Sunday, January 29, 2006

Koppel's Crusade

Red Ted
In his first week as Frank Rich's stand in at the Times, Ted Koppel laments the decline of television news and the rise of what he calls "boutique journalism" -- news that is tailored to suit advertising's most profitable demographic.

The increased sensationalism and subjectivity of the news (think Fox News Channel) is not about bias but bean counting, Koppel writes. "The accusation that television news has a political agenda misses the point... It is not partisanship but profitability that shapes what you see."

He continues:
Most particularly on cable news, a calculated subjectivity has, indeed, displaced the old-fashioned goal of conveying the news dispassionately. But that, too, has less to do with partisan politics than simple capitalism. . .

Even Fox News's product has less to do with ideology and more to do with changing business models. Fox has succeeded financially because it tapped into a deep, rich vein of unfulfilled yearning among conservative American television viewers, but it created programming to satisfy the market, not the other way around. CNN, meanwhile, finds itself largely outmaneuvered, unwilling to accept the label of liberal alternative, experimenting instead with a form of journalism that stresses empathy over detachment.

Koppel repeats Nicholas Lemann's argument, made in last week's New Yorker, that the nostalgia for an era of harder-hitting broadcast news was not due to a lost generation of aggressive broadcasters like Edward Murrow, but because the regulatory environment 30-40 years hence forced broadcasters to better serve their public.

This era of journalism, writes Koppel, "was in the days before deregulation, when the Federal Communications Commission was still perceived to have teeth, and its mandate that broadcasters operate in 'the public interest, convenience and necessity' was enough to give each licensee pause."

"He should also have said that it was the lobbying done by his own network bosses -- unreported by him and his TV news colleagues -- which directly led to the FCC's abandonment of encouraging the public interest," counters Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "The FCC's raised eyebrow only occasionally contributed to a more responsive TV news environment."

Koppels' right on one score though. In the last twenty years -- with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine and the reluctance of a corporate-friendly FCC's to hold broadcasters to account -- we've seen an explosion of bottom-feeding, bottom-line news.

In most cases this market driven info-product devolves quickly to the type of news twaddle that has sent many a serious journalist packing.

An example, as media analyst Andrew Tyndall noted in his survey of news stories from election year 2004, is the abundance of celebrity news against the relative scarcity of news that Americans say, in poll after poll, matters to them most. According to Tyndall, broadcast and cable news stories about Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson in 2004 far exceeded time newscasts devoted to presidential candidates' stances on the economy, health care and the war on terror.

In the public debate, this crisis in journalism is explicitly tied to the dangers of consolidating media ownership and the corruption of regulators by Big Media. Ultimately, the question must be asked: Does a commercially-driven media even have the ability to serve the needs of a self governing population?

"Indeed, in television news these days, the programs are being shaped to attract, most particularly, 18-to-34-year-old viewers," writes Koppel in the Times. "They, in turn, are presumed to be partly brain-dead — though not so insensible as to be unmoved by the blandishments of sponsors."

Think what happens to these same viewers when it comes time to vote, and the fact that less than half of them (41.9 percent of those who were registered in 2004) even bothered becomes horrifyingly real.

It's a vicious circle. The cheerleading news coverage of the war in Iraq, both before and during the conflict, has also led to widespread public disaffection. Post-election discoveries of pundits that received lucrative, undisclosed contracts from the Bush Administration to push unpopular policies further undermined American confidence in the fourth estate. A lack of confidence and engagement in the media further distances Americans from the political process. No public voice in politics allows corporations to run ram shod over our legislative process.

The exposure of economic influence on the reporting of major newsrooms – as detailed by Koppel in today’s New York Times – delivers not just a near fatal blow to the credibility of our "free press" but also to the future propsects of a participatory democracy.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Aloha to Local News

In a final act of defiance, the anchor at Honolulu Fox affiliate KHON-2 gives management a piece of his mind, before they pull the plug.

