Who Will Tame the Media Monster

The liberals' nightmare has come true: the Fox News Channel is the king of cable news. For the first time, Rupert Murdoch's high-octane conservative channel beat out CNN, a division of AOL-Time Warner, in the ratings war in January.

Not only did Fox, led by right-wing inquisitor Bill O'Reilly, beat out CNN and MSNBC for attracting more viewers in January, the channel won where it counts: garnering the attention of 25- to 54-year-olds. In this desired group, Fox saw a 159 percent increase in ratings over last year, while CNN and MSNBC saw only modest growth and this at a time when Americans were obsessively clicking to cable news channels to get the latest spin on the war on terror.

That Fox is now king of cable news hardly comes as a surprise. CNN has been chasing Fox's magic for months. Even before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, new CNN boss Walter Isaacson, formerly of Time magazine (another hot AOL-Time Warner media property), tried to hire Rush Limbaugh for a TV show.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, ratings for cable news surged and Fox was ready to pounce on the opportunity. It served up images of bravery and led the bellicose call for revenge or "infinite justice," as President George W. Bush briefly called this new war.

Fox also raided the competition. It lured Geraldo Rivera out of the CNBC studio and into the Tora Bora caves. Rivera arrived for the final assault on bin Laden's forces and even dodged some snipers' bullets. When Greta Van Susteren left CNN to join Fox, it kicked the media wars into full gear. CNN reacted by signing Larry King to a hefty new contract and plucking Connie Chung from ABC.

Meanwhile, the story that has virtually been ignored by media-addicted consumers is the insidious ongoing effects of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Cable is just the most visible arena where massive media empires, Fox and AOL and General Electric and Disney, struggle for dominance. The "content" industry is a lot more concentrated these days and there's nobody in sight who would like to slow it down. (For a breakdown of the competing media empires, look at the "Big Media" issue of The Nation, Jan. 7, 2002.)

In recent months, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has moved to revoke most of the remaining anti-trust rules on media ownership. The FCC is evaluating the 1975 regulation that prevents a single media company from owning a TV station and daily newspaper in the same market. Powell also wants to ax rules that prevent a single media conglomerate from holding more than 35 percent of TV viewers.

And where does the Public Broadcasting System fit into this free-for-all for media monopoly? The non-commercial network, created more than 30 years ago as the exemplar of the medium, still falls short when compared to its commercial rivals. It does not have its own news gathering operation and it's hindered by tight budgets and reliance on corporate underwriting.

PBS does have its own talk shows, like NewsHour and the Charlie Rose Show. However, many people find PBS boring. For years, progressives have complained about NewsHour in particular for ignoring pundits and activists outside the political establishment. David Barsamian, creator of Alternative Radio, a syndicated radio program heard on community radio stations, lays out the usual leftist complaints about PBS in his new book, The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting (South End Press). Barsamian bemoans the PBS he says has sold out to corporate sponsors and spurns documentaries and other controversial fare that might upset its underwriters.

"Radical voices are simply excluded from public discourse," Barsamian writes. "They do not exist. They're not on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. They're never interviewed by Charlie Rose. On rare occasion, Rose has had Edward Said on, but he does not let him finish a sentence ... Yet, when Rose has perennial favorites like Thomas Friedman and Henry Kissinger on, he genuflects and exhibits proper awe and reverence."

Although it offers a lot of conventional wisdom, PBS is able to deliver some first-rate public affairs shows. Frontline has for years done an admirable job in investigative journalism, and Bill Moyers' new weekly show, Now, is powerful television.

Barsamian hurts his own argument by narrowly defining PBS' ability to telecast dissent by looking at how its producers have routinely ignored leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. His book recounts an incident when Zinn was dropped from a 1991 NewsHour segment that explored the implications for the left of the downfall of the Soviet Union. Contacted by a producer, Zinn explained that the fall of Soviet communism, "would be a big boost for socialism, since the Soviet Union had given socialism a bad name by pretending to embody it, and with the Soviet Union out of the way, it might be possible to restore the good name of socialism."

Zinn was replaced on the NewsHour by James Weinstein, founder of In These Times, a leftist news magazine, who gave a more dour treatment of the fall of the Soviet Empire. This was hardly media censorship but rather good news judgment.

Despite all the negative media trends, there are signs of life among media reformers. Pacifica Radio is now back in the hands of the dissidents who ran a successful year-long boycott. Leslie Cagan, the leading dissident board member, now chairs the five-station radio network. Pacifica also hired Dan Caughlin, former news director at Pacifica Network News, to run the network. Previously, he had helped run the Pacifica Campaign, which orchestrated the onslaught against Pacifica management and its operations at radio station WBAI in New York. Yet, Pacifica must now find a way to pay off its $4.8 million debt created by this infighting.

Although it is only Pacifica, a small radio syndicate best known for its leftist bent, it could be a model for a more democratic American media. The power struggle showed that listeners count when they withhold their contributions and complain to the management. It is the first time that a dissident campaign has succeeded in taking back a media outlet.

The campaign worked because Pacifica ran out of money and faced a determined set of media activists who wanted to retain the network's alternative voice. In conjunction with media-watch outlets like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, activists for media reform need to look at changing the rules of the game for big media. For starters, activists need to focus on the FCC giving away the store to media and telecom giants.

As media analyst Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols argue in a recent essay in The Nation, media reform needs to be considered as important as civil rights and debated in church basements and union halls.

McChesney and Nichols state: "When people hear of the corruption of communications policy-making, they are appalled. When people understand that it is their democratic right to reform this system, millions of them will be inclined to exercise that right."

Who will tell the people about the abuses of the media moguls? Certainly, not CNN or Dan Rather, whose corporate bosses enjoy the privilege of writing the rules of media ownership and deregulation. Activists will need to create their own vehicle to tell the masses.

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