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The More You Watch The Less You Know

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The Many Fronts of the Media War


"I love television, but the majority of people who work in television hate television and hate the audience. I know what television means; I always have. It's our companion, it's our teacher, it's our everything."

-- Roseanne, from an interview in Spin, 1996

Can we begin by imagining how television could be different, how it could shape a meaningful culture instead of undermining one, how it might serve a broader public interest?

What if one of America's most celebrated working class performers relayed the news her way, informed by her values, world view and subjective notion of objectivity? In other words, what if Roseanne, now that her sitcom star is setting, took over from Brokaw, Jennings or Rather? Imagine RNN-the Roseanne News Network. It would definitely be more poignant and probably better produced than most of what we see. It might also be more honest. It would certainly connect more effectively with a vast audience that is part of that growing bloc of viewers deserting the TV news shows in droves.

I love the idea that Roseanne has been a big deal on television, like an erect middle finger permanently waved in the face of all those conservative media moguls who use the broadcast spectrum so effectively to sedate and stupefy millions. In so many ways, her presence reaffirms for me a faith that television can be saved. I can identify with what she said because I, like many, am part of that audience that feels TV treats us with contempt. In these pages, I'll be drawing on my experiences as an industry insider of sorts to talk about the great damage our media is doing to our culture, our common dreams and desperate needs, our everything.

I am also part of a smaller tribe -- those who continue to work in television with the conviction that the medium is worth trying to improve. I don't hate the audience. If I hate anything, it is an industry that has swollen into an arrogant global power center, a force more powerful than many governments and more conformist than many corporations. It is that industry that is at war, within itself and with its own traditions, which it tends to glamorize and mythologize as the golden age. "Like the Republican Party," writes John Leonard in his compendium of TV criticism, Smoke and Mirrors, "it remembers, mourns and mimics a past when reporters were private eyes and cowboys, rather than blow-dried performing seals tethered to a Teleprompter."

We are living at the end of the first Media Century, an era in which the press, radio and television, and now computers, literally revolutionized our lives. In developed countries at least, but also in every capital of the world, few can imagine life without access to telephones, radio, television, beepers and cellphones, and for a growing number of the cyber savvy, the Internet and computer-based interactivity. The effect of these new media is total on social relations, on political culture and discourse, but also on entertainment and economics. Many of its implications are troubling for the intellectual, socio-cultural and economic life of our country and others, most profoundly for the future of democracy. The determinative role of modern commercial media is rarely examined by a media which has no interest in having attention focused on its own role.

Usually media issues are downplayed in the business or feature pages of the newspaper. This book wants to move them up on to page one as a war story-the war story of our times.

The media war is an undeclared war, one that is chronicled in gossip columns but rarely examined in depth. Yes, the war's battles are often reported-in a manner of speaking. If you want to find out which suit is now in charge or who's bought what, you can. But more often than not, this saga is covered only as a chronicle of business decisions, with the cultural and political implications rarely spelled out or followed up. I draw on some of that reportage in these pages, not as a clip and paste job, but with the intent of fusing my own experiences, specialized information, and the insights of other insiders to delve into the larger meaning of the changes taking place at such breathtaking speed.

"This is a war on several fronts," acknowledges England's Guardian, "in which timidity won't be the winner. The world's telephone, wireless, and cable companies are battling it out to become the dominant conveyors of information, while media giants such as Disney, Viacom, Microsoft, and Rupert Murdoch's empire are restructuring to become the dominant suppliers of entertainment and software." To compete effectively, these companies have opted to become colossal conglomerates through mergers and acquisitions, aided and abetted by government policies. These companies have become cartels, operating globally with little regulation or social responsibility.

Truth is as much a casualty in this media war as in any other. Intentional or not, one effect of what is called the information age is the continuing underinforming of the larger public, while an elite sector is inundated with more news and information than it can possibly absorb.

And it is not just the media corporations that have merged; there has been a merging of business and journalistic values as well, such that the different companies have become practically indistinguishable from one other. As the companies grow, often by taking on vast loads of debt, the inevitable downsizing and scaling back of news divisions has contributed to this sameness.

This media war is being fought not with guns but with marketing strategies and corporate logos that value entertainment more than information, diversion more than democracy. No wonder that Larry Gelbart, the screenwriter who created M*A*S*H, reached for a military metaphor as the title of his 1997 TV drama skewering media moguls, calling it Weapons of Mass Distraction. Those weapons, he told Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times, "take our eye off the ball. We're more concerned with who is sleeping with whom, and who is having a baby. The real problems in America and in the world go unnoticed while the prurient side of us is appealed to."

Media executives speak in the language of war -- of bombarding audiences, targeting markets, capturing grosses, killing the competition, and winning, by which they mean making more money than the other guy. Some news organizations even refer to their employees as the troops. This high-tech war deploys technologies whose goal, in part, is to expand, domestically and globally, an entertainment-information economy now valued, in the United States alone, at $150 billion a year. Already, well over 50 percent of the revenues for America's cultural export industries are raised overseas. As the companies duel, countries and communities often find themselves in the crossfire.

