Let’s Stop Big Media’s (B)AD Behavior

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Over the years we’ve been reporting on how power is monopolized by the powerful. How corporate lobbyists, for example, far outnumber members of Congress. And how the politicians are so eager to do the bidding of donors that they allow those lobbyists to dictate the law of the land and make a farce of democracy.  What we have is much closer to plutocracy, where the massive concentration of wealth at the top protects and perpetuates itself by controlling the ends and means of politics.  This is why so many of us despair over fixing what’s wrong: we elect representatives to change things, and  once in office they wind up serving the deep-pocketed donors who put up the money to keep change from happening at all.

Here’s the latest case in point. The airwaves belong to all of us, right? They’re part of “the commons” that in theory no private interest should be able to buy or control. Nonetheless, government long ago allowed television and radio stations to use the airwaves for commercial purposes, and the advertising revenues have made those companies fabulously rich. But part of the deal was that in return for the privilege of reaping a fortune they would respect the public interest in a variety of ways, including covering the local news important to our communities. If they didn’t, they would be denied their license to use the airwaves at all.

Alas, over the years, through one ruse or another, the public has been shafted.  We heard the other day of a candidate for office in a Midwest state who complained to the general manager of a TV station that his campaign was not getting any news coverage. “You want coverage?” the broadcaster replied. “Buy some ads and then we’ll talk!”

That pretty well sums up the game. But hold your nose: it gets worse. The media companies and their local stations – including goliaths like CBS and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – stand to pull in as much as $3 billion this year from political ads. Three billion dollars! And most of that money will pay for airing ugly, toxic negative ads that use special effects, snide jokes and flat out deception to take us to the lowest common denominator of politics.

The FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which is supposed to make sure the broadcasters don’t completely get away with highway or, rather, airwave robbery has proposed to the broadcasting cartel that stations post on the Web the names of the billionaires, and front organizations – many of them super PACs — paying for campaign ads. It’s simplicity itself: give citizens access online to find out quickly and directly who’s buying our elections. Hardly an unreasonable request, given how much cash the broadcasters make from their free use of the airwaves.

But the broadcasting industry’s response has been a simple, declarative “Not on your life!” It would cost too much money, they claim. Speaking on their behalf, Robert McDowell, currently the only Republican commissioner on the FCC – the other one left to take a job with media monolith Comcast — said the proposal is likely “to be a jobs destroyer” by distracting station employees from doing their regular work. The party line also has been sounded by Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, who told the FCC that making the information available on the Internet “would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government.” We’re not making this up.

Steven Waldman, who was lead author of the report that led to the FCC’s online proposal, quotes a letter from the deans of twelve of our best journalism schools: “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover; it seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principles to themselves.”

Hypocritical, but consistent with a business that values the almighty dollar over public service. The industry leaves nothing to chance. Through its control of the House of Representatives, it got a piece of legislation passed this past week euphemistically titled the FCC Process Reform Act. George Orwell must be spinning in his grave – this isn’t reform, it’s evisceration.

Not only does the bill remove roadblocks to more media mergers – further reducing competition – it would  subject every new rule and every FCC analysis of that rule to years of paper work and judicial review, enabling the industry’s horde of lawyers and lobbyists, “to throw sand in the works at every opportunity” as one expert puts it.  There was a noble attempt by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo to include in this bill an amendment that, like the FCC proposal, called for stations to post on-line who’s putting up the big bucks for political ads. Shocker — it was rejected. Score another one for the plutocrats.

There is some good news. The White House opposes this latest bid by the broadcasting oligarchy to further eviscerate the public interest. And the fate of the House bill in the Senate is uncertain at best.  In the meantime, as far as those political ads go, we’re not totally helpless. Here’s what you can do: Under current law, local television stations still have to keep paper files of who’s paying for these political ads, and they have to make those files available to the public if requested.   You can even make copies to take away with you. So just go down to your nearest station, politely ask for the records, and then send the data online to the New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative or to the organization of investigative journalists called ProPublica. Both have mounted campaigns to get the information online.

Each is pulling together all the information on political ads they get from you and others — crowdsourcing  — and making it available to the entire country via the Internet. If you’re a high school teacher or college professor of journalism, have your students do it and maybe give them classroom credit for collecting the data democracy needs to work.

In other words, here’s a way citizens can take action even against the plutocrats who run Big Media and Congress.

Addendum:  The media reform advocacy organization Free Press is also conducting station file inspections, and has just published an easy-to-follow guide to how it’s done.

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  • Ellen Rowan

    Absolutely fantastic idea!!!!  How can we complain if we’re not willing to roll up our sleeves and try to do something about the mess we’re in!!!  Thanks Bill!!!!!

  • dyannne

    Great idea for journalism teachers! I hope they are reading this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Debbie-Leverance/1850091151 Debbie Leverance

    Does this apply to radio stations as well?

  • Reddoor2

    Bill,  I also want to add an alternative solution.  Big ads don’t do any good if people don’t see them, or watch them.  I don’t watch them, I don’t hear them, I don’t pay for them.  I cancelled my cable.

    Two years ago, I came across a solution to the media misinformation machine.  I bought a Roku and cancelled my cable service.  I now get NO television that cannot be streamed through my DSL to my TV.  The airwaves, once owned by the public, have been taken over by profiteers who cater to the lowest of low common denominators.  I got tired of searching for programming that was reliable, informative, inspirational or educational. 

    Now, via Roku-and it’s cousin Apple TV-both about $60, I get Netflix at $8/month, News via democracy now, podcasts and video casts of weekend news programming, and all the education I can handle, plus TED talks which do inspire hope that the better angels are working somewhere-saving myself $1200 a year on cable service and taxes. 

