Hold corporate media's feet to the fire

by Joe Hayden, Memphis Commercial Appeal

What's the difference between a journalist and a conservative? Journalists distrust government, unless they work in Washington. Conservatives distrust government, unless they're running the government. People who are traditionally skeptical of centralized political power, you see, often change their tune once they enter those corrupting corridors.

The current movement for media reform is the latest in a recurrent cycle. There were also loud calls for reform during the muckraking era of the early 1900s, and for similar reasons -- a fear that independent journalism was being co-opted by the mighty business firms of the day. That trust-busting spirit arose because citizens feared certain voices were being excluded from the marketplace of ideas.

Before America was even a nation, in fact, we had been warned by Benjamin Franklin. In a 1731 editorial, "Apology for Printers," he wrote that "the Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Men's Opinions," that newspapers needed to air them all, and that some of those views were bound to offend some of the people some of the time.

That helps to explain the strong political passions at last weekend's National Conference for Media Reform. I talked with a smart University of Memphis student there who said that while he was enjoying the programs very much, he didn't care for some of the Republican-bashing he had heard. I agreed with him that much of the criticism of President Bush that attendees spouted was either off the subject or childish or both. But I think that it also was the natural result of the squelching of dissidence over the last five years, of smearing patriots who criticized the rationale for war in Iraq, of marginalizing people with different viewpoints and shutting them out of forums as though they were unworthy of public debate.

Think that's an exaggeration? Consider this. Jeff Cohen, a cable news producer who has worked at Fox, CNN and MSNBC, tells a frightening tale of what happened to the short-lived program hosted by Phil Donahue. Despite being the most-watched show on MSNBC at the time, it was pulled from the air in February 2003 because, according to internal NBC memos, executives were nervous about having an open war critic as a host while other networks were waving the flag and yelling for war. Even before network officials gave it the ax, though, they had micromanaged Donahue's show. They insisted that one liberal guest be "balanced" by two conservative ones, that two liberals be "balanced" by three conservatives, and that Michael Moore alone required three war supporters! This is the liberal media?

The interesting thing about media reform, however, is that it manages to unite both liberals and conservatives. For while conservatives believe journalists are too gooey on social issues and liberals believe journalists' bosses are quick to rein in the more troublesome boat-rockers, they both agree that local control usually tends to produce better journalism.

This is why the Christian Coalition and the NRA joined forces with MoveOn.org, the AFL-CIO and the Rainbow Coalition in 2003 in a popular uprising to stop media titans from loosening FCC ownership rules. Ordinary people, it turns out, don't like the disappearance of local voices and local perspectives from their communities. They're uneasy with Clear Channel owning most or all the radio stations in a town, unhappy with the attack on lower-power FM and the evisceration of public broadcasting, with an unrelenting obsession over celebrity fluff and other news that doesn't matter.

Is corporate media evil? Of course not. Journalists manage to do good work in even the most trying of circumstances. And sometimes corporate backing helps news organizations survive, as was true for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, which was able to continue publishing in the days after Hurricane Katrina only because of the Newhouse chain's support.

But corporate control brings disturbing consequences, too. Corporate control gives ultimate authority over what you read, see and hear to people who don't live in your city and who aren't directly accountable to you. It lays off reporters, even when a newspaper is achieving 25 percent or 30 percent profit margins. (Most Fortune 500 companies are lucky to make 10 percent.) It sends TV news directors packing, on average, every two years, even if their ratings are strong. For publicly traded companies, the shareholder is all that really matters -- not the news consumer, not civic responsibilities, not professionalism.

And yet ours is not truly a free-market system. Media corporations' lobbyists continually win breaks, concessions and subsidies from government. As the scholar Robert McChesney often points out, this is not deregulation but re-regulation -- regulation in favor of media conglomerates. These entities also have their sights on the new technologies, buying up popular Web sites and clamoring to make high-speed Internet access a more aristocratic proposition.

So all of us -- conservatives and liberals alike -- have a vested interest in being vigilant about media and media policy. We don't have to do away with the private sector to make sure the public sector remains vibrant. Nor need we challenge a company's right to make a fat profit. But we must also not give away the store. Corporations wanting utility-like monopolies must provide something in return. A good place to start would be offering a reliable forum for diverse opinions and then defending people's right to express them, not encouraging them to shut up and go away.

Regardless of who owns the media, it is still your country.

article originally published at http://www.commercialappeal.com/mca/opinion_columnists/article/0,1426,MCA_539_52....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey