In our last episode, Horace, Tom and Winston used the near demise of protest songs as an analogy for discussing how media monopolies are inhibiting dissent. In today’s episode, they say to hell with analogy and jump feet first into the subject of media concentration itself.
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Episode 19: Ownership Has Its Privileges
by Steven C. Day
Without a doubt, the conversation at the large round table had seriously deteriorated over the course of the evening — and I mean seriously deteriorated. At this moment, for instance, Horace, Tom and Winston were all talking about their favorite brands of lima beans. Lima Beans!
Watching this pathetic spectacle was the usual scattering of college kids. A new bunch arrives almost every Wednesday evening, staying just long enough to check out The Three Wise Men, who have now become something of an urban legend. Zach, who first came to the Last Chance Democracy Café for this same reason, but has since become a regular, was also there, expecting — well, expecting something more than lima beans I suspect. And let’s not forget me, the guy who chucked in a prosperous law practice to follow the crazy dream of opening a café and bar dedicated to the debate of great issues. And there they were talking about lima beans. Fucking lima beans!
I was thinking seriously about kicking their sorry butts out the door, when Horace finally brought them back to their senses.
“Zach . . . let me get your thoughts on a philosophical question, of sorts,” he said. “If a woman gives a brilliant speech about economic inequality in a forest and no one hears, does she make a sound?”
“Huh?” said Zach.
Personally, I thought it the perfect retort.
Horace smiled, “It’s a take off on that old philosophical question . . .”
“I know. The tree in the forest thing, right?”
Tom frowned and then, using his most professorial voice, solemnly noted that the tree falling in a forest question is actually a product of popular culture, not a true example of the science of philosophy.
“Jesus,” barked Marvin, who was sitting at his usual place at the bar. “Do you guys ever stay on topic for more than two minutes?”
“Have you seen any evidence of that?” grinned Molly, as she dropped off Horace’s Chickenhawk Fried Steak, Halliburton style (extra gravy).
Marvin shook his head and went back to reading the new titles in the jukebox. As you may recall, The Last Chance Democracy Café is, so far as I know, the only tavern in the world that has snippets from famous political speeches on the jukebox, instead of songs. After studying the play list for a few minutes, Marvin selected an entry entitled: “The Best of Rush Limbaugh.” There followed 10 seconds of silence, then a voice saying: “We hope you have enjoyed your selection.”
Zach, who had apparently decided to get out ahead of the curve, said to Horace, “I think I know the point you’re trying to make . . .”
“Really?” muttered Winston. “Maybe you could write out a translation guide for the rest of us . . .”
” . . . I think it has to do with what we talked about earlier, about how concentrated the ownership of radio stations is becoming,” continued Zach, ignoring Winston. That happens to Winston a lot.
“You’ve got it, ” confirmed Horace. “But it isn’t just radio stations. Year by year, the control of every form of mass communication known to humanity is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”
Winston huffed, “Don’t you mean, fewer and fewer corporate fists?”
“And along with that control, of course,” added Tom, “comes the power to decide which messages get told . . . and just as importantly, which get buried.
The wise men were right, of course. As has been true with so many other industries, the rush toward consolidation in the news and entertainment sector has proceeded at an awe inspiring pace: According to a chart at www.corporations.org/media/ in 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of the news media in the United States. By 2000, the number had shrunk to six media mammoths, including Viacom, TimeWarner, Walt Disney and General Electric. And merger and acquisition mania continues unabated, aided, of course, by “public servants” like FCC Chairman Michael Powell — a man who’s never seen a media consolidation proposal he didn’t like.
What’s particularly striking about these modern day media moguls, is the diversity of their holdings. Wherever Americans turn for information today, they find the same corporate facades staring back at them. Take Viacom, as an example: Turn on David Letterman or Dan Rather and you’re watching Viacom, via its subsidiary CBS. Tire of the tube and pick up a good book, say one published by Simon & Schuster, it’s Viacom again. Say the hell with that and decide to go to a movie produced by Paramount Pictures — got you again. And we haven’t even talked about its extensive holdings in radio, magazines, the Internet and live entertainment.
Horace rubbed his chin thoughtfully before saying, “Think of what this means from the standpoint of political advocacy — and especially for the advocacy of ideas that are unpopular in corporate boardrooms.”
“To put it another way,” added Tom, “having great arguments to support your position in a debate may not help you all that much if only the other side has access to the microphone.”
“Zach, let me ask you something,” said Horace. “Do you happen to remember those old American Express commercials where they used to say, Membership Has Its Privileges?
Zach said he did.
“Well, ownership has its privileges, too.”
