Bill Moyers Nails the Problem With Corporate Control of the Media in this 2003 BF Interview

Moyers is someone who knows both sides of the world of political media coverage, having served as Lyndon Johnson's press secretary. Over the years, we have come to know him as a thoughtful, impassioned journalist who has developed a voice and vision uniquely his own.

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October, 2003

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

Bill Moyers was the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Media Reform (http://www.mediareform.net/conference.php) in Madison, Wisconsin, on Nov. 8, 2003. Media reform is a subject near to his heart and a topic central to this BuzzFlash interview with him.

Unlike today's crop of cookie-cutter, blow-dried corporate television news celebrities, Moyers is a man who chooses his words carefully because he values and respects the power of language and the importance of his own integrity. He is a craftsman in an age that values the assembly line production of indistinguishable news churned out at a numbing pace.

Moyers was host of the PBS news and public affairs program "NOW with Bill Moyers," that aired Friday nights at 9 p.m.

But for right now, you don't need to turn on the television to partake of the incisive, erudite perspective that Bill Moyers brings to an understanding of what's gone wrong with today's media. For right now, Bill Moyers will enlighten you right here on BuzzFlash.com.

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BUZZFLASH: You served as a press secretary for Lyndon Johnson. Based on your personal experience, how do you think the relationship between the White House and the White House press corps has changed since the l960s?

BILL MOYERS: Every era has its own unique issues, but the basic tension between president and press is always there. Presidents want their options protected, their good intentions emphasized, their sins unreported, and their mistakes forgiven; journalists want to find out what's going on. That much hasn't changed.

LBJ was waging an unpopular war and that made the usual tensions even more acute, especially with reporting from Vietnam that was at odds with the official view of reality. Since the 60s, the number of reporters covering the place has grown almost exponentially. Government's bigger and its expertise in public relations more sophisticated. Access to officials is much harder except when they want to leak or spin. And, a phalanx of conservative publications and right-wing radio and television talk shows has created a cavernous echo chamber for a Republican agenda, with no real-time opportunity for rebuttal of the propaganda or the refutation of the lies. Everyone operates today in what a friend of mine calls "the blinding white light of 24/7 global medium" -- an increased conglomeration of megamedia corporations has essentially stripped journalism of purpose except pleasing consumers.

There was a study not long ago that asked mainstream journalists how they view their own professional situations. Not happily, it turns out. A majority felt that much of the control over their work has passed from editors to corporate executives and stockholders whose interest is not necessarily informing the public with the information we need to have to function as citizens. Journalists who don't serve a partisan purpose and who try to be disinterested observers find themselves whipsawed between these corporate and ideological forces. I agree with Eric Alterman that "the constant drumbeat of groundless accusation [against mainstream journalists] has proven an effective weapon in weakening journalism's watchdog function."

I think these forces have unbalanced the relationship between this White House and the press. Frankly, even if we had tried it in LBJ's time, we wouldn't have gotten away with the kind of press conference President Bush conducted on the eve of the invasion of Iraq -- the one that even the President admitted was wholly scripted, with reporters raising their hands and posing so as to appear spontaneous. Matt Taibbi wrote in The New York Press at the time that it was like a mini-Alamo for American journalism. I'd say it was more a collective Jonestown-like suicide. At least the defenders of the Alamo put up a fight.

BUZZFLASH: That's a good point for my second question. We have seen many trends in how media organizations are structured. Let me ask you about two of these trends. First, to what degree have news divisions at television stations become less independent than they were in the l960s, to the extent that they are more integrated into the overall ratings and profit strategy of their parent corporations?

MOYERS: Well, I don't want to suggest some Golden Age of Broadcast Journalism -- with the possible exception of that remarkable period when Murrow's Boys, as they were called, showed what radio could do. Broadcast journalism came wrapped in an entertainment medium and was compromised early on because of it. The conflict's just become more pronounced through the years with one merger after another, so that Harold Evans [former editor of The Times of London] says: "the problem that many media organizations face is not to stay in business, but to stay in journalism."

