Media Mergers Ate Our News! A Bernie-sponsored forum takes on big-box journalism | Media | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Media Mergers Ate Our News! A Bernie-sponsored forum takes on big-box journalism 

Published April 24, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

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Here are some of the things that took place last Thursday: An Amtrak train derailed in Florida. Families of Flight 93 passengers listened to the September 11 cockpit voice recording. The Senate defeated a Bush administration proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And four Canadian soldiers were killed by American “friendly fire” in Afghanistan.

But what did all three cable news channels — CNN, MSNBC and Fox — spend the night broadcasting? The arrest in Los Angeles of actor Robert Blake for murder. Their reports included his entire uneventful 40-minute ride to the police station.

“We’re inundated with scandal and sensationalism in the media. Important topics get very little attention,” suggests U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders, who is alarmed that just a few multinational corporations “own and control the flow of information in the United States.”

This week Sanders will come home to host “The Media and Democracy,” two back-to-back forums on what he sees as increasingly superficial reporting and a growing right-wing agenda dominating the nation’s television, radio and newspapers. The town-meeting-style discussions, on Sunday in Montpelier and Monday in Burlington, will feature Robert McChesney and John Nichols, co-authors of It’s the Media, Stupid.

Sanders and his two guests are particularly alarmed that a handful of media outlets — AOL/Time-Warner, Fox, NBC and Viacom — recently won a lawsuit to abolish a longstanding Federal Communications Commission rule that prohibited cable companies from acquiring local TV stations. In addition, any one company may soon be able to provide television service to more than 35 percent of the nation’s households, an arrangement that was previously forbidden. Smells like monopoly.

“I’m organizing members of Congress to justify why it’s important to maintain those rules,” Sanders explains. “Radio was deregulated in 1996, and that’s been a disaster. Big companies, like Clear Channel, have bought up hundreds of locally owned stations across the country. Talk radio is now completely dominated by the Right. It’s a very frightening situation.”

Of the 1225 stations Texas-owned Clear Channel owns nationwide 10 are in Vermont, four of those in the Burlinton market — WCPV, WEZF, WJVT, and WXZO. Independents like Ken Squier find it challenging to compete. “They’ve got all the syndicated shows we might want and they go after the same advertising dollars,” says the head of Radio Vermont, a family of stations that includes WKDR, WCVT and WDEV. “Vermont Public Radio is also a problem. They are government-subsidized but hitting on the same sponsors we do.”

Vermont’s radio wars make more noise than corresponding battles in the print media. For one thing, there are fewer paper soldiers. The Burlington Free Press, purchased by the Virginia-based Gannett Corporation from a local publisher in the 1970s, maintains a moderate political tone in a one-daily town.

But “following the standard corporate line,” as Sanders puts it, may explain why the largest newspaper in Vermont never took a stand on the civil-union controversy, while David Moats at the independently owned Rutland Herald won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials advocating equal rights for gay couples.

Author John Nichols, a Washington correspondent for The Nation, believes that the impending changes in FCC regulations “could have a profound effect on corporations like Gannett.” Despite owning 95 daily newspapers, 22 TV stations and the flagship national publication USA Today, the company is “not a major player” compared with an outsized media mogul like Rupert Murdoch, says Nichols. Sanders asserts that the Australian honcho is an “extreme right-winger” who is “pushing the other media to the right.” His U.S. holdings include The New York Post and Fox. Murdoch’s News Corp. is fifth on a list of media monopolists, after Time Warner, Disney and Viacom. General Electric ranks seventh.

Nichols thinks it’s probably just a matter of time before News Corp. or an equivalent mega-media organization grabs Gannett and turns all the little Free Press-like rags into strident conservative mouthpieces.

Of course, many Americans are getting out of the reading habit altogether. Television rules. Sanders points out that the three area network affiliates, WVNY, WPTZ and WCAX, are cogs in the machinery of giant conglomerates: Disney’s ABC, GE’s NBC and Viacom’s CBS, respectively.

Dianne Lynch, chair of the journalism department at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, suspects Sanders is “right about mainstream TV,” but, she suggests, “mainstream TV is no longer our only choice in getting information.”

As someone who’s professionally “wired” — she writes a column about women and technology for — Lynch sees the Internet as a wellspring of diverse voices, along with cable television and many small publications. “When I was growing up, we only had four television channels to choose from. Today, I can get the BBC on my cable channel or read The London Times online,” she says. “People looking for a range of opinions know where to go for them.”

Nichols and McChesney believe those diverse views should come to us more easily — and claim it’s not too late to make sure they do. “We are actually at a critical transition point,” Nichols observes. If the 800-pound gorillas get their way, he contends, “in places like Burlington, newspapers, cable companies, TV and radio stations could all be owned by the same company. That’s not healthy — and I’m not overstating the case. We must be vigilant. A lot can be done at the grassroots level.”

That’s where Nichols, now 41, got his start. As a kid, he wrote for weekly newspapers in rural Wisconsin. “I’d take a camera and ride my bike to every little town meeting,” he recalls. “Apart from a few deviations into rock bands, journalism is what I’ve done all my life.”

In addition to the book he wrote with Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois research professor, Nichols penned last year’s Jews for Buchanan, about the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida. The duo teamed up again for Our Media, Not Theirs, a sequel to It’s the Media, Stupid due out this fall.