Molly was back to serve Horace his dessert — a large chocolate “Free Republic” brownie (lots of nuts). “Wow, ownership,” she said. “Now there’s an interesting concept. I wonder if I’ll ever get to experience it.”
“Well if it’s ownership you want, then you’re in luck!” bellowed Tom sarcastically. “Haven’t you heard? Bush says he plans to use his second term to build a, quote, ownership society, close quote.
“And what exactly does that mean,” asked Molly with admirable skepticism.
“I guess mostly it means that instead of getting a guaranteed payment from Social Security when you retire, you’ll invest the money in the stock market along the way, meaning if your investments go bad you’ll pretty much be on your own during retirement, without any support.”
” . . . Yeah, I feel much better knowing that.”
“I thought you would.”
Winston pushed his plate aside, gesturing that he was done. “Let me give you a concrete example of the point my esoteric comrades here are trying to make about the importance of who owns the microphone, so to speak,” he said. “It’s really not a political story, or even a morality play about little guys getting trampled on. But I think it makes the point well: I have a good friend who was a well respected vascular surgeon. He’s retired now . . .”
I broke in, “Oh, yeah, his name’s Buddy, right . . . ?”
“Dr. Buddy?” asked Zach dubiously.
“Kinda catchy don’t you think,” I smiled.
“I remember Buddy,” said Horace. “You brought him here once. Nice Guy. He never came back though, did he?”
Winston grinned, “No, I could never get him back . . . I suppose it may have something to do with the way we all fell out of our chairs laughing at him when he said he was going to vote for Bush.”
“You mean he was serious about that?” Tom feigned shock.
Horace grinned, “Believe it or not, some people are. Poor souls. No doubt dropped on their heads when they were babies.”
The late summer sun was just now setting, which meant there was still ample light to see the huge poster we’d just placed North of the large round table. It featured an oversized picture of George W. Bush dressed up as Uncle Sam, saying the words, “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” Aug. 5, 2004
And to think that I always thought he was doing it accidentally.
“I’m kind of surprised you have a good friend who’s a Republican,” Zach said to Winston. “I think it’s excellent, but it isn’t what I’d expect . . .”
“I met Buddy thirty years ago. Like most doctors, he doesn’t have much use for lawyers. And like most red blooded liberals, I don’t have much use for country club Republicans. But it turned out we both love fine Kentucky bourbon. So we went with what’s important. Anyway, a few years back, one of our local news anchors . . . you know the type . . . a talking head whose chief journalistic qualification is the fact she has a photogenic face, decided it was time for her to do her first big story . . . start working on that Peabody, you know. The topic she picked for her big scoop was quote, bad doctors, close quote.”
“Medical malpractice is an important issue,” said Tom.
“Sure. And if she’d decided to seriously dig into it, I’d have no beef with her at all. But that would have required real journalism . . . you know, real work.”
“Not very common with most local news broadcasts, I’m afraid,” said Horace.
I should make a point here: There are many fine, dedicated journalists working at every level of the profession, including the anchor desks of local television news. But anyone knowledgeable at all about the field knows that there are also a lot of pretty bubbleheads, male and female, who have no business calling themselves professional journalists. And when Mr. or Ms. Bubblehead gets it in his or her head to do a real story, the results are usually ugly.
Winston nodded, “So, instead, what she did was to send a couple grunts down to the courthouse with orders to count the number of times doctors had been sued in the county during the last two years. And the ten doctors who’d been sued the most made the bad doctor list.”
Horace looked troubled. “I must have missed that report when it was broadcast,” he said. “But that sure sounds like an awfully shallow way of looking at the problem. I mean the fact a lawsuit’s been filed doesn’t prove the doctor’s guilty in that case, let alone that he’s a bad doctor.”
Winston scoffed, “Shallow? Hell, more like bone-dry land . . . But that’s what they did: And there was Buddy, his name and picture up there on the TV screen for everyone to see under a giant title reading BAD DOCTORS.”
“Ouch,” said Tom. “But I guess if he’d been sued that many . . .”
“That’s the thing. He hadn’t been. They had him down for three lawsuits and he’d actually only been sued in one case . . . and that case was eventually thrown out.”
“What, they miscounted?” asked Horace incredulously.
“No, it wasn’t quite that bad. They just didn’t have any idea what the hell they were doing.”
“What they didn’t understand . . . no, what they didn’t bother finding out was that in this state a plaintiff . . . the one bringing the lawsuit, has an almost absolute right to dismiss a case without prejudice at any time, for any reason. And a dismissal without prejudice means, assuming the statute of limitations hasn’t run, that the plaintiff is free to refile the case . . .”