In Big Media's Gunsights
THE BIGGEST THREAT to the type of broadcast journalism that Edward R. Murrow championed in the 1950s comes today not from Congressmen of the Joe McCarthy mold, but by way of the industry itself. Profit-driven broadcast owners have strangled off local reporting to line their pockets with more advertising dollars.

This crisis in journalism is explicitly tied to the dangers of consolidated media ownership and speculation. We all suffer when media corporations trample public service and local journalism in their drive for larger profits.

Joe Moore, a veteran newscaster at Fox's Honolulu affiliate, KHON-2, can speak well to the issue. On Thursday, he anchored the station's newscast as sweeping newsroom layoffs were taking effect. As a small concession from management, Moore was allowed to write and read his sign off to viewers. Courtesy of NewsBlues (a newscaster gossip site), here's the transcript:

Finally tonight, this has been a difficult day for most of us here at KHON2. It was the final day on the job for our general manager Rick Blangiardi, who refused to carry out the mass firing of over one third of our station employees as ordered by our new owners, who will take over tomorrow.

The firings are not a matter of cutting excess fat to improve efficiency; they will be a butchering of an already lean workforce that will remove muscle, bone, and vital organs.

A small percentage of the people fired will be replaced by automation, the rest will severely reduce our ability to serve the community in the manner in which you, and we have become accustom.

The new owners have changed the name of their company from SJL to Montecito. It is a virtual company, with no office building, that specializes in buying and selling TV stations. Their business plan for KHON2 calls for an immediate, drastic, across the board reduction of personnel in order to slash the payroll.

At the same time, the plan calls for a huge increase in advertising revenue to be generated by a sales department that is already far exceeding industry standards. In short, it is not a plan used by a quality broadcast company to foster a long-term commitment to its employees, or to the viewers it is charged with serving.

It is the sincere hope of all of us, who have worked long and hard to make this TV station what it is today, that the departure of Rick Blangiardi, who stood up for us while he was standing tall for quality television, it is our hope that his departure will not be in vain, that our new owners will reconsider their draconian plan and pledge to the people of this state that operating KHON in the best interest of the people of Hawaii is not only their number one goal, but also their number one priority.

For all of us at KHON2, thank you for joining us this evening, we hope to see you later tonight for our KHON2 news at 10.

The message was not repeated on the 10 p.m. newscast.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

CNN Gambles on Bennett

Upstanding American
The Cable News Network has added conservative Reagan administration official, outspoken crusader – and gambler anonymous – William J. Bennett to the network’s newly minted lineup of right-wing talent.

Bennett is scheduled to make his first appearance on the network later today commenting on the "Situation Room."

Many remember Bennett from his days moralizing about the evils of homosexuality, pornography and other perceived vices. Others may have read his best-sellers on "virtue,” "moral clarity" and "outrage," which took the Clinton administration to task for behavior unbecoming a president.

Fewer still are familiar with Joshua Green’s 2003 report, which revealed Bennett to be a "preferred customer" at casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas where his losses have been estimated at more than $8 million.

"As gambling spreads, so do its associated problems," writes Green. "Heavy gambling, like drug use, can lead to divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and bankruptcy."

Where’s Bennett’s sermon on that?

Bennett created more controversy in 2005 when he told listeners to his radio show that aborting "every black baby in this country" would reduce crime. He later defended this statement, saying he was making a hypothetical argument and was not stating his position.

Bennett joins right-radio talk jock Glenn Beck in CNN’s brain trust of upstanding Americans. It was Beck who called Hurricane Katrina victims "scumbags" and said he hated some family members who lost relatives on Sept. 11 because they complained too much.

Beck also blasted grieving war mother Cindy Sheehan as a “big prostitute” for "pimping out the tragedy of her own son's death." He called the father of murdered American Nick Berg "despicable" and a "scumbag" for criticizing President and the war in Iraq after his son's death there.

