Sunday, September 1, 2013

Our Media For Sale

One of the more interesting stories last month was the agreement to sell one of America’s most prestigious newspapers, The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of  Many were stunned by this news. But the newspaper along with so many others have fallen on financial hard times with many people now getting their news online instead of buying newspapers which used to generate much more advertising revenue. 

Although the Graham family that owned it truly loved their paper, red ink year after year meant that the bleeding had to stop sometime.  And in Bezos, they were confident that his expertise with online enterprises would perhaps be enough to save the paper over the long run.   In addition, Bezos has not been known to have a strong political agenda so there was probably some comfort that the newspaper under him would not carry a partisan agenda.  

Time will tell, but there is still some reason to worry about all of the acquisitions and mergers in the various media outlets, whether it is the newspapers, radio, TV or others. What are they trying to accomplish?  Is it about making money or is it about promoting a political agenda or maybe both?

For somebody like Rupert Murdoch, it is clearly about both.  His Fox News along with his more recent acquisition of The Wall Street Journal which both have a strongly Republican/conservative editorial slant are ample evidence. 

Another more recent example is the Koch Brothers who expressed interest in buying the Tribune Company chain of newspapers including the Los Angeles Times.  The Koch Brothers have spent countless millions to finance conservative/libertarian causes so there can be no doubt what they are up to in wanting to buy newspapers.  Although recent reports now say that they are no longer interested in buying the newspapers, the report of their interest caused significant anxiety as written about in this LA Times opinion piece.
Having fallen short of their objective of crushing Democrats and liberalism, they now apparently believe a necessary component in their strategy is ownership of a few major newspapers. It is doubtful they want to merely have a voice on the editorial pages, as has always been a publisher’s prerogative. It is far more likely they hope to create print versions of Fox News.
The importance of media that is free of government and corporate control to ask the tough questions and keep people honest cannot be overstated in its value to a functional and thriving democracy.  (Perhaps the most notable example was The Washington Post investigation of Watergate.)  One of the first things that a totalitarian government will do to preserve its power is to seize control of the media to spread its propaganda and quell dissent.  A strong democracy needs to have an informed electorate so it can make choices that will benefit its own interests instead of those in power. 

It then follows that to have an informed electorate, it is necessary to have at least a reasonable amount of balance in the information it receives from the media.  Getting all of one’s information from one political viewpoint may be good for those who are putting out the information but it cannot lead to informed decisions at the ballot box.  So how do we go about achieving this balance?

There have been traditionally two ways to try and accomplish this balance.  One was the so-called Fairness Doctrine that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) once imposed on broadcast outlets.  The stations essentially had to provide equal time to differing sides of current issues.  The thinking was that with the limited number of media outlets back in the days before cable and the Internet, it was necessary to keep tabs on them to ensure some reasonable standard of balance and fairness. 

The second way was to regulate how many media outlets in a certain market could be owned by one individual or corporation.  The idea was to make sure that nobody could corner the market on choices of news or entertainment. 

But with the 1980s and the election of Ronald Reagan, came the era of deregulation.  One of the casualties was the Fairness Doctrine which was repealed in 1987 based on what was believed to be an attack on First Amendment rights.  While I believe the motives of the Fairness Doctrine were good, I agree that we don’t have any right to tell Murdoch or any other owner what he can run on his own networks or put in his newspapers.  After all, there was enough real competition at that time which gave us enough choices to hopefully ensure enough of that elusive fairness and balance.

But then the second shoe of deregulation dropped.  With passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC then started to relax the regulations on how many and which types of media outlets could be owned by individuals or corporations in each market.  Since then, the merger and acquisition frenzy has continued unabated and has led to concentrations of media ownership that may well be threatening the health of our democratic process.

For example, let’s take the Pittsburgh market where I live.  We are fortunate enough to have both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which has a liberal editorial slant along with the Tribune-Review which is strongly conservative so I have a choice of which paper to read.  But with many newspapers going belly up, more and more cities are becoming one newspaper towns.

Clear Channel Communications now owns 6 radio stations in the Pittsburgh area and just about as many in smaller cities where they effectively dominate their markets.  Their stable of talk show hosts (through their subsidiary Premier Networks) includes conservative stars Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.  Indeed, because in part of efforts by Clear Channel, there are far fewer liberal/progressive talk stations on the radio dial despite the claims of those on the right about the liberal media.  And with the last two presidential elections won by a Democrat, surely there must be more of an audience for liberal talk than is being served – but the people who own the stations are reluctant to provide it.  Don’t you wonder why?

Even more ominous is that the increasing concentration of media ownership with a formidable share now owned by six large corporations known as The "Big Six" (which doesn’t even include Clear Channel!).  And with these large corporations buying up more and more of the media, whose interests would we expect them to promote?

It is perhaps unfair to say that every media owner exerts undue influence on its editorial content.  But that influence is certainly there and often, it is insidious. It falls under the category of not biting the hand that feeds you.  If for example, a particular corporation or industry is a major advertiser, is it unreasonable to be concerned that they will be treated with kid gloves by a media owner, even if public criticism is warranted? 

This is not just limited to commercial media.  The aforementioned Koch Brothers are contributors to PBS and according to this link, were successful in getting PBS to pull a documentary that was critical of them.  And while many media owners profess that they give free editorial reign to their news staff, how many workers want to take a chance of angering their owners and risk getting fired or being put on the fast track to nowhere?  And this doesn’t even include other areas of influence like the censorship of people and views the management may not agree with.

Other than rolling back some of the deregulation that has caused so much concentrated ownership of the media, the only real antidote is more use of our critical thinking skills.  It doesn’t bother me at all when somebody has a passionate opinion that differs from mine.  But what does bother me is when upon questioning, that person has precious little understanding of the objective facts behind his or her opinion.  It seems to me that this is a person who just accepts what he or she hears without asking any of the tough questions. 

Whether one watches or reads either liberal or conservative opinion, it is up to the viewer to be skeptical and insist that what are submitted as facts are not instead, distortions of reality.  (By the way, the hyperlinks I always insert in my postings are to help verify to the reader what I believe to be facts.) 

As a regular viewer of the Sunday morning political talk shows, it annoys me to no end that people are constantly allowed to get away with falsehoods and not get called on it by the moderators (as in asking the tough questions?) because they stubbornly cling to a misguided attempt at neutrality  even when the facts may all be on one side of the argument.
What happens when public officials don’t tell the truth? Traditionally it’s been the role of the media to point this out. It is the role of the media to not only to uncover hidden deceit, but also to point out deceit in plain sight. The media should not and cannot hide behind the phony gauze of neutrality. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”
While those of a conservative bent worry about the influence of Big Government, the rest of us worry far more about the growing influence of Big Money and Big Corporations on our lives.  They now apparently have the best government money can buy.  So why not the media too? 

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