Paul Schmelzer

Michael Savage calls for deportation of journalist

A few days ago, after fellow Minnesota Monitor reporter Abdi Aynte broke the story of the lawsuit being filed by the so-called "flying imams" who were kicked off a USAirways flight in Minneapolis last November, we got a curious response to our press email on the topic. Michael Savage, the third-rated talkshow host, sent a personal email to our managing editor. It said, simply:

"You and they should be deported for taking advantage of this great nation."

Huh? Deported for being a journalist? A confirmation from Savage's producer and series of blog posts and releases followed, I discussed it on Air America Minnesota last night, and Abdi wrote a nice rebuttal to Savage, in which he pointed out that he's a legal resident, a refugee from Somalia, who came to the U.S. in 2000, learned English and found a job:

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The Eternal Twilight of the Sinclair Mind

Golly, gee whiz! That’s what Mark Hyman, VP of Corporate Relations at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, seemed to be saying when asked if his company, the largest owner of local TV stations in the country, is biased against John Kerry: "Why would you say that? … I certainly hope not. There shouldn’t be."

Goodness, how could anyone come to such an outlandish conclusion?

Here’s how: in mid-September, 10 commentaries delivered on-air by Hyman in a 12-day period bashed the Democratic candidate. He accused Kerry of joining "the Navy … to avoid being drafted into the Army" and of "a lifetime of supporting communist forces opposed to the U.S."

Then there’s the fact that nearly 90 percent of the $2.3 million in political contributions made by Sinclair and its executives within the last eight years went to Republicans (including 97 percent of the nearly $68,000 donated this cycle alone).

And, oh yeah, the company first planned to pre-empt regular programming on all 62 of its stations to air an anti-Kerry film days before the presidential election – during primetime, without commercials, and without the opportunity for an equal response by Kerry or his supporters. "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal" brands Kerry as a traitor and a "willing accomplice" of the enemy for his activism against the Vietnam War.

That Sinclair has since backed away from its original plan – announcing Tuesday that it would only air a special one-hour news program, entitled "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media" – is in itself the sign of the power of grassroots organizing. The company refuses to admit that the protests – which resulted in a $105,000,000 financial loss since Oct. 8 – had any impact on its decision. According to its press release, "Contrary to numerous inaccurate political and press accounts, the Sinclair stations will not be airing the documentary 'Stolen Honor' in its entirety. At no time did Sinclair ever publicly announce that it intended to do so."

Right!

More genuinely shocking than Sinclair's rabidly partisan bias or its disingenuous attempt to hide the same is that someone actually had the courage to burst Hyman’s bubble of feigned innocence. On Monday, one of Sinclair’s own, Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman, told the Baltimore Sun that the company’s planned airing of "Stolen Honor" is "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election."

By 5 p.m. on the same day, Leiberman had been tagged a "disgruntled employee" who let his "political leanings get in the way." He was escorted from the company headquarters in Maryland, and shut out of the Sinclair e-mail system.

"I got fired because I spoke out," he said in an interview with AlterNet. For months he’d been complaining to his news director, managing editor, and even CEO David Smith about Sinclair’s news slant, which he says tilts 10-to-1 against Democrats. But when his complaints were ignored, he went public.

"Nobody will speak out at Sinclair. It’s a culture of fear. But I know in my heart what they’re doing is wrong. It’s not fair and balanced … It’s pure propaganda, and they’re trying to shoehorn what should be a format for editorials or commentary into news," Leiberman says.

"News" is an iffy term at Sinclair. The anti-Kerry documentary is labeled as newsworthy despite the dubious journalistic background of its creator Carlton Sherwood – a past employee of Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge, a former Washington Times columnist, and fawning biographer of the paper’s owner Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

ABC’s Nightline's reading of the names of 700 military personnel killed in Iraq, however, failed to meet Sinclair's definition of "news." In that now-infamous case, Sinclair refused to air the Nightline program in April 2004 on the grounds that the broadcast was "motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq."

Democrats and media reformers allege that it is Sinclair that is undermining the democratic process by refusing to adhere to Federal Election Commission rules; they say the film amounts to an illegal in-kind donation to the Republican Party.

