The More You Watch, The Less You Know

As a freelance writer and independent documentary filmmaker, a radio newsman in the '60s and '70s at Boston's groundbreaking WBCN and as a producer of ABC's 20/20, Danny Schechter knows about the "dumbing down of our news." In his latest book, "The More You Watch, The Less You Know," Schechter details a world in which advertising takes precedence over content, and journalism is mired in a censorious culture of its own creation. He also talks about solutions. Following is an interview with the man leading the charge against the decades long trend.There are obvious reasons for this dumbing down: More and more media outlets are falling into fewer and fewer hands; as of last year Disney, General Electric and Westinghouse -- owners of ABC, NBC and CBS -- controlled more than 450 broadcast and print media entities between them, worldwide.Media outlets are "downsizing" their budgets for investigative and foreign reporting; of the nation's 1,900 largest newspapers, two-thirds no longer have foreign correspondents. Quick-bite, "we bring you the world in a minute" television news that lacks all context continues to encroach. And a bottom-line, corporate mentality that places advertisers at a higher premium than viewers and readers looms large.There are also less-obvious reasons for the decline in journalistic standards: Theories of reporting have become outdated, while journalists self-censor in the name of "unbiased reporting," or in fear of public censure. (Witness the repercussions faced by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, after his now-notorious reports on the connections between the CIA and inner-city America's crack epidemic were published. Not only was he publicly belittled by a number of "respected" news outlets, The Washington Post and L.A. Times among them, but his employer ultimately refused to support him -- instead transferring him to one of the paper's suburban backwaters.)It's the rare working journalist who is willing to openly criticize this process, but Danny Schechter has been on the forefront of this charge for years now. As a freelance writer and independent documentary filmmaker, a radio newsman in the '60s and '70s at Boston's groundbreaking WBCN, and as a producer of ABC's 20/20, he knows whereof he speaks.In his latest book, The More You Watch, The Less You Know, Schechter details a world in which advertising takes precedence over content, and journalism is mired in a censorious culture of its own creation. He also talks about solutions. We spoke to him by telephone in New York, where Globalvision, his 10-year-old independent production company, is based.Honolulu Weekly: It seems safe to say that television in its current form is not living up to its promise. É Danny Schechter: I think the whole TV system is poised to change. Television companies have actually created the situation, through a proliferation of new channels that has fragmented the very audience that was a profit center. At the same time, because there is such a demand for advertising outlets, networks are able to make more money from a smaller audience.There are all sorts of bizarre contradictions at the heart of what's happening. I call it a media war, and it's being fought on a number of fronts: A war for our attention, a competitive war of three broadcast companies and also a war within companies about what their identity is and what their mission is.And so you have -- in addition to the emergence of critical voices like the PTA's concerns about children's TV, or the union's concerns about the lack of coverage for unions -- people in the mainstream, such as Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt, a veteran of 60 Minutes, blasting the corporations for their priorities. HW: How is the media contributing to the "dumbing down" of its viewers?DS: Self-inflicted competition: The rating shares are smaller for each network, and the fight over each rating point is more intense as a consequence. At MSNBC, a friend was telling me that they didn't have any ratings; then they started getting ratings every 15 minutes, but he told me that they knew the ratings didn't really mean anything anyway.Nevertheless, when they did the JonBenet Ramsey case, they seemed to get a spike of new viewers -- whereas, when they did a story about the certification of lawyers by psychiatric institutes, they didn't get the same type of spike. So the conclusion they jumped to was not that the old programming is boring or could be made more interesting or revised, but that they need to do more JonBenet Ramsey coverage.These spectacle stories become even bigger because everybody jumps on them at the same time. It creates a sensationalism, what we call a "cumulative effect" or a "multiplier effect." When you have "all O.J., all the time," everybody is talking about O.J. because that's all there is to talk about. Most of us think that we're making our own choices, but we don't realize that we're choosing from what's being offered to us.HW: I was watching the news the other night, and there was a report -- maybe 15 seconds long -- on some sort of conflict between police forces and "rebels" in Africa. All I got out of it was that two groups of people were splitting heads. One of the crucial points you raise in the book is that packaging has become more important than content, and that images are overwhelming actual information.DS: The other night, despite the fact that I blast Rupert Murdoch in the book, I was on the FOX news channel being interviewed about the book -- between a silly kicker story and an interview with a guy from Men's Health magazine reporting on a survey about which part of a man's body women like the most. É I'm having this whole discussion, and the guy blurts out, "Africa? Who the hell cares about what's happening there?" When you do all these interviews that I'm doing now É you start hearing the same thing over and over: "Well, we're just giving the people what they want; people don't want that, people don't want that."In the book, I quote Robert Deutsch, who does focus-group studies. The government of Japan hired him to find out how Americans think about Japan. So he does these in-depth groups where he's not trying to find out opinions, but trying to get to the basis of their opinions; to what their real knowledge base is.He asks them a question: "Can you name three people from Japan?" There's silence in the room. Someone finally