by Danny Schechter
in the minds of many, the Federal Communications Commission's
Mass Media Bureau struck a blow for "freedom of the press" by rejecting a
petition by a Denver media watch group to deny the licenses of four local
stations on the grounds that their local news offerings were a form of toxic
waste, poisoning the community's airwaves with violence driven programming.
In editorial rooms across America, traditional defenders of freedom of
speech praised the decision as a rejection of censorship.
But since when is freedom of the press just defined as freedom for the press baron? Why is it that giant corporations have the freedom to systematically debase and devalue journalism and then use the first Amendment as gardol -- an invisible shield, to secure their broadcasting licenses and give themselves license to, in effect, do whatever they want at the public expense.
The TV industry
operates in a self-serving cocoon of its own creation; all
criticism or calls for public accountability are routinely ignored, derided,
dismissed and, when all else fails, critics are bashed as "crusaders for
censorship." Unfortunately old fashioned liberal reformers join this chorus,
rationalizing the agency's decision as if there were only one isssue at
stake: the bugaboo of government control. Rushing to the industry's defense,
they gang up against the very idea that FCC has any responsibility to
protect the public interest. The last time I looked, that mandate was at the
center of its mission and the rationale for its existence. How did we come
so far from the social consensus that the public owns the airwaves? Why are
broadcasters continually green lighted to abuse the public trust. Could the
big bucks they command have anything to do with it?
Remember: a different standard exists for radio and TV organizations than for newspapers and magazines. The former are licensed; the latter are not. Unfortunately our regulators think they are there to serve the industry they are supposed to be regulate. They are gutless, watch dogs turned lap dogs.
Without actually compromising any principles, they could have used this opportunity to send a signal to irresponsible broadcasters.
No one, most all the media watchers at the Rocky Mountain Media Watch, the citizens group behind the petition, wants the government running America's newsrooms. They have said so repeatedly, and tried to offer specific suggestions for positive steps that local stations could reasonably be asked to take. Yet Newspaper columnists and TV industry lobbyists have had a collective knee jerk reaction, labeling them as infidels and worse. Said former FCC General counsel Henry Geller "I can't think of anything worse or more horrifying than the idea of asking the FCC to serve as the national nanny on the quality of news."
You want something even more horrifying? It happened on the very day that the FCC bureau was so self-righteously distorting the purposes of the media watch group's petition. If the Commissioners had their TV's on -- if they watch at all -- they might have seen the local news in Los Angeles interrupt afternoon programming, including children's cartoons to bring their viewers, many young kids, a gruesome suicide by a deranged person, live and in color. That was hoorendus, so much so that for the first time in recent memory several of the stations actually apologized.
But most local news organizations don't usually go that far. To do so, they would have to apologize for their infotainment news. Bear in mind that criticisms of these intentionally dumbed down, celebrity driven, crime filled "news" shows have been getting harsher over the years with no effective response. That's because the situation is getting worse thanks to two merger movements that are transforming the business institutionally in ways that regulators never anticipated. We have had a wave of corporate mergers that puts the control of the media in fewer and fewer bottom-line oriented hands. This has resulted in more homogenization and sameness across the spectrum , including news. A second merger has fused show business and news business so that the line between them rarely exists anymore. Even TV stars like Oprah Winfrey, a former local news personality did a show on whether local news is bad for you. Some well known doctors like Andrew Weil are recommending tuning out the news for personal health and survival.
When I was a radio news director, the FCC mandated public service programming, requiring us to keep a file for public inspection. Many of my station's best programming was funded only because that rule existed. When the Nixon administration dropped the rule in a privatization sop to broadcasters, resources for such programming faded away. Of course through all of the industry backed deregulation measures, the mantra from media managers remained the same. Repeat after me: "we are only giving the people what they want."
Don't believe me?
Tune in at 6, l0 and ll and see for yourself. Despite all
the new technologies, the fancy graphics and Doppler radars, the vast
wasteland has become vaster. The NBC affiliate in Chicago tried to hire
Jerry Springer as a commentator. In New York, the Fox affiliate runs an
insipid feature called "The World in a Minute" while The CBS station boasts
of "more news in less time." Los Angeles, local news is reporting on "Nail
Salon Nightmares" and "Mansions Where Disasters Hit!" A Rocky Mountain Media
watch study of l00 stations on one day found that 20% of them carried no
news at all, by any reasonable definition. Now that's something newsworthy:
the no news show! What we have here is a case of ongoing false advertising
-- promising news but delivering a concoction of the prettiest hair on the
air, celebrity fluff, and the daily distortion. If Madonna has a bad hair
day, that's news. If HMO's are cheating customers -- even driving one to a
sick if spectacular suicide -- that's not.
This group's detailed research. has been quoted nationwide -- and verified by every major academic study, according to Larry Grossman, the former NBC News and PBS President in the current issue of The Columbia Journalism Review. Yet Grossman and media reformers like Tom Rosensteil of the Project For Excellence in Journalism oppose government intervention. What do they propose? 'Educate consumers,' they counsel, 'offer stations incentives, like awards.' In other words, Be nice, don't rock the boat. "It's an uphill battle," Grossman says, but, alas, the local news business is going downhill fast, while sucking up millions in ad dollars with which to lobby Congress and persuade us that their self-interest is the public interest. "Don't wag your fingers," counsels Rosenstseil to community groups. Unfortunately, this advice is elitist, stifling activism and encouraging the public to do nothing. Let the industry police itself? Sadly, there is no reason to believe that it will. Is there a Constitutionally acceptable method for cleaning up the airwaves? My hunch is that there is if the will is there to look for it.
The Rocky Mountain Media Watch will be appealing this decision to the full FCC Commission, but don't hold your breath. This is the same FCC that looks the other way as media concentration and monopolies multiply, the same agency that ignored its own staff's detailed findings of improprieties and legal irregularities in Rupert Murdoch's bid to become the number one owner of TV stations in America. They gave him a license for the Fox Network on the grounds that, get this, it serves the public interest. Hooray for Homer Simpson! Worse, they recently gave away the entire digital broadcast spectrum, valued at 90 billion dollars, for free to America's broadcasters. According to an Electronic Media investigation, these are the same guardians of freedom who operate in secret most of the time in violation of laws that require public access to their own decision making meetings.
It was not the FCC but public protest that forced the Jerry Springer Show, the country's most popular wrestling salon to stop its staged and faked violent encounters The FCC was passive while a coalition of religious and community groups mobilized a viewer boycott in Chicago to force the producers to cut out contrived violence. Was that protest motivated by censorship of just common sense? It was the PTA's who fought for and won more children's programming on TV, not enlightened rule-making by the FCC.
George Orwell would have had a laugh at the New York Times headline: "TV News is Backed as Free Speech." Like the reclassification of ketchup as a vegetable, saying so don't make it so. Want diversity of perspective, interpretative journalism, in-depth information about a changing world? Look elsewhere.
The television media in America has very little respect for the values of free speech. There are more channels than choices, more outlets than voices. The range of opinion ranges from A to B. Self-censorship is systematic according to the media analysts of Project Censored who look closely each year at important stories that are routinely ignored, surpressed, underplayed and distorted in favor of junk news of the type that the Rocky Mountain Media Watch has been trying to stop (See Project Censored, l998, just published by Seven Stories Press). Unfortunately 'freedom of the press,' FCC style, is not free -- our diminishing democracy is paying for it as cultural illiteracy mounts and imitative behavior influenced by TV violence produces real-life violence. Score this one for Ken and Barbie -- but the fight for real news is just getting started.
Albion Monitor May 26, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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