Even the name of their flagship product, NewsCentral, indicates a curious approach to journalism: local news that isn’t. One-size-fits-all news segments are created at the home office in Hunt Valley, Md., and piped to its affiliate stations cross-country. The local station – be it an affiliate of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, UPN, or the WB – then mixes the segments with live broadcasting to create the illusion of local news. In some cases, personnel at the local station have to coach on-air personalities at Sinclair central casting on tough regional pronunciation of town names.

This top-down model reflects the authoritarian, hierarchical structure at Sinclair described by Leiberman: "Everything is dictated. Ideas are funneled down from the highest levels." He says CEO David Smith would often appear "in the newsroom and toss out ideas that ended up in the evening broadcasts." In fact, several days ago, Leiberman says, a proposed story on a new report critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq war was quickly spiked.

Leiberman, a registered Democrat who voted for George W. Bush in 2000, insists that right and wrong, not left or right, should govern decisions in the newsroom. It's why the graduate of Northwestern’s Medhill School of Journalism took a textbook approach when he accompanied Hyman to Iraq in February 2004 to, in Hyman’s words, report the "good news" of what was going on there. While Leiberman filed a range of stories from how horseracing affected the local economies to profiles of members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Hyman "was only over there to pump the positive side."

These cheerleading sessions broadcast from Iraq seem all the more ironic in the light of the Oct. 5 edition of Hyman's regular commentary, "The Point," which criticized CBS’s recent "Memogate" scandal. Hyman accused CBS of pushing "their political views in what was supposed to be an honest newscast" and providing "the latest episode in the trend of major news organizations abandoning their pact with the public of providing truthful, unbiased, and balanced news."

Hyman's statement – in yet another instance of irony – nails the essence of the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, repealed by Reagan's FCC in 1987. The doctrine required broadcast licensees to serve the "public interest" by presenting controversial issues of public importance, and to do so in a balanced, fair manner. Only two aspects of the doctrine remain in effect today: the personal attack rule, which offers a person the opportunity to respond once a character attack has been broadcast; and the political editorial rule, which offers candidates the opportunity to respond to a station's endorsement or criticism. While Sinclair has offered Kerry a chance to appear as part of the "Stolen Honor" programming, it's unlikely that the appearance will be fair or equal in terms of time and political impact.

While most critics cite Sinclair’s conservative bias for their desire to air "Stolen Honor," other experts suggest an alternative explanation. "This initiative is not for political interests but business interests," says Timothy Karr, executive director of Media for Democracy. "They [were] doing this to ensure their survival – and to ensure that the next four years there’s an administration that’s as industry-friendly as the last four years have been."

Recent comments by Sumner Redstone, a longtime liberal Democrat and head of CBS’ and MTV’s parent company, seem to back up Karr's analysis: "I vote for what’s good for Viacom." From a "Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal," Redstone said, "because the Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on." (Viacom’s own foray into tricky political speech turf happened early this week when the company announced its refusal to air political advocacy ads on MTV, Comedy Central and VH-1.)

It's true that if Kerry wins the election, Democrats will gain a majority on the five-member Federal Communications Commission, says Jane Kirtley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Silha Center on Media Ethics and Law. The FCC, headed by Bush appointee Michael "Son of Colin" Powell, defied public opinion when it decided to loosen ownership caps in 2003. Some two million comments flooded Congress and the FCC, overwhelmingly opposed to allowing media companies to own more print and broadcast entities in a given market. In the end, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s rule changes, putting such items as the relaxed Duopoly Rule lobbied for by Sinclair (which would’ve allowed the company to own more than one station in certain markets) on the backburner.

The temporary victory aside, the FCC has long lacked the regulatory teeth to crack down on corporate excesses. "With the demise of the Fairness Doctrine and the evisceration of the various rules governing political editorials, the reality is that the FCC really has very limited authority," says Kirtley. Another four years of Bush and a Republican Congress could be fatal for any remaining power held by the FCC – and more importantly for the nascent media reform movement that may yet put some real muscle back in federal oversight.