I'll give you a very recent example, one read in the Washington Post. Seems the NBC affiliate in Tampa is selling segments on its morning "news" show. You pony up $2,500 and get four to six minutes of what is in fact an infomercial. I'm not making this up. One of the show's hosts confessed: "You pay us, and we do what you want us to do." So Wendy's restaurant chain paid to have a chirpy co-host tout the company for its awards program for young football players who perform community service. According to the Post, the conglomerate that owns WFLA, Media General, wasn't at all embarrassed by the disclosure. The Post went on to say that stations in Washington and Baltimore are running health segments featuring hospitals and medical centers that pay for the pieces. Whether we're being pushovers or prostitutes, it's a sad day for what used to be called "a free and independent press."

There's a price for this, and democracy pays it. Somewhere around here I've got a copy of a study The Project for Excellence in Journalism that examined the front pages of The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, looked at the nightly news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC, read Time and Newsweek, and found that between 1977 and 1997 the number of stories about government dropped from one in three to one in five, while the number of stories about celebrities rose from one in every 50 stories to one in every 14. More recently the nightly newscasts gave four times the coverage to Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign in California than to all gubernatorial campaigns in the country throughout 2002.

Does it matter? Well, governments can send us to war, pick our pockets, slap us in jail, run a highway through our back yard, look the other way as polluters do their dirty work, slip tax breaks and subsidies to the privileged at the expense of those who can't afford lawyers, lobbyists, or time to be vigilant. Right now, as we speak, House Republicans are trying to sneak into the energy bill a plan that would prohibit water pollution lawsuits against oil and chemical companies. Millions of consumers and their water utilities in 25 states will be forced to pay billions of dollars to remove the toxic gasoline additive MTBE from drinking water if the House gives the polluters what they want. I can't find this story in the mainstream press, only on niche websites. You see, it matters who's pulling the strings, and I don't know how we hold governments accountable if journalism doesn't tell us who that is.

On the other hand, remember during the invasion of Iraq a big radio-consulting firm sent out a memo to its client stations advising them on how to use the war to their best advantage -- they actually called it "a war manual." Stations were advised to "go for the emotion" -- broadcast patriotic music "that makes you cry, salute, get cold chills…." I'm not making this up. All of this mixture of propaganda and entertainment adds up to what? You get what James Squires, the long-time editor of the Chicago Tribune, calls "the death of journalism." We're getting so little coverage of the stories that matter to our lives and our democracy: government secrecy, the environment, health care, the state of working America, the hollowing out of the middle class, what it means to be poor in America. It's not that the censorship is overt. It's more that the national agenda is being hijacked. They're deciding what we know and talk about, and it's not often the truth behind the news.

BUZZFLASH: Are you saying the bottom line corporate culture of large media conglomerates such as the Tribune Company, Time Warner, New York Times Company, Clear Channel or Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp affects the perspectives of their individual media outlets -- as well as the reporting of political and governmental news in particular?

MOYERS: Sure. Rupert Murdoch is in a category by himself -- overtly political. He makes no bones about it. Sure, he wants NewsCorp to turn big profit, as it does. But he'll take losses on the New York Post and subsidize The Weekly Standard to advance his political agenda, which, of course, is ultimately aimed at the kind of government favoritism that boosts his corporate earning. I'm sure you know he's lobbying hard right now for FCC approval of his purchase of DirectTV, which will give him a network of satellite systems spanning Europe, Asia, and Latin America. He's starting all-news networks in Italy and India, and he's so desperate to please the Chinese that he dropped the BBC from his satellite operation in China just to please the communist leaders there who didn't like the coverage.

Few journalists have the guts to take on Murdoch the way columnist Richard Cohen did. He described Murdoch's properties -- including his Fox News Channel -- for what they are: "blatantly political, hardly confining Murdoch's conservative political ideology to editorials or commentary but infusing it into the news coverage itself."

