list the crimes the defendants allegedly committed and describe the facts the government believes support those allegations. Lawyers close to the investigation say Fitzgerald is considering perjury, obstruction of justice and false statement charges. Fitzgerald’s grand jury indictments would be returned to the DC District Court, which would then issues warrants for arrest.

How soon arrests would follow is unclear. The timing of arrests is often at the discretion of the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction. In the case of well-represented defendants, arrests are negotiated with prosecutors to limit the public humiliation of the perp walk.

Kenny Boy
Some prosecutors are more willing to let certain defendants come to court on their own and not in manacles. In 2003, Martha Stewart was allowed to turn herself in without a public display. Six months before Stewart's arrest, authorities with guns seized 78-year-old Adelphia Communications executive John Rigas and his two sons and marched them in chains before the cameras -- even though their attorneys offered to surrender the trio. When former Enron Chairman Ken Lay surrendered following indictments in July 2004, photographers lined up by the dozens to take his picture.

Shit Eater
After a warrant was issued for the arrest of Congressman Tom DeLay (R-TX) his lawyer skillfully outflanked the media by switching DeLay’s surrender from one courthouse to another. Reporters and photographers, who had staked out the Fort Bend County Jailhouse for days, were left in their news vans as Delay waltzed into the courthouse in adjacent Harris County. But Delay's perp-walk dodge backfired when he gave the media a present from the vaults: a shit-eating mug shot that’s proved equally his undoing.

Crime media thrive on such moments. Criminal trials by their very nature don’t offer up the visual dynamics that television news craves. There are no getaway cars careening down county roads, police (and news) helicopters in tow, no flood waters washing away SUVs and mobile homes. Instead we’re left with reporters squinting before the kliegs outside a courthouse. If cameras are allowed inside, they depict a defendant dully seated at the table, lawyers and judges shuffling papers. In the often somnambulant universe of court TV, the perp walk ranks as high drama.

Karl Rove has hired "battle-tested" Washington litigator Robert Luskin to make his client's case before the cameras. Luskin -- who brings the considerable resources of powerhouse Washington firm Patton Boggs to Rove's aide -- previously represented a money launderer for Colombian drug cartels. His talent for spin and burnishing client reputations before the media will be in demand from Rove.

Roll Call gossip columnist Mary Ann Akers writes that Fitzgerald was spotted Tuesday paying Ruskin a visit at his plush Washington offices. It seems that a plea deal is already in the works.

All indications are that Rove and Scooter Libby face real legal jeopardy. But they’re also facing a trial by media, which, for seasoned political hacks of their ilk, is a penalty far worse than incarceration. Being photographed in handcuffs is political cyanide for any one entertaining a future in politics. For veterans such as Rove and Libby these images may become their tombstones.

PS: Democratis adds that it's still possible Fitzgerald will conclude that there was no violation of the law; everything that has been reported about coming indictments is built upon either anonymous sources or speculation. “For all we know . . . Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney could be carried down the courthouse steps on the shoulders of the grand jurors.” We'll know soon enough. . .

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Neutral Diversity

Lost among the blogosphere’s multiple obsessions – which today includes new Federal Reserve nominee Ben Bernanke, the passing of civil rights champion Rosa Parks, the Nazi Olsens Prussian Blue, the problems with “nano,” Apple’s newest Ipod, and speculation over anticipated indictments from Patrick Fitzgerald -- is a story about the media that will affect the diversity of information that we now take for granted.

As a handful of cable and DSL providers control access to high-speed internet, the threat to our ability to find anything at the click of a mouse looms large. Activists, consumer groups and commercial interests have begun to take notice, joining forces to stop the gatekeepers from limiting access to online content to sites and services they approve.

While most all of the largest providers have sworn to honor “net neutrality” -- or open access to everything online -- there are early signs that they may be testing the waters for more restricted content services – including those related to on-demand video, a potential revenue earner that would supplant the billion dollar advertiser driven model of broadcast television.

In late 2002 several major software and e-commerce firms formed the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators to petition the Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules ensuring that cable and telephone industry broadband operators will not use their control of high-speed networks to disrupt access to websites or other users. They were soon joined by public interest advocates including Public Knowledge, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumers Union.

Repeat after me . . .
A longtime public interest ally, Stanford University Professor Lawrence Lessig lists two benefits of net neutrality: “First,guaranteeing a neutral network eliminates the risk of future discrimination, providing greater incentives to invest in broadband application development today. Second, a neutral network facilitates fair competition among applications, ensuring the survival of the fittest, rather than that favored by network bias.”

In June 2003, then FCC Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree told the Progress & Freedom Foundation -- a free-market organization whose supporters include Disney and AOL/TimeWarner -- that the term "net neurality" was "sloganeering," and that regulating cable Internet services was not necessary to preserve an open internet for all.

"Competitive broadband distribution would allow us to rely upon market forces, rather than government regulation, to govern market structure and service provision," he said.

Throughout this year FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has echoed this belief. Market forces alone will continue to keep the Internet "open," Martin has said on several occasions. This is no surprise coming from a man who’s ruled hand in glove in favor of the same big media companies that are spending tens of millions to lobby rule makers against making rules. But it may not convince many champions of net neutrality to give up on seeking an open access mandate from the FCC.

This group argues that the FCC must adopt preemptive "nondiscrimination safeguards" to ensure Net users open and unfettered access to online content and services in the future. Such preemptive, prophylactic regulation is necessary because the current market is characterized by a cable-telco "broadband duopoly" that threatens Internet users.

In August 2005, the FCC adopted a policy statement containing four principles it claims will preserve the open and interconnected nature of the Net:
1. consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;

2. consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;

3. consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and

4. consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
While stating that these principals will guide FCC policymaking, it’s clear that the corporate friendly commissioners that dominate the FCC are wary of regulating the handful of media giants that now control access.

The best thing for consumers would be a robust, competitive market with lots of broadband and other Internet providers. In a world dominated by too few access providers, a good case can be made for proactive government intervention to keep the net open.

