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Free Press or Death

Once it was my job to monitor all three of the network nightly news shows. Not as punishment, but as a way for the presidential campaign…

  • Mike Webb
June 5, 2008

Once it was my job to monitor all three of the network nightly news shows.  Not as punishment, but as a way for the presidential campaign that I worked for to keep track of what was and was not getting covered.  It was interesting to see which stories they covered, how they covered them and where, in their programs, they placed them.  But I was often disappointed to see that networks tend to consider things like 120 second consumer report segments more newsworthy than, say, a presidential candidate’s universal health care proposal.

Twenty million people get their “news” from network broadcasts each day.  I—and everyone else—had to come to grips with the fact that these shows have lots of power to sway public opinion.  But in an ever expanding media merger landscape where General Electric’s outlets (get it—"outlets"!) don’t spend a lot of time reporting on the enormous amounts of money our government spends on the defense industry, people have to be careful about the news nutrients they consume.

Fortunately, the public craves solid food for thought.  A recent study by the Associated Press (done not so much to improve the actual content, but to figure out how to market the content to 18–34 year olds) shows that “participants yearned for quality and in-depth reporting but had difficulty immediately accessing such content because they were bombarded by facts and updates in headlines and snippets of news.”  (No idea why “facts” interfere with the audience’s ability to decipher the news, but I have good news for these folks: Newshour and Bill Moyers Journal, among others, are just what they’re looking for!).

More worrisome still, the “Big Six” corporations that control most of what we see on network TV (GE, Time Warner, Walt Disney, News Corp. Viacom and CBS), have donated more than $127 million in the last decade just to the Democratic and Republican National Committees alone (this does not include donations to individual candidates).  With all the influence the Big Six already have, you wouldn’t think they would need to buy even more influence.  But I guess you gotta spend money to make it okay for you to drown out any competing voices.

My point?  As John Nichols and Robert McChesney explain, we’ve reached a crucial moment in the battle to maintain an independent, free and substantive press.  Grassroots groups and the general public have waged a remarkable campaign to prevent the FCC from handing over more power to the predominant purveyors of news and information in America.  But we must continue to be vigilant by participating in FCC media ownership hearings or we’ll hear fewer voices and certainly less diverse ones, above the crackle of breaking news from the Brangelina front.

The Brennan Center’s work on democracy issues is vital.  But a free press is fundamental to a fully functioning democracy—it’s no accident that it’s written into the very first amendment. An uninformed electorate will likely make bad choices.  Instead of following this ridiculous suggestion to institute a voter qualification test which could take voting rights away from people, let’s do our best to make sure the media stays free, diverse, and relevant so that everyone gets the information they need.

Mike Webb is a hypocritical New York elitist who, in his publicity job, feeds at the trough of the news industry.