Monday, June 27, 2005

That Great Sucking Sound

That great sucking sound coming from your radio and TV is the deflation of American trust in the Fourth Estate. Increasingly obsessed with celebrity sensationalism and crime driven news, the mainstream media have created a vacuum into which is being dragged the credibility of the few remaining responsive and aggressive journalists -- people who provide the type of hard-hitting coverage this country desperately needs.

The Pew Research Center's latest survey on people and the press reveals a yawning gap between news credibility and its favorability, as growing numbers question the accuracy of the news they read, listen to and watch. These sentiments are echoed in the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual report, "The State of the News Media."

"Credibility ratings for most major news outlets had reached a low ebb," the Pew reported in June 2004 (see News Audiences Increasingly Politicized). The latest survey adds to the decline and concludes that there is "a startling rise in the politicization of opinions on several measures" in the United States. The State of the News Media Report found that, from 1985 to 2002, the number of Americans who thought news organizations were highly professional declined from 72% to 49%.

Left in the lurch of media's downward turn is the hard-hitting news and investigative journalism that Americans need to shake up the powerful and challenge the status quo.

In a society where corporate and government priorities combine to control the political agenda, a forthright media is meant to serve as provocateur -- advocating for truth, speaking on behalf of disenfranchised, and using facts to shake undeserving elites from their higher perch.

Journalists who work on behalf of the public good, and against the blindly pro-corporate and government agenda of mainstream media, are being dragged down by a media system that has sold out good journalism to serve its bottom line.

Tom Fenton, in his 2005 book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News and the Danger to Us All, reports that the news industry – and in particular the networks – were once thought of as a public service.

Commercial news media have been commandeered by their corporate parents as a cash cow, argues Fenton. “None of the networks is talking about providing more international news, more context, or serving the American public better,” he writes. “Their vision is focused as always on the bottom line.”

Flushing Out Karl
This brand of news programming -- exemplified most recently by the proliferation of corporate- and government funded VNRs and “payola pundits” -- sends a message that the people who control the airwaves simply no longer understand their roles, not to mention their duty to the public.

Pew's report confirms the resulting public cynicism.

Karl Rove is chalking up another victory in the concerted campaign to dismantle and discredit dissenting views. The key to our response is to be both critical of the corporate news industry -- which has become a convenient if not undeserving target in the failure of public trust -- while fostering an empowered and independent news system to flush out Rove and his fellow rats, once and for all.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Propagandists Overrun Public Broadcasting

Objective and Balanced Bureaucrat
Listen to Democracy Now this morning. I'll be live at 8:15 with Amy Goodman to discuss the recent coronation of White House propagandist Patricia Harrison as president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

For those of you who don't know Ms. Harrison here's a primer: She presently serves as the State Department's Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs where her primary duties were to create media materials or "good news" that would help the Arab world better understand that the Iraqi occupation was in their own best interests.

Describing her role to the House International Relations Committee in August, Harrison said, "We are helping Arab and Muslim journalists produce balanced reports and documentaries on topics from policy to culture" as well as "'good news' stories on reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan that American and foreign news editors have incorporated in their programs."

These "balanced reports" are better known as "video news releases" or government propaganda dressed up as news in order to be covertly slipped into newscasts to help sway public opinion. You can learn more about this, "payola pundits" and other propaganda at my Free Press pages devoted to fighting fake news.

Together with CPB chair Kenneth Tomlinson, Harrison forms a formidable front in the ideological campaign to both gag and starve public broadcasting. They claim that their working to correct the perception of liberal bias at PBS, NPR and other public media. They want to help America by restoring "objectivity and balance" to our noncommercial media system.

Don't believe it. Tomlinson and Harrison use "objectivity and balance" in the same way that their counterparts at Fox News Channel use "fair and balanced." It's meant more as a provocation than statement of fact. It cloaks a real intention, which is to transform our Fourth Estate into the public relations wing of the White House. They have already coopted (or "embedded") many in commercial news media , now it's public broadcasting's turn.

You can help put a stop to Tomlinson, Harrison and their fellow propagandists by joining nearly 100,000 others who have signed Free Press' petition calling for his immediate resignation.

The fight for more independent, democratic and accountable media is fight is far from lost.

