by Molly Ivins
A media-bashing day. One of everybody's favorite pastimes.
The only trouble with media bashing, which we all so enjoy, is that it's gotten to be like complaining about the weather: Everyone gripes about the media, but nobody does anything about them.
But good news is at hand: A trio of new books, each written from a different perspective, not only give us some excellent smiting of the usual suspects but also offer some truly helpful suggestions for what we can do about this mess.
I found Robert W. McChesney's "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times" (University of Illinois Press) the most valuable of three good books because he takes the beast directly by the throat. Rather than moaning about urging journalists to be more responsible or newspapers to try "civic journalism," McChesney has gone to the heart of the matter.
At the end of WWII, 80 percent of American newspapers were independently owned. When Ben Haig Bagdikian published "Media Monopoly" (Beacon Press) in 1982, 50 corporations owned almost of all of the major media outlets in the United States. That included 1,787 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 1,000 television stations, 2,500 book publishers and seven major movie studios. By the time Bagdikian put out the revised edition in 1987, that was down to 29 corporations. And now there are nine. They own it all.
None of this happened because of some inevitable working of the marketplace or any force beyond anyone's control. None of it is written in stone. None of it has to be. Some of the best stuff in McChesney's book is not just how it happened but what the results are in terms of quality, as the media have gone from horizontal monopolies, like the old newspaper chains, to vertically integrated, multimedia mega-monopolies like Disney, Time Warner and Viacom.
"In today's corporate media system, journalism -- and by that I mean the rigorous accounting of the powers that be and the powers that want to be, as well as wide-ranging coverage of our most urgent social and political issues -- has nearly ceased to exist on the air. And has been greatly diminished elsewhere. The reason is simple: Good journalism is bad business, and bad journalism can be very, very good for business."
The gory details of how this works out in practice are already legend: O.J., Diana, Jon Benet and Monica, Monica, Monica.
I have often told the story of the time I was on a Son of Sam stakeout with one of Rupert Murdoch's prize Australian imports. Around 3AM, I mildly observed that this wasn't my idea of public service. He said impatiently, "Oh, you people from the (New York) Times -- when are you going to learn? It doesn't matter what kind of swill you set in front of the public. As long as it's got enough sex and violence in it, they'll slurp it up!"
McChesney details how swill sells when a company is able to increase market power by cross-promoting or cross-selling a show -- for example, using television to promote a movie and then using the movie to spin off television programs, CDs, books, merchandise and more.
"The striking feature of U.S. media policy-making is how singularly undemocratic it has been -- and remains."
McChesney advances a program for reform that liberals and conservatives can support. Conservatives who hate all the cheesy, sleazy sex and violence, and liberals who loathe teledreck and yearn for a sense of community, can make common cause in what could easily become the best use of people power in more than a generation.
McChesney's suggestions, which are well worth more detailed study, are: Shore up nonprofit and noncommercial radio; strengthen public broadcasting; toughen regulation, particularly as regards children's programming, through the FCC; and use the anti-trust laws.
Bruce Sanford's "Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us" (Free Press) may at first appear to be on a different track. Sanford is a distinguished First Amendment lawyer alarmed by the extent to which hatred of the media is affecting the legal system. Juries are not only awarding huge verdicts, as in the Food Lion decision that was recently overturned, but the media are increasingly reluctant to get near a courtroom and so make private settlements, as with the Cincinnati Enquirer and Chiquita Brands.
Sanford does some outstanding media-bashing himself, but he is more concerned about the damage being done to the First Amendment by the media's loathsome behavior. I particularly commend his books to those in the media. I have long held that we are damaging the First by our behavior, and Sanford's book contains the evidence to prove it.
Bartholomew Sparrow's "Uncertain Guardians: the News Media as a Political Institution" (Johns Hopkins University Press) has some fine detail on the media's many transgressions, particularly our gormless performance as the watchdog of democracy (Old Fido asleep again). Among his recommendations, most of them aimed at the media themselves, is one for you.
"One thing individuals can do is to be more self-conscious about their media consumption. Readers and viewers can learn to recognize the stereotypes and stock words and images, story-telling devices, and the news frames being used by journalists. Words such as 'terrorist' and 'extremist' are cases in point, being value-laden terms for actions that, depending on the circumstances, could be called 'heroic' or 'avant-garde' instead."
Just remember, dearly beloved: All the media are rotten, except for the newspaper now in front of your face.
November 1, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.