Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Worry More About Gannett and Comcast Than Limbaugh and Beck

April 23, 2010

April 22, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

I’m not worried about Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or their legion of over-the-top imitators. To keep their disciples happy Beck and Limbaugh need to constantly throw out bigger chunks of red meat. Ultimately it’s totally so raw that it becomes irrelevant.

For all the buzz about them, the commentators of the hysterical Right have smaller and less committed audiences than the notorious Father Coughlin had back during the Great Depression. Radio was then the political media weapon of choice. With a U.S. population half its current size Father Coughlin regularly had 40 million listeners. His rants began as attacks on capitalism, but as he became more and more virulent he wound up a full throated supporter of Hitler.

He even created a political party and promised he would quit broadcasting if his chosen presidential candidate pulled in fewer than a million votes. The candidate didn’t, but Coughlin stayed on the air anyway. (Remind you of Limbaugh and his unredeemed promise to move to Costa Rica if health reform was enacted)?

No, these people don’t scare me. What does scare me is what’s happened to the rest of the media.

In poll after poll we see that the American public is awash in misinformation. A third of the public believes the nonsense about “death panels.” There’s dangerous erosion in public belief about the science of climate change. A very shaky grip on reality runs through many vital public issues.

The genius behind America’s success, and its example which so many other nations have followed, is that government rests on the consent of the governed. From the nation’s earliest days, the Founding Fathers had no doubt that the free flow of information and competing ideas were inseparable from a government representative of majority interests. Even during those times, when there was hardly any public money to be had, much of it was spent to support printers, newspapers, and distribution through the Post Office.

Public support for journalism is as old as the nation itself. Even today it’s estimated that newspapers and magazines are subsidized to the tune of nearly a billion dollars through Post Office delivery.

But the unfortunate, and potentially deadly truth today is that most of our information comes through very narrow funnels. Where 100 years ago a city like Washington, D.C. or New York would have a dozen newspapers representing a multitude of voices and viewpoints, today we have newspaper monopolies. Radio offered the promise of diversity but has evolved into a few large chains with robotic operations. TV was born as the ultimate small funnel, with just 3 national networks. Cable might have fixed that, but, like newspapers and radio, cable now is the domain of Comcast, Time Warner and just a few others.

Now we have the Internet. But a federal court ruled the other day that the FCC has no power to keep cyberspace open to all. You already can see the squeeze—-the big guys buying up the popular sites, and the consolidation of internet service providers who manage the gateways.

There’s a struggle going on now that’s often labeled a struggle over the future of journalism. It’s really a struggle over the future of democracy. If journalism is considered merely a “profit center,” as it has been by the goliaths that own newspaper chains and TV and cable networks, what happens to the public’s vital interest in news that impacts their lives? Where’s the solid ground of information and viewpoint from which the governed can exercise its consent?

The Internet has been disruptive to the entire communications industry. But it’s an industry that’s been badly in need of disruption. Monopolies, the tyranny of Wall Street’s quarterly earnings demands, the subtle influence of the advertising model on writers and editors—-this hasn’t been the most fertile environment for serious journalism. Things needed changing even before the Internet and the compounded devastation wrought by the current recession.

A few months ago, Len Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a widely respected Columbia University journalism professor, published an influential paper about all of this.

“It may not be essential to save or promote any particular news medium, including print newspapers,” they say in their analysis. “What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable, and regardless of the medium in which it appears.”

To do that they suggest a long menu of possibilities, some of which already are happening. Including, among others, development of independent news operations focused on investigative reporting, including serious local coverage; more support from universities and non-profits, a national fund for local news, managed by the FCC, an expansion of PBS into more community-based coverage, changes in tax laws to encourage new for profit and non-profit independent news entities, and more open government records.

The important thing here is to develop scale. Monopoly corporate media, for sometimes good and often bad, has had deep reach into the nation’s information channels. Once things get said on four broadcast network news channels, cable channels, the AP radio wire and the community’s only newspaper (if it still has one) information and perspective take common root.

And because mainstream media and its corporate owners and sponsors are so sensitive about “bias,” the mainstream report invariably is he-said, she-said—–even when all the facts are on one side of that see-saw.

A multitude of voices can give truth a better chance of finding a path out of this constrained box—-if those voices can be heard.

The problem with journalism today isn’t so much with the demagogues who are heard too much but with the truth that’s heard too little.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at