Albion Monitor /Commentary

1997 Was Dismal Year for Media

by Randolph T. Holhut

Much as reporters rag on "flacks," news organizations love stories that are prepackaged by publicists
The last 10 days of the calendar year are traditionally the slowest news days of the year. Editors scour the wire copy queues on their computer terminals in search of something, anything to fill up the space.

Even applying the standards of desperation that come with putting out holiday issues of newspapers, I still was surprised that Jerry Seinfeld's decision to pull the plug on his sitcom was the lead story on the day after Christmas.

Granted, some may argue the decision to end production of a comedy watched by 40 million people a week is a news story. Others may argue that if it's on the front page of the New York Times -- which is where Seinfeld decided to first break the news -- then it's a news story.

However, the real reason why "Seinfeld" was a front page story was that it was easy. This was a ready-made story about a well-liked pop culture figure that required no work to put together. Much as reporters rag on "flacks," news organizations love stories that are prepackaged by publicists. That's why celebrities are better covered than our social and political institutions.

"The inevitable toxic influence of those few corporations that have monopolized our culture"
It was a fitting coda to a year that saw the TV networks go into convulsions when the verdict of the O.J. Simpson civil trial was announced during the President's State of the Union address and they had to decide what story took precedence, a year when the excesses of All O.J., All The Time were topped by the saturation coverage given to the death of Princess Di, a year where local TV news got even more obsessed with crime and violence, a year where journalism continued its downward spiral into the gutter while great journalists like Herb Caen, Mike Royko, Murray Kempton and Charles Kuralt all left us too soon.

Bill Kovach of Harvard's Neiman Foundation is running around the country holding earnest roundtable discussions about what's wrong with journalism. In the meantime, newspapers are getting worse, TV news is unwatchable and public broadcasting has become barely distinguishable from the commercial side of the dial.

Two words can sum up 1997 in journalism -- conglomeration and cluelessness. More and more media outlets are being owned by fewer and fewer people, and you don't have to be an economist or media critic to know that when there's less competition, there's less incentive to rise above the pack.

Media critic Mark Crispin Miller nailed it when he wrote these words in "We The Media: A Citizens Guide to Fighting for Media Democracy," a new book that I highly recommend: "The true cause of the enormous ills that now dismay so many Americans -- the universal sleaze and 'dumbing down,' the flood tide of corporate propaganda, the terminal insanity of United States politics -- has risen not from any grand decline in national character ... but from the inevitable toxic influence of those few corporations that have monopolized our culture."

How bad is it? Two companies -- Time Warner and TCI -- control the service to nearly half of the cable TV subscribers in the U.S. Barnes & Noble and Borders sells 45 percent of all books. Five movie studios -- Disney, Warner Brothers, Fox, Sony and Universal -- control almost 65 percent of the overall market. Fifty years ago, around 400 cities supported two or more competing daily newspapers. Now, only 24 cities have competing newspapers -- and many of those exist under joint operating agreements.

When competition disappears, the disappearance of quality is soon to follow. Looking at the post-O.J., post-Di media landscape, can one really say that there's a substantial difference between the New York Times and the National Enquirer and the Star, between the NBC Nightly News and "American Journal" and "Hard Copy," between "60 Minutes" and "Entertainment Tonight," between Time and Newsweek and People and Vanity Fair? The race to the bottom is only going to get faster.

Much of the American public fears the Internet and accepts the news media's view of cyberspace as a disturbing and dangerous place
The most reviled and misunderstood medium of 1997 was not the tabloids, rather it was the Internet. I still have great hopes for the Net as a way of creating a new media, especially as more people get access to computers and modems. While it's true that the same media conglomerates that dominate traditional media are starting to take over cyberspace, the Net has been a boon for democratic discourse. This medium's greatest attributes are freedom and empowerment. Never before has it been so cheap and so easy for people to get their message across to a large audience.

The Net offers a forum for the voiceless and powerless to join together and challenge the ignorance, dogma and repression of the dominant culture. But the freedom and empowerment of the Net scares most people, which is why so much of the American public fears the Internet and accepts the news media's view of cyberspace as a disturbing and dangerous place. While the Communications Decency Act -- a stupid, wrong-headed and repressive piece of political grandstanding -- was shot down in the courts, there are still other attempts in the works to clamp down on free speech on the Net.

The growth of Media and Democracy movement is perhaps the most welcome development of 1997. People are starting to make connections between the conglomeration of the media and the quality of what it produces. They're starting to object to the commercialization of everyday life and to the distorted view of the world presented by corporate news outlets.

If anything is going to change, it will have to be done from the bottom up. Support the journalists that are doing a good job and the publications and programs they work for. Tell the people who're producing distorted, violent or repulsive media to shape up. Push for more media literacy courses in the schools. Take advantage of the new technologies to create your own media. Make the media conglomerates accountable to the communities they serve. With hard work and a bit of luck, perhaps the media landscape will be a little less blighted in 1998.

Randolph T. Holhut is a freelance journalist and editor of "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor January 3, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page