Forget Imus. All this fuss will be just so much wasted outrage unless we use it to direct public attention to the big picture: the way the media information cartel has rigged journalism in this country. We need to agitate to break up and re-regulate the media, beginning with restoration of the fairness doctrine.
Ever since the fairness doctrine went down for good in 1986, hate and misinformation have taken over the airwaves, beginning with Rush Limbaugh on the radio and spreading to TV. As Rep. Louise Slaughter said in a 2004 interview with Bill Moyers, after fairness was defeated,
AM radio rose. It wasn’t even gradual, Bill. I mean, almost immediately. And I should point out to you that when we tried to reinstate [the fairness doctrine] again in ’93, one of the reasons we couldn’t was that Rush Limbaugh had organized this massive uprising against it, calling it “The Hush Rush Law.”
Slaughter goes on to explain that the law wouldn’t have hushed Rush -- that would take more than an act of Congress, I’m afraid -- but it would have mandated that time be given to people who represent other sides of any issue discussed by Limbaugh. The same is true for Hannity, O’Reilly, and even Imus. They just wouldn’t have the airwaves all to themselves the way they do now.
The defeat of the fairness doctrine was followed in 2000 by the defeat of two corollary FCC guidelines: the political editorial rule, which required stations that editorialized against a political candidate to notify the candidate within 24 hours and allow him or her to respond; and the personal attack rule, which required a station to notify someone within a week of a personal attack made on the air and offer them time to respond.
Ask yourself, would Orrin Hatch have lied about fired US Attorney Carol Lam -- he falsely claimed she was the southern California campaign manager for the Clinton campaign and had no previous prosecutorial experience -- if he knew she would be offered a comparable Sunday morning time slot to rebut his claims? Doubtful.
The roll-back of fairness tilted the broadcasting playing field heavily to the right and led directly to the rise of Fox News and hate radio. Without constraints on how to present an issue, propaganda replaced real reporting -- and became wildly popular. News suddenly became revenue stream responsible for generating ratings and earnings, and the race to the bottom in network news reporting began.
Then in 1999 Karl Rove reached out to GE Chairman and CEO Jack Welch, promising radical deregulation for the broadcast industry (GE is the parent company of NBC). This fit right in with some of Welch’s thoughts and ambitions. He had long felt that the news division at NBC wasn’t living up to its full profit potential. According to a a must read article, “The Media Cover-up of the Gore Victory Part Four: Democracy, General Electric Style,” by David Podvin and Carolyn Kay, that conversation led to some important changes:
Toward that end, Welch said that he would finally deal with a longstanding grievance of his: the ludicrous idea that news organizations should be allowed to operate in conflict with the best interests of the corporations that own them.
. . . The new dimension that Welch introduced was the concept that mainstream media should aggressively advance the political agenda of the corporations that own it. He did not see any difference between corporate journalism and corporate manufacturing or corporate service industries. ...
In general, he saw corporate news organizations as untapped political resources that should be freed from the burden of objectivity.
. . .
He began to aggressively, but very discreetly, evangelize the gospel of corporate media as a corporate lobbying tool.
. . .
Welch told associates that he enlisted two members of the GE board to assist him in shaping the coverage of the election by other news organizations. ... They quietly encouraged the executives of the mainstream media organizations to rethink the relationship between news divisions and business organizations.
And a cartel is born. A cartel can be a group of corporations within one industry who meet to set prices. In the case of oil and rubber companies early in the last century, a cartel ran light rail lines out of business and lobbied aggressively for the building of an interstate highway system -- a manipulation that led to what the documentary “The End of Suburbia” modestly refers to as “the single greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”
And yet the asset being manipulated to the public detriment by the corporate media -- information -- is arguably even more basic and precious than oil.
The five media companies that control the television airwaves -- Time/Warner (CNN), GE (NBC), Viacom (CBS), Disney (ABC), and Fox -- operate as an information cartel with the power to “create reality” in exactly the way a White House official described it to journalist Ron Suskind:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
In such an environment, hate and misinformation feed on each other, and reality is flipped on and off like . . . well, like a TV.
Right now there are a good half a dozen threats to the Constitution, including the wars on Iraq and Iran, the White House firing of US attorneys in an effort to shore up the 2008 election, and deleted White House emails showing just how those firings came about.
In a reality-based universe, these issues would be all-consuming, receiving the kind of saturation coverage given to the late lamented Anna Nicole. Those deleted White House/RNC emails, in particular, seem like the perfect media scandal, since they could easily lead straight to impeachment -- particularly if people got as worked up about it as they are about Don Imus.
We certainly need to study the media information cartel -- judiciously, of course -- but right now it’s more important that we join “history’s actors.” This is not an optional fight. We can’t hope to take back reality by targeting individual media personalities or even by targeting their sponsors. We can’t do without government regulation of corporate media giants, any more than we can just give up on proper regulation of our food and drug supply.
If you’re still in doubt, please tune in to PBS on April 25 to see Bill Moyers lay out the Record of Iraq Lies. David Swanson, who saw an advance copy of the program, writes, “Spending that 90 minutes on this will actually save you time, because you’ll never watch television news again -- not even on PBS, which comes in for its share of criticism.”
We can use that time instead to work on breaking up the media cartel that’s destroying our freedom. We can start by writing to our congressmembers, senators, and local papers. Tell them that in order to prevent the abuse of our public airwaves you support Dennis Kucinich’s plan to restore the fairness doctrine.
Patricia Goldsmith is a member of Long Island Media Watch, a grassroots free media and democracy watchdog group. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Propaganda and Conscience