Welcome. I want to welcome everybody here this evening on behalf of Bob Kerrey, the President of the New School and myself, Steven Schlesinger, Director of the World Policy Institute, to this very special forum, entitled, "Big Media: The Fox Effect and Journalism Today." The World Policy Institute takes great pride in hosting events of global significance, and this is certainly one of them.
For this evening's panel discussion and movie, we'll be examining issues that go to the very heart of our American democracy, assessing how they influence the way our country conducts itself both at home and abroad. The vital question at hand is how to guarantee fair media coverage that can enable our citizens to make up their own minds over the great matters of our time in a society dominated by just a few media conglomerates. I'm not going to say much more at this point, so we can get the program moving right along. But I do want to thank Radiah Dove and my own staff for outstanding efforts in putting this affair together. And of course, I want to express my gratitude to the staff of the Center for American Progress including Raj Goyle and Anna Soellner, and its President, John Podesta, as well as to Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect, for organizing this very important symposium. Finally, I want to remind those of you who will not hear this panel tonight, that you can listen to it live, or later taped on the University's website on www.dialnsa.edu.
I now have the pleasure of turning the microphone over to Michael Tomasky, one of the other co-editors of the America Prospect.
Thank you, Steve. Good evening friends, fellow Americans, a special welcome to the News Corporation lawyers in the audience. I'm sure … (thank you, in the audience) Yes, you're quite welcome. And you are very welcome, we're trying … (laughter) … (response in crowd) hey…do I recognize that voice?
Is Dick Cheney in the audience?
No, we're trying, we're actually trying to be open-minded here. We tried quite hard to get a conservative on this panel. Rajeev Goyle from the Center for American Progress would agree with me that he and Eric and I had a couple conversations going through a long list of names. We couldn't think of many conservatives who found media concentration very alarming. Go figure. But we did try.
I'll be very brief. We're, we're late getting started, and I know you want to hear the panel, and I know that you certainly want to see the film, and I think you're in for a treat. I just want to say briefly about the American Prospect's involvement in this, which I just happen to have right here. This is the July issue of our magazine. The cover story is on another topic, but the media concentration story is in here. I hope you'll be able to pick it up, I was told there were thousands of copies out there in the hallway. And I hope you'll trip across one and I hope you'll be able to pick it up and read the package in which Paul Starr and Arianna are featured, along with Jim Fallows, who couldn't make it tonight, and the main piece, by Robert McChesney, who also is on the west coast and couldn't make it. But it's a terrific package, and a great piece of journalism by Bob. And it actually changed my mind a little bit as I was editing it and reading it because when it came in and when Raj called me initially to ask me about doing this, I was happy to do it, we are always happy to work with the Center on whatever we can. But I was, frankly, a little bit dubious about, the whole prospect. Of course I am concerned about media concentration, but I wasn't very hopeful that anything much could be done about it. And as I read Bob McChesney's piece, I thought, "well, actually, maybe there is something that can be done about it." And I think you'll think the same as you read the article, and, and perhaps as you hear our panelists talk tonight. So, thank you all, and here is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta.
I want to thank Steve Schlesinger and Mike Tomasky, and welcome you to tonight's program. I have a couple of announcements in addition to the fire marshals, please turn your cell phones off…and as the fire marshal said, you cannot scream but you can cheer if you hear something you like.
As I was preparing to be here, I was reminded of a wonderful passage from Thomas Jefferson, who once observed that, "the press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, improving him as a rational, moral and social being." Now, to be completely candid, there were days when I served in the White House where that proposition tested my beliefs. And I am sure there were days when it tested President Jefferson's when he was in the White House. But at its heart, I think that observation's still powerfully true. But in reading those words again, I could only wonder what Jefferson would have made of Ruport Murdoch's News Corporation. What would Jefferson or any of the founders make of a company like Clear Channel with its 1200 television stations, or for that matter, its brand new editorial policy with regard to bill-boards? What would they think of the fact that even though Americans have more TV channels than ever to choose from, three-quarters of us are seeing content that's generated by only 5 different media companies? And what would any of them say of a broadcaster whose influence is so great, but journalist ethics are so feeble, that 48% of its viewers believe a war was justified because of an event that never occurred?
Well, I think we've all got a pretty good idea of what they would say and that's why we're here this evening. We're here because we understand that the media as it's owned and organized today bears only the faintest resemblance to that Jeffersonian vision. We're here because instead of being an uplifting force of enlightenment, media conglomerates today are sometimes the exact opposite.
I think this is hardly a new phenomenon. Long before Fox or Clear Channel, there was one William Randolph Hearst. You may have heard the old story of how in 1897 Frederick Remington, the artist and illustrator, was sent on assignment to Cuba for Hearst's New York Journal. Remington was supposed to cover the uprising against Spanish colonial rule. According to at least one account, Remington wanted to return home and sent Hearst a telegram from Havana which said "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return." Hearst's supposed reply was, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."
