Why media bashing continues unabated

November 08, 1999|By Molly Ivins

AUSTIN, Texas -- Oh, goody! A media-bashing day. One of everybody's favorite pastimes. The only trouble with media bashing, which we all so enjoy, is that it has gotten to be like complaining about the weather: Everyone gripes about the media, but nobody does anything about them.

But good news is at hand: A trio of new books, written from different perspectives, not only give us some excellent smiting of the usual suspects but also offer some truly helpful suggestions for what we can do about this mess.

I found Robert W. McChesney's "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times," (University of Illinois Press), the most valuable because he takes the beast directly by the throat.

Concentrated ownership

At the end of World War II, 80 percent of American newspapers were independently owned. When Ben Bagdikian, a journalist, published "Media Monopoly," (Beacon Press), in 1982, 50 corporations owned almost of all of the major media outlets in the United States. That included 1,787 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 1,000 television stations, 2,500 book publishers and seven major movie studios. By the time Mr. Bagdikian put out the revised edition in 1987, that was down to 29 corporations. Now there are nine.

None of this happened because of some inevitable working of the marketplace. None of it is written in stone. Some of the best stuff in Mr. McChesney's book is not just about how it happened but what the results are in terms of quality as the media have gone from horizontal monopolies, like the old newspaper chains, to vertically integrated, multimedia mega-monopolies like Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom.

"In today's corporate media system," Mr. McChesney writes, "journalism and by that I mean the rigorous accounting of the powers that be and the powers that want to be, as well as wide-ranging coverage of our most urgent social and political issues has nearly ceased to exist on the air. And has been greatly diminished elsewhere. The reason is simple: Good journalism is bad business, and bad journalism can be very, very good for business."

Notorious cases

The gory details of how this works out in practice are already legend: O. J. Simpson, Princess Diana, JonBenet Ramsey and Monica Lewinsky.

I have often told the story of the time I was on a Son of Sam stakeout as a reporter for the New York Times with one of Rupert Murdoch's prize Australian imports. Around 3 a.m., I mildly observed that this wasn't my idea of public service. He said impatiently, "Oh, you people from the Times when are you going to learn? It doesn't matter what kind of swill you set in front of the public. As long as it's got enough sex and violence in it, they'll slurp it up!"

Mr. McChesney details how swill sells when a company is able to increase market power by cross-promoting or cross-selling a show, for example, using television to promote a movie and then using the movie to spin off television programs and more.

"The striking feature of U.S. media policy making is how singularly undemocratic it has been and remains."

Mr. McChesney advances a program for reform. Conservatives who hate all the cheesy, sleazy sex and violence and liberals who loathe teledreck and yearn for a sense of community can make common cause in what could easily become the best use of people power in more than a generation.

Mr. McChesney's suggestions: Shore up nonprofit and noncommercial radio; strengthen public broadcasting; toughen regulation, particularly of children's programming, through the FCC and use the antitrust laws.

Bruce Sanford's "Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us," (Free Press), may at first appear to be on a different track.

Mr. Sanford is a distinguished First Amendment lawyer alarmed by the extent to which hatred of the media is affecting the legal system. Juries are not only awarding huge verdicts, but also the media are increasingly reluctant to get near a courtroom and so make private settlements.

Mr. Sanford does some outstanding media-bashing himself, but he is more concerned about the damage being done to the First Amendment by the media's loathsome behavior. I have long held that we are damaging the First Amendment by our behavior.

Bartholomew Sparrow's "Uncertain Guardians,"(Johns Hopkins University Press), has fine detail on the media's transgressions, particularly our poor performance as the watchdog of democracy.

Among his recommendations, most aimed at the media, is one for you: "One thing individuals can do is to be more self-conscious about their media consumption. Readers and viewers can learn to recognize the stereotypes and stock words and images."

Just remember: All the media are rotten except the newspaper now in front of your face.

Molly Ivins is a syndicated columnist.

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