UPDATE: Watch the streaming video of the interview.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Deus Ex Machina

The formidable right-wing message machine is churning away on PBS.

There's a consistent tone to the talking points emanating from their chief bloviators. They figure that screaming "liberal bias" repeatedly and at volume will make it true. Unfortunately, mainstream media's echo chamber seems helpless to debunk their fact-challenged claims.

Dumb: Timothy Graham

[PBS wants] to create an empire that does not have to answer to the Congress or the people . . .Conservatives do not want to give more tax dollars to television stations that attack their ideas.

Dumber: Cliff Kincaid

[Moyers] had a show on PBS for three years. . . He is an admitted liberal partisan. Who did PBS have to balance him? Nobody. . . Tomlinson is coming under fire by the liberal elites who run PBS and NPR simply because he's trying to document the bias and do something about it.

Dumbest: George Neumayer

I do. I see a pervasive bias. PBS looks like a liberal monopoly to me, and Bill Moyers is Exhibit A of that very strident left-wing bias. . . . So I think the problem of bias is quite deep, and I applaud Ken Tomlinson for making an attempt to correct it.

These spin doctors, however, fail to muster an intelligent response to polls -- including those commissioned and conducted by Republicans -- that find an overwhelming majority (80%) of Americans believe PBS to be "fair and balanced".

Hey, don't let those facts get in the way of an effective barrage.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Greedy Congressman Goes for the Gold

With More Than $500,000 in SBC Stock Options,
Pete Sessions Gets in Bed with the Telcos to Stifle
Efforts to Bring the Internet to More Americans

Tricky Pete
US Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX) -- a 16-year Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SBC) executive and sponsor of a bill that would eliminate communities' ability to deliver low-cost, high-speed internet to their citizens – still owns more than half a million dollars worth of stock options in SBC. If passed, Session’s proposed legislation would provide a windfall for his former employer and other major cable and telephone companies, giving them veto power over locally supported efforts to provide internet at a cost more Americans can afford.

Sessions stands to gain as well. According to his "Financial Disclosure Statement for Calendar Year 2003," the former SBC executive owns $500,000 in SBC stock options and recieved more than $75,000 from SBC and it’s employees. It's no wonder he would sponsor legislation that is supported by nobody in this country except for the telecom and cable giants that punch his ticket.

SBC is the most active telecommunications company in the states by far. In just one two-year period—2003-2004—the former "Baby Bell" spent a minimum of $16.3 million to lobby state governments. And it spent another $10.1 million on contributions to state political parties and candidates' campaigns from 1999 to 2004.

By legislating to line his pockets, Sessions is rapidly joining the ranks of fellow Texas lawmaker Tom Delay as Capitol Hill's most corrupt.

The legislation in question, ironically called "Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005" (HR 2726), would "prohibit municipal governments from offering telecommunications, information, or cable services." States, counties, cities, and towns looking to provide broadband services could not do so if they are anywhere within the same geographic area as a private company that has "substantially similar service. "

This isn’t about "preserving innovation" but about protecting Big Media's market fiefdoms. The major telephone and communications companies are scrambling to maintain their stranglehold over the future of communications in America.

Soon, nearly all information – TV, radio, telephone and the web will be delivered via high speed broadband. Locally supported internet projects provide access to broadband at $10 a month instead of the $30 to $50 rate levied by the communications companies. Community Internet connects rural communities, attracts new businesses, serves schools, libraries and public safety sectors. It will make access to the information superhighway affordable and accessible to everyone.

These telephone and cable companies will stop at nothing to stifle local efforts to bridge the digital divide. Why compete when you can pay off corrupt politicians to legislate away all other Internet options?

According to his 2003 filing, Sessions also holds considerable stock in other communications companies – including Verizon, AT&T, and Bell South -- that stand to gain considerably from limiting local efforts to provide cheap internet access to more Americans. The filing also lists his wife, Juanita, as collecting a salary from Southwestern Bell Internet Services, a subsidiary of SBC (See Schedule I). Sessions doesn't indicate how much Juanita makes from this arrangement.

Today's Dallas Morning News reports that Mr. Sessions' 2004 financial disclosure forms show that his wife's SBC stock options exceeded $1 million five years ago, when the stock was trading at $48 – roughly twice its current price.

