Media and Democracy Anyone?
It's been l8 months since nearly 700 media malcontents gathered in San Francisco under the auspices of the Institute for Alternative Journalism to sound the alarm about the dangers of media mergers. As the Second Media and Democracy Congress converges on New York, there have been a number of developments worth assessing, frightening trends and puzzling contradictions among them.First, among the trends, media concentration has actually intensified. A few weeks back, Variety noted that all but two cable networks were recently bought out by the media Goliaths who, in the trade mag's feisty parlance, "chowed them down." A week later, Westinghouse, the parent company of CBS, spent another $2 billion to buy up 98 additional radio stations to remain the nation's largest radio operator.Ten years ago, veteran journalist Ben Bagdikian spoke of 50 companies dominating the mediascape. There eventually will be seven, he says, if current trends continue.All of these mergers and acquisitions were encouraged by the passage of the Telecommunications "Reform" Act of l996, which dropped limits on the number of stations any one company could own. At the time it was debated, the law was justified by the Clinton administration (as well as the broadcast lobby) as essential to spurring more competition, which allegedly would then benefit consumers, bla, bla, bla. Instead, as the government's own report issued on the first anniversary of its passage made clear, the effect was the opposite: less competition and more consolidation, with higher cable rates to boot.The monopolization of the media marketplace has become so blatant that even mainstream media mavens are speaking out against it. "Our big corporate owners, inflected with the greed that marks the end of the 20th Century stretch constantly for ever increasing profit, condemning quality to take the hindmost," proclaimed broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite at a recent Radio and TV news directors confab. Second, the perquisites and effects of this pattern of media ownership is becoming more audacious. Our media moguls are no longer discrete about ramming their cross-promotional "synergy" down our throats. The most blatant example (as usual) came from Rupert Murdoch, whose New York Post front page on September 15, l997, was devoted solely and completely to this world shattering headline news: "New York City Finally Gets Fox News Channel." In extensive advertising, Murdoch then co-opted the complaints of his critics by branding his network as the only home of "fair and balanced" news, a description that might have provoked a rejoinder from George Orwell if he was among the living. So much for the pretense of a separation between editorial content and advertising mission. Third, the trends toward the dumbing down of news and information have continued unchecked. Several recent examples don't need much more comment -- the wall to wall saturation coverage of Princess Di's funeral, which came on the heels of the Cunanan sex serial killer saga, only to be followed by the daily dispatches on sportscaster Marv Albert's underwear preferences. Uncovered, at the time, were stories that are arguably more important, like the 60,000 casualties of Algeria's civil war, an event about which coverage has been conspicuous by its absence. (When he did turn to the subject in late September, CBS's Dan Rather acknowledged that the story had been "vastly underreported.") What's clear is that today's news managers have decided that surfing the tabloid waves is an easier and a more assured method of building audience share than traditional coverage. Are the networks simply satisfying viewer demand, as they would like to suggest? That market logic would seem to be in command except for one small problem: the steady erosion of viewership on all TV news programs. Why the mass defection of eyeballs? Could it be that the pervasive and systematic dumping down of the news is actually turning viewers off? On that issue, the networks have little to say. What they are busy doing is targeting viewer disenchantment with hopes of turning it around. ABC is trying that tact with its insipid mellow-yellow ad campaign with slogans designed to mock what ordinary people are really feeling about TV -- in essence, to call attention to the criticisms of the medium and then humorously try to defuse them with clever slogans deploying reverse psychology. (Those bright yellow billboards that read: "Eight Hours a Day, That's All We Ask," "Don't Worry, You Have Billions of Brain Cells," and "It's a Beautiful Day, What AreYou Doing Outside?") Increasingly, news organizations are relying on expensive market research and focus groups to shape story line-ups. NBC has come up with "principles" to make its news more relateable -- and now emphasizes softer, more featurey "news you can use" rather than news that might get you thinking more critically about the world. Fox has decided to cleanse its local newscasts of too much international coverage by ghettoizing foreign coverage into one minute capsules called "World in a Minute." CBS is speeding up the story count on its New York newscast, and then bragging about it with the deceptive slogan, "More News in Less Time." More money than ever is being pumped into promotional campaigns. In some cities, you can win prizes if you watch the local news. Promax, the TV industry marketing organization is, for the first time this year, holding a seminar on marketing news. CBS has announced that it will now be buying story ideas. This from the network that not that many years ago went through am internal convulsion when it was revealed that a former Nixon aide had been paid for an exclusive interview. Not all of these tactics seem to be all that effective in building viewer confidence. Brent Magid, the vice president of Frank Magid & Associates, the country's largest media consulting firm (which advises 115 of the country's 230 local stations) now reports that their surveys have found that distrust of the news media has never been higher. Oprah Winfrey, who got her start as local TV newscaster, is doing shows on whether we can trust local news. Her program of course airs as the lead-in in most markets to the local news. Oprah's show was just one of many devoted to airing discontent with the media that the pollsters tell us is now a majority sentiment.All of the debate and hand-wringing has opened up a new opportunity for those concerned about reforming the media -- activists who want more diversity, parents worried about what their kids are exposed to, advocates frustrated by the lack of airtime devoted to their issues and journalists who are becoming furious about shrinking news holes and oozing tabloidization.There is a potential constituency emerging around a real media and democracy movement. What was once a marginal issue has moved from the media reviews into the weekly magazines, from the realm of professional discourse into public debate. In the '60s, corporations like Dow Chemical became targets of protest and symbols of corporate greed and irresponsibility. In the '90s, many media companies deserve similar contempt are slowly receiving it. Citizens groups and movement activists could and should be doing more to embrace these issues. The same people who would be outraged if toxic waste was dumped on their doorstep have to be encouraged to express similar rage at no less toxic junk TV shows being dumped into their living rooms and brains. Danny Schechter, Executive Producer of Globalvision is a former network producer and the author of the just published "The More You Watch, The Less You Know." (Seven Stories Press)