"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Constraints Effecting Journalism

Explaining why President George W. Bush was getting an easy ride, Harris wrote,” There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president.” This explanation leaves aside some serious questions. To what extent have liberal journalists been intimidated by the constant refrain that the media has a liberal bias? Has the fact that the three major networks are now in conservative hands anything to do with their increasingly cautious approach to the way they report on conservative politicians and conservative administrations?. Neal Gabler of the Annenberg School of Communications has suggested that the secret of understanding the media is not that it has a liberal bias. Rather, ”it is that they are trying to attract the widest possible viewership, or readership, and that doing so necessitates that they be as inoffensive as possible.”

Don Hewitt, producer of “Sixty Minutes”-- a television program that has set a reasonably high standard for integrity, lamented “The 1990s were a terrible time for journalism in this country but a wonderful time for journalists.” Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune has even referred to the “death of journalism.” Speaking to trade and corporate seminars can be very lucrative, and there is no way of knowing whether people might modify their reporting patter somewhat to make themselves attractive to these employers. Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, who were on the most influential Sunday commentary program, were talking to insurance and hospital lobbying groups at about $30,000 a speech during the health care debate. Roberts also earned money speaking to Phillip Morris executives. Both of these allegedly liberal commentators had little good to say about Bill Clinton in his second term. Roberts appeared to uncritically accept every charge made about Clinton’s sexual adventures and has been called a “font of Beltway conventional wisdom.” Later, she was inclined to treat President George W. Bush gently, claiming the SEC had exonerated him in a potential inside-trading case when the agency’s letter specifically said it was not exonerating him.’

The decline of journalistic standards that became obvious in the 1990s has often been blamed on the need to compete with around the clock cable television news. Dusko Doder confessed, “Reporters like myself, who have been in the business for a while, talk frequently these days about avoiding certain topics that would clash with the financial interests of their organizations.”

In 2002-2003, the US newspaper industry was netting an average profit margin of 21%, a yield far in excess of what the European press was realizing. Analyst Curtis Gans worried that the media was sacrificing accuracy and balance n order to wreap these gains and noted that the press should provide information and opinions that ignite the fires of a citizens’ democracy. Media outlets are businesses, and they cannot afford to alienate advertisers or people who are likely sources of news. In the mid-1970s, the New York Times moved too far left in its reporting and promptly suffered declining revenues. Articles on problems in health care alone cost it $500,000 in advertising from one former client. A Wall Street analyst then commented that the paper’s support of a tax increase “could put the Times right out of business." The paper had no choice but to reverse course and made Max Frankell managing editor in January 1977. In addition, the increasing concentration of media outlets in fewer hands has increasingly tended to make the press more cautious and conservative. Although large corporate interests tend to hold large numbers of newspapers and electronic media outlets, this is not always the case. By 2002, the Retirement System of Alabama held 36 television stations and 118 daily newspapers. Among its holdings were the NBC station in Memphis and the CBS station in Cleveland. RSA also holds 118 newspapers.

The manner in which the media treats political matters is closely tied to the ownership of the press and media and to the necessity of not alienating advertisers. . Newspapers, magazines, and television stations exist to make money. Wealthy advertisers can influence what a radio station chooses to broadcast. Television was deregulated in the 1980s, and this increased the profit potential of the networks. Public service was no longer mandated, and the industry no longer considered it a goal. Great corporations acquired the Networks. GE bought and continues to hold NBC. Capital Cities acquired ABC, and it later passed to Disney. Lowes purchased CBS, and that was later bought by Viacom. News department staffs were cut to increase profits, and their broadcasts were oriented more toward entertainment than hard news.

The vast majority of newspapers are owned by conservative interests, as are the three major television networks and FOX. The interests of the corporations that own media outlets are affected by how the news is handled. Westinghouse, owner of CBS, and General Electric, owner of NBC, are involved in both the nuclear power industry and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Few negative stories appear about the World Trade Organization which has a record of being anti-labor, anti-human rights, and pro-business. Between January 1, 1998 and February 1, 1999, the three major television networks interviewed 132 people about the desirability of “privatizing” Social Security. That is, permitting people to invest a third of their contribution in mutual funds. Only three of those interviewed were critical of the plan. Investment houses and mutual fund providers are major advertisers. This may have something to do with the skewed coverage of a very important issue.

PBS, which is denounced by conservatives as being too liberal, frequently covers Latin American stories by interviewing current or past US officials or those of governments allied with the United States. Viewers are not likely to learn much about why dissidents there are unhappy with US corporations and US policy. As federal subsidies to public television have decreased, PBS has become more dependent upon corporate underwriting and has found it necessary to become careful about not offending corporate benefactors. In 2002, PBS abruptly cancelled showing a British documentary entitled “Counting On Democracy,” which argued that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had illegally deprived 57,000 people of the right to vote in the presidential election of 2000. A handful of local affiliates obtained the program and showed it, but the PBS decision deprived most viewers of an opportunity to consider an alternative explanation of what happened in the Florida election.

There is a very natural tendency for the press to go easy on those who wield great economic power. In the 1980s and 1990s, the American media was concentrated more in more in the hands of a few vast corporations. It was unable or unwilling to provide sufficient information to the electorate on economic polarization or the growing power of a small economic elite. Republican theorist Kevin Phillips wrote: “For want of insights and data often unobtainable from the corporate media, the public opinion vital to US democracy has trouble remaining vigorous and informed.”