"It’s exhausting trying to figure out what in the world the game plan is at CNN," Tim Goodman writes of network exec Jonathan Klein’s extreme Fox News Channel makeover. “There’s a sadness here. And it has nothing to do with CNN’s inability to ‘counter’ Fox News with a respectable progressive slate of contributors. CNN used to be a reliable source for national and international news. Now it mostly chases storms and tragedy — and Fox.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fox News Drifting Left?

Arch-conservative watchdog Cliff Kincaid worries that Fox News Channel has abandoned its base and is now a propaganda front for "extreme" liberal views -- like the harebrained notion that global warming is really happening.

"Accuracy in Media [Kincaid's organization] has led the way in reporting on concern among conservatives that the Fox News Channel is drifting to the left," crows Kincaid. “Perhaps the most egregious example was the global warming program on Fox featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a ‘special correspondent.’”

According to Kincaid, Fox News Channel has now joined forces with the dark side by reporting on an issue that's accepted as faith by an overwhelming majority of the world's scientific community. As proof of this drift, he offers a handful of email complaints sent to his AIM offices from fellow members of the radical fringe.

"I have abandoned Fox News the same way they have left the conservatives," one laments. "It was too good to last," writes another.

Last December, I was paired on an NPR talk show opposite AIM “media analyst” Roger Arnoff, who called FNC's Bill O’Reilly a strident liberal, while offering no evidence to support this view. I nearly fell out of my seat but recovered in time to clear away some of AIM's smoke.

The left-right banter that dominates much of our discourse about the media is all a matter of perspective, I replied during my turn at the microphone; as someone once said, balance all rests on where you place the fulcrum. AIM places that fulcrum so far to the right that nearly every utterance in the mainstream media is, to them, on par with Chairman Mao’s little red book.

There’s some history behind this. Accuracy in Media (AIM) is a thinly veiled effort to portray all mainstream media as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Their pseudo-objective media monitoring is all smoke an mirrors. Real analysis has little to do with it. The organization receives almost all of its financing from a host of conservative foundations. It was launched during the Nixon administration to shield the White House from media criticism on Vietnam and Watergate. The group’s “research” is conducted with a single aim: spreading the gospel of a “liberal media” agenda in an effort to discredit and downplay uncomfortable truths about the right-wing establishment.

Any first-year student of scientific procedure will tell you that placing conclusions before ascertainment of data is not research but sophistry.

Bias a Big Media Side Show

But put aside the endless push and pull over American media bias for now. It's just a side show. Behind the scrim of Kincaid's banter lurks an even more insidious threat to our independent media system: Its destruction at the hands of corporations that put shareholder profits before quality journalism and public service.

The corporatization and consolidation of media has had a stifling effect on independent, diverse and skeptical voices in mainstream media. Our nation’s founders understood that information was the lifeblood of democracy. No matter what you care about most — the economy or the environment, civil rights or gun rights — media influence all issues by shaping the beliefs, values, and opinions of the public. When viewpoints are cut off and ideas cannot find an outlet, our democracy suffers.

Most of the media that we see and hear is produced to make a profit — not necessarily to provide useful information and quality entertainment that accurately represents our society or fosters a healthy democracy. The left-right banter that's become a staple of political newscasting is just a cheap production stunt -- painting a thin veneer of concern over the issues. It's far less costly to pull two pundits into the studio to bloviate about politics, than it is to send actual investigative reporters into the field to talk to real people and get at the truth.

As Big Media companies control more local outlets and streamline their operations for profit, citizens become shut out of the debate over issues that matter to them most.

Profit Trumps Politics

Since 1975, two-thirds of independent newspaper owners and one-third of independent television owners have disappeared. Only 281 of the nation’s 1,500 daily newspapers remain independently owned. The three largest newspaper publishers control 25 percent of daily newspaper circulation worldwide.