UPDATE: All Your Broadband Are Belong to Us

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Fox Girds for Assault on Clooney and Film

On Joe's Team
Neo-nanny Brent Bozell III rushes in to rewrite the legacy of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his latest polemic from the pulpit of Media Research Center.

A message of liberal bias "emanates from the new George Clooney movie, Good Night, and Good Luck," Bozell writes about the film, which fĂȘtes Murrow's journalistic stand against McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt. "Murrow threw every media dirty trick into [an] attack against the left's hate object, Sen. Joseph McCarthy."

Bozell joins a conservative chorus in defense of the late Senator from Wisconsin — a lineup that includes Allan H. Ryskind, Ann Coulter and Tom Snyder — who have called Murrow’s journalism the worst form of “liberal advocacy” and Clooney's anti-McCarthy film a Hollywood crusade against an upstanding, red-blooded American.

Fox Piles On

But these are mere minnows in the media mainstream. The film is taking heat from a larger outlet of right indignation. Earlier this month, Fox News Channel’s John Gibson teamed up on Big Story with author Reese Schoenfeld to criticize Good Night, and Good Luck, question Murrow’s journalism, and paint Clooney as a hypocrite. Earlier in the week, Brit Hume's Special Report posed the question, "Do Hollywood Liberals Hurt Candidates?" and went on to deride Clooney for being too active in politics.

It doesn’t end there. A source at Fox News headquarters in New York told MediaCitizen that producers for The O’Reilly Factor are digging for dirt to prepare an upcoming segment in which host Bill O’Reilly — a long-time Clooney nemesis — will heap scorn upon actor and film.

O'Reilly has tried to keep his distance thus far, telling reporters in early October that "Clooney's pathetic attempts to bait me into a controversy in order to bring attention to his movie are simply cheap." Those more familiar with O’Reilly’s hush-money hi-jinks might sense the irony in this stake to higher moral ground. Indications from within his own shop are that Bill won't stay silent for much longer.

Repeat after me . . .
McCarthy Redux

(O'Reilly's wild accusations and brow beating of guests recall McCarthy's own coercive tactics as head of the Senate investigations subcommittee, which he deployed against those that didn't measure up to his paranoid delusions.)

Clooney told Salon.com last month that politicized television like O'Reilly's Fox News leaves viewers with a skewed perception of the truth. “You know, if you watch Fox News — my aunt and uncle are conservative, and if you had a conversation with them before the war, Saddam Hussein was the reason for 9/11, was attached to al-Qaida, all of those kinds of things,” Clooney said.

While Clooney offers a careful critique of Fox's news slant, his film draws a more damning parallel between the cowed media of the McCarthy era and the Fox style of journalism that’s practiced today – which was recently manifest in mainsteram media's failure to challenge this administration's rationale for the war in Iraq.

Murdoch Invades Your Hometown

Fox's "news entertainers" routinely attempt to frame the national agenda with a relentless drumbeat of right-wing soundbytes. Clooney and his film are just one of many targets in Fox's grand media scheme to smear dissenters and protect the conservative status quo in American politics.

Thus far, their cable news network has served this end well. What’s especially worrisome, however, is Fox News Channel's plans to spread its own brand of "advocacy jourmalism" from cable to broadcast television stations across the country.

As MediaCitizen reported earlier this week, former GOP operative Roger Ailes, the architect behind Fox News Channel's rightward tilt, is now remaking 35 local television stations — reaching into nearly 40 percent of America’s households — in the image of his right-wing cable network. Ailes plans to replace local news on News Corp. stations in dozens of domestic markets with the blinkered infotainment that’s become a hallmark of O’Reilly and his fellow bloviators at Fox News Channel.

Media consolidation made Fox’s takeover of local news possible. News Corp. owns both a Fox and a UPN affiliate in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — the country’s three biggest markets — and other duopolies in six more of the top 20 markets, including Dallas, Minneapolis and Washington.

Returning Control of Your TV Set

Bigger not better
As I write this, News Corp.'s lobbyists are schmoozing officials in Washington to further loosen regulations that prohibit one company from owning even more local news outlets. In the coming months, the Federal Communications Commission — the agency charged with regulating the number of TV stations one corporation can own — will reconsider media ownership limits.

The loosening of ownership caps would unleash a new wave of media consolidation. At the local level, we could see a single firm own the majority of media — daily newspaper, TV and radio stations, cable TV systems. Such concentration not only violates the premise of a competitive marketplace, it makes a mockery of the notion of a free press enshrined in the Constitution. The implications are clear: media conglomerates such as News Corp. would have the power to put their footprint on political discourse in a manner never seen before.

To stop the "Fox Effect" from invading more hometown news markets, Free Press has launched a national campaign, asking its more than 220,000 activists and others to tell Congress, News Corp. and local stations: “Don’t Fox with my local news.”

The downside for Clooney’s film would be a media marketplace increasingly dominated by those who would rather shutter criticism of officials and aggressive reporting in favor of the myopic flag waving that’s made Fox News notorious.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Don't FOX with Local News

What Ailes America
Fox News Channel's political agenda is coming to a television station near you.

Former GOP operative Roger Ailes, the architect behind Fox News Channel's rightward tilt, is now remaking 35 local television stations -- reaching into nearly 40 percent of America’s homes -- in the image of his dominant cable network.

According to a recent report in Variety, Ailes plans to replace local news on News Corp. stations in dozens of domestic markets with the blinkered infotainment that’s become a hallmark of Fox News Channel.

Coming to your town
He has already moved oversight of the local station group to Fox News headquarters in New York and flown in local news personalities for retraining on how to deliver the news Fox-style.

This month, he replaced station programming with "Geraldo at Large," a show produced out of Fox News’ studios. Geraldo is just the beginning. Other Fox News Channel programs -- a lineup that includes Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity -- are waiting in the wings.

Media consolidation made Ailes’ takeover of local news possible. News Corp. owns both a Fox and a UPN affiliate in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- the country’s three biggest markets -- and other duopolies in six more of the top 20 markets, including Dallas, Minneapolis and Washington. (Click here for an interactive map of Fox-owned stations.)

