“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” —Thomas Jefferson
It could have been a coincidence and nothing more.
On December 1, 2003 Louise and I were watching the Chris Matthews Show on MSNBC; Chris was interviewing Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who’d recently appeared on the front cover of Time magazine as the front-runner in the Democratic primary to take on George W. Bush in the next year’s election.
“There are so many things that have been deregulated,” Matthews told Dean, warming to Republicans’ favorite thing to do when they get political power. “Is that a wrong trend and would you reverse it?”
And that’s when Howard Dean spoke an extraordinary and powerful truth that hadn’t been heard on network news shows in decades.
“I would reverse it in some areas,” Dean replied. “First of all, eleven companies in this country control ninety percent of what ordinary people are able to read and watch on their television. That’s wrong. We need to have a wide variety of opinions in every community. We don’t have that because of Michael Powell and what George Bush has tried to do the FCC.”
Matthews appeared shocked: here was the leading Democratic presidential candidate, on his air, talking about breaking up or regulating Chris’ employer. He blinked, and said, “As a public policy, would you bring industrial policy to bear and break up these conglomerations of power?…How about large media enterprises?”
No doubt Matthews thought he’d give Dean some space to back away, but instead Dean plowed right on.
“The answer to that is yes,” he said emphatically. “I would say there is too much penetration by single corporations in media markets all over this country. We need locally-owned radio stations. There are only two or three radio stations left in the state of Vermont where you can get local news anymore. The rest of it is read and ripped from the AP.”
Matthews, now apparently figuring he’d give Dean all the rope he wanted, kept with the topic. “So what are you going to do about it? You’re going to be President of the United States, what are you going to do?”
Dean answered the question directly: “What I’m going to do is appoint people to the FCC that believe democracy depends on getting information from all portions of the political spectrum, not just one.”
“Are you going to break up the giant media enterprises in this country?” Matthews, whose MSNBC was then owned by GE, asked.
“Yes,” Dean answered directly, “we’re going to break up giant media enterprises. That doesn’t mean we’re going to break up all of GE. What we’re going to say is that media enterprises can’t be as big as they are today…To the extent of even having two or three or four outlets in a single community, that kind of information control is not compatible with democracy.”
At that point, as I mentioned on the air the following day, I leaned over to Louise and said, “Dean is going down. I don’t know how, but the corporations that own the media won’t let this stand.”
It took about six weeks, a “decent interval” in television news.
Dean was giving a speech in the Val-Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, Iowa, a state he was heavily favored to win. He ended it by saying:
“Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we’re going to California and Texas and New York. And we’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we’re going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House. Yeah!”
At that point, the crowd was yelling and applauding so wildly that Dean, to be heard over them, had raised his voice and put the unidirectional microphone (it only hears what’s a few inches in front of it, to prevent feedback in the room) hard up to his face.
His entire riff sounded perfectly normal to the crowd in the room, but in the control rooms of the big networks his voice had gone up a half-octave and gotten louder. It just took a moment for them to isolate, clip, and push that “scream” out across the nation, proof positive that the country’s leading liberal had gone flat-out bonkers mad.
The “Dean Scream” was put on repeat across the corporate-owned media landscape that Dean had, just a month earlier, put in his own presidential cross-hairs. Over the next four days the “Dean Scream” was played 633 times on network and cable news programs; Dean’s campaign never recovered.
Contrast that with how the media treated Donald Trump, who definitely had no intention of breaking up media empires that were owned and controlled by non-media companies.
The former NBC “Apprentice” reality show star got so much coverage during the 2015/16 primary that then-CEO of CBS News Les Moonves told an investor call:
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. … It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
As Emily Stewart wrote about Trump for The Street:
“The real estate magnate got $4.96 billion in free earned media in the year leading up to the presidential election, according to data from tracking firm mediaQuant. He received $5.6 billion [in free media] throughout the entirety of his campaign, more than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio combined.”
Moonves’ statement to his stockholders highlights the crisis of news in America: turn on any newscast on radio or TV and you’ll find the same five or six stories a day, recycled ad nauseum, usually with a complete lack of context, history or meaningful examination of their impact on our lives.
Instead of getting news, America is fed a daily stream of for-profit infotainment. It’s designed to be easily read on a teleprompter and understood by the country’s lowest common denominator, and its only real purpose is to establish a viewing audience that can then be sold soap or pharmaceuticals or scam Medicare Advantage polices.
Gone are the Walter Cronkite types of reporting, where story after story is shared and given meaning. Now a “news star” will “set up a topic” with a news lede and then invite 2 or 3 “guests” — former Republicans, preferably — to opine as if they were Delphic holders of All Knowledge.
Everything is presented in a “both sides’ arguments are equally legitimate” frame of “your team versus my team.”
Opinion has replaced news, and the opinion rarely reflects the actual concerns or opinions of the majority of voters. Instead, it shapes rather than reflects public opinion, as you can see from the coverage of the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races.
Outside of a few diehards like Amy Goodman and the BBC, news is dead.
