Wilson at work
I've worked as a broadcast journalist since 1987, when we were still working under the Fairness Doctrine. I saw how the character of broadcasting changed when we lost that rule: personal attacks were suddenly okay, community programming was not worth the price, and candidates for public office could forget about going on the air for free; if they wanted time, they could buy it.
Then after Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act into law, I saw how one man on 600 radio stations nationwide could pummel a president into impeachment. I would hear Rush tell his audience, "I'll do the reading for you so you won't have to," then lie to his listeners about what he'd read. Nobody was there to check his facts, and so he began writing America's new oral history. By 2000, more right wing voices dominated the AM dial, and Presidential candidate Al Gore became unfairly portrayed as prevaricator in chief. After the 2004 media swiftboating of war hero John Kerry, I just couldn't take it anymore. I had to connect the dots so people could understand why and how we are getting the lies and misinformation we have in the media today.
So I began shooting Broadcast Blues in 2005, and thanks to Public Interest Pictures, obtained financing to complete the film. I finished just after President Obama's inauguration.
You've just given a great summary of what's happened to the media in the last several decades. Let's start with Obama and work our way backwards. Many had high expectations of him regarding deregulation and diversity of media ownership. Was that misplaced or have there been any hopeful signs so far?
The Obama administration FCC is currently working hard on the issues of net neutrality and broadband. They correctly see that all Americans need access to high speed internet, and that content providers need equal access to eyeballs (as opposed to a tiered system where a big corporation could pay to have quicker downloads and higher search engine ratings than a small startup). It was thought that this issue would be resolved by spring, but groups are now challenging the FCC's jurisdiction over this issue. The smart money bets that it will be resolved by year's end.
But longtime FCC Commissioner Michael Copps is once again talking about media diversity and the public interest. President Obama established three guidelines for media after his inauguration: to establish public interest guidelines, to restore localism, and to diversify media ownership. Look for Copps to make an announcement in L.A. on this March 11.
So, is FCC Commissioner Copps a good guy or a bad guy? It's so hard to tell. Media diversity and the public interest are good things. But, then again, we've grown used to buzz words and key phrases (think Clean Air Act) that say one thing but mean something else entirely. Also, how should we look at the whole brouhaha about the administration website removing a paragraph about media diversity and local ownership because of alleged pressure? Is that just a tempest in a teapot or does it mean really something about Obama's willingness to stand up for the public interest?
Anyone who has seen Michael Copps crisscross the country for the last many years to attend grassroots workshops and events knows that he is a true advocate for the public interest, and I absolutely take him at his word that he is again fighting for the public interest via putting teeth into broadcast license renewals. Whether the rest of the FCC commissioners and the crucial FCC Media Bureau (which approves or denies petitions to deny licenses) follow suit remains to be seen.
It is true that the White House website no longer includes the goals to establish public interest guidelines, to restore localism, and to diversify media ownership. Why it has been removed, I cannot say. But President Obama, like all politicians, responds best to pressure from constituents. That is really why I made Broadcast Blues, to educate people as to our rights in this media landscape, and to encourage people to stand up and start shouting to reclaim our rights. We the People have to be our own advocates, or nothing will happen in Washington.
Helen Thomas: There's no substitute for truth.
Well, it's very encouraging that this FCC Commissioner is on our side. Let's talk about investigative journalism for a moment. It's really expensive and, with the consolidation of media outlets, more and more of an endangered species. How much truth is there to the charge that if the public wasn't just interested in celebrity gossip and other non-news, the media wouldn't dish it out?
CBS' 60 Minutes consistently shows up in the top ten highest rated shows. That proves two things: the public is interested in investigative journalism, and the public has a much longer attention span than we've been led to believe.
That may be true and that's good. Then, what's happened to all the intrepid journalists of yesteryear? If you look at the White House press corps, there was Helen Thomas asking the hard questions during the Bush administration and everyone else was sitting there with a vacuous smile. Even Bob Woodward today isn't the Woodward of the Watergate era. Is this a function of corporate downsizing, the threat of loss of access, the lowering of journalistic standards, the prevalence of talk shows as a substitute for research or something else entirely?
It's everything you've said, including something else entirely. There has been a right wing movement for more than a generation to dumb down and control our culture. It started before Ronald Reagan and goes right up through the Citizens United case [recent Supreme Court decision unleashing corporate campaign contributions]. This movement has been purposely confusing people as to facts in order to sway public opinion and to write its own oral history. I began writing on this topic recently, and found the answer merits a book, not an essay. Working title: The Premeditated Misinformation of America.
Can't wait to read that book. After Goldwater's defeat in 1964, conservative Republicans slowly built themselves an empire that includes but isn't restricted to the media. Waves of media deregulation and the demise of the Fairness Doctrine have also played into their hands, creating a veritable echo chamber of a unified message. [Paul Krugman laid this out really well in his 2007 book, The Conscience of a Liberal.] Conservatives would contend that all the protest is just sour grapes on the part of liberals who didn't invest the time and resources to build their own, rival empire. After all, it's not the conservatives' fault that Democrats are disorganized and splintered. Or, is it?