Given the company’s long-term financial woes, four more years of sympathetic regulators may be just what Sinclair needs – an FCC open to Sinclair's mission to, as CEO Smith once said, get "as many TV stations as we can." The debt-laden corporation posted a modest $24.4 million in net income last year on revenues of $738.7 million – a marked improvement from the previous year when it finished $565 million in the hole. Its stocks are currently down 52.9 percent from this time last year.

But while the "Stolen Honor" controversy may have made a Bush-league broadcaster a household name – and attempted to help the Bush re-election effort – the effect of such partisan pandering may prove to be the company's undoing in the long run.

"If I was a shareholder in Sinclair, I’d be absolutely mortified," says John Dunbar, project manager in media and telecommunications at the Center for Public Integrity. "All it’ll do is create controversy, lose advertisers and create a lot of animosity." According to the New York Times, investment bankers agree. As Blair Levin of Legg Mason and formerly of the FCC put it, "Deregulation usually happens when you do it quietly." A report from his bank delivered its verdict on the controversy: "Is this good for investors in terms of increasing the odds of favorable deregulation? … We think not."

The controversy already fueled a grassroots protest targeting not just Sinclair, but also its advertisers. And Leiberman predicts that the stations will lose viewers "by being skewed to one side." So in the end, the GOP's most ardent supporter may yet pay a heavy price for sacrificing principle to partisanship and profit. So it's no wonder even Bush's die-hard corporate supporter is having second thoughts.

Anarchy at the RNC

No self-defined anarchist has ever sparked a revolution. But the ideologically uninitiated who have trafficked in the habits of anarchism – chiefly unmediated communication – have toppled dozens of tyrants. – Siva Vaidhyanathan

With a four-day security budget of $76 million and 10,000 police officers facing protestors, the stage is set for anarchy. And that's just what some activists will be resorting to during the Republican National Convention later this month – only they'll be trading black masks for radically democratic, tech-savvy protest tools. Transcending beloved old-school methods, this new wave of activists will use decentralized and distributed technologies to level the playing field with law enforcement.

"There's been an incredible technological buildup on the side of the police, and on the other side people are still holding cardboard placards and making puppets," says artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko. "In the arms race of direct action, there's been incredible changes in the strategies, the training, and the equipment the police use in treating this political process." But the projects she and others embrace are only anarchistic in a strategic sense. While Anarchy suggests a political philosophy loaded with baggage, the term's Greek origins have little to do with chaos or violence: arkhos (ruler) plus the prefix a (the absence of).

This leaderlessness – "uncoordinated actions toward a coordinated goal," as Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his book The Anarchist in the Library – is what links these new-school approaches:

Flash radiojacking: Jeremijenko and the Bureau of Inverse Technology (BIT), will use a special transmitter to break into radio frequencies reserved for corporate stations, giving bursts of information so brief that the FCC can't lock onto their transmission location. During the World Economic Forum demonstrations, BIT called attention to the Bush administration's bogus claims about the safety of the air after 9/11. Each time New York's airborne pollution surpassed the "safe" level, a warning bleep interrupted broadcasts of the local NPR affiliate.

Bikes Against Bush: Joshua Kinberg will hit the streets on an "internet-enabled tactical media 'weapon' for non-violent creative resistance." Outfitted with a laptop, webcam, GPS device, and cellphone, his tech-laden bike will receive text messages sent by visitors to www.BikesAgainstBush.com. At the push of a button, he'll select messages to print on the pavement using a robotic chalk-spraying device; each anti-Bush screed will be time-stamped and gps-mapped on the website. The bike's maneuverability effectively makes all of New York a free-speech zone.

Backpack broadcast: Media collective neuroTransmitter will be toting com_muni_ports throughout the convention. These low-power, backpack-mounted radio transmitters will provide localized, on-the-fly media broadcasts, bearing witness, live, to events you won't hear about on local Clear Channel stations.

WiFi on Wheels: Yury Gitman will be pedaling his MagicBike during the convention. Offering free internet connectivity wherever it goes, it'll wire the UK-based collective OpenSorcery so members can play a military simulator online and on the streets of New York using high-power projectors.
Operations in Urban Terrain (OUT), a first-person-shooter game, aims to critique the militarization of civilian life following 9/11 – a condition the group describes as " a government . . . at war with its own citizens, with soldiers in the midst of the fabric of ordinary life" – by literally broadcasting the game's violence on city walls.