Newspapers have been kept away from consolidating even further by a FCC ban on big broadcast companies owning newspapers in the same market. The only newspaper-broadcast cross-ownerships are in large cities, which were grandfathered in when the FCC imposed its ban in 1975. But Now the FCC is considering rules which might do away with this ban. A change in FCC rules will play out poorly for newspapers as the largest players (Tribune, Gannet and Knight Ridder) are now making moves to “synergize” operations across their newspapers by downsizing local newsrooms and centralizing operations.

Consider this:
  1. Less than 20 percent of our newspapers are independent and locally owned;
  2. In 1983, 50 corporations owned a majority of the news media. In 1992, fewer than two dozen owned 90% of the news media. In 2003, the number fell to a total of six;
  3. Minority ownership of broadcast media is now at a ten-year low — a mere 4 perecent of radio stations and less than 2 percent of TV stations are owned by people of color;
  4. The number of radio station owners has plummeted by 34% since 1996, when ownership rules were loosened. That year, the biggest radio owners controlled fewer than 65 stations. Today, Clear Channel owns more than 1,200.
Bad things happen when media conglomerates swallow up independent voices: Quality is diminished, local news and investigative journalism disappear, differing points of view vanish, community service becomes an afterthought, and jobs are eliminated. All are sacrificed in an incessant drive for ever-higher margins.

Real Problem: Big Media

Show Me the Money
Whatever your complaint about media, one thing is certain: There are underlying structural issues at work that give rise to these problems. Attacking a single symptom — such as programming some might say is biased — does not cure the disease. We must look deeper at the root causes . . . and address them.

Through mergers and takeovers, a handful of extremely powerful corporate giants have swallowed up independent media companies, reducing the diversity of voices in the media market while intensifying the conglomerates’ influence.

This process of "creative destruction," as it has been called by some, isn't as egalitarian and organic as you might think. Our media system is not the product of a natural evolution or market forces. It’s the result of policies created by Congress and other decision makers — under heavy influence from Big Media lobbyists.

Through well-financed lobbying operations, media corporations have overwhelming influence in Washington. Media policy is shaped in closed-door meetings with policymakers. So, even though we own the airwaves, they decide how media is created, financed, and distributed.

Radio and television broadcasters spent $222 million to lobby government officials from 1998 to 2004. All told, total lobbying expenditures by Big Media (radio, television, cable, telephone and newspaper companies) from 1998 through 2004 were more than $957 million. In comparison, the oil and gas industry spent $396 million over the same period.

Hijacking Democracy

One of Kincaid’s writers did, essentially, get Fox News Channel right: "It seems to me that a lot of conservative news/political junkies don't understand the nature and character of News Corp and Rupert Murdoch," she wrote. "His news division does lean right, but this I believe has less to do with politics and more to do with business: there was an untapped market for 'fair and balanced' news, and Murdoch wisely hired [Roger] Ailes to help him capture it. Murdoch is a mogul, and he only cares about profits and whatever benefits his company, and if that means appeasing Chinese communists, Saudi princes, or left-wing politicians, so be it."

Ummm . . . well, yes. But there's more to the story.

The media industry and their high-paid lobbyists in Washington work with policymakers to re-shape our media system into a cash cow that fattens the wallets of moguls like Murdoch -- even when doing so isn’t in the public’s interest. The result thus far has been policies that allow for the rampant consolidation of independent local outlets under fewer and fewer owners.

As voters, citizens, and constituents, we have the power to turn this around and influence policymakers to safeguard a media system that serves the people. Many of the public interest organizations that engage Big Media in this fight can’t match the massive funds of the big industry lobbies. We fight, instead, with people power.

The struggle for a media system that provides more diversity, skepticism, accountability, and independent voices in the media isn’t a battle pitting left against right. It’s a movement that seeks to amplify the voices of all Americans by creating a media system for a more dynamic and participatory democracy.