As I write this, News Corp.'s lobbyists are schmoozing officials in Washington to further loosen regulations that prohibit one company from owning even more local news outlets. Instead, we need to break up the big media conglomerates and get higher quality news and information in return for free use of the public's airwaves.

In the coming months, the Federal Communications Commission — the agency charged with regulating the number of TV stations one corporation can own — will reconsider media ownership limits.

The loosening of ownership caps would unleash a new wave of media consolidation. At the local level, we could see a single firm own the majority of media — daily newspaper, TV and radio stations, cable TV systems.

Such concentration not only violates the premise of a competitive marketplace, it makes a mockery of the notion of a free press enshrined in the Constitution. The implications are clear: media conglomerates such as News Corp. would have the power to put their footprint on political discourse in a manner never seen before.

To stop the "Fox Effect" from invading more hometown news markets, Free Press has launched a national campaign, asking its more than 220,000 activists and others to tell Congress, News Corp. and local stations: “Don’t Fox with my local news.”

Comcast Wants to Google You

Soon, you will be mine
Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts spoke yesterday of his plans to remake the nation's largest cable provider into the Google of television.

Comcast has been rolling out and expanding its on-demand video service, which supposedly enables viewers to choose when, where and what they view. This trend is a byproduct of access to high-speed Internet, something a majority of Americans still lack.

But there's more to Comcast's ambitions than meets the eye. On-demand video also allows companies like Comcast to peer in on your home viewing habits and serve up the resulting data to advertisers and others.

The Dawn of Two-Way TV
As transmission speeds increase, customers will be able to download video programming much as they now download music. Comcast wants to become your first conduit for video search and downloading, much like Google is for today’s text-based Web content. Roberts told the Chicago Tribune yesterday that “part of Comcast's strategy is to become more like Google by making it easier for customers to search for the video content they want, when they want. One part of that strategy is developing a more robust interactive TV viewing guide.”

Now, more than any time in its brief history, Robert’s cable industry stands poised to inherit the future of American television. And no one project is more vital to cable’s power grab than video on demand. But there’s a catch, on-demand is also important to cable executives because it allows them to gather personal information about the millions of customers they’re supposed to serve.

Cast in its best light, interactive television is about enabling viewers to pick the shows they want to watch at the most convenient times. It marks a tectonic shift of the power dynamic between the television business and its audience, placing more control in the hands of those who hold the remote.

But the technology behind all that new viewer freedom slices both ways.

The same digital pipeline that turns your television into a viewer-customized device also can be used to siphon off personal data to be sold to an advertising industry eager to target their products more finely, one consumer at a time.

A New Model for Profit
Until recently, the history of commercial television was built around broadcasters’ ability to beam into homes a carefully mixed cocktail of programming and advertisements. This is all changing as new technologies such as Tivo allow millions of viewers to fast-forward through the 30-second commercials that once bankrolled commercial programming. This practice, known as “commercial avoidance,” threatens to bring the $60-billion-a-year TV advertising business to its knees.

According to a recent Smith Barney report, the tipping point for commercial avoidance devices could come as early as 2007, when the television industry may lose as much as $7.6 billion -- or about 10 percent of its annual ad revenue -- as companies seek other ways to reach consumers.

This stormy media forecast has scattered television’s business model to the whims of the viewers, forcing a mass industry shift toward new devices that will keep them in the game.

For Comcast’s Roberts, “on-demand video” is the company’s safe harbor. Its concept is simple: make users pay for their content directly. This notion is not foreign to cable. Since its inception, cable has asked consumers to ante up endlessly rising sums for programming. But many of the cable executives in town this week believe they need to go one step further: that the very survival of television depends on viewers, not just advertisers, accepting that they must subsidize the high cost of producing each of the shows that Americans love to watch.

VOD and its sister service, pay-per-view, is already a $1.35 billion business; many cable analysts are projecting a meteoric increase as the service spreads from home to home. Cable is going to be the conduit by which this revenue streams back to the content makers -- but not before cable providers gobble up their chunk of the fee.

Payback: Your Data
Companies like Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner have spent nearly $95 billion since 1996 to make VOD a reality, laying an on-demand path into American homes, involving high-speed fiber networks and cable wires. And they’re ready for their big payback.

With the groundwork in place, VOD will allow users to choose their own programming from a startling array of content -- from movies and sitcoms to, one hopes, locally produced documentaries and niche news and information -- all at the click of a remote. According to industry analysts, the cost will range from 30 cents to $1 for standard programming, with higher rates applied to first-run films, sporting events, live concerts and, yes, even pornography.

More than 91 percent of cable-ready homes in the U.S. have access to interactive television services that make VOD services possible -- with more than a third of U.S. cable customers now subscribing to digital cable. This number is expected to increase apace as cable providers roll out more interactive technology.

Ultimately, viewers who spend several hours each day before their sets will be paying more to the cable industry to enjoy their favorite programs. But that’s not all they’ll be giving away.

A spate of new companies have rushed forth to offer software and services that will give cable operators more direct access to viewer tastes by cataloguing their VOD choices in centralized databanks. In turn, the cable industry can repackage this viewer data and sell it to advertisers that are eager to fine-tune their product pitches to “high-probability” consumers. And since traditional advertising -- in the form of the 30-second spots – is on the wane, advertisers will infiltrate their products throughout the programs themselves as they devise more intrusive methods to hit their targets.

From the industry’s perspective, this technology will make ads more relevant to the lives and needs of their viewing customers. A recent New York Times article casts a rosy light on the new technology: “Instead of commercials being an annoyance, they become information a viewer needs, perhaps even craves.”

But privacy concerns loom large as advertisers could collect more information about each viewer’s tastes than the viewer might want to reveal. The cable industry promises to safeguard this consumer data behind impenetrable firewalls. Recent cases of mass identity theft at credit companies such as Choicepoint and Bank of America demonstrate that these systems are vulnerable to attack.

This danger won’t stop the industry from pushing forward a viewer identifying technology that would place cable firmly at the center of the trillion-dollar business model for the future of all television.

As Roberts plots out more inventive ways to win American hearts, minds and pocketbooks, know that your personal data has become his Holy Grail.

