Will the second mouse get the cheese? U.S. media reform movement

Harvie Branscomb, St. Louis Missouri, U.S.A. May 13 2005:

Warning: this text contains opinions and observations that can not be considered objective or factual reporting. This information may be irrelevant or in some cases, toxic. Handle with care. This is also true of almost everything else you are reading elsewhere. For a completely different perspective, visit www.mediaresearch.org

St.Louis Missouri, USA is the gateway to the American West, home of Pulitzer and capital city of a state located in the center of the USA. Voters here chose Bush in the 2004 election. St Louis is the weekend home of the National Media Reform Conference.

The conference seems eclectic (which, to some of you, will mean irrelevant). Participants who would be mistaken for media artists in Europe are here independent media producers, Washington lawyers, longhaired activists, Puerto Rican labor organizers, student idealists, pirate radio broadcasters, two Federal Communications Commissioners, and countless web activist organizations such as MoveOn, Alternet, BuzzFlash. Bill Moyers whose news program "Now" was recently cancelled by Public Broadcasting for being too liberal delivered a last minute keynote criticism of his former employers. Celebrity journalist activists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales of the syndicated program "Democracy Now" and authors of a new book "The Exception to the Rulers" were featured speakers.

Nearly 2500 media activists have come to meet in the shadow of the huge and famous stainless steel arch which commemorates the American pioneers' westward expansion. But these diverse and dissident pioneers of media are here to experience a surprising solidarity and commitment of purpose among people who understand that conglomerated American media have stolen and perhaps even destroyed the keys to democracy in the United States. The most obvious feeling at the conference is a refreshing but apparently naive feeling of correctness and solidarity, while the underlying message is sensible tentative uncertainty and diversity.

The conference is being covered by the local newspaper but apparently few if any representatives of the media conglomerates which are the subject of criticism are here. The local public broadcasting radio station sent a reporter to see the Bill Moyers speech. But no CNN, no NBC, CBS ABC in sight. There are hundreds of progressive web blogs represented, LinkTV (alternative cable network with reach of 25 million households), FreeSpeechTV. But these are the alternative media who are here to speak to the conference, not just to cover it.

Here at the Millennium Hotel there is no fear of embarrassing or angering a neo-conservative with a "no war" button or a cynical comment about George W Bush. Not only are neo-conservatives (read- the "Mainstream") spending their weekend elsewhere, it seems that there is hardly a Republican in sight. Even Democrats, the primary opposition party in the US, would have their motives and methods questioned here if they were to identify themselves.

This crowd seems to be uniformly anti-war, pro-choice, and media literate which means somehow less than typically media manipulated. Many folks here probably do not watch the usual TV fare in the USA. Here even public broadcasting (PBS) which might somewhere be likened to the BBC transmits programs which are short on facts and long on spin-filled commentary. The activists at this Media Reform Conference are Robin Hoods who hope to attract audience away from the all powerful major American networks...or at least improve the quality and diversity of what is presented by the these homogenous generators of entertainment product in the form of news.

Background: the USA is proud of its constitutionally protected freedom of the press. Freedom of speech is protected for US citizens and also for legal individuals such as media corporations which typically own hundreds of radio and TV stations and newspapers. These conglomerates have the constitutional right to say whatever they want regardless of whether it is right or wrong, provable or not. They have the right to mislead, the right to travel as a herd to government press conferences and to embed themselves under the protection of the US military forces rather than to go to dangerous places and ask difficult questions. Historical regulations which once required "equal time" for broadcasts have been replaced with self regulation. Self regulation results in bold pronouncements of "fair and balanced" reporting... "we report, you decide".

There is at least a single point of view from which the reporting of Fox News seems fair and balanced. On the imagined political continuum there is a place centered between the neo-conservative political attitude of the current Bush administration and a "moderate" rightward leaning traditional Republican point of view. On Fox, political positions with descriptions ranging from liberal to progressive are usually referred to as extremist. Advocates of these positions appear only when needed for ridicule. Accuracy is obtained by preceding a fragment of "news" with the proviso "some people say". If this sounds incorrect to you, take a look at Robert Greenwald’s film “OutFoxed”. The President of Fox News is Roger Ailes, the star media consultant to several Republican campaigns such as Richard Nixon. Clearly this is an institution with an intention to advocate, but under the disguise of fairness and balance.

There seems to me no problem with the advocacy, but a big problem with the claim to fairness and balance. The impression of fairness and balance or objectivity, whether found within a single conglomerate, or across the range of all media outlets makes it possible for media regulators to relax and declare that media markets are successfully self regulating and the public interest is well provided for.

But practical evidence would suggest otherwise. Here at the Conference, no one feels the need to demonstrate or catalog the stark imbalance of the bulk of American media outlets. While the Media Research Center has documented excessive instances of reporters with liberal or progressive leanings working in the industry, the participants at the National Conference on Media Reform are confident that there is no lack of evidence for media bias in the opposite direction.

In an effort to avoid being conventional and to echo the conference in its attempt to disrupt the “mainstream”, I will report on topics which were not included as workshops or seminar topics at the Conference, but perhaps should have been.

What is the meaning of objective? Personal interviews suggest that there is general agreement among left leaning media reformers that use of this word
is inappropriate. Among right leaning media reformers such as Brent Bozell, this word is key. The taking of steps to create a balance is the foundation of objectivity in their view. But how can balance be achieved when discourse covers multiple topics and overlapping considerations and infinite variations in experience, attitude and belief?