Today of course, we don't have Hearst New York Journal, we have the New York Post. (Holds up Post front page.) For those of you in the back, this is a picture of Vice President Gephardt with President Kerry. (Laughter.) Now, at least Hearst could deliver up the news he made up. The British Political Theorist, Harold Laski, once said that "a people without reliable news are, sooner or later, a people without the basis of freedom." And I think Jefferson would have agreed with that and I think the people on this panel would agree with that.
And I want to get to that. I want to welcome and introduce our moderator for this evening, Eric Alterman. Eric is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, but more importantly, he is the most senior senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School. He is the author of four books, including "What Liberal Media?" Eric, take it away.
Thank you. I'm very pleased about this event, for a lot of reasons. One of them is, as John said, I get to wear two of my hats at once. And I'm often divided between my loyalties. I was telling Arthur Schlesinger today at lunch — I feel divided loyalty between the World Policy Institute, with which I have been associated for nineteen years, and the Center for American Progress, which pays me, and its hard to…it's actually not that hard, if you can tell. But, it's pleasing not to have to decide between them.
Another reason why I'm really happy with this event and the way it's turned out, is I think it's a really smart event. Our side, and when I say our side, I mean liberals, liberal journalists and journalists. And I don't, you don't have to be liberal to be a good journalist. But, both sides, both liberals and journalists, just professional journalists have been under attack by this incredibly well-funded, well-organized, well-disciplined right-wing machine for the past 30 or 40 years. And the response to this attack has been, up until about two or three years ago, extremely tepid. I would say up until really Florida when people started to wake up. And I would imagine, I won't ask for a show of hands, but I would imagine that there are a few of you here who are here to see a movie, rather than necessarily to hear a bunch of really interesting scholars or writers talk about media concentration, but you're going to get both anyway and you're going be better for it. And when you leave, and when you leave, you're going to be a much better citizen and you're going to go out there and do what you should have done in the first place. And we didn't used to know how to do this kind of thing. We didn't used to have filmmakers like Robert Greenwald and this guerrilla distribution technique, and we didn't have institutes working together, we didn't have MoveOn, we didn't have Liberal Radio, we didn't have all these blogs, we didn't, we didn't, we didn't know how to respond. And I think that this is a response that will serve, whatever your politics are, it serves the republic that so many people would come out and discuss what is a very complicated but very significant issue. So thank you everybody for coming.
Now, nobody told me this, do you have these? (Holding up program book.) Everybody got these? So I don't need to do long introductions. I'll skip that. I want to begin this way. And I'll explain to you my thinking because we have no secrets in this room. I'm going to begin with Paul Starr, who's just written a terrific book called Creation of the Media, and he is going to give us a little historical perspective on how this moment in the history of media and media concentration fits into the continuum of the past. Then, I'm going to turn to John Nichols, who is here both as John Nichols and Robert McChesney who couldn't be here. John and Robert together are the founders of a really cool organization that I rely on — Free Press — but never can remember the name of. And John is going to bring us up to the moment in terms of the creation of this really exciting movement that has had an enormous amount — I think all us would admit that none of us expected that the media concentration movement would be as successful and powerful as it is. And it is, to tell you the truth, it is one of the inspirations for this project at the Center — it's, just, sort of the idea that this was something we hadn't anticipated and it would be a good idea to learn more about it and try to help along with whatever we can.
Then I'm going to ask Arianna to make her always unique and pithy and well-spoken observations. Arianna's got to go early, she's doing us a favor by being here when she's got a plane to make and she shouldn't really be here. She's, I'm offering her apologies for her.
And then I'm going to call on Dean Lemann, with the idea, Dean, that I get the feeling you're a little more skeptical about the importance of this problem or the ability, from reading your piece, and reading your other work, that you're not as excited about this as we are, and I think we could use some of your intellectual discipline so that we can understand this in a more perspicacious fashion, and hone our response. If we can't convince you by the evening, we'll have to invite you back continually until we can — although maybe we'll want to show a different movie next time. Anyway, take it away Paul Starr.
Thank you, Eric= What great company this is this evening. The right wing press lord is not a new figure in American politics or in the American media. During the 1930s, liberals on the left were just as upset about William Randolph Hearst as we may be about Rupert Murdoch and Fox. And in fact, that outrage led to a movie, in 1941. Orson Welles made it — Citizen Kane — a pretty heavy precedent for Robert Greenwald to match. But what's the difference? Why is the situation today any worse than it was in the past? Is it anymore disturbing? I think there are four changes that do make this situation today more of a problem.
