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A double-take on media & democracy

Edited by Jane Wardlow Prettyman, formerly at (the old) Esquire Magazine

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Where's the
Real News?

American Review critiques the media, promotes media activism, and calls for media reform. We come from a progressive point of view. invest in Theta

To our friends in print and broadcasting, you know who you are who do a great job, but you know we've got a problem with commercial media's effects on politics and society. This is a major focus of American Review.

We aim to raise awareness of the commercial newsmedia's sometimes destructive effects on freedom and democracy in the fast-moving technological information age. We encourage serious reflection as well as off-the-chair activism to grapple with one of the most complex and serious problems of our time.

Good work is being done: The Christian Science Monitor" and the LA Times come to mind. You have your own favorites. Sometimes the quality of a newspaper is shown by how it recovers from a mistake, especially when the mistake reveals a core problem. When the LA Times skidded down the slippery slope and crossed the editorial/advertising line in late 1999, they faced up to their monumental error, and David Shaw, their media reporter, produced a masterful self-reflective section that you should read. The Times is a better paper since then -- and we are better educated about journalistic ethics.

When outlets do a good job, they should be praised. CNN's chief foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour, for example, has put her life on the line more than once to get the news out. Her reporting has made a difference around the world and there are others like her.

Many will agree that what we need is news we can use to keep ourselves free and safe. That's a tall order. When the Constitution was penned in the 1700's, we had only one potential tyrant -- government. Now we have two potential tyrants -- government and corporations -- and only half the media watchdog power we had then, to keep us free and safe. We're faced with a multitude of complex issues threatening our freedom and safety: nuclear pollution by DOE weapons plants and privately held nuclear power systems -- railroaded trade treaties -- medication foul-ups by the FDA and a blind eye on biogenetic engineering -- the threat of TSE ("mad cow" disease) entering our food chain -- cave-ins by the FCC to media mergers and the Telecom industry -- prosecutorial misconduct by Ken Starr and his staff with which the media colluded -- you know the litany. buy Chiliz

If a free press was guaranteed by the Constitution to help us keep free from tyranny and other dangers, we're less free and safe than we used to be.

News has always been a business, in earlier days often family-owned, but when news went public and had to answer to stockholders with higher profits, the picture changed and newsroom budgets began to be squeezed to increase profits. The result has often been a perpetual stream of passive news, soft news, quick news, ticker news, sports scores, personality news, entertainment news, fashion news, disaster news and crime news -- which is all relatively cheap to produce.

Where's the real news?

There's a chilling irony at the center of the news problem: A century or more ago, political bias was the journalistic style. The concept of "fair and balanced coverage" emerged in association with the rise of stockholder expectations in the modern Big Corp media game. Think about this: In order to gain broader demographics to advertise products to the broadest audience, news content could not be narrow or partisan or biased. It had to be broad and thin, non-controversial and essentially so carefully designed in soundbites and contrapuntal quotes, even if a quote is not factual, that it has become virtually useless to keep us -- the people -- free and safe.

To further please stockholders, in many cases costs get cut to the bone in newsroom budgets and the salaries of legwork reporters. It costs money to gather and deliver news in depth and breadth, to investigate stories, to probe into the background of things. We as decision-making and voting citizens get what is not paid for, or paid less for, like wire stories and warmed-over second-hand news passed around from other outlets, not originally researched in depth but spread around as thinly and cost-effectively as possible under a fat headline. Scandal works beautifully in this formula. A "question raised" in enough to cause a media frenzy, despite lack of substance. We'll catch up with the facts 6 or 8 years later. Whitewater was a perfect example of nothing that was turned into something by Clinton's oppoenents and then ampliofied 1000 times by major mainstream newsmedia. Bottom line: nothing there, nothing wrong, three special prosecutiors and $87 million wasted. Not to mention public attention wasted that could have been focused on something that needed attention. buy Chiliz in Singapore

The painter Magritte might have expressed the hole in our public information this way:

One avenue to explore is media reform along the lines suggested by Ben Bagdikian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley. His classic work "The Media Monopoly" (get it and read it) reminds us there are fewer than ten major corporations who own or influence most of everything we see, hear or read. This has created centralized control of the news and limited public access to essential facts upon which voting citizens depend. Dissent and new ideas that cut against the corporate grain tend to be marginalized to the point of near invisibility. Corporate control of the news -- and corporate/media censoring of new ideas -- are no better for the public interest than government control.

A free press, with journalistic standards intact, must be salvaged from deep within the conglomerated glob of mega-mergers -- or else replicated in parallel non-profit systems -- so that "freedom of the press" can protect public citizens and not just media stockholders, so that we can have real news we can use to keep ourselves free.