It's not clear, however, from the Congressman's internal public relations and related press that his wife actually holds a nine-to-five job at SBC; in his election propaganda she's presented as a homemaker taking care of their two children. This begs the obvious question: "What does Juanita actually do to earn income from SBC?"

Backroom dealing between telcos and greedy elected officials has become the modus operandi of corporations seeking to protect their Internet fiefdoms from these municipal internet initiatives. They've devoted millions of dollars -- to pay off politicians, think tanks and provide misinformation to the media -- to paint Community Internet as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise.

Nothing could be further from the truth. These ISPs are loath to loosen their stranglehold on a market that, according to the Telecommunications Industry Association, could yield $212.5 billion in revenues by 2008. With so much at stake, they have opted to smother innovative local efforts to provide high-speed internet to more Americans. Legislators like Sessions have their hands out, ready to to introduce anti-access legislation, such as HR 2726, dictated to them word for word by their corporate masters.

Free Press has called on Sessions retract HR 2776 and come clean about a conflict of interest that impugns his integrity as a public servant.

On Friday, June 10, We also launched a petition asking members of Congress to not stand in the way of local governments serving the needs of local citizens. The petition is available at:

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Big Bird Goes Under the Knife

Laura Attends the Wake
The House Appropriations subcommittee voted on Thursday to slash more than $100 million in funding for public broadcasting, which if passed by the full Congress would gut programming on NPR, PBS and other public media. The cuts could deprive millions of American children of educational programming that helps keep popular shows such as “Sesame Street,” “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “Arthur” on the air.

The vote is part of a concerted campaign, involving GOP House representatives and partisan board members at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), to both gag and starve public media in America. Instead of representing their constituents, politicians are acting as partisan operatives seeking to dismantle media -- even children's programming -- that doesn't follow the one-party line.

The subcommittee voted to sharply reduce support for popular children's educational programs such as "Sesame Street" and "Postcards from Buster" in addition to educational resources provided by hundreds of local stations as part of the "Ready to Learn" program. The legislators also moved to eliminate all federal money for CPB within two years, starting with a $100 million reduction in the budget for 2006.

The action is in direct opposition to American opinion on public broadcasting. Research shows strong support for public broadcasting's programs and for continued public financial support. A 2003 poll by the Tarrance Group, for example, found that more than 75 percent of those surveyed said "it is important for the federal government to support [PBS and NPR] financially."

Despite the widespread public opposition to efforts to change PBS and NPR, CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson continues to stack the CPB board and executive offices with ideological cronies. Recent news reports suggest the leading candidate to fill the vacant post of CPB president is Patricia Harrison, former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

More than 85,000 concerned citizens have signed a Free Press petition calling for Tomlinson to resign, following his much-publicized efforts to meddle with PBS and NPR programming that doesn't adhere to his personal notion of "objectivity and balance." Free Press will deliver the petitions to Tomlinson when he convenes the CPB's board of directors meeting in Washington on June 20.

Big Media a Trojan Horse for Racism?

UCLA law professor Jerry Kang draws an interesting links between media consolidation and racial biases. In his fascinating recent report, Trojan Horses of Race, he focuses on the "if it bleeds, it leads" nature of local news.

He states that the FCC's public interest obligations need to be infused with more meaningful qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) standards for local reporting. As the obligations stand, they provide no clarity, leaving broadcasters free to meet FCC regs by filling their news hole with local crime stories often featuring minority suspects. This tendency feeds common misconceptions about race.

Kang's research might prove useful in efforts to organize new communities around the pending ownership fight. Check out the interview in which he states:
Crime stories have always been popular with local news and average approximately 25 percent of the minutes broadcast. More local news means more crime stories shown. This emphasis on local programming [as the FCC's measure of fulfilling the public-interest obligations of a broadcaster] also creates incentives to produce more local news with an eye toward subsequent waves of deregulation . . .

On the basis of this evidence, I believe that being inundated with crime stories, disproportionately featuring racial minorities, is likely to increase implicit bias. That is a hidden downside to local news, a sort of Trojan Horse virus that infects our brains
Kang critiques FCC's public interest obligations for calling for a quantity of local news without defining qualitative standards. The end product is commercial broadcasters' obsession with the cheap-to-produce police blotter stories that typically lead newscasts in every market.