That's the political side of it. Then there's the commercial side. Look, the founders of our government, the fellows who gave us the First Amendment, didn't count on the rise of these megamedia conglomerates. They didn't count on huge private corporations that would own not only the means of journalism but vast swaths of the territory that journalism is supposed to cover. When you get a handful of conglomerates owning more and more of our news outlets, you're not going to find them covering the intersection where their power meets political power.

The fact is that big money and big business, corporations and commerce, are the undisputed overlords of politics and government today. Barry Diller came on my PBS program and talked about what can happen when the media and political elites gang up on the public. Diller says we have a media oligopoly. Kevin Phillips says we have a political oligarchy. Talk about a marriage made in hell! Listen, these guys are reshaping our news environment. They're down in Washington wining and dining the powers-that-be insisting that any restriction on their ability to own media properties is a violation of their corporate First Amendment rights. They want to be the gatekeepers not only over what we see on television and hear on the radio but how we travel online.

Journalists feel squeezed -- those who simply believe we are here to practice our craft as if society needs what we do and expects us to do it as honorably as possible. There's another study around here somewhere done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and The Columbia Journalism Review. More than a quarter of journalists polled said they had avoided pursuing some important stories that might conflict with the financial interests of their news organizations or advertisers.

My favorite example is what happened during the nine months when Congress was considering the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That legislation amounted to some of America's richest and most powerful corporations picking the taxpayers' pockets of many billions of dollars. The three major network news broadcasts, whose parent companies were part of the heist, aired a sum total of only 19 minutes about the legislation. None of those 19 minutes included a single mention of debate over whether the broadcasters should pay for use of the digital spectrum that would make them richer.

Another example: Everyone knows political campaigns have become a get-rich quick scheme for local television station owners. But almost nobody knew in the winter of 2002 -- because the media weren't telling us -- that the broadcast lobbyists were strangling in the crib a requirement that the networks offer candidates their least expensive advertising rates, so campaigning wouldn't cost so much.

Take the big story this year -- the White House and its big corporate allies prodding the FCC to relax the rules to allow the conglomerates to get even bigger. Practically no major news outlets bothered to cover it. Our little program on PBS stayed on the story -- the FCC became our beat -- and we kept throwing our spotlight on it until the public caught on. Over two million citizens bombarded the FCC and Congress with protests. Suddenly Congress woke up and realized people really care about these media issues. The Senate has stopped the FCC from acting and there are votes in the House to do the same except that Tom Delay won't let it come to the floor. I was flabbergasted to read the other day that even the FCC chairman, Michael Powell, had to acknowledge that if it hadn't been for PBS, there wouldn't have been any media coverage of the most important media story of the year.

BUZZFLASH: Many books and theses have been written about this question, but just give us your quick take. How has the prevalence of television in our lives affected how we view news events and public policy? How does the emphasis on the visual image in the nightly television news impact public perceptions?

MOYERS: I don't have the social science skills to answer that with authority. One of my heroes is Norman Corwin, who wrote some of radio's greatest shows a long time ago. He's still very much alive, in his 90s, his spunk and spirit as vital as ever. He wrote a book some years ago called Trivializing America. He was prophetic about how media is saturating us with violence, nonsense and trivia. Neil Postman died just the other day -- a great professor of culture and communication at New York University. He wrote a small classic about how we are Amusing Ourselves to Death. Let me read you from a Nation essay he also wrote: "If knowledge is power, if the function of information is to modify or provide direction to action, then it is almost precisely true that TV news shows give nearly no information and even less knowledge. Except of course through their commercials. One can be told about Bounty, Braniff and Burger King, and then do something in relation to them. Everything on a TV show is arranged so that it is unnecessary, undesirable and, in any event, very difficult to attend to the sense of what is depicted."