Are there standards for reporting which if met will tend to prevent news from acting as propaganda? Paul Jay of Independent World Television believes this is the case... news done properly can accurately portray events even for an international audience, he suggests. He is launching a worldwide news network based on this old-fashioned idea and asking 500,000 people to donate $50 each to launch his independently funded network. (www.iwt.tv)

Is advocacy reporting dishonorable or destructive? This is a very potent but unaddressed issue at the Conference. In my observation all reporting is subject to intentions to advocate. The simple and honorable way to acknowledge this is to expose one's intention in the text of the report.

Can we have a media fabric which endorses advocacy but guarantees access for dissenting advocates? At the Media Reform Conference there is visible proof that multiple alternate channels of information are available to those with access to the web. This is not saying that these sources are practically available to people who are spending 4-6 hours a day watching television. Media reformers are most afraid of policies which will allow broadband access providers to limit access to alternative channels by adding differential charges for access to web sites. In which case, the “mainstream” sites will be cheap or free and the alternatives are likely to cost much more.

Already in Pennsylvania there is a new law which requires government supported networks to get permission from the franchised broadband suppliers such as cable before offering a subsidized service to their citizens. Philiadelphia’s experiment providing extremely low cost WiFi access to the public triggered a surprising response in the form of a new state law. Philadelphia's public internet network will be grandfathered-in but other cities in Pennsylvania now are restricted in offering internet access by this new law. Participants at the conference see either government or grass roots wireless networks as a safety measure to prevent private interests from controlling which portals on the internet are free or at least easy to access.

What is the effect of syntax such as "mainstream", "liberal", "right", "left"? Can the usage of these terms be improved? Clearly these words are being used loosely and dangerously. John Nichols, writer for The Nation and co-founder of FreePress.org which organized the Conference repeatedly pronounced that we are the "mainstream", but his point is not well taken. This conference advocates a media environment of many streams and many diverse voices, and no mainstream at all.

Clearly "left" and "right" have lost all objective meaning and are only useful for partisan jabs in a predetermined but mostly unspecified and misunderstood direction. Perhaps these stereotypes would better be replaced by "rich" and "poor", :"altruistic" and "self-serving", “corporate” and “entrepreneurial” etc.

Is humor the correct vehicle for delivery of news and or raising of political awareness? Many serious journalists like Amy Goodman use little or no humor in their work. Jim Hightower jokes: "Even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the highest building", and "the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese".

What role can cynicism and satire play in politics and in news analysis? Do these only have the effect of turning away voters and turning idealists into pessimists?

Does it make sense to use the same tools which the opposition is using? Is this a simple disagreement of political opinion or is it a fundamental difference in the selection and use of media tools? The National Media Reform Conference held a roast with a Hall of Shame which closely resembles the actions of the opposing Media Research Center with its "DisHonor Awards:Roasting the Most Outrageously Biased Liberal Reporters of 2004". I heard no public acknowledgement or discussion of this disturbing similarity.

Should a Media Reform conference rely on standard trade-show format and hotel venue for its discussions? The format itself tends to generate old-fashioned, mainstream results.For example when Robert McChesney asked the crowd if leftist comedian Al Franken should replace ultra-right Rush Limbaugh there was a roar of approval, but his intended message was the opposite... he would like to change the way that media works, not just what ideas are presented on it.

(It’s almost time for the final paragraph. Typically this is where your author accelerates the spin into high gear, as I below demonstrate.)

One question which is on everyone’s mind at the Media Reform Conference but again is not listed on the program -- could progressives be fundamentally right? Oh, perhaps it’s better to ask it this way -- are progressives basically more correct?

The prevailing mode of discourse for progressives depends relatively more on adherence to the facts, where conservatives (perhaps better described as regressives) relatively adhere to the rules and effects instead. A recent example is the case of Newsweek’s brief report about the possibility that a US Government report would reveal the flushing of a copy of the Koran in a prison toilet. The government pressured Newsweek to retract their story. Newsweek did so because of insufficient fact checking, not because the story is known to be wrong, but instead the standard procedure for vetting the story was deemed to be inadequate. The retraction now allows subsequent and less specific reports to refer to the story as false. It seems likely that the facts in the case will eventually support the original Newsweek report, but by then the counteracting spin will have made clarity impossible.

The progressive approach to this story is to consider the underlying facts to be of primary importance, even while they are hidden from view. A progressive will make the published report best relay these facts. (The facts as far as they are available to us today are that the Koran was at least mishandled by military personnel, sometimes purposefully.) The “regressive” approach is to ask the media, in this case Newsweek, to apologize and discredit itself to prevent the drastic effects of the facts reaching the public.

The impression thus given to media illiterates is that our media are occasionally fallible but the checks and balances which keep it honest are functioning well. But this is also a conclusion which least matches critical observations of the facts. Yes, progressives are basically correct. But it remains unclear if being progressive is just an extreme place in the political spectrum or the result of a paradigm shift in handling of facts and opinions. It will take more than a National Conference on Media Reform to give progressives a chance to prove their value to the American voting public.

Harvie Branscomb
May 30, 2005

User login

Mazine Partners