raises their hand and says, "Yoko Ono." And he says, "Well, how do you feel about Yoko Ono?""We hate her."What this is really about is a sense of loss: She broke up the Beatles. People had a sense of pleasure from the Beatles; she destroyed that.Next person. They go around the room, somebody raises their hand and says, "Godzilla."OK. Godzilla isn't a person, so what's that about? It's about this notion that the Japanese, that these "monsters," keep coming back: Think about the news, you always see these ships with Toyotas being driven off them. It's the notion of being invaded by a foreign culture.The third person the focus group names is Bruce Lee. Deutsch says, "Well, he's not Japanese."They say: "It doesn't matter."The grasp on actual information, what we base our decisions on, is based on impressions, repressed memories, and things that are activated and replayed and reinforced. So people don't really realize É the Vietnam war happens and it takes years before people realize that they're being fed a pile of shit. The Gulf War happens, and everybody is walking around saying, "We're number one!" And suddenly we realize that 125,000 people may have been poisoned by chemical weapons, probably our own.In other words, information comes out after the fact, or in ways that it's very hard to respond to. There's no way people can intervene in what's going on or even express outrage, so instead there's a tremendous feeling of frustration and disconnection from events that they don't feel they have any control over. And television reinforces that, because it doesn't cover people, it covers power. It looks up, it doesn't look down.That's why when we do our programming at Globalvision, we try to develop what we call "inside-out coverage." If we're covering Sarajevo, we work with filmmakers there, who have a very different view. They're saying, "The American press É is saying, 'This is an ethnic war; these are people who have hated each other for hundreds of years and can't get along, and it's religious, basically.' It's never the Muslims versus the Catholics or the Orthodox; it's the Muslims versus the Croats and the Serbs."So: The Serbs and the Croats by definition have countries, but the Muslims have a religion -- the very language of the way it's presented makes it impossible to understand. These folks in Sarajevo who work with us are saying, "Hey, it's not an ethnic war, it's not a religious war, it's a political battle of ultra-right-wing nationalists who took control of the government in Serbia and are now trying to take control of the whole country. These people ran the country under so-called 'communism,' and they've now moved to nationalism, because communism no longer holds the support of the common people." They have a very plausible explanation of what was going on, based on their own realities É realities we otherwise never get to see.HW: Early in the book, you quote [then-U.N. Secretary General] Boutros Boutros-Ghali as calling CNN the 11th member of the U.N. Security Council, and [journalist and media critic] Ben Bagdikian as saying journalism is failing humanity. What is journalism's responsibility to humanity?DS: I was at this [United Nations] meeting, and Kofi Anan [the incoming U.N. Secretary General] was giving a speech, because he's dealing with peacekeeping operations, saying that since there's been no coverage of an event beforehand, by the time peacekeepers go in, people have no understanding of why they've been sent there, what the conflict is about or why they should care. The story then becomes the peacekeepers, not the problem in the country. As a consequence, it's hard to rally public support for missions that no one knows anything about.Anan suggested this notion of "preventive journalism" -- that journalists begin covering conflicts as they emerge, as opposed to after the disaster has already happened, and by doing so, possibly helping to prevent these terrible things; possibly allowing preventative diplomacy, so that there's intervention of a non-military kind.So, he says all of this and then, by satellite from the CNN bureau in London, here sits Christiane Amanpour. She says, "Absolutely not! That's not the role of journalism. Our role is just to present the facts. We can't pick on any mission by trying to prevent any conflict. That's not our role," and in fact that's very antagonistic to her, essentially. That was a very interesting clash: The world is changing, the United Nations is trying to change to be responsive to these horrible problems that are so dependent for their solution on the consensus of support in America's media, and the media, in a sense, is adamantly refusing to change. É In effect, defending what most journalists, when you talk to them, won't defend: Parachute journalism, where they're in Rwanda on Monday, Bosnia on Tuesday and Somalia on Wednesday -- being flown into crises, not having the background, [or] airtime to explain it.This is another element of the metaphor of the media war: The media has actually helped to promote war, as opposed to help promote peace. There are very few stories on peacekeeping, on the peace process, on how to prevent these things from happening. There are a lot more stories about how belligerent statements are being made, and how the drumbeats are being sounded for war.HW: This raises the question of whether there is such a thing as unbiased journalism.DS: Well, objectivity is something of a myth. We bring our values, our passions to the story. We can, within our stories, attempt to be fair to the various people. The biggest myth is actually that there are two sides to the story: Most stories have many more sides. They have more nuances, more background -- and that's the stuff that tends to get flattened and presented in a one-dimensional way.The deeper issue is not bias: I've been on a lot of talk radio, and [the hosts are] saying things like [takes on a drawl], "Well, in our part of the country, we're seeing the liberal media as being biased." The Cold War has been over for years, and they're still framing their views in left/right terms, when, in fact, it's not about that -- it's about corporate interest and the public interest, which is a serious conflict. And an unacknowledged conflict, because the corporations that control the media are increasingly fewer and won't cover things that are not in their own self-interest. The telecommunications reform bill and changes to the home media