Structural factors help explain the media’s tilt to the right. In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission repealed the time-honored fairness doctrine. This removed any barrier to the partisan use of the media, and talk radio soon became almost completely right-wing. Cable television soon took a decidedly conservative bent, although there are some moderate commentators on the cable and even one outspoken liberal. Under Bill Clinton, Congress opened the door somewhat to media consolidation, which made it easier for most mainstream media to be owned by 6 corporations. George W. Bush’s FCC removed so many more limitations, that the Republican Congress in 2004 actually put aside one sweeping grant of powers to private interests.

Some feared that the internet was the last venue where progressive views could be presented, and it was clear that the time would come when internet access would be almost entirely via broadband access offered by a few providers. For that reason, there was much concern in 2006, when A.T.&.T. offered to purchase Bell South for $67 billion dollars. Progressives sought to block the deal until Net Neutrality or “Equal Access” was guaranteed. The Justice Department approved the merger with no conditions in October but a hitch turned up when one member of the FCC recused himself, leaving a 2-2 tie. To obtain approval AT&T guaranteed Net Neutrality and reasonable rates for the next thirty months.

The media’s tilt to the right was partly due to the influence of advertisers, the fact that most outlets are in conservative hands, and to the “vast success of the long rightist propaganda drive against ‘the liberal media.’” The ceaseless complaints about a liberal media had enabled conservative writers and electronic journalists to stray far beyond any acceptable standard of fairness. Their cover is that they are just redressing long-standing grievances. When Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham died, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran an editorial insinuating that she murdered her husband in order to gain control of the company. Conservatives had long painted Mrs. Graham as an unprincipled liberal because her paper exposed the Watergate story and sometimes disclosed information injurious to the conservative cause. In point of fact he had committed suicide, and there was not a shred of evidence to support the paper’s outrageous hypothesis. The paper’s owner is Richard Mellon Scaife, who had financed the Arkansas Project, which was a massive investigation of the Clintons, and the American Spectator, when it printed reams of unsupported material on the Clintons’ business dealings and sexual activities. That most of the press neither took notice of nor rebuked Scaife’s Tribune-Review indicates, at best, that many simply expected wild and irresponsible attacks from the conservative press.

As late as the 1970s, reporters sometimes did courageous things. Today, however, Russell Baker wrote, “They have discovered that their prime duty is no longer to maintain the republic in well-informed condition--or to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable--but to serve the stock market with a good earnings report to comfort the comfortable.” Kate Graham risked loss of her paper and broadcast empire when she continually supported the investigative work of Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward Arthur Ochs Sulzberger risked federal prosecution when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers for days in an ad-free section, which must also have been a costly proposition. Seymour Hersh has made a career of straight, honest, non-partisan reporting. His penchant for raising questions that challenged those in power have cost him prestigious jobs and a great deal of income. Hirsh’s careful, analytical, investigative journalism has prompted George W. Bush to say, “Seymour Hersh is a liar.” A seasoned journalist has noted that his stories “sting, but there’s no real lasting effect.” This may be because most of the press is marching along safer paths.

There are very few investigative reporters like Seymour Hersh today, in part because investigative reporting is expensive both in terms of paying personnel and in terms of the retribution it can bring. Reporters with deadlines to meet find it easier to draw readily available information from conservative think tanks, or even from Matt Drudge. He carried an untrue and unsourced story that Ken Lay slept in the Lincoln bedroom when Clinton was president, and moderate journalists picked it up and printed it. On an earlier occasion Drudge false accusation that a Clinton aide was beating his wife was quickly picked up and circulated by the mainstream press. These were examples of the mainstream press becoming a vast echo chamber for stories mounted in the aggressive conservative press.

Appearing on BBC’s “Hardtalk” Carl Bernstein noted that there had been a “massive pullback” on tough and investigative reporting. Some of this was due to financial considerations, but much was due to a “horrible political atmosphere” in which a very large part of the population does not want anything approaching full or honest reporting.” Courageous reporting that challenges powerful interests is very infrequent today as demands for higher profits make it impossible for publishers and media managers to show such courage or take such chances. Newspaper CEOs are far less frequently journalists; rather they are business school graduates who eyes are fixed on the bottom line as well as the possibility for acquisition or merger. Local television news programs in big markets enjoy profit margins of 60-70%, and those in smaller markets are not willing to settle for the 10% that would please many small businesses.

CBS’s Dan Rather, the contemporary anchor who seems most committed to honest journalism, admits that “delivering the profit” has become the news media’s “driving force” and admits that this has led to “the decline in quality.” This means that there are fewer people to cover stories but also that there is greater pressure to do less with stories that could antagonize advertisers or viewers. The pursuit of profits has led the press to do more with brain-softening entertainment items and inconsequential material. There is evidence that many patrons like things this way. Even the Sunday talk shows slowly have drifted to the Right. In Bill Clinton’s second term, the guests were reasonably balanced with a slight edge going to the Republicans. During the George W. Bush presidency, conservative guests significantly outnumbered liberals, and the panels were strongly tilted to the right. Outspoken liberals like Paul Krugman rarely appeared. The one exception was Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Sherman has written African American Baseball: A Brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum


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About Me

Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!