“To just start over again . . . ?” asked Zach.
“Exactly. And in Buddy’s case, because it was such a crappy lawsuit, the lawyer on the other side never pushed it very hard and eventually ended up dismissing and refiling it twice . . . just to buy a little more time to figure out what to do with it, before he finally gave up entirely. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are legitimate medical malpractice lawsuits. This just didn’t happen to be one of them. So what happened was, when the television people later checked the court files . . .”
“Noooo . . .” said Tom painfully. “Please tell me they didn’t count every refiling of the same case as an entirely new lawsuit for purposes their bad doctor count.”
“That’s exactly what they did.”
Horace said sympathetically, “Damn, I’ll bet Buddy was pissed.”
“You don’t know the half of it. But, to his credit, he wasn’t vindictive about it. He just wanted his name cleared. And the station did issue a correction, of sorts, mentioning, in a general way, that some of the lawsuits against some of the doctors on the list had been refiled. But they never retracted the story or admitted that he was wrongfully placed on their bad doctor list.
“I’d have sued the bastards,” said Zach.
Winston told Zach that he had discussed the possibility of a lawsuit with Buddy, but had advised against it. Defamation cases are very hard to win and very expensive to prosecute. Besides, Buddy didn’t want years of litigation. He just wanted the record straightened out.
“So what did he do?” asked Zach.
“That brings us to the point of the story. He tried to get the local newspaper to do a story on it — about what a shoddy job of reporting the television news team had done. They passed. He then asked them to publish a letter to the editor from the Medical Society protesting the unfairness of the report. They passed. He even offered to buy advertising space to publish the letter. They passed. He went to talk to the news directors of the other television stations in town, asking them to do a story on how unfairly he’d been treated . . .”
“Let me guess,” said Zach. “They passed.”
“In a heartbeat.”
There’s nothing particularly unusual here: News outlets usually avoid directly criticizing the reporting of other outlets, which is probably one reason for the explosive growth of Internet web sites dedicated to media criticism, such as Fair, The Daily Howler and the (at least currently) late and lamented Media Whores Online. This journalistic hesitancy to attack one’s own is especially great in local reporting. For obvious reasons, news organizations are hesitant to start wars with their cross-town rivals, given the likelihood of retaliation. There just isn’t, shall we say, any profit in it.
“So what did Buddy do then?” asked Zach.
“There was nothing more he could do,” Winston shrugged his shoulders. “A newspaper doesn’t have to run a story it doesn’t want to. They aren’t part of the government. There’s no First Amendment right of public access. It’s a private business and for the most part they can do whatever they damn well please.”
“Ownership has its privileges,” said Horace.
“Which wasn’t that big deal in the bygone days when most fair sized cities had multiple papers,” continued Winston. “But today, in most cities, like the one we’re in, there’s only one daily newspaper. And often the owner of the paper owns other news sources as well . . .”
Horace broke in saying, “And that’s a lot of power.”
The transition to “one newspaper towns” Winston was discussing isn’t a recent phenomenon. Indeed, newspapers may fairly be described as the harbingers of the more general media concentration to come. And not surprisingly, the critical factor in this transition was the commercialization of the newspaper business. Media critic and historian, Robert McChesney, tells the story. Back in the early 1800s, newspapers were political, not commercial enterprises. And there were many of them. As late as the 1870s, a wide variety of papers were available in most fair sized cities, representing a wide range of views. But as the new century approached, newspapers started to be viewed more as commercial enterprises, heavily dependent on advertising. Running a paper became more expensive and the number began to contract.
By 1900, most smaller cities had already become one paper towns, which, of course, remains true today. Many voices had become one.
“And it’s not all that different with television and radio stations,” added Tom. “In theory, since they’re using the public airways, they’re supposed to act in the public interest. But in this era of deregulation that really doesn’t mean all that much anymore. For the most part . . . at least if they avoid political hot button stuff like using profanity, stations can pretty much broadcast whatever they want.”
“Ownership has its privileges,” repeated Horace.
“Not to mention its raw power,” added Winston.
“But this isn’t just a numbers game,” cautioned Horace. “At the end of the day, it may not really matter all that much whether it’s ten, six or three huge multinational corporations that control our access to information about the world. Because, whatever the number . . .”
Tom couldn’t hold back any longer, ” . . . whatever the number,” he took over, “they will still tend to represent the economic viewpoint that favors them — which, by the nature of things, means a conservative pro-corporate outlook. One that favors profits over wages, inflation control over job creation, trade over social, environmental and job concerns and tax cuts for the well-to-do over public investment. And according to surveys, this attitude isn’t limited to the publishers themselves: The journalists who work for those publishers, while often moderately liberal on social issues, tend to be almost as conservative as their bosses when the subject turns to questions of business and economics.”
