Needed: An Independent Public Broadcasting Service

Did you notice the profound uniformity of media coverage in the wake of the horrific events of September 11?

Surfing for news, I found the same headlines, the same voices, even the same logos -- a sameness that exposes the serious extent to which media in this country have become monopolized by very few interests.

Viacom had CBS News on UPN, VH1 and MTV networks; Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp had Fox News on Fox Sports networks, FX and a number of UPN stations recently purchased from the Chris-Craft industries station group; AOL Time Warner had CNN and CNN Headline News on TNT and WTBS Superstation outlets; and Disney had ABC News on ESPN sports cable network.

As the White House and Congress prepare to make what might be a series of irrevocable decisions regarding the President's authority to wage "war" against "terrorism," the American public has never been more in need of alternative views, independent analysis, and an open forum for public discussion. Constrained by advertiser pressures and administrative oversight of their many pending deals, commercial broadcasters aren't likely to challenge the official line. We should, however, expect more from public broadcasters. Unfortunately, we are not likely to get that from our public broadcasting service, which, three decades after its founding in 1967, is seriously compromised.

Brought to You By Media Monopoly

Today a mere six corporations control more than half of all communications enterprises: books, magazines, newspapers, music, motion pictures, radio and television. Some 77 percent of the nation's daily newspapers are part of chains. Two firms control more than half the market for 11,000 magazines. Four firms control our broadcast TV networks and almost all the cable networks. Twenty-five radio groups control one-fourth of the stations and 57 percent of the revenue.

Since 1996, the corporations, Congress, the FCC and the courts have waged a continuous assault on any public-interest protections against media concentration, including national caps on cable system ownership and network ownership of stations and local caps on dual station ownership in small markets and cross ownership of newspapers and TV stations.

This tidal wave of media mergers and acquisitions has produced severe pressures to meet profit projections through staff cutbacks and increased advertising. One consequence has been a diminished capacity for local coverage and investigative reporting with greater reliance on news wires and publicists' handouts. Another has been greater vulnerability to advertiser pressures to censor coverage of controversial issues. Earlier this year, ten large corporations announced a campaign to pressure networks to put on more shows in prime time that meet their definition of "family fare." In August, CBS capitulated to pressure from Procter & Gamble to cancel broadcast of an episode of "Family Law" dealing with handguns and spousal abuse. A recent poll of 278 journalists found 41 percent admitting to some level of self-censorship. As NYU media scholar Mark Crispin Miller comments, "The cultural and civic consequences [of] corporate bonding are not healthy."

Still another trend has been the "dumbing down" of news. For example, from 1985 to 1995, the three major news magazines cut the space devoted to international news by 40 percent to just 13 percent of the magazine. And a survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of 4,000 stories in both print and broadcast media over 1977 to 1997 found that celebrity gossip stories had ballooned from 15 percent to 43 percent of the total. Americans, long starved for information about the Arab world, are now getting a crash course focused mainly on personalities, not background.

Three years ago, esteemed former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite criticized TV news magazine shows for neglecting "tough documentaries and background on the issues" to become "television copies of Photoplay magazine." Cronkite lamented that news executives "are helpless when top management demands an increase in ratings to protect profits." During the 2000 presidential race, a study of 74 major stations found that campaign coverage averaged just 45 seconds per night. This forced candidates to invest heavily in political ad spending, which totaled more than $800 million. NBC and Fox even refused to televise the first Presidential debate, hoping to attract viewers from the other networks with sports and entertainment instead.

Broadcasters have even refused to comply with the FCC mandate to offer a mere three hours of children's programming a week on the grounds that kid show revenues are down and, as put by Madelyn Bonnot of Emmis Communications, "It's a terrible financial business for us."

In April of this year, Jay T. Harris, publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, urged newspaper editors to resist the "tyranny of the markets" and give equal priority to the "moral, social and business dimensions" of newspapers. Apparently feeling helpless to change his paper's direction, he had resigned in protest against the rigid budget targets and anticipated layoffs imposed by the Knight Ridder chain.
Clearly, this media merger mania presents a distinct threat to the free flow of information essential to our democratic society. Resistance to this onslaught has become increasingly difficult. As Burt Neuborne, legal director of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, recently observed: "The more they own, the harder it is to attack them because they own so much."

In the Public Interest

In 1967, the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television recognized that "all that is of human interest and importance" may not be "appropriate or available for support by advertising," and proposed a system free of commercial constraints. Specifically, public broadcasting was to serve as "a forum for debate and controversy," providing a "voice for groups in the community that may otherwise go unheard" so that we could "see America whole, in all its diversity." In the final analysis, the Commission stated, public television should create programs "not to sell products or meet the demands of the marketplace," but to "enhance citizenship and public service." When he signed the bill into law, President Johnson declared: "Public broadcasting will help us to make our Nation a replica of the old Greek marketplace, where public affairs took place in view of all the citizens."

The service began with great promise, offering cutting edge public affairs, like "Public Broadcasting Laboratory" and "The Great American Dream Machine," and engaging live drama written by American playwrights like Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill and William Soroyan and performed by leading actors like Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman, George C. Scott and Meryl Streep.

In the years since, PBS has capitulated to a series of political attacks and corporate seductions, resulting in serious compromises in programming that have gutted the promise that public broadcasting had at its outset. Two years ago, public radio star Ira Glass of "This American Life" proposed that PBS was "more beholden to corporate interests than commercial television and should be abolished." Early this year, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales lamented, "Big corporations control public television just like they control commercial television," making it "a sad, pale shadow of what it once was and a pitiful hint of what it could be."

Now more than ever, Americans need vigorous and independent non-commercial public radio and television. In a series of articles to follow on TomPaine.com, we'll explore in greater detail the promise and current status of public broadcasting, and ideas that might reinvigorate it.

Jerold M. Starr is executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, a grassroots campaign to improve public broadcasting. He is also professor of sociology at West Virginia University.

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