Miller Time for Tina

No Frank Rich
The more you hear from Judith Miller, the less you know about the the Rove-Plame scandal contends Tina Brown, still of the Washington Post.

In a commentary that's as cryptic as Miller's own New York Times narrative, Tina tries to make sense of it all:
". . . not all stories are as Manichaean as the [Jayson] Blair debacle. The Miller epic is so complex and compromised it probably can't be truthfully told until after the special prosecutor has unloosed his thunderbolts -- and maybe not even then."
Whaaa . . . ?

Bloggers are doing their best to make clear for readers what the Times, Miller and, now, Tina can't seem to put into simple words. Leading the charge are Arianna Huffington, Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen who dispense with literary flourishes for a no-nonsense assessment of the story.

Then there's Tina:
Maybe this isn't so much transparent journalism as reality TV crossed with teenage soap opera, starring Miller as the alpha Heather. "It's official. I'm Miss Run Amok," she announces after a tsk-tsk session with Boyd. And Boyd's successor as managing editor, Jill Abramson, asked if she regrets any part of the Times's handling of the matter, replies sulkily, "The entire thing!" You can almost hear the door to her room slamming. The script is like a rejected pilot for the WB network.
What the. . . ?

Tina's not Frank (Rich, I mean).

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tikrit Two-Step

First Lieutenant Gregg Murphy writes from Iraq responding to my posting about his role in last Thursday’s press event with the president.

My response follows his. Others are welcome to chime in using the comment thread. But, please -- and this goes out especially to the shrill horde visiting from Michelle Malkin’s “hyper-informed” blog -– keep the death threats to yourselves.

From First Lt Murphy:

Soldier Propagandist
Tim,

I noticed a few inconsistencies with your page. I wonder how I was quoted praising Bush in 2003, when I didn't arrive in country (Iraq) or make any comments prior to December 2004.

Some other interesting factoids that your blog missed: I am a registered Democrat. I have voted that way for the past 12 years. Not until my recent deployment have my views started moving over to the right.

The reason I support Bush, is because Bush supports all of us over here. . .

. . . Read the remainder of Lt. Murphy's comments

My response:

MediaCitizen
Thanks for writing Gregg. I will take you up on that beer. Seriously.

I am disturbed by the number of people who have misread my post as an attack on the troops. I'm more concerned, however, that the Pentagon and the White House are using you and your fellow soldiers as bit players in a deceptive political scheme.

The Thursday event came across very poorly in mainstream media -- as though it were a desperate White House bid to reverse the president's decline in public opinion polls. I have watched the raw feed several times and wasn't the least bit convinced. . . .

. . . Read the remainder of Karr's response

Michelle and your Mensa minions, make of this what you will.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Radio Boot Camp

Pointing rightward
Armed Forces Radio, the station with more than 1,000 outlets broadcasting to American troops in 175 countries, has canceled a program that was supposed to be the liberal counterpart to radio Icarus Rush Limbaugh.

The decision to ad the Ed Schultz Show to the AFR lineup follows a campaign last year by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin to provide "programming that reflects a cross-section of what is widely available to stateside audiences." According to the AFR website, its programming is meant to "represent what is seen and heard in the United States."

The addition of the Ed Schulz's show was meant to provide an antidote to the fact-challenged screed of Limbaugh, who AFR now airs for one hour each day.

According to ThinkProgress, Jones Radio, the company that syndicates Schultz's Show, received an email on September 29 from an AFR official confirming that one hour of Schultz's program would begin airing yesterday, October 17. But yesterday morning, the producer of the Ed Schultz show received a call from Pentagon communications aide Allison Barber who said AFR would not air the show this week, next or for the forseeable future.

You’ll remember Barber as the aide caught coaching troops before a photo-op with President Bush last week.

Barber said she couldn’t guarantee that the show would be airing in the future. Barber told Schultz’s producer that she had heard that the first program on AFR would begin with audio outtakes of Barber sounding foolish as she rehearsed the troops "Q&A session" with Bush.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told the Washington Post last night that no decision had been made in a review of which programming to add to the network. When asked about Schultz's insistence that his criticism of Barber played a role, Whitman called that "an unfortunate misperception on his part. That has nothing to do with this."

Visitors to Ed Schulz website disagreed, suggesting two possible reasons for the DOD decision to cut his show from AFR programming:

1. It‘s retaliation for Schultz criticizing the Department of Defense’s Public Relations team for staging a ‘spontaneous’ media event for President Bush last week; or

2. The Bush Administration doesn't want dissenting voices or any other kind of speech on radio unless it's going to be promotional for them.

Others wonder whether Schulz is really the right voice for the left:

Blowin' Smoke
"I like the concept of a liberal talk-show host who can connect with working-class and rural audiences, but damn, can't we find anyone better than this guy?" asks "B" at ThinkProgress. "The only thing he really has going for him is his eerie vocal similarity to Rush Limbaugh. If they have any liberal on Armed Forces Radio, it should be Randi Rhodes, who's at least served in the military." Rhodes' radio show is carried in 32 states by Air America and other affiliates.

Schultz's show is now on 105 stations in 9 of the top 10 radio markets versus Air America's 95 stations, two satellite feeds. While labeled progressive by many, the show differs from Air America and other liberal formats in many ways -- packed with callers offering different viewpoints.

Blowin' Smoke
While his show may be crap to some, that’s beside the point. The fact that there is no commentary on the service that would even begin to counter the repugnant right-wing views that Rush Limbaugh routinely spews forth on his program is troubling. In 2004, Limbaugh used his show to trivialize U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, likening their torture to a fraternity initiation and calling some of their abusive tactics a "brilliant maneuver."

Moreover, that the DOD would take such blatant action to stifle opposing views to this war -- at a time when a majority of Americans oppose Bush’s leadership and our occupation of Iraq – reveals an administration and its DOD lackeys that are desperately out of touch with the public and the soldiers they’re supposed to serve.

For more on this story . . .

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Soldier Propagandist

Soldier Propagandist
Intrepid MediaCitizen reader "lebkuchen" Googled some of the soldiers who were being used by the Pentagon as stooges on Thursday and found another GI who didn't quite pass the smell test.