“My God,” Horace half howled. “I get so tired of hearing the right wing yakkers blathering on about the liberal media. They know it’s a lie. They have to know it. But they just keep shouting it day after day after day . . .”
“And it works,” groaned Winston. “It works like a freakin’ charm. Pick any guy off the street at random, any guy, I don’t care who, and ask him what he thinks . . . I’ll give you five-to-one odds he won’t even hesitate: Instead, he’ll just give you a dumbfounded look . . . you know, the sort of are you stupid mister look you might expect if you’d asked him if he believes in gravity. And then he’ll say, yes, of course, there’s a liberal media. That’s how obvious it will seem to him . . .”
“That’s how well the right has brainwashed our culture,” agreed Horace.
“And it doesn’t matter what the studies show,” Tom jumped back in. “It doesn’t matter that a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that during the closing weeks of the last presidential election campaign Bush was twice as likely as Gore to receive favorable coverage. It doesn’t matter that the magazine Editor & Publisher found in a survey that twice as many newspaper executives intended to endorse Bush as Gore, or even the fact that almost three times more newspaper publishers planned to vote for Bush as Gore.”
“And that’s okay,” said Horace in a voice that clearly implied that he didn’t think it was okay at all. “It’s their paper. If they decided last time to endorse the idiot son, I guess that was their right. If they want to do something even more idiotic . . . given what Bush has done during his first four years, and endorse the squirrelly little bastard again, that’s okay too. It’s their paper. I don’t begrudge them. But, God damn it, when it comes to the news itself, I damn well insist that they start telling the truth . . .”
“Amen,” said Winston.
“Amen, indeed,” said Tom. Then he added, “And just in case they can’t figure it out for themselves, let me remind them and their reporters of something: Telling the truth doesn’t mean reporting, ever so objectively, that the Democrats claim that Bush’s tax cuts primarily favor the wealthy, while the Republicans claim the opposite . . . Sorry guys, but pandering to liars isn’t being objective . . . I don’t know, sometimes I think the Washington press corps has lost it soul. Where, in the name of God, did they ever get the idea that treating a plain truth and a plain lie as though they were indistinguishable, two equal sides to the same whole, somehow constitutes truthful reporting. And . . .”
” . . . And if that’s what they think,” Winston broke in, “then they ought to go home to their mommas and discuss the basics of right and wrong, ‘cause somewhere along the line they missed the lesson.”
“And sure enough,” said Horace, his voice now sadder, less angry, “we have just heard from the Congressional Budget Office that — shock upon shock — Bush’s tax cuts have shifted the tax burden away from the wealthy and right onto the backs of the middle class. Who’d of guessed?”
Tom was turning beet red. “And it doesn’t stop there,” he roared. “Also hot off the presses is a report from the Census Bureau, which also proves something we already knew . . . The income gap between the rich and the rest of us has been growing over the last two decades.” Tom, who’s brain holds onto economic statistics the way some boys hold onto batting averages, then quoted the numbers. “In 1973, the wealthiest 20 percent of households claimed 44 percent of total U.S. income. By 2002, their share had jumped to 50 percent, while every other group had lost ground . . .”
“They’re stealing our country from us,” Horace half whispered. “They’re stealing our children’s and grandchildren’s futures. And the Fourth Estate, the people who are supposed to protect us . . . gosh, I guess they just can’t be bothered.”
Winston’s voice was deep with sarcasm, “Come on now, you’re being unfair. After all, we had OJ and JonBenet Ramsey and Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson . . . So much important stuff to report. No time for trifles like the death of the American middle class.”
“And what’s particularly galling,” grimaced Horace, “is that it was all right there in front of their eyes — every bit of it: The truth wasn’t just plain to see, it was bundled up for them like a Christmas present. That woman . . . you remember, Zach, the woman in the forest giving the great speech about economic inequality that no one could hear . . . ?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Well, she was really there. She’s still there today, in the person of hundreds of experts who have been raising the alarm for decades about what’s happening to the middle class and the poor in this country . . . but like that tree falling in the forest, no one could hear. Instead, whenever we turned on the television, or opened up the morning paper, or listened to the radio, or read a news magazine there was TimeWarner, General Electric, Viacom, Liberty Media, AT&T, News Corporation, Bertelsmann, Vivendi Universal, Sony and all the rest waiting to tell us that all was right with the world. That we need only pray ever so humbly before the Great God of the Market, and all will be well . . .”
Horace paused for a moment before adding, “Truly, a lie for the ages.”
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001