When 'a rodent' is boss, journalistic rules change Media: New books by former employees of ABC shed light on the 'faded lines' between news and entertainment.

November 16, 1997|By Norman Solomon

This is a story about three men and a mouse. The men are named Ted, Danny and Jim. The mouse is named Mickey. And the moral of the story is - well, that's for you to decide.

Late last month, at the International Press Freedom Awards Dinner in New York, ABC News superstar Ted Koppel received a lifetime achievement prize. In a brief speech, he lamented the "faded lines between television news and entertainment." And he warned that American journalists are threatened by "the trivialization of our industry."

Decrying the sorry state of America's airwaves has become ritual among the most famous names in broadcast news - who step away from their multimillion-dollar jobs just long enough to tell us how concerned they are about the mess they're helping to perpetuate.

Perhaps Koppel should take a serious look at "The More You Watch, the Less You Know," a new book by Danny Schechter - published, coincidentally, the day before Koppel delivered his high-sounding speech.

After eight years as a producer of ABC's "20/20" program, Schechter left the network in 1988 and proceeded to find meaningful work - by creating it. Since then, his output with like-minded colleagues has included documentaries ranging from South Africa to Bosnia. He also co-produced "Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television," a regular series that aired on public television from 1993 to 1995 (without support from the Public Broadcasting Service).

Schechter's feisty new book is not an attempt to compensate for daily conformity. Instead, it's an extension of gutsy endeavors that have typified his work as a media insider and outsider.

The biases of network television don't amount to a conspiracy, he explains: "No, rarely is someone picking up the phone and telling some producer to skew the news. The boardroom rarely faxes orders to the newsroom. But then again, they don't have to if they hire professionals who share the same worldview and language, rely on the same sources, and tend to shape their reporting the same way."

Despite the grim media saga he recounts, Schechter exudes optimism. "It doesn't have to be this way," he contends early in the book. Nearly 400 pages later, he insists: "When the public understands the issues and takes up the challenge, change can happen, despite all the media's arrogance and seductive power."

Schechter adds: "Fighting to democratize the media will not be an easy or quick fight, and cannot be won before the next commercial break. Eternal vigilance is still what's needed."

A week after "The More You Watch, the Less You Know" appeared, another fine book by a former ABC employee was published. The author: Jim Hightower. The title: "There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road But Yellow Strips and Dead Armadillos."

Since leaving office a half-dozen years ago as a Texas agriculture commissioner, Hightower has immersed himself in creating media of, by and for the people. He has a whale of a tale to tell - and he tells it with sparkling wit and deft analysis.

Hightower describes how his stint as a national radio host for ABC came to an abrupt end in 1995.

"My ABC weekend show had been airing for about a year, blasting the powers-that-be and preaching the populist gospel, when Disney Inc. announced Tuesday, Aug. 1, that it was buying my network," he recalls. "Suddenly, I was the property of Mickey Mouse."

When his program began the next Saturday, Hightower announced: "I work for a rodent." he went on to denounce the Disney takeover as well as the Telecommunications Act that had just passed the Senate, paving the way for accelerated media mergers and buyouts.

"Turns out the mouse doesn't have much of a sense of humor," Hightower writes, "and there was an abrupt chilling in the network's enthusiasm for my program. Even though ABC had until then been committed to the steady growth of the show ... and even though there were numerous advertisers available to back the show - I was suddenly moused, literally knocked off the air shortly after my anti-Mickey, anti-merger broadcast."

Mickey's parent company probably will remain inhospitable to journalists such as Danny Schech-ter and commentators such as Jim Hightower. As one of the biggest media conglomerates, Disney is scurrying to the beat of a very loud corporate drum. And the beat goes on. Just ask Ted Koppel.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated colunist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble with Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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