Now, it's possible to combat the trivializing, numbing and dumbing down proclivity of manipulated images. Many broadcast journalists have done so. Back in the early 60s, I watched an NBC program -- I think the name of it was simply The Tunnel -- about people trying to dig their way under the Berlin wall to freedom. I have never forgotten how moved I was at so indelible a reminder of what people would do to be free. Ken Burns's series on the Civil War connected me to that seminal experience in our history much as Bruce Catton's wonderful books had done on the same subject many years earlier. I'd rather watch a baseball or football game on television than in the stadium, because the beauty of both sports -- the double play, the long bomb -- can be savored in the replays.

Broadcast journalism can be truthful about reality, too. I've been fortunate during my own three decades in television to work with producers and editors and other colleagues who think that images can be as faithful to the truth as words and who strive to keep faith with the viewer just as scrupulously as writers do with the reader. One of my teams went back often over 10 years to document the lives of two working class families in Milwaukee as they struggled with the economic realities of globalization. I don't think any book I've read on the subject could have done those families greater justice. Keeping faith with your craft is more important than ever when we are bombarded by propaganda, pornography, and sentimentality. You have to work at it, of course; you have to take care and time and vow to do the best you can. Like words, images can honor the truth or subvert it.

BUZZFLASH: Some studies have indicated that many Americans can't tell the difference between news they have seen on newscasts, news they have received from entertainment sources (Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart, for instance), and political ads. Supposing this theory is true, is there any hope of creating a more informed public?

MOYERS: I think Jon Stewart is the most astute political analyst working today. He has more moments of "Eureka" in a single broadcast than a month of editorials. Who else sets off laughter and light bulbs in your head at the same time? If I believed in reincarnation, I would believe Mark Twain alive and well.

But your question was whether people distinguish between a comedy show, a news show, and a commercial. It seems to me they do. I think people know what they are watching. The problem, once again, is whether they know what they are not learning from a news broadcast, or how the story's being spun. Print, too. I still have in my files a headline that ran the day after the bombing of Baghdad began: "Anti-War, Pro-Troops Rallies Take to Streets as War Rages." There was another one, too: "Weekend Brings More Demonstrations -- Opposing War, Supporting Troops." That's a mistaken and misleading formulation. You can be opposed to war because you support the troops and don't think they should be put in jeopardy in the wrong place for the wrong reason at the wrong time.

Back to your question, though. Yes, I think people distinguish between comedy, news and commercials. Television's power of juxtaposition, however, and its ability to arouse emotions at the expense of analysis can take us down the slippery slope and over the edge. I know from my own experience many years ago in the 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater how tempting it is to let images do your thinking for you. They're like heroin, mainlined right into the emotional vortex. How we feel becomes more decisive than how we think.

BUZZFLASH: Certainly with media consolidation, the line between news and entertainment appears to becoming more and more blurred. In the Iraq war, for instance, the Pentagon paid to have a Hollywood-style briefing room constructed, as though it were a television show set. As another example, Arnold Schwarzenegger announces he is running for governor on Jay Leno. Morning news programs push news, products, shows and movies that benefit the bottom line of their parent corporations. So has the wall fallen between news and entertainment, at least on the broadcast side of the media?

MOYERS: Yes. Shakespeare said "all the world's a stage." Today it would be "television studio." There are exceptions, of course, but by and large most of what happens on television is for entertainment. Nothing wrong with entertainment, unless it leads to thinking that everything is entertainment -- religion and politics in the same dimension as sports and sitcoms. And there is always the fact that if all the world's a stage -- pardon me, television set -- we don't see the reality off-stage, where the camera can't go. That's where the money changes hands and deals are done.

For years now small arcane provisions have been written into legislation that nobody pays attention to until years later, when we learn each one transferred hundreds and billions of dollars from the pockets of wage earners into the coffers of huge corporations and wealthy individuals.