systems are covered in the back, in the business section, not as a cultural phenomena.Journalism acknowledges the existence of the natural environment. That happens: Everybody in Hawaii knows, for instance, about the environment -- they want to know if the surf's up, they want to know if a storm's coming. But there's a cultural environment that is every bit as present as the natural environment, and it is influenced by what we see on television, what we hear on the radio, what's at the movies, what's being taught in the schools, and that helps cultivate our outlook on the world. It's very rarely acknowledged that this exists, and when we have the television industry only covering the O.J. Simpson trial, it's not covering a lot of what else is going on in the world. It actually is dumbing down America!HW: How have media mergers undermined our access to information?DS: A good example is NBC: NBC buys the Olympics. At the end of the year, it's reported by some mediawatch groups that the one story that received more coverage than any other on NBC news was the Olympics. So NBC news became a promotional arm of NBC sports. In the interest of so-called "synergy," which is really about maximizing profits, a lot of what's happening is more and more promotion -- and what that leads to is less and less information.HW: As someone who has seen this from the inside, how much does corporate ownership affect what gets reported? Is it as straightforward as General Electric [owner of NBC and maker of Trident nuclear missiles] saying to its news department, "Thou shalt not report on the nuclear industry!"?DS: No. I think that's a very crude perspective. The boardroom rarely faxes the newsroom or gives orders, because, in part, they don't have to: The news executives are selected by the top executives, and they're generally people who have a similar view and understand what their responsibility is, in terms of the need to keep a certain level of profitability in the division. É As an example, General Electric is providing these generators as part of this controversial [Three Gorges] dam project in China. So far, I haven't seen a lot of coverage of this dam project, which has been criticized by environmentalists, on NBC. But I think that if the environmentalists were to start attacking NBC for not covering it, they would cover it -- if only to show that they're objective.HW: What do you hope to accomplish by publishing The More You Watch, The Less You Know?DS: In the book, there's a statistic on the number of political commercials that ran during the last presidential election -- that if you put them back to back, they would run consecutively for 58 straight days. It's incredible, but we're not aware of it, because it's part of the background noise of our lives. Media doesn't connect with us. TV sits in our living room, but we don't see it for what it is -- it sees us in a way, because it's attempting to sell us things. We live in a culture that's media-addicted, and it's unlikely that people are going to go completely cold turkey. We deserve, we have a right to information; it's a human right to receive information and have access to a media system -- but you can't fight for that right if you don't realize that this is being taken away from you, and that you can do something about it. So part of what I'm trying to do with this book is to É call citizens to become involved, and to see media companies in the same way that they see tobacco companies: irresponsible, greedy and, in a sense, socially harmful. We need to put new regulations on them and force them to a higher standard of accountability.HW: It seems like this line of argument would lead you into some sticky questions of First Amendment rights.DS: Well, you've got to understand that what's just happened is that all regulations have been dismantled [by the Telecommunications Act of 1996]. We had a system from 1934 to 1996, imperfect as it was, that imposed limits on the number of television and radio stations that any one company could own; required the right of reply [in election coverage] and so on.We have to reframe the discussion about these issues: When we're talking about regulation, what we're talking about is protecting and defending the public interest, the public's right to know, and that's what's missing.I'm optimistic, because as a journalist, I've had the opportunity to cover situations that seemed hopeless at the time. Who would have thought that a couple of students would launch a revolution that would lead to the end of racial segregation in America? Who ever thought that superior American power would end up getting defeated in Vietnam -- not that I wanted that outcome, but I wanted the war to end, and it did end, because of it's own contradictions and also because people fought for it to end.Ditto with Watergate: A couple of journalists start talking about this thing, and a president is forced out of office. And the one key story that I've covered over the years was the battle of apartheid in South Africa: Who would have thought that this incredible system of white power could be dismantled and changed and that a prisoner could become president? Unthinkable! But it happened.Those experiences lead me to think that if awareness of this issue can be raised, then people can become more critical -- and if we can introduce media literacy in our schools, then it's possible to transform the system to create another voice in the debate. Right now, the voices in the debate are the voices of the media companies and the government. The people's voice is not really being heard.The one sign that's very interesting is the polls that have talked to people about television. The television industry just had a convention where they reported that distrust of the media is at an all-time high; that disaffection with it is at an all-time high; that more and more people are disgusted with the hairdos on local news. They're insulted by it: They're being treated like children, and they don't like it."Freedom of the Press" has become "Freedom of the Press Lord," of the press company, and we've got to change that. And it'll be hard to do it, because we ourselves believe that we're getting what we want or getting what we deserve, because that's what they keep telling us. But it's not true. Any more than it was true that the war in Vietnam was right, or that apartheid would last forever.


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