In 1941, Hearst's newspapers represented only a small fraction of total newspaper circulation in America. The vast majority of newspapers still were independently owned. And perhaps more important, the publishers who controlled newspapers were different from the people who controlled radio, who were different from the people who ran the movies. Today, of course, we have companies that span the media, Murdoch's News Corp, Viacom, Disney, Time-Warner.
There really wasn't anything like that in decades past. There was a good deal of concentration in radio specifically, but here's the second difference between then and now. In 1941, the New Deal, Roosevelt's FCC, was trying to limit media power. In fact, in 1941 the FCC promulgated the first of the ownership limits' on radio stations and it set up the rule that led to the break-up of NBC into two parts; that's what resulted in ABC. Now, today, of course, we have exactly the opposite administration, one whose decisions lead to increased concentration of media power.
A third difference: intellectual property law. Very relevant, I'm afraid, to some questions swirling about this movie. During recent decades, Congress and the courts have tremendously increased the duration and the scope of copyrighting, and that expansion of intellectual property rights has gone so far that it now threatens freedom of expression because creative and critical work so often depend on being able to use and transform elements of the existing culture. And the problem is all the more serious because so much of our culture today is owned by a handful of companies, potentially giving those companies, such as News Corp, the ability to suppress criticism of their practices. And it is the combination of changing copyright law and more concentrated ownership of the culture that makes these developments so dangerous to free speech and both politics and the arts.
Fourth: the intensification of partisanship in the media. Several developments since the late 1980s have combined to set-off a sharp increase in the sort of ideological intensity in the media today. And the key elements were, first of all, the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which allowed broadcast stations to be more one-sided, and then the increase of TV channels, which created an incentive for ideological product differentiation. And finally, the battle for the control of public opinion between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, in a country which is now so evenly matched, that not just the 2004 election, but Congress and so forth, teeter in the balance. And so that battle has spilled over into the media. Now I don't think there's anything wrong with partisan journalism, ideological journalism. I was co-editor of the American Prospect. I certainly couldn't hold that view. But I do worry, because our side doesn't have the financial strength, it doesn't have the base that the conservatives do. And so it's not actually an even fight. And until recently, also, our side has been entirely too timid, and even-handed in responding to the attacks on us. So, we need more of the vitality that I think we are going to see in the movie tonight, that we've been seeing in movie theaters with Fahrenheit. And I hope we've turned a corner even though we face deep structural problems.
I'm always troubled when I'm on a panel and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Al Franken are in the audience. Something in the world is out of order. But, I am delighted to be here, and I'm delighted to be in New York City. I'm from rural Wisconsin, so I don't get to the big city much. But I'm always reminded of the fact that we're told that if a nuclear bomb were to hit a big city, what would remain were the rats. And, in my view, the equivalent of a nuclear bomb has hit journalism, and it's not that big a surprise that Rupert Murdoch is thriving. I make that comparison not to suggest that Rupert Murdoch is a rat, although I think Robert may do that later. Rather, I make the suggestion because it is important to understanding what's going on in our media today and having some perspective on Rupert Murdoch, Fox, and the overall crisis of our media. Rupert Murdoch is not Dr. Strangelove, and Fox is not the bomb. Rather, they are what remain after you destroy basic standards within journalism and the basic structures that control against media monopoly, consolidation, and concentration. Murdoch is not the crisis. He is a symptom of the crisis. And the crisis is so severe at this point that even journalists have started to recognize it. In fact, as I point to our panel — and I say this hoping for kind treatment, I am a graduate of your fine institution, along with Pat Buchanan…
But what people need to understand is that over the last 25 years in particular, Congress and the FCC have been engaged in a radical rewriting of the rules for ownership of, consolidation of relationships between media outlets. And that radical rewriting — pushed by people like Murdoch, but certainly not by him alone — has created a media system that is defined by bigness. And bigness, by its nature, is anti-journalism. In fact, Jefferson and Madison understood that very well. Their concern was always with issues of ownership, and always with issues of diversity. They wanted to make sure that there were as many people communicating as possible. Madison had a proposal — typical of Madison — that the government should provide each side of an issue with the paper and the means to print, and then allow the two sides to put their views there, and then the government would distribute that. One of the first debates in the Continental Congress was about whether you would charge anything for mailing a publication. The divide was between Alexander Hamilton, who suggested that, yeah you should have a little bit of a charge, you know, otherwise anybody will go do it, and Madison, Patrick Henry, others, who argued that there should be no charge at all, because there should be absolutely no economic limitation on the ability of citizens to communicate their ideas and to create media.