BUZZFLASH: Do you agree that war coverage, because of government "news management," has generally become more antiseptic and, therefore, made war more palatable to the American public? We rarely, if ever, see a shot or video of dead American soldiers, in contrast to the coverage of Vietnam.

MOYERS: Or the wounded. The wounded get dumped at home and soon forgotten. But you're right about the antiseptic nature of coverage. There was a story by Dana Milbank recently in the Washington Post that the Pentagon is not going to allow news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecoming on military bases. Show 'em marching off to war but make damned sure we don't see 'em coming back in pieces. It's the Barbara Bush syndrome as official policy. Remember what she told Diane Sawyer earlier this year. "Why should we hear about body bags, and deaths … Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that …" No wonder her son is the only president in our time who has not attended any memorials or funerals for soldiers killed in action on his watch.

Something else: Did you notice last spring how the news media here at home seemed more obsessed with the deaths of journalists in Iraq than of civilian casualties? It reminded me of what I think may have been a defining moment in the history of broadcast news -- back when Roone Arledge ordered ABC News to broadcast the funeral of the anchor Frank Reynolds. I knew and liked Frank; I think he would have been embarrassed by the spectacle. It was as if the media were announcing to the public: "We are more important than you are. We want you to care more about us than we do about you." Bizarre! We're such a self-referential bunch.

BUZZFLASH: The drive for war appeared to be driven by a public relations effort by the Bush administration, using a willing media as its megaphone, particularly television. How should the media, particularly television, have covered the selling of the Iraq war to the American public?

MOYERS: Here's where I question using the word "media" as a catch-all. There are media and there are media. You could find a lot of dissent on the Internet. There were serious and challenging discussions on some television shows. On the whole, however, it was a stacked deck. Hussein, of course, was an undebatable target -- the world really is better off without him. You wouldn't want to stage an even-handed debate about him! But on everything else we were at the mercy of the official view that he was an "imminent threat" without any reliable information to back it up. Here's where we needed a strong opposition party to ask hard questions.

The constitutional scholar Raul Berger once told me that the main purpose of one party is to keep the other party honest. We didn't have that. And the burden on journalism was overwhelming to what too few are equipped to do -- go to original material, provide plenty of airtime to dissenting opinions. We wound up with far more airtime going to official spokesmen than to skeptics. I've gone back and reviewed transcripts of many of the interview programs conducted in the build-up to the invasion. Hawks like Richard Perle were thrown softball after softball, and their assertions for invasion basically went unchallenged. Our mandate at NOW is to provide alternative voices and views and when we started fulfilling that mandate, the hawks wouldn't come on. They didn't want to be challenged. Colin Powell's now largely-discredited speech to the U.N. was hailed at the time as if it were an oration by Pericles; there was no one with the evidence to challenge him until some time had passed.

I guess I was most astonished at the imbalance of the Washington Post -- something like three-to-one pro-war columns on the op-ed page. The press seemed to throw to the wind Ben Bradlee's Watergate requirement of two sources for every allegation. Or some sense that people other than the establishment should have been heard on war and peace.

BUZZFLASH: Have we created a circumstance where we have little perspective beyond the most recent news cycle? The words of the White House on one morning, for instance, may be contradicted by events in the afternoon, but the news coverage rarely seems to bring any information or comments from the past to compare them to the unfolding news of the moment. It's almost as if news no longer has a historical context.

MOYERS: Down the memory hole, as George Orwell would describe it. And yes, it's all about stimulation now. Watching the opening of the second game of the World Series, I was struck at how effectively the Fox producers mixed patriotic imagery with prurient promotions for upcoming programming in what amounted to a sedation of the viewer's critical faculty. It's a fitting metaphor, I think, for what's happening in politics as the mainstream media have been silenced and the partisan media have turned propaganda into "news." Wave the flag, stroke the sentiments, stir the prejudices -- and you can keep the masses distracted from the real game happening out of sight, behind closed doors in boardrooms and oval offices.