Who would disagree with that.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Broadband Battle: Round I

Hands Off
After destroying TV and radio by hording the public's airwaves for profit, mega-media corporations have now turned to the Internet. They're scheming to control what content you view, which services you use online, and whether others can see the content you create.

The only way to stop them is to raise hell right now.

Free Press is organizing its 220,000 activists in a letter writing campaign to pressure the CEOs of the most rapacious telephone and cable companies to keep their hands off our Internet.

Broadband is the battleground over which the future of all media is being fought. As streaming video, Internet phone services, podcasting and online games become more common parts of our daily media experience, the big Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast want to deliver only their version of these products at super-high speeds ... while sticking the rest of us in the slow lane.

Reversing the Revolution

That's what the telecommunications companies are proposing. And if they get their way, they will soon alter the flow of commerce and information — and your personal experience — on the Internet. As Christopher Stern wrote in yesterday's Washington Post, "the companies that own the equipment that delivers the Internet to your office, cubicle, den and dorm room could, for a price, give one company priority on their networks over another."

This predatory scheme is a dead end for independent voices and innovators-- bloggers, open-source programmers, and any new channels and services that might want to compete for your bandwidth -- who've previously made the Net a welcome vehicle for new and radical notions.

As a result of this openness, anyone could try out a new idea without having to cross a cable or telephone company’s permission barrier. Tech guru David Isenberg explained it this way: "A hobbyist collecting Pez dispensers could develop the idea to become Ebay. A couple of Stanford students could start Google and build a better search engine. Two guys in Europe could assemble a handful of programmers to invent Skype and threaten the trillion-dollar annual global tel-economy."

The end of network neutrality would shift the online revolution into reverse. If the nation's largest telephone and cable companies are allowed to limit the fastest services to those who can pay their toll, the rest of us — upstart Web services, consumers, bloggers and new media makers alike — could become locked out of the digital age.

Channeling the Public Outcry

The Free Press campaign asks concerned citizens to sign a letter to the CEO's urging them not to tamper with our Net freedoms. Broadband users are now sending thousands of letter to the likes of Ed Whitacre, Ivan Seidenberg, and Duane Ackerman demanding that they adhere to the principles of network neutrality.

Copies of these letters are also flowing to Congress urging our elected representatives to put enforceable network neutrality principles into our telecommunications laws and regulations.

(To send your own letter, follow this link).

Because the voice of the public in media policymaking is so often drowned out by inside-the-Beltway lobbying, the Consumer Federation of America, Free Press and Consumers Union examined public opinion on the issue of network neutrality.

According to the national poll, two-thirds of Internet users have serious concerns about practices by Internet network owners to block or impair their access to information and services, and the majority of those surveyed support congressional action to prevent this practice.

The survey found that more than 75 percent of Internet users are seriously concerned about not being able to freely choose an Internet service provider or being required to pay twice for certain Internet services. Of those polled, 54 percent want Congress to take action to ensure that the communications networks are operated according to the principles of net neutrality.

Past as Prologue to Big Media Abuse

From its beginnings, the Internet was built on a cooperative, democratic ideal. The infrastructure’s only job was to move data between users — regardless of where it came from or what it contained.

Network neutrality fostered a medium that did not exclude anyone, allowed for far-reaching innovations, and created the Internet as we know it.

Past experience shows that when large media companies are left to their own devices, the result is content and services that serve nothing but their bank accounts. An open and independent Internet is the antidote to these media gatekeepers.

If big media companies are allowed to limit the fastest services to those who can pay their toll, upstart Web services, consumers, bloggers and new media makers alike all would be cut off from the digital revolution.

Free Press activists are taking this action now to help the public defend our Net freedoms before we lose them altogether.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lemann: Regulation Fostered Murrow's Journalism

Dean Nicholas
Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism, has written a 6,000 worder to lede off the January 23-30 New Yorker.

In “The Murrow Doctrine: Why the Life and Times of the Broadcast Pioneer Still Matter,” Lehmann praises Edward R. Murrow’s impassioned work while criticizing the present-day nostalgia for a bygone era of harder-hitting broadcast journalism.