I've dug further into the history of First Lieutenant Gregg Murphy of the 278th Regimental Combat Team and found that there's more to Murphy than meets the lens. His pro-Bush rhetoric is sprinkled throughout the media in articles dating back a year.

This begs the question: how could one soldier get so much face time?

Was Murphy like other soldiers, giving Americans a "sincere" assesment from the field -- as Scott McClellan claimed at his White House press briefing Thursday? Or could he be part of a larger scheme -- involving already outed Seargent-cum-shill Corine Lombardo -- to covertly stack the media deck with pro-war, pro-Bush voices?

Let's review the evidence.

For his part in Thursday's PR charade, Lt. Murphy told the president:
Sir, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make this thing a success... Back in January, when we were preparing for that election, we had to lead the way. We set up the coordination, we made the plan. We're really happy to see, during the preparation for this one, sir, they're doing everything.
Publicity officer Corine Lombardo -- who helped choreograph Thursday's show -- likely knew from earlier articles that Murphy would praise Bush's war effort. In a June article in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, Murphy rushed to Bush's defense:
"President Bush is absolutely right in staying the course here," said Lt. Gregg Murphy, of Chattanooga, in an e-mail. "Who is going to preserve human rights and protect the huge investment for peace that we have already made if not the U.S. military?"
Murphy waves the flag in several other Times-Free Press stories. Most come from the pen of Edward Lee Pitts, the journalist who last December prompted a soldier to ask Defense Secretary Rumsfeld about the lack of armor for U.S. military vehicles in Iraq -- an exchange that became a global embarrassment for the administration.

Here's Murphy in action in a 2004 Lee Pitts story:
Recruiters said their biggest promotional tools are combat veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, who are helping bolster the ranks by tapping into the South's tradition of patriotism.

Lt. Gregg Murphy, of Chattanooga, is one of about 4,000 soldiers with the 278th Regimental Combat Team now in Iraq. He said in an e-mail that he would jump at the chance to "set the record straight about Iraq" by telling "the real story of soldiers, not the blood, guts and carnage."

He said returning soldiers could counter the media's focus on the losses in Iraq by talking about ongoing humanitarian work there such as new schools, libraries and water projects."
After the Bush-op, Lt. Murphy told Channel 3 in Burlington that "it was real honor to talk to the man. It's been a great day." Murphy added that he had no idea why he was selected to speak with the President. I suspect the Lieutenant wasn't being entirely honest on that score. His next statement to the newscast gives some indication:
Working closely with the Iraqi army has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I've worked hand in hand with these guys daily, both at the platoon and company level. These guys they are prepared, they're already operating independently, they're doing their own thing.
Publicity officer Lombardo couldn't have written a better script. To her dismay, though, all soldiers aren't parroting Murphy's line for the media. [10-19: Murphy writes to explain] There's more dissent in the rank and file than Bush's team would like to be known.

Lebkuchen also found a series of letters published in the soldiers' newspaper "Stars and Stripes," which paint a more accurate picture -- not so much of an “Army of One” but a military that is deeply divided over this war. Here's an example from Army Maj. William E. Bailey:
The longer we stay, the harder it will be to leave because of the resources wasted on this sad desert land. The longer we stay, the more hated we will become. It is time for us to go.
There's much more at DemocraticUnderground. Lebkuchen writes that "these are the views Bush's handlers want to keep suppressed and why they must carefully screen and prep their military 'props.'"

To learn more about the war from honest soldiers, visit Paul Rieckhoff’s organization, Operation Truth. Paul -- who served for ten months in Iraq as an Infantry Platoon Leader in the 3rd Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions -- tells me that Operation Truth works on behalf of ordinary enlisted soldiers to amplify their voice in our nation’s decisions regarding the military. His Website is an outlet for many who see their efforts and concerns being misrepresented by mainstream media. About Thursday's media charade, Rieckhoff writes:
This thing was not just staged, it was superstaged. In a disgusting display, the President again used our troops as political props in an event so scripted that it basically turned into a conversation with himself. I wish the White House had put this much effort into post-war planning when my platoon hit Baghdad.
Operation Truth presents a more gritty view of Iraq regularly overlooked by the nightly news -- and feared by Bush’s propagandists. And for that, I don’t think we’ll be seeing Rieckhoff in any future photo-ops with the president.

10-18 Update:
Pentagon propagandist-in-chief Allison Barber pulls plug on liberal radio.

10-19 Update:
Lt Murphy responds to MediaCitizen

10-20 Update:
The Daily Show: Comedy trumps Bush's reality

Friday, October 14, 2005

Media No Longer Taking Flak?

Find the Flak
Our CEO president continues to treat news as widgets to be fabricated and sold to an unsuspecting public. Witness yesterday's Iraq war charade: a carefully orchestrated White House video link-up with Iraq that used U.S. soldiers as extras to shed positive light on Bush's war strategy.

We know this only because the media stunt was reported as such in the AP, the Washington Post, on NPR and, even "The Today Show." Such dogged objectivity is a new tack for many of our colleagues in the mainstream. But by revealing the man behind the curtain, they also lay bare the machinations of their own public deception.

That some in mainstream media are no longer giving this president a free pass to the front page is news in its own right. Bush's plummeting approval rating might have something to do with their newfound skepticism, which raises another issue altogether: It seems our media eagerly pile scorn upon a president when his numbers are down, but give him the benefit of the doubt when they're up.

This would suggest that mainstream media don't inform the public based upon the objective merits of a story, but merely tailor their reporting to respond to the flux and flow of popular opinion.

I'll leave that frightening theory to be sorted out by the media analysts at Pew and PEJ. For now, let's look at the propaganda at hand:

Reporting on yesterday's Bush-Iraq video-op, the Village Voice's Ward Harkavy finds that it involved an actor from within his own sausage factory. "The soldier on the left side of the front row was actually a flack herself, though she didn't reveal it during the regime's 24-minute infomercial."