BUZZFLASH: And what is that game?

MOYERS: Class war. The corporate right and the political right declared class war on working people a quarter of a century ago and they've won. The rich are getting richer, which arguably wouldn't matter if the rising tide lifted all boats. But the inequality gap is the widest it's been since l929; the middle class is besieged and the working poor are barely keeping their heads above water. The corporate and governing elites are helping themselves to the spoils of victory -- politics, when all is said and done, comes down to who gets what and who pays for it -- while the public is distracted by the media circus and news has been neutered or politicized for partisan purposes.

Take the paradox of a Rush Limbaugh, ensconced in a Palm Beach mansion massaging the resentments across the country of white-knuckled wage earners, who are barely making ends meet in no small part because of the very policies of those corporate and ideological forces for whom Rush has been a hero. I recently came across an account of the tabloid era of British journalism in the late 1950s when the Daily Mirror, for one, presented itself as the champion of the working man, fearlessly speaking truth to power, when out of sight its gluttonous and egomaniacal chairman was demanding and extorting favors from frightened or like-minded politicians and generally helping himself to greater portions of privilege like any other press baron. It's the same story for Limbaugh, Murdoch and his minions, and the tycoons of the megamedia conglomerates. They helped create the new Gilded Age to whose largesse they have so generously helped themselves while throwing the populace off the trail with red meat served up in the guise of journalism.

As Eric Alterman reports in his recent book -- a book that I'm proud to have helped make happen -- part of that red meat strategy is to attack mainstream media relentlessly, knowing that if the press is effectively intimidated, either by the accusation of liberal bias or by a reporter's own mistaken belief in the charge's validity, the institutions that conservatives revere -- corporate America, the military, organized religion, and their own ideological bastions of influence -- will be able to escape scrutiny and increase their influence over American public life with relatively no challenge. Eric calls it "working the refs," and it's worked.

BUZZFLASH: You will be the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Media Reform (http://www.mediareform.net/conference.php) in Madison on Nov. 8. It is described as a groundbreaking forum to democratize the debate over media policymaking. How do you give optimism to those who feel that the struggle against multi-billion dollar media conglomerates is hopeless, considering their financial and political power?

MOYERS: By reminding ourselves of what's at stake. We're not just talking about the media here; we're talking about democracy and what kind of country America's going to be. It's too late to transform the global structure of media ownership or Wall Street's appetite for higher and higher profits no matter the cost to journalism. But we can fight for more accountability to democracy by the big companies, we can encourage alternative and independent journalism, and we keep our searchlights trained on the towers of power, including the contradictions, absurdities and excesses of the right-wing media that now dominate the public discourse.

That's just the beginning. We have to get people involved in the crucial public policy fights that are taking place. Over the last decade there's been an astonishing explosion of new-media diversity, as online and other digital media have made more outlets for expression possible. The Internet has enabled many new voices in our democracy to be heard, including those of advocacy groups, artists and nonprofit organizations. Just about anyone can speak up online, and often with an impact far greater than in the days when orators had to step onto a soap box and address passersby in a park. The virtual soap box has the potential to reach anyone, anywhere, anytime -- and to spread virally good ideas and good works of journalism. It's where people can fight back.

Now, media industry lobbyists point to the existence of the Internet, as well as to the many new digital TV channels now found on cable, when they argue that public policies to ensure ownership diversity or promote competition aren't really necessary today. They argue that concerns about media concentration are ill founded in an environment where anyone can speak, and when, they suggest, there are literally hundreds of competing channels. I grant this is a dramatic change from the time, not so long ago, when just three TV networks dominated American political and cultural life. However, there's less here than meets the eye.