McChesney hosts “Media Matters,” a weekly radio AM program in his home state. He’s also written or edited a total of eight books, including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, which was published two years ago. Like Nichols, he has rock ’n’ roll roots. In 1979 McChesney founded a Seattle music magazine, The Rocket, that helped give birth to the grunge scene.

Not surprisingly, both men advocate self-empowerment. “The American people own the broadcast airwaves,” Nichols says. “We have not begun to exercise our legitimate authority. But first, we have to think about what we would like. Once we imagine a media we want, then we can act. We have the ability to develop BBC-quality programming.”

Nichols acknowledges that the “unmitigated crap” now on TV should not be censored, however. “I’m not saying that, in my perfect media world, all we’d do is sit around and watch PBS. It doesn’t mean everything has to be of redeeming value. I just want citizens to understand they have a right to demand better.”

“Jerry Springer,” “Fear Factor” and “Judge Judy” should take note: Mindless programs can co-exist with more intellectual offerings. “But that lowest-common-denominator media does affect public policy,” Nichols says. “Stations like Fox have such jingoistic and irresponsible journalism. The Florida recount coverage was woefully inept, driven by the spin of the Democratic and the Republican camps. That’s what happens when you have bad media.”

Nichols, who has written for The New York Times and other prestigious publications also warns, “Until we get a better media, a lot of work we do on fundamental issues will go for naught. Without a media that allows diverse voices, it’s going to be hard to get the message out on all other important struggles.”

MSNBC runs a promo that boasts it’s a channel “with so many different points of view, one of them is bound to be yours.” But it’s unlikely any of them is Bernie’s. Sanders asserts that both newspapers and cable channels fail to present a true leftist or even balanced perspective. Programs devoted to serious news only explore opinions ranging from the center to the extreme right.

Oliver North, the Marine colonel who masterminded much of the covert and seemingly illegal Iran-Contra dealings in the ’80s, has been recruited by Fox News to command his own talk show. Not to be outdone, MSNBC boasts Alan Keyes, an ultra-conservative candidate in the last presidential election, now offering nightly punditry. CNN’s “Crossfire” always manages to find arch Republican cheerleaders like Robert Novak who can overpower even formidable Democratic operatives like James “Ragin’ Cajun” Carville.

Yet the tone of debate — when there is any — tends to be purposely theatrical. “Politics has become entertainment,” Sanders laments. Nobody’s talking about the nuts and bolts, he argues. “Despite all the hoopla over the economy, Americans are working longer hours for less wages. People have two or three jobs. That doesn’t sound like a boom economy to me. Who’s focussing on the plight of the middle class? It’s a good issue, right? It’s never discussed. The richest 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 95 percent does. Ever hear that on a TV program?”

Ditto for unionization, health care and a plethora of other themes neglected in favor of shallow examinations of movie stars who murder their wives, or the personal indiscretions of political figures. “We get endless coverage of sex, celebrity and crime,” Sanders says.

He wonders why right-leaning news outfits have become so influential when “we are really a centrist country. Al Gore and Ralph Nader got a few million more votes than Bush, so actually we might be a hair to the left.” Even in left-leaning Vermont, Sanders laments the dearth of progressive voices on the radio.

As one of only two Independents in the House of Representatives — Virgil Goode, Jr. of Virginia is the other — Sanders worries that the very notion of independence is being erased from what Americans see, hear and read. He compares the media monopoly by the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union to today’s corporate totalitarianism here.

The motivation is different, though. “If the progressive point of view was a marketplace seller, you would find it everywhere,” Lynch suggests. “I do think everything’s market-driven. Welcome to the world.”

Whatever the agenda, Sanders sees diversity of viewpoints itself as crucial to our way of life. In a brochure announcing his “Media and Democracy” town meetings, he writes, “If just a few corporations are allowed to control both production and distribution of the news and programming across America, democracy itself is in danger.” In a world in which cable companies, TV stations and local newspapers are all merged, “Millions of Americans will be receiving virtually all of their information from a single source,” he points out.

Though she is also wary of “media consolidation,” Lynch is more skeptical about championing the alternatives. “We have to be careful not to idealize independent ownership,” she says. “Commercial pressures do not go away when you’re individually owned. You don’t suddenly have total freedom of expression, freedom from the marketplace. The homogeneity of the message is as much about commercial pressure as it is about corporate structure.”

But Nichols hails the Green Mountain State as one of last bastions of media liberty. “Look at the Rutland Herald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning small newspaper. Vermont ain’t perfect, but it’s better than many places in the country. You still have a lot of locally owned operations. Things aren’t so bad there.”

Halfway around the globe, there’s evidence of a movement to create a people’s media. Nichols has spent time in New Zealand, which is “expanding the number of radio stations in the public sphere.” He touts a station operated by the island nation’s indigenous Maori people, and another “run by and for those under the age of 25.”

In this corner of New England, “an individual state can have a lot of impact,” Nichols adds. “You guys can really be part of a solution. Why not increase public funding for public radio or create an all-news-all-the-time station? In the little state of Vermont, there’s a lot you can do. If one place does it right, you can dramatically influence the rest of America.”

Congressman Bernie Sanders, Robert McChesney and John Nichols weigh in on “The Media and Democracy” on Sunday, April 28, 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church in Montpelier; and Monday, April 29, 7:30 p.m. at the CC Theater in Billings Student Center at the University of Vermont. A special free media workshop for teachers, students and community members will be held on Monday at 4 p.m. in Waterman’s Memorial Lounge at UVM.

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