The soldier in question is Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo; she works in public affairs for the military as spokesperson to the media. While she's emerged elsewhere in mainstream reports on Iraq, she hasn't always been identified in her role.

A New York Times' story from April correctly cited Lombardo as a "military spokesperson." Another report in the Albany Times-Union merely cited her as a "24-year Guard veteran." In his report, Times-Union scribe Tim O'Brien quoted Lombardo extensively as she praised the hard work of her division and drew special attention to their successful cooperation with local forces to "rebuild Iraqi infrastructure."

"I enjoy what I'm doing over there and enjoy getting to know the Iraqi people," Lombardo tells the Times-Union stenographer. "The support of my family has been tremendous."

It tugs at the heart, but there are likely more insidious forces at play. Lombardo's job is to make the handover to Iraqi forces look good. During yesterday's PR stunt, she got into a pre-scripted back and forth with the president:
SERGEANT LOMBARDO: I can tell you over the past 10 months we've seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidences of our Iraqi security force partners. We've been working side-by-side, training and equipping 18 Iraqi army battalions. Since we began our partnership, they have improved greatly, and they continue to develop and grow into sustainable forces. Over the next month, we anticipate seeing at least one-third of those Iraqi forces conducting independent operations.

THE PRESIDENT: That's important. The American people have got to know — and I appreciate you bringing that up, Sergeant Major, about how — what the progress is like. In other words, we've got a measurement system —

SERGEANT LOMBARDO: Well, together —

THE PRESIDENT: I'm sorry, go ahead.

SERGEANT LOMBARDO: I'm sorry, just, together with our coalition forces, we've captured over 50 terrorists, as well as detained thousands of others that have ties to the insurgency. And I believe it is these accomplishments and the numerous accomplishments from our task force that will provide a safe and secure environment for the referendum vote.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. There's no question that we need to stay on the offense, and we need to stay on the offense with well-trained Iraqi forces, side-by-side the finest military ever — ever to exist, and that's the United States military.

SERGEANT LOMBARDO: That it is, Mr. President. Thank you.

Bush could have let the American people in on this political theater. He could have pointed out the flack as that person in military garb regurgitating the White House line. Instead, he pretended that Lombardo was a grunt, like the other soldiers seated at her side, engaged in a frank conversation about the state of the war. MediaCitizen has since discovered that Lombardo may not have been alone (read "Soldier Propagandist").

When prodded by reporters about the staged nature of Thursday's press event, White House press secretary Scott McClellan took offense: "I'm sorry, are you suggesting that what our troops were saying was not sincere, or what they said was not their own thoughts?"

"But I also asked this morning, were they being told by their commanders what to say or what to do, and you indicated, no," responded a reporter in the White House press gallery. "Was there any prescreening of -- ?"

"I'm not aware of any such -- any such activities that were being undertaken," McClellan interjected. "We coordinated closely with the Department of Defense. You can ask if there was any additional things that they did. But we work very closely with them to coordinate these events, and the troops can ask the President whatever they want. They've always been welcome to do that."

McClellan added that the president wanted to talk with troops on the ground who have first-hand knowledge about the situation.

Lombardo's only fist-hand knowledge is in spreading propaganda. David Axe, the Village Voice's reporter in Iraq, told Harkavy: "Her job when I was with the 42nd Infantry Division included taking reporters to lunch. She lives in a fortified compound in Tikrit and rarely leaves. Many public-affairs types in Iraq never leave their bases, and they're speaking for those who do the fighting and dying."

Lombardo joins Karen Ryan and Armstrong Williams as the poster children for the White House's vast propaganda campaign. As more evidence comes into view, we're able to assemble a case against an administration that has gone too far, involving a systemic and quiet campaign to manipulate the Fourth Estate and sell the electorate on presidential policies. Though, if Bush’s sagging approval rating is any guide, Americans are no longer buying.

10-15 UPDATE:

1. MediaCitizen outs another propagandist in the mix of soldiers.
2. The Pentagon's laughable denial comes via Fox News.

10-17 UPDATE -- See the videos, hear the rehearsal:

1. On MSNBC
2. CNN
3. NBC
4. NPR (See link in left column)
5. and, of course, The Daily Show

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Dirty Radio

Who Me?
The concentration of radio ownership has ushered in a new age of payola. Major recording labels now shower radio station owners with money and prizes to plug and play their most bankable stars, securing spins of J-Lo and Jessica Simpson at the expense of struggling local acts. When labels pay big radio to play their most mainstream acts, independent music suffers and radio choice turns into a mind-numbing race to the bottom.

Activists, musicians, students and independent broadcasters are joining to stop payola and reclaim the public airwaves for more diverse, independent artists.

The FCC and New York Attorney General’s office are now investigating reported payola deals at large recording labels and local stations. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has subpoenaed the records of the nation's biggest radio station chains. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is drafting legislation that would foster more independently produced radio programming while forcing radio giants to better serve local markets.

A storm is brewing against payola. With action likely in the courts, the FCC and Congress, Americans need to act now to turn the tides against big radio and protect our airwaves from corporate greed.

Sony has already agreed to pay $10 million for payola abuses after Attorney General Spitzer found they had funneled millions in money and prizes to radio broadcasters. FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein told reporters that Spitzer gave the agency “an arsenal of smoking guns” to ramp up enforcement against payola broadcasters. Several days later, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin pledged to do just that.

“We need to investigate each particular instance that Spitzer has uncovered to see if it is a violation of federal law," Adelstein said. "This is a potentially massive scandal.” But Spitzer and the FCC's remedies -- small fines for big radio and record labels -- may not be enough to change the radio landscape.

It has been 40 years since enactment of the payola statutes. It’s time the FCC and Congress determined whether the existing rules adequately stop payola in the age of big radio.

There’s no better time to become involved. While payola has been around since the early days of broadcasting, it takes on a particularly insidious form in an era of massive radio consolidation.