It's pole position in one of the nation's most respected magazines is impossible to ignore. Please take note of the underlying theme of Lemann's article, for it touches on a point that many are reluctant to admit: a good regulatory structure fostered the type of aggressive journalism that we now mourn.

Lemann states that the corporate dismantling of this structure -- and not the dearth of modern-day Murrows -- has mired broadcast journalism in a sinkhole of infotainment, sensationalism and softball pitching.

It's difficult for many to come to terms with this as it seems that meaningful government oversight is anathema to our understanding of independent, hard-hitting journalism.

Lemann makes a good case against this. The story is not available online but I have typed in his conclusion below. Coming from one of the most respected figures in contemporary journalism, it should not go un-noted (my emphasis and links added):
It shouldn’t be surprising that, half a century later, the standard answer among journalists to the problems Murrow saw in broadcasting is, in effect, “Bring back Murrow!” Nostalgia has even set in about the old press barons, whom journalists took pleasure in detesting back in Murrow’s day – better to have a Paley or a Luce, or even a William Randolph Hearst or a Roy Howard, calling the shots than hedge fund managers. The formula is a kind of romantic dream: larger-than-life heroes backed by public-spirited owners whose prime consideration is not profit.

The better way to ensure good results in any realm of society, is to set up a structure that encourages them; we cant rely on heroes coming along to rescue journalism. The structure that encouraged Murrow, uncomfortable as it may be to admit, was federal regulation of broadcasting. CBS, in Murrow’s heyday, felt that its prosperity, even in survival, depended on demonstrating to Washington its deep commitment to public affairs. The price of not doing so could be regulation, breakup, the loss of a part of the spectrum, or license revocation. Those dire possibilities would cause a corporation to err on the side of too much “See It Now” and CBS Reports.” In parts of the speech which aren’t in the movie, Murrow made it clear that the main pressure on broadcasting to do what he considered the right thing came from the F.C.C. The idea that, in taking on McCarthy, Murrow was “standing up to government” greatly oversimplifies the issue. He was able to stand up to Senate committee chairman because a federal regulatory agency had pushed CBS and other broadcasters to organize themselves so that Murrow’s doing so was possible.

It isn’t possible anymore – not because timid people have risen to power in journalism but because the government, in steady increments over the past generation, has deregulated broadcasting. The Fairness Doctrine no longer exists. Regulation, license revocation or reallocation of the spectrum are no longer meaningful possibilities. The advent of cable television brought a new round of debates over government mandated public affairs programming. With the result that private companies were granted valuable monopoly franchises in local markets; in return, they were required only to provide channels for public affairs, not to create programming. That’s why cable is home to super-low-cost varieties of broadcast news, such as C-SPAN, local public access channel, and national cable-news shout-fests, rather than to reincarnations of the elaborately reported Murrow shows from the fifties. The rise of public broadcasting has freed the networks to be even more commercial.

On network television no news star would openly disavow Murrow’s legacy. The standard today is to have smart, competent, physically magnetic people who do straight news gravely and celebrity interviews emphatically, and who occasionally, strategically, display moral passion and then retreat, as Anderson Cooper, of CNN, did during Hurricane Katrina. Everyone suspects them of being lightweights when they first ascend, and then, when they retire, wonders if we’ll ever see their like again. If being in the Murrow mold entails occasionally editorializing on the air, and letting it be known that you aren’t getting along very well with your superiors, there are only a few Murrow legatees – Ted Koppel and Bill Moyers come to mind, and they’ve left network television.

News that makes money is alive and well; the incentive to present news that doesn’t, like all of Murrow’s great work, is gone. It is difficult for journalists to grapple with the idea that pressure – from government officials! – could have been responsible for the creation of the superior and memorable journalism whose passing we all mourn. But look what has happened since it went away.