This seeming diversity of programming choices that we are presented with today is more illusory than real. The Internet may have made it easier to speak than ever before, but finding an audience for that speech is as difficult as ever. Jupiter Media Metrix has done a study showing that AOL Time Warner (as it was then called) accounts for nearly a third of all user time spent online, and two other companies -- Yahoo and Microsoft -- bring that figure to fully 50 percent. The traffic patterns of the online world, in other words, are beginning more and more to resemble those of TV and radio. While there is an abundance of alternative voices at the margin of the system, the mega-gatekeepers would like to move that margin farther from the center, so that those independent voices grow fainter and fainter.

As for the growing number of channels available on today's cable systems, most of these channels, it turns out, are owned by a handful of companies. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy reminded me just the other day that of the 91 major networks that appear on most cable channels, 79 are part of such multiple network groups as those of Time Warner, Liberty Media, NBC and Disney. So in order to program a channel on cable today, you must either be owned or affiliated with one of the giants. The Writers Guild of America, as I am sure you know, represents virtually all of the writers who work on entertainment programs, films and much of TV news. The Guild told the FCC earlier this year that "consolidation and control of program production, distribution, and exhibition … had contributed to an already steep decline in diversity, variety and quality" in the programming that Americans see.

I know most of what I know about media policy from the Media Access Project -- the public interest communications law firm that, along with Jeff Chester, does a great job of following these debates. I think they are right when they warn even the wide-open spaces of the Internet may soon be fenced off, that it will be transformed into a system in which a handful of companies use their control over high-speed access to ensure they remain at the top of the digital heap in the broadband era. The many noncommercial and civic voices -- representing the democratic potential of the Internet -- could be driven into digital twilight. They will be harder, or more expensive, for users and viewers to reach than the readily available commercial fare, which will be bundled into our cable and Internet access service.

Jeff Chester can get you very excited about the opportunity before us to re-envision our communications system and the ways that it can serve both community and commerce. Thanks to technological innovations, we now have the opportunity to accommodate competing points of view and invite user participation. Channels can be freed to serve the civic and noncommercial needs of communities. Space can be provided for free political debate, eliminating, maybe, one of the most lethal cancers on our body politic -- the need for politicians to raise enormous sums of money to pay for commercials. The Supreme Court has called the Internet the "most participatory form of mass speech yet developed." Maybe -- if we maintain those qualities as it evolves into the high-speed multimedia system known as broadband.

That will take vigilance, because none of this will happen if the public doesn't wake up to the possibility that a handful of cable and local telephone giants would like to be the only gatekeepers of cyberspace, and that they would like to create and control the content according to Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Even as we speak, federal policymakers are considering proposals that threaten the ability of our media system to serve democracy. Media critics and watchdog groups have spoken out, but few in power appear to be listening, in part -- and this brings us back to square one -- because the message is about the role and future of our country's principal messengers, the media themselves, the very business that won't let its own watchdogs bark, much less bite, over the theft of the public interest.

My friend Chuck Lewis runs the Center for Public Integrity, the watchdog organization that I've supported journalistically and financially. The Center has gotten great play in mainstream media with its investigative reports through the year. But when it released an in-depth study of the new media's lobbying efforts a year ago, you could have choked on the silence. The TV networks were nowhere in evidence. They just coughed politely and went back to cancer cures and Michael Jackson. Let me read you what Chuck Lewis said: "In this difficult time of recession and massive media industry layoffs, what journalist is going to propose to his editors or owners that they expose the special interest influence peddling of the media? There's an idea that will kill a promising career. Most editors and reporters exercise self-censorship or anticipatory restraint, when it comes to investigating the media … Meanwhile, the American people are not informed about how the media barons are profiteering from democracy, and why it matters. An entire part of our national discourse is muted, with no debate, because the media doesn't want to shine a spotlight on itself."

So we have our work cut out for us. If we don't do it -- every one of us who has any measure of independence and any forum whatsoever -- no one will. I just count on our keeping in mind the news photographer in Tom Stoppard's Night and Day who says, "People do terrible things to each other, but it's worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark." We have to turn on some lights around here.

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

Mark KarlinComment