The payola landscape changed after Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act that lifted the national caps on radio ownership. Sony understood that in striking deals with companies that dominated local radio across the country, it could blanket the airwaves with its artists. The success of the campaign to scrub payola from the airwaves hinges on the public’s ability to force FCC and others to create stronger accountability and enforcement across an industry that has become dominated by a handful of such conglomerates. Here are four steps you can take to support the campaign:

1. Act locally against the hundreds of conglomerate-owned stations that were implicated in Spitzer’s investigation. Use Free Press' interactive map to find implicated stations near you and contact them with your concerns.

2. Support homegrown acts and independent radio stations by buying CDs from the local bin at your independent music store, going to local performances, and encouraging your favorite local stations to add these artists to their playlists.

3. Urge the FCC to launch federal investigations, review payola abuses by local broadcasters and impose harsher penalties.

Participant Cinema

Activist cinema
The producers of George Clooney's latest film, "Good Night, and Good Luck," have asked me to blog for the movie's Web site. The film chronicles the Cold-War era conflict between television newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It is still in limited release (11 theaters nationwide as of October 7) but will open on Friday in more venues across the country. Thus far it has received considerable press attention, with articles in the New Yorker and New York Times drawing obvious parallels between the meek journalism of the 1950s portrayed in Clooney's effort and that of the post 9-11 era.

The film's producers, Participant Productions, back movies that are steeped in social issues. Other projects include Luna, which canonizes environmental activist and tree squatter Julia "Butterfly" Hill, Syriana, which looks at the human consequences of the oil industry's pursuit of wealth and power, and the upcoming North Country, about a single mother who takes on abuses at her hometown mining industry.

Participant would like their films to serve as catalysts for citizen activism. Viewers are encouraged to go from the theaters to a film's Web site, where they are directed to actions related to its theme. The Web site for "Good Night, and Good Luck" asks people to file stories in their community that mainstream media ignore; Web site participants will rate the work and the best pieces "may be broadcast to a much wider audience by our media partners, PBS, Salon.com, and XM Satellite Radio."

My candidate for most undercovered story in the mainstream media is the story of the mainstream media. Big media companies and their lobbyists are among Washington's most powerful players. Despite spending tens of millions of dollars to influence legislation and bolster political candidates, mainstream media's news operations present themselves to the public as neutral observers of our political processes. Every news mention of a piece of legislation or a politician that receives big media support should be accompanied by full disclosure of the parent company's less than objective stance on the issue.

More about Participant Productions from Eli.

Ten Things You Need to Know to Fight Payola

Ever get the feeling that the same terrible Celine Dion song is on the radio every time you turn it on? It's not your imagination. The rapid concentration of radio ownership has ushered in a new age of payola. Major recording labels now shower radio station owners with money and prizes to plug and play their most bankable stars, securing spins of Dion, Ricky Martin and Jessica Simpson at the expense of struggling local acts.

There's a catch: Payola is against the law. The New York Attorney General's Office, Federal Communications Commission and members of Congress are investigating radio industry corruption. There's no better time than now for music lovers to protect the radio airwaves from insatiable corporate greed and end payola once and for all.

1. What is radio payola?

For decades, radio payola has been an unpleasant fact of American music. Radio stations hold valuable broadcast licenses and are the main drivers of 75 percent of sales for the record industry. All a record exec has to do is convince popular DJs to put their artists in heavy rotation. Money has long proved the elixir of persuasion. In 1960, disc jockey Alan Freed, was indicted under commercial bribery laws for accepting $2,500 to play certain songs; he claimed the money was a "token of gratitude" that did not affect airplay. But the FCC disagreed, passing regulations that ban payola in broadcasting. The playing of music or other programming in exchange for payments is now against state and federal laws, punishable by as much as $10,000 in fines and a year in prison. To date, no one has served a day in jail on payola charges.

2. Is payola still a problem?

In many ways, it's much worse. Shadowy independent promoters are hired by the recording industry to launder hundreds of millions in cash and prizes each year, lining the pockets of big radio broadcasters who agree to add label "hits" to playlists nationwide. Last summer, Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting -- America's two largest radio owners, controlling 42 percent of listeners -- were implicated with other major radio owners in a multi-million dollar payola scheme. Investigators called this single payola case the "tip of the iceberg."

3. How does payola work?

Payola involves the flow of money and other perks from music labels to radio stations, and, through resulting record sales, back to the labels themselves. It's a closed loop that shuns local talent, artistic merit and listener preferences. Once involving envelopes stuffed with cash and, even, drugs, payola in 2005 has taken on new forms, including back stage passes to Michael Jackson concerts, first-class tickets to Las Vegas hotel rooms and, even, Adidas sneakers. (Use Free Press' interactive map to find stations near you suspected of accepting payola). By law, radio disc jockeys must fully disclose to their listeners whether airplay of a chosen song was paid for by promoters. They never do.

4. Do big media companies really control airplay?

The 1996 Telecommunications Act eliminated national limits on station ownership. Prior to 1996, no one radio owner held more than 65 stations; now, radio colossus Clear Channel boasts some 1,200 stations. More than 75 percent of radio market share nationwide is controlled by companies owning more than 40 radio stations. In a consolidated radio marketplace, recording labels have fewer palms to grease to get their acts on the air, even if listeners don't want to hear them.

5. Does radio play really affect sales?

These conglomerates use redundant playlists to air a limited choice of artists, even in the same markets. Commercial airwaves are flooded by only those artists that are acceptable to the corporations that profit from their sales. And more than 80 percent of the $12 billion in annual music sales are controlled by the four largest labels -- Sony BMG, EMI, Universal and Warner Music Group. When consolidated radio and recording labels control the music industry, musical diversity suffers.

6. Doesn't payola help musicians?

On average, performers see only $1 out of the $16 retail price paid by consumers for a CD. The bulk of sales revenue returns to the record labels, and through them to the promoters and big radio. This closed loop feeds the insatiable appetites of greedy recording labels and radio broadcasters. Big label artists see little of these profits. Independent musicians are even worse off. The corporate control of promotion, sales and airplay almost entirely prevents local artists from competing in the mainstream.

7. Aren't big radio companies and labels just giving listeners what they want?

In a 2002 survey by the Future of Music Coalition, 78 percent of listeners said they want more variety on the air. More than half of survey respondents (51 percent) said that, at most, they only occasionally hear the music they enjoy the most when listening to the radio. Yet the radio behemoths continue to force feed listeners a mind-numbing stew of focus-group tested "urban," "classic rock" and "easy listening" formats.