    So long as I have a choice, I chose not to fill my head with anyone else’s drama, propaganda, or fear and I can sleep without being inundated with negativity and criticism.  I highly recommend this approach to any of the 99% that are tired of supporting programing that bring out the worst in all of us, rather than the best. 

  • Reddoor2

     My solution, Just listen to PBS/NPR and Pandora.  Problem solved.

  • Moggio85

    “It costs too much money.” When it comes to the duty of corporations and the FCC attempts to make them responsible to the public, the public always are the losers. Anytime a monopoly exists we lose. I’m so sick and tired of hearing this excuse from these corporations.

    I am a deaf/hard of hearing individual. 20+ years after the ADA we are still having to fight the battle for captioning of cable television and now visual media seen on the Internet all over again. We win some battles but too few. And even if they do eventually comply the results are laughable “voice recognition programs” for any program not taped. Turn off the sound and read some of the captioning I’m sure you’ll get a laugh. On my local news, “Obama” came up as “Alabama” for weeks even after he was elected!

  • Erlsmit

    We the people does not exist in America. Thank goodness for Bill Moyers.

  • Em Crosby

    I have watched Bill Moyers for years. I have the conversations he had with Joseph Cambell and I still listen to them.
    I am a baby boomer and I remember the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s movement as well as the murders and the tumultous times back in the 60’s. I was right in the middle of that. I am still a knee jerk liberal after all these years.
    Still, I am depressed when I watch his show. I should feel eager with the new movements like the 99%s. However, this time, it seems like an insurmountable mountain. I try to remain positive and remind myself that the Civil Rights and Women’s movement felt insurmountalbe too at the time.
    I feel like I am walking on the ceiling and everyone else is walking on the floor.
    When I see the hate of “others” whether they are gay, lesbian, black, or latino, it just seems like we should be farther along than that. Also when I see people not willing to buy (literally) into health care for all, I am appalled.
    It seems to me that we are not the 99%. We are a small vocal minority that is constantly being shouted down by money, business, and completely narrow minded people. When business men get enormous pay and lay off workers and when people lose their jobs and their houses, I can’t believe that it is ok with so many.
    I am glad I am not a Christian. Because today Christianity means hate not love, closed rather than open, exclusion rather than inclusion.
    Every day I get up and do my best. And I treat everyone with respect. I am a teacher in a very Republican county. I teach children who do not speak English as their first language. They are mostly Hispanic.  For my sanity I moved closer to the city of Atlanta to a town where it is ok to be who you are.
    I have not given up and I still maintain hope. Thanks to all the people on your show as well as you, Bill Moyers for continuing to fight.

  • Ellen R.

    Hang in there Em!! I pretty much identify with all you said and I too get very discouraged.  But there are people who want things to change and we have to keep
    trying to find out how that can happen.  Bill Moyers is s bright light and breath of fresh air and is STILL ON THE AIR AND BEING HEARD!  Don’t give up!!!

  • Idea1st

    Mr. Moyer
    America needs to Change The Rules Of Politicas
    American citizens can have what they want and need,by voting for Citizens Proclamation

    find out how at http://www.proclamation2012.com

  • Jim Jones

    Bill, my son and I, your fellow native Texans from way back (and transcended Southern Baptists, too) share you as a personal hero in the eternal fight of right against might.  But he mourns you as an “underachiever.”  Yet who among us, I have asked him, though we racked, hanged, crucified and burned them, have ever had greater, more powerful, more lasting influence than the prophets?  “Thus saith the Lord: Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jer 23:1)

  • Correctthinker

    But wait- those are ridiculous, crazy left-wing liberal propaganda stations that no right-minded individual can stomach. So there’s a problem with your plan.

  • Correctthinker

    Thank all those Republican 1%ers for your no doubt tremendously generous salary and benefits package (in most public school districts far more generous than the private sector- all on the backs of property, state income and franchise taxes) that teachers are constantly complaining about. With long holidays off and summers off your packages get even more comparatively generous. Fact is, it is human nature to have unlimited wants and desires. You have more time and less stress. Others have less time 
    , more money and probably more stress. You can’t have it all. You can’t have something for nothing. What liberals refer to as “being open to new ideas” is usually, in the eyes of the responsible individuals who actually make the world go around, as fanciful thinking and pie-in-the-sky free lunches 

  • Reddoor2

     The solution for all is networks and broadcasters with an eye toward civic responsibility, and honest, respectful and intelligent discussion of issues, choices and consequences.  Until that happens,  that was my solution, for myself because I can’t stomach the “right-minded” propaganda based on half-baked theories, and half-truths distorted into lies,  hate, intolerance and disrespect.

  • Reddoor2

     I don’t know where you get your information, but you are inaccurately informed as to what responsibility is, and what makes the world go round.  As you yourself are the beneficiary of the “pie in the sky ideas” that made your life, and your living possible, you could stand to be more humble before attacking those people whose hard work made your life possible.  Yours is the ungrateful arrogance of many that got us into our current state of affairs so unless you have some thoughtful and intelligent solutions for cleaning up the mess we’re in, you stand equal to the rest of us in looking for them, and far beneath those who are doing more than simply attacking those who are trying to both define the problems and look for workable solutions. 

  • Divingengineer

    The best thing I and my wife ever did was give up on TV.  I really believe that it has gone a long way towards freeing my mind from the left-right dogma that will keep you in knots. If we want to watch tv we put in a dvd or netflix movie.  It really is a mind control device in my opinion.  We could all strive to think more for ourselves, an army of hired myrmidons fight to control our perception of the world.  
    Think for yourself.
    Allow others to do the same.