And it’s destroying our democratic republic.
This touches, as Howard Dean pointed out in 2003, the core of what’s wrong with news in America: it’s being run as a cash cow largely by companies that are not even in the news business.
CNN is owned by AT&T, the company that reportedly funded the creation of a rightwing Trumpy TV network. MSNBC and NBC are owned by Comcast, one of the nation’s most aggressive opponents of Net Neutrality and anti-trust laws. ABC owes their allegiance to Disney. CBS is owned by entertainment giant Viacom, which also owns Paramount Pictures.
Every one of these companies has an agenda that, first and foremost, serves their bottom lines. None are primarily in the news business.
As a result, the American voting electorate is largely uninformed on actual matters of vital public interest, and often so misinformed that they vote for candidates who are patently working against America’s best interests…but who agree with the networks that antitrust laws and the FCC should never, ever be strengthened.
A similar situation plays out with radio and TV stations and newspapers all across America. Increasingly, they’re owned by huge, multi-state corporations that bleed dry their news divisions, or simply kill off local news altogether and instead carry nationally syndicated content produced by billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s Fox “News” or one of the entertainment or internet giants listed above.
Prior to 1996, pretty much every radio station of any consequence in America had a local news team: I was part of one from 1969 until the mid-1970s in Lansing, Michigan. Most all have vanished on the altar of improving profits for the companies that have taken ownership of the nation’s radio stations.
Have you heard a single word about the long-promised right-to-unionize PRO Act that the big media giants so oppose? How about an honest discussion of the Medicare Advantage scam that’s such a cash cow for TV and radio networks? Or some decent reporting on the actual famine that is beginning now in Afghanistan?
And while you haven’t heard word one about these actual, vital topics, odds are you’ve heard a lot about Critical Race Theory (although odds are nobody ever bothered to point out that it has never, ever been taught in any public school in America), the tiny slice of Americans who refuse to get vaccinated, and Brown People at the Border!
We’re stuck in a media cycle of dopamine addiction. News these days is like speed or sugar: it gives a temporary high and jolts the attention mechanism of the brain, but provides no actual nourishment whatsoever.
Neoliberal deregulation policies brought us this disaster.
Prior to 1996, there were specific caps on how many radio stations, newspapers, and TV stations an individual family or company could own and in how many states they could operate. The result was a vast diversity of programming and voices on radio and TV, and multiple competing newspapers in every state and large city.
When Bill Clinton jumped aboard the neoliberal deregulation binge and signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, that all came crashing down, as Howard Dean pointed out to Chris Matthews.
It’s time to re-regulate the media.
Companies that make movies, sell telephone service, run social media or deliver the internet shouldn’t be running network news: all that leads to an uninformed populace and believers in things like Trump’s Big Lie. That should be left to standalone corporations that do news first, last, and everything in between.
Under the Fairness Doctrine, which Reagan stopped enforcing in 1987 and Obama removed from the books altogether, radio and TV stations had to “program in the public interest.” That was widely interpreted to mean that the “cost” of maintaining a radio or TV broadcast license over the public airwaves was that real news had to be presented every hour on radio and for a full hour every night on TV’s prime time.
(The Fairness Doctrine only required “opposing views” when station management or ownership was putting editorials on the air, something is now almost never done as there’s no more significant local ownership. That widespread misconception aside, it didn’t and wouldn’t require “politically balanced” programming.)
But it had a huge impact: it’s why, until the Fairness Doctrine was blocked in 1987, ABC, CBS, and NBC all lost money on their news operations that had correspondents and bureaus all over the world: it’s what they had to do to make far more money hand-over-fist on their dramas and comedies. The year of Reagan’s change, CBS was the first to demote their News Division from a separate standalone operation fire-walled from advertisers and put it under their VP of entertainment programming. Others followed suit within the year.
Thus was born infotainment.
Media monopolies need to be broken up, as Dean pointed out over a decade ago (it’s only gotten worse since) and we must both bring back the Fairness Doctrine and undo the damage of Clinton’s Telecommunications Act by reversing its ownership provisions back to what worked so well from the 1930s to 1996.
Hedge funds shouldn’t be allowed to squeeze the last dollar out of small-town newspapers, often gutting their staffs and frequently even bankrupting the business after they’ve sucked it dry. Nonetheless, they own about half of all newspapers in America. As Edward Helmore noted in The Guardian a few months ago:
“More than 70 local newsrooms have closed over the past 15 months, with hundreds of media jobs lost, as the already difficult financial conditions in the industry intensified during the crisis. By some estimates, a staggering 2,100 local newspapers, or one in four, have closed in the US since 2005.”
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1831 in Democracy in America, “The power of the periodical press [in America] is second only to that of the people.”
That power should not be in the hands of any organization that is dedicated first and foremost to anything other than providing the American people with news.
News is too vital to democracy to be left to the “free market.“ It needs to be taken from the hedge funds, movie makers, and merchandise sellers, and returned to the hands of journalism professionals who understand and care about it.
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