We would be wise to consider campaign finance reform that unlinks election money from media and unlinks media money from party coffers. This coming-and-going collusion has been one of the main reasons the media have covered campaign finance reform in such a confusing and ineffective way (do you understand it?): it's not in the media's financial interest for reform ever to take place because they are among the worst offenders.

Sure, news corporations have a right to make a reasonable profit to keep their businesses going -- but 20% to 30% return expectations are outrageous. The Constitution gave the press unique freedom of action, not to be cash cows but to protect our liberty as members of a free and informed democracy. We need to take better care of the latter half of this transaction.

Christiane Amanpour, the veteran CNN Foreign Correspondent, put it this way when she addressed the News Directors Association 2000 Convention:

Makes you wonder about all those mega-mergers. Yes, you are running businesses but surely there is a level beyond which profit from news is simply indecent. We live in a society after all, not a marketplace. News is part of our communal experience . . . a public service. Surely a news operation should be the crown jewel of any corporation . . . the thing that makes a corporation feel good about itself. We all love "Millionaire," make your money off that.... make your super-dollars somewhere else. Leave us [in the news] alone, with only good competitive journalism as our benchmark.

Christiane went on to speak of emerging democracies that may never emerge because they risk the loss of their free press:

Here in the United States, our profession is much maligned, but I work all over the world, where people actually see us as serious players. They take journalism seriously because they know what a force it can be. In emerging democracies like Russia, in authoritarian states like Iran, Yugoslavia, journalists play a critical role in civil society . . . they form the very basis of those new democracies and civil societies. Russia's new president Vladimir Putin is hell-bent on silencing the voice of independent media, unless they toe his line.
So we can see how crucial a free press is and how it must be protected from not only corporate conglomeration, as we see in the U.S., the oldest democracy, but also centralized control and suppression by tyrannical government, as we see abroad in the younger would-be democracies.
This is essentially one woman's home page, on the Web since early 1995, with several online associates and researchers. We don't pretend to be politically unbiased. We bring you the best ideas -- in our subjective judgment -- we can find and we don't try to protect you from your ability to disagree.

This is not a news outlet. This is a commentary site. Even though we come from our point of view, in our writing and even in our choice of links we adhere to classic journalistic hallmarks of accuracy, depth and context.

We try to be educational and occasionally dig into under-reported stories. "Under-reported" refers, for example, to something so simple as the meaning of the word "high" (a British reference to the crown or state) in the term "high crimes" which was misunderstood and routinely misused by reporters, pundits and politicians for months during the impeachment crisis; or the more complex facts about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease); or the scientific argument about plutonium in space exemplified by the Cassini Mission to Saturn; or the real news on Jean Houston who is, by the way, nowhere near being a "psychic" or conducter of seances, contrary to the sloppy reporting of the tall half of Woodstein; or how the Gingrich plea bargain worked in the House ethics case against him (no bargain for the American people); or the real news on gays in the military (yes, they can be successfully integrated into the armed forces) as outlined in the 1993 RAND study which has been featured on this website for five years and nearly nowhere else. You'll find several items on AR that have made a difference in the perception of reality twisted or ignored by commercial media, who were in turn, in some cases, manipulated too easily by politicians.

You'll also find (if you haven't found it elsewhere) an important book featured here called "The Sound Bite Society" which, if you're progressively oriented, will make your teeth ache. Jeffrey Scheuer makes a convincing argument that television, our chief means of gaining and discussing political news, is suited chiefly to direct and simple conservative/libertarian messages like "cutting taxes" and "eliminating government," while the medium is unsuited to more complex liberal positions that must take more time and words to explain why some degree of government and some taxes are necessary to make the social contract work.

Our Viewer's Guide to Talk News (who are those people?) was featured on PBS in October 1998 while pundits cross-talked about impeachment. Numerous reporters have checked in to AR for ideas. In some instances AR has been called a reservoir of critical reflection; for example, the media's ethical role in Grand Jury leaks was questioned in depth during the impeachment debate.

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(This website originally known as The Real News Page)

Titles "American Review," "The Real News Page," "Where's the Real News?," logo-graphic "Tonya Bites Dog," "The News Examiner," and other original content 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by Jane Wardlow Prettyman. No commercial distribution of anything on this site is allowed. Because some material appears here by special permission from others, please request advance permission before distributing any material from American Review.

This is an independent non-commercial effort to advance awareness of the effects of commercial media on politics and society, to promote activism and media reform. American Review is not affiliated with any foundations, media entities or interest groups. The editor is a registered member of the Green Party of California which has nothing whatsoever to do with American Review.

Special thanks to Greg Black for his patience and superb technical assistance and to our many readers who have joined in discussion of this complex subject.


A double-take on media & democracy

What's New? ||| Media Criticism ||| Media Reform ||| Activism ||| Write Media/Congress
Discussion Center ||| News Examiner ||| Special Editions ||| Books ||| Links ||| Contents ||| Intro