Inflated Crowd Counts: When the demonstration ends, police will inevitably lowball crowd sizes, while activists will present overly optimistic numbers. The Bureau of Inverse Technology will calculate verifiable figures, thanks to a wireless video camera tethered to a helium balloon high above the action. A rollerblader will maneuver the balloon throughout the entire crowd while the high-resolution camera beams visual data to laptops on the ground. The result: a composite image that will be analyzed by software similar to the kind used for counting microscopic cells in labs. "If Bush can dismiss this as a 'focus group' with the wave of his hand, how do you answer that? You have to have a higher standard of evidence, you have to have more compelling images," says Jeremijenko. "And we end up with a family aero-portrait – a self-documentation of our action on the streets."

The Death of Local News

Tune into the evening news on Madison, Wisconsin's Fox TV affiliate and behold the future of local news. In the program's concluding segment, "The Point," Mark Hyman rants against peace activists ("wack-jobs"), the French ("cheese-eating surrender monkeys"), progressives ("loony left") and the so-called liberal media, usually referred to as the "hate-America crowd" or the "Axis of Drivel." Colorful, if creatively anemic, this is TV's version of talk radio, with the precisely tanned Hyman playing a second-string Limbaugh.

Fox 47's right-wing rants may be the future of hometown news, but -- believe it or not -- it's not the program's blatant ideological bias that is most worrisome. Here's the real problem: Hyman isn't the station manager, a local crank, or even a journalist. He is the Vice President of Corporate Communications for the station's owner, the Sinclair Broadcast Group. And this segment of the local news isn't exactly local. Hyman's commentary is piped in from the home office in Baltimore, MD, and mixed in with locally-produced news. Sinclair aptly calls its innovative strategy "NewsCentral" - it is very likely to spell the demise of local news as we know it.

The Rise of Sinclair Broadcasting

Like many a media empire, Sinclair grew through a combination of acquisitions, clever manipulations of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, and considerable lobbying campaigns. Starting out as a single UHF station in Baltimore in 1971, the company started its frenzied expansion in 1991 when it began using "local marketing agreements" as a way to circumvent FCC rules that bar a company from controlling two stations in a single market. These "LMAs" allow Sinclair to buy one station outright and control another by acquiring not its license but its assets. Today, Sinclair touts itself as "the nation's largest commercial television broadcasting company not owned by a network." You've probably never heard of them because the 62 stations they run -- garnering 24 percent of the national TV audience -- fly the flags of the networks they broadcast: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the WB.

TV Barn's Mark Jeffries calls Sinclair the "Clear Channel of local news," a reference to the San Antonio, Texas, media giant that has grown from 40 to more than 1,200 stations today thanks to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which relaxed radio ownership rules. But the parallels extend beyond their growth strategies. Jeffries describes Sinclair as having a "fiercely right-wing approach that makes Fox News Channel look like a model of objectivity," while Clear Channel is best known for sponsoring pro-war "Rallies for America" during the Iraq conflict. And like Clear Channel's CEO L. Lowry Mays -- a major Republican donor and onetime business associate of George W. Bush -- the Sinclair family, board, and executives ply the GOP with big money. Since 1997, they have donated well over $200,000 to Republican candidates.

Sinclair's news department also takes a page out of Clear Channel's book of non-localized programming. According to Sinclair's website, NewsCentral is a "revolutionary news model" that introduces "local news in programming in markets that otherwise could not support news." Begun in 2002, it's being tested in five not-so-small markets: Minneapolis, Flint (MI), Oklahoma City (OK), Raleigh (NC), and Rochester (NY). (Hyman's segment, "The Point," however, is aired on all 62 of its stations.) In these five cities, the hour-long newscast combines local broadcasting with prepackaged news. To maintain the appearance of local news, the Baltimore on-air staff is coached on the intricacies of correct local pronunciations. Or the weatherman, safely removed from the thunderstorms in, say, Minneapolis, will often engage in scripted banter with the local anchor to maintain the pretense: "Should I bring an umbrella tomorrow, Don?" "You bet, Hal, it looks pretty ugly out there..."