Between April and October 1996 alone, by actual count, 56,949,501 commercials aired on American media nationwide. The TV industry made $34 billion in profits. One survey of local news shows found that 30 percent of their ads were for media and entertainment products. "Who knows better than the media that TV sells what it shows," commented researcher Paul Klite, who also quotes editor Harold Evans about what that means for the future of news. "The challenge of the media," Evans says, "is not to stay in business but to stay in journalism."

Media companies make no secret of its international ambitions. In March 1996 the Wall Street Journal quoted HBO's new CEO, Jeffrey Bewkes, as calling overseas expansion his company's manifest destiny. Increasingly, the new class of media moguls has taken "We Are the World" as its own mantra.

Like all conflicts, the media war leaves a trail of victims and marginalized peoples. In the former Yugoslavia, it is widely recognized that propaganda posing as news, on both Serbian and Croatian television, fueled dormant hatreds and spurred on the right-wing nationalist movements that launched a genocidal conflict. Constantly replayed footage of World War II, in which both sides used the same footage to accuse each other of atrocities, brought on more atrocities. The nation went from watching war on TV to becoming caught up in a war that was shown on TV. It was a media war before it became a shooting war. The people were saturation bombed with hate messages before the first shot was fired. (This happened on radio in Rwanda and Burundi as well, but has gone largely unreported.) At the end of 1996, when Serbian pro-democracy protesters took to the streets challenging the Milosovic regime they spoke out continuously against the state-owned media, brandishing slogans like "Turn Off Your TV. Turn on Your Brain."

In the West, there was a virtual media cleansing of the forces behind ethnic cleansing. It took years before the news networks shifted the way they framed the story of the former Yugoslavia from a case of ethnic and religious hatred in which all sides were equally to blame, to a story about premeditated Serbian nationalist aggression. By then it was too late. The horrific images of the war had already overwhelmed interpretive coverage. I am convinced that because so few viewers understood the conflict, few spoke out, including antiwar activists. You can determine if I am on target by asking yourself (and your friends) if you know, after all these years of watching news from Bosnia, how the war started and who was behind it.

As globalization restructures the economy and changes on the media, there is less, not more, coverage of global trends. As global news becomes more important, it is covered less. There is half as much international coverage on the broadcast networks as there was ten years ago. Stephen Hess, author of International News and Foreign Correspondents, surveying 404 foreign correspondents, concludes that coverage has declined in newspapers too, and that violent images characterize half of the stories, what is often called "bang bang" coverage. Why is there so much of it? Writer Neil Hickey in the Columbia Journalism Review recounts a conversation with one Gulf War journalist who spoke of getting a "rocket from New York" -- a missive telling him what competing networks were airing -- ordering him to file more on various firefights, regardless of their military significance. "New York wants John Wayne movies," he said. "not talking heads." Images, not explanation.

Two thirds of the largest 1900 newspapers have no foreign correspondents at all. Johanna Neuman of USA Today, in her book, Lights, Camera, War, quotes a comment from the London Spectator in 1889 on the impact of the telegraph: "The world is for purposes of intelligence reduced to a village. All men are to think of all things at the same time, on imperfect information and with too little interval for reflection." Sound familiar?

Subcommandante Marcos, the charismatic Zapatista rebel leader, taped a message in the mountains of Mexico's impoverished Chiapas region for screening at a January 1997 Freeing the Media teach-in in New York. No networks covered it. You will see why from the following excerpt:

"The world of contemporary news is a world that exists for the VIPs-the very important people. Their everyday lives are what is important; if they get married, if they divorce, if they eat, what clothes they wear or what clothes they take off-these major movie stars and big politicians. But common people only appear for a moment-when they kill someone or when they die. For the communications giants, the others, the excluded, only exist when they are dead, when they are in jail or in court. This cannot go on."
It will lead, Marcos warns, to more confrontation. "Sooner or later this virtual world clashes with the real world." Significantly, Marcos and his guerrillas use modern media to transmit their messages, which tend to get stripped of their substance on image-driven TV programs, but do, nevertheless, find a supportive global audience via lengthy communiqués relayed over the Internet.

Yesterday, great empires colonized countries. Today, great companies colonize markets, which they call territories. Centuries ago, slave traders turned people into property, physically branding the bodies they claimed ownership over. Today, transnational corporations invest in intellectual property and legally and artistically brand the programming they claim ownership over. Years ago, those brands were owner-specific, intended to last for a lifetime; today, copyrights and corporate logos are asserted in perpetuity and can impose a stranglehold over creators and the creative process.

This media war has yet to produce an effective opposition, an antiwar movement or cultural resistance that can challenge its trajectory and impact. Such a movement, however, is bubbling up from below, with parents calling for a more informative way of rating TV shows to safeguard their children, teachers promoting media literacy, activists asking for corporate accountability, consumers demanding enforcement of antitrust laws, media watchers critiquing news coverage, critics seeking more meaningful program content, producers creating alternative work and independent producers like me agitating for better and fairer journalism.

HTML By H.L. Fuller

© 1997, Danny Schechter
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