8. Don't stations have a right to play whatever they want -- even if it's bland corporate tunes?

The airwaves belong to the public, not to media companies with the fattest wallets. The vitality of radio is sapped when music is selected based on bribes rather than merit. Big media owe it to the American public – and especially the music lovers and creative artists who are hurt most by payola -- to end this deception. Radio stations receive free licenses to broadcast on public airwaves in exchange for an agreement to serve their communities' best interests. They are supposed to put the public's needs before their bottom line. Unfortunately, none do.

9. How can payola be stopped?

While anti-payola statutes have been in place for 40 years, recent developments offer the best chance in years to throw the book at payola once and for all:

1. In July, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reached a multimillion-dollar payola settlement against Sony BMG. Spitzer's office is now investigating reported payola deals between other large recording labels (including EMI Group, Vivendi, Warner Music and Universal) and the nation's biggest radio station chains (including Infinity Broadcasting, Clear Channel Communications, Emmis Communications and Cox Radio).

2. In August, the FCC launched an investigation into payola allegations involving stations owned by Clear Channel, Infinity and other radio giants. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has called for an overhaul of toothless payola rules.

3. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is planning to attach an amendment to an appropriations bill that would require the FCC to report to Congress on what can be done to counter the negative fallout of media consolidation, especially payola.

10. How can I make a difference?

The campaign to scrub payola from our airwaves now hinges on the public's ability to force stronger accountability and enforcement across a radio industry dominated by conglomerates. A coalition of activists, public advocates, independent musicians and recording labels are joining together to protect the public's airwaves. Concerned Americans can take action in several ways by visiting the Free Press campaign.

This piece originally written for the Center for American Progess' student activism site CampusProgress.org.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Our Snake Oil President

The White House has squandered tax dollars
on illegal propaganda. So why isn’t the
Justice Department investigating the crime?

He said, he said
Treating policy as product to be marketed to the electorate is no great stretch for a president who fashions himself the CEO of White House Inc. But in its zeal to promote sales of the Bush brand, this administration has crossed the line that separates honest brokers from snake oil salesmen.

Bush and company sold Americans defective goods in clear violation of federal law. Yet Attorney General Alberto Gonzales hasn’t budged. Instead, the man charged with enforcing our laws has tasked his army of lawyers to throw a legal shield around the White House, telling the administration to ignore investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which repeatedly has blasted Team Bush for using taxpayer money to fund “covert propaganda.”

In its latest report, issued on September 30, the GAO’s federal auditors scolded the White House for squandering American tax dollars to hire fake news reporters and unleash a pre-packaged news blitz in advance of the 2004 elections. The GAO found the White House violated the law by hiring pundit Armstrong Williams to shower praise on Bush’s education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, while interviewing administration officials on the air.

The GAO also uncovered a previously undisclosed case in which the Education Department commissioned an article carried by several newspapers that extolled the administration’s role in promoting science education. Readers were not informed of the government’s role in the writing of the article.

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 forbids the domestic dissemination of government-authored propaganda or "official news" deliberately designed to influence public opinion or policy. The law singles out materials that serve "a solely partisan purpose." The GAO has now found on at least four separate occasions that administration agencies violated this and other federal restrictions when they disseminated news written by the government or its contractors without disclosing the conflict of interest.

In 2003, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy produced for local newscasts eight “video news releases” that praised Bush’s plan for preventing teen drug use. They were beamed into more than 22 million households via nearly 300 local television stations. Around the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services contracted PR industry professional Karen Ryan to pose as a local news reporter giving the administration’s Medicare plan “an A-plus.” The resulting fake news segment was broadcast by more than 40 local newscasts. In both cases, these video news releases broke the law by not disclosing the government as their source.

It’s more than likely that the White House has set other propaganda efforts loose in the media mainstream. We just don’t know about them yet. A January report by members of the House Committee on Government Reform noted that this administration has set aside a quarter billion in taxpayer dollars for similar propaganda efforts -- spending money on PR at four times the rate of any previous administration.

While the evidence is damning, the GAO lacks the enforcement powers to reveal the full extent of the abuse. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has final say over executive branch legal matters. And GAO and Justice have not seen eye to eye on covert propaganda in the past, specifically on the issue of unidentified video news releases.

Justice says that all the government’s publicity is legal, because they have been fact-based. DOJ advised executive agencies that they could ignore the GAO since the legal prohibition on propaganda does not apply to government-made television news segments that are "factual, politically neutral and useful to viewers."

The GAO’s most recent investigation correctly shot down that sophistry, saying that pre-packaged government news is inherently false because "the essential fact of attribution is missing."

The ball is now back in Gonzales’ court. If the White House indeed broke the law, it’s incumbent upon DOJ to prosecute the crimes. Without legal action, an emboldened White House will continue to throw up obstacles to full disclosure and create propaganda that pushes Bush’s political bromides on unsuspecting viewers.

It’s been left to the public to do what our elected and appointed officials are unwilling or unable to: pressure our government to stop propaganda. Earlier this month Free Press unleashed a public campaign to do just that. In less than a week, nearly 35,000 concerned citizens have signed letters to Congress and the Justice Department, urging Gonzales “to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law.” (You can add your name to the letter at www.freepress.net/action/stopprop).

Justice should never be delivered by popular fiat – but it’s essential that our elected officials and their appointees understand that the public is watching. As more evidence comes into view, we're able to assemble a case against an administration that has gone too far, involving a systemic and quiet campaign to manipulate the Fourth Estate and sway the electorate in favor of presidential policies.

Chances are that this corporate-styled White House will continue to employ the tactics of PR and marketing firms -- television advertising, product placement and media blitzes -- to pitch them to the public. Though, if Bush’s sagging approval rating is any guide, Americans are no longer buying.

Op-ed originally published at TomPaine.com

Updates on this story:
October 14: Media No Longer Taking Flak?
October 15: Soldier Propagandist