Journalists have been pondering the specter of centralized news operations for some time, both because it affects the quality of news and because it could put them out of a job. "We should all be conscious of the dangers that are present when you have one newsroom producing the news," says John Nichols, associate editor at The Capital Times in Madison and co-author with Robert McChesney of the books "Our Media, Not Theirs," and "It's the Media, Stupid." "That's a real possibility. It's a very dangerous future, but Sinclair is already living in the dangerous future."

One Giant Newsroom

And that future's getting pretty crowded with media mega-empires jostling to "synergize" their operations. The Tribune Company is already cross-training reporters. Under the label of journalistic "synergy," the company owns most of Chicago's media outlets: The Chicago Tribune, WGN's TV and AM radio stations, Chicago Magazine, the AOL project Digital City Chicago, plus the Chicago Cubs (not to mention its 22 TV stations nationwide, 25 percent stake in the WB network, 14 newspapers, the syndication service Tribune Media Services, and 14 online publications including cars.com and apartments.com). A Tribune reporter -- variously called a "multimedia reporter," a "backpack journalist," or merely a "content provider" -- might attend a mayoral press conference, for example, armed with a digital audio recorder, a camera, and a notebook to provide stories for radio, print, online, and television news. While the debate rages over whether such journalists can consistently produce high quality news, the real fear is that only one voice will frame and tell a news story. It's a chilling thought when that lone perspective is shaped by a Sinclair or Fox worldview.

"Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that, in order to sustain democracy, media needed to be cacophonous and diverse," Nichols says. "Today we don't have that. Our range of debate is getting incredibly narrow: The mainstream discourse runs from right-wing to far right-wing."

This sentiment was echoed by David Croteau, Virginia Commonwealth University professor and author of "The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest," during one of only two public hearings on the Federal Communications Commission's plan to radically relax rules governing media ownership. "We cannot, therefore, treat the media like any other industry. It's products are not widgets or toasters; they are culture, information, ideas, and viewpoints," he said.

Indeed, the issue of centralized news will be exacerbated after the FCC's June 2 vote on ownership. On the chopping block are six regulations that attempt to preserve a diversity of voices and local control of media -- from the ban on owning both a TV station and newspaper in the same market to limits on how many radio stations one group can own in a given area.

Should the FCC vote to weaken these protections -- as expected -- more of our airwaves will be concentrated in the hands of a few corporations. Currently six companies control most of the country's media: AOL Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, News Corporation (Fox), Viacom, and Vivendi Universal. A study released in February by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Crunching data from 172 stations and 23,000 stories over five years, the report determined -- to the ire of major media industry groups -- that "smaller station groups tended to produce a higher quality of newscasts than networks owned by larger companies -- by a significant margin." It also found that "local ownership offered some protection against newscasts being very poor."

When talking about media deregulation, Nichols takes issue with the word "deregulation." He sees it as a term used by conservatives to project a false image of free-market values and small government. In fact, he says, the recent FCC decisions do not eliminate regulations. They instead are "dismantled and then reassembled in a form that allows a handful of companies -- like Sinclair -- to get bigger and bigger and bigger." He says, "We still have a highly regulated media. The only thing that is changing is that it's now being regulated in the interests not of democracy or the people, but larger corporations."

The cooptation of words that accompanies the handover of the airwaves to corporations is proving effective. Only a third of all Americans realize that the public owns the airwaves, and about a tenth are aware that the FCC gives stations licenses for free, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Equally alarming are the results from the Project for Excellence in Journalism survey: 72 percent of Americans say they have "heard nothing at all" about the upcoming June 2 FCC vote on relaxing ownership rules.

Powell himself sees the airwaves not as conveyors of culture but as a commodity. When asked in 2001 what he thought the term "public interest" meant in the FCC's mission, Powell replied, "I have no idea ... I try to make the best judgment I can in ways that benefit consumers. Beyond that I don't know."

Paul Schmelzer is a Minneapolis-based writer and edits the Web site Eyeteeth: A Journal of Incisive Ideas.

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