Now, obviously we've moved to a place now where there are absolute economic controls on the ability of citizens to create media. We have one of the most heavily regulated medias in the developed world. The problem is that it is regulated, at virtually every turn, to reward large media companies, and to allow them to get larger. The problem with this is that large media companies by their nature are less interested in ideas and journalism than they are in making money. That's a natural progression. And, when you get to that, you change your values a lot. Civic and democratic values, a sense of the importance of real debate, real discussion, are replaced by commercial and entertainment values. We see that writ large across our media today. Big media no longer goes to the end of the earth to find a story. They're much more interested in putting on talking heads to talk about the story. Why? Because it doesn't cost much to put talking heads on TV. So thus you have television program after television program where people debate what's going on, but they don't actually have reporters who actually go out and look at it, talk about it, kind of dig in to the story. The worst part of it all is that what they do talk about is not meaningful. It is in fact meaningless. And, there is a push to go for that which is appealing. And so you end up with a situation where we know far more about Laci Peterson than we know about why health care costs are rising. We know far more about — well, let me put it this way — there are millions of Americans, including apparently our vice president, who think that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. That was not put there by any reporter. There wasn't a reporter that went out and proved that. It's there because you have so-called "news programs," in which people just actually just flat out say, "yeah, there was a connection, or there was something going on there," or they create the suggestion…
I'm going to slow you down, because I want — by the way, that figure is 70% when we went to war. I'm going to slow you down just because we started a little late. Can you turn to the part of the discussion where you just catch us up on the movement that this has brought into being.
What it all feeds into is a situation where you have an immense number of people in this country who feel incredibly angry with their media, and feel incredibly disconnected from it. They don't feel they are getting information from it anymore. They don't feel that it is serving a small-d democratic or civic purpose. It is actually lying to them. Or, at best, not providing them with what they need. And, I'll disagree with one thing that one of our introducers said, that they didn't expect to see conservatives in the audience. I don't think this is a conservative or liberal issue. What we have seen is that there is huge concern across the political spectrum, and one of the reasons for that — one of the reasons why Michael Moore's movie is so successful — is because people don't feel they are getting core information from media anymore. They feel that what they're getting is entertainment, and sometimes a sort of hyperventilating patriotism that doesn't go to the core issues.
So, about a year ago, a little over a year ago, the FCC, headed by Michael Powell, who got his position in the old-fashioned way, by being the son of someone powerful, decided to implement a series of rule changes — radical rule changes — that would allow big media to get dramatically bigger. At the time it was assumed that the rule changes would go through with little complaint, and it would be like every other rule change in recent years. Instead, we saw a dramatic outpouring of anger and opposition. More than 700,000 communicated with the FCC, more than 2 million people have communicated with Congress. And, after the FCC approved the rule changes, the Congress — both the House and the Senate, in different forms — voted to overrule them. We now have a court in Philadelphia that has actually put them on hold, sent them back to the FCC, and said, "you can't go ahead with this." The reason all of this has happened is not because Congress and the Courts suddenly woke up to the fact that media was a problem. The reason it happened is because people started organizing around media as an issue. And this is the dramatic change. And I'll leave it with this.
In recent years, the last few decades, media policy in this country has been made behind closed doors, in our name but without our informed consent, by people who are supremely self-interested, including Rupert Murdoch. The people have not been a part of that discussion at all. What has happened in the last year — and I think largely because of the war in Iraq and because of a deep anger among a lot of people about the horrendous coverage leading up to the war — an awful lot of people have been engaged in that media debate. And they have shoved doors open, and said, "we want to be a part of this discussion. We think that there ought to be some public interest concern here. We think that there ought to be some values beyond just making big media more profitable." And there has been a tremendous success in that regard, but the success is only a beginning.
We haven't really won any fights yet. We've stopped something bad from happening. We've stopped the FCC rule changes — which were radical, and would have allowed big media to get bigger — but what we need to do now, as citizens, is to get dramatically more involved in the fight to reverse the pattern that is currently in existence. And the only way we are going to do that is if we have a different FCC, not with the current leadership, and a different Congress, that is more interested in saying, you know, look, we want a media system in this country that certainly makes a profit for the owner, but also is profitable to society and democracy. That's the radical change that we need. And I think Robert's film is a part of taking apart one aspect of media. What you need to do is always remember that Rupert Murdoch is not the be-all and end-all of what is wrong with media. He is simply the embodiment of a crisis that we all need to get involved with.
So, Eric said that they couldn't find any conservatives to be on the panel, so they got me, a reformed conservative who saw the light. I agree with what John and Bob write in the magazine, but I also say that it is not enough to talk about rewiring the hardware, about the FCC, about media concentration. We also need to talk about the software: I mean, what's happening to journalism, what's happening to journalists. What are we doing about giving journalism a spine transplant in this country? Because look at, for example, the way, as John mentioned, the lead-up to the war in Iraq was covered: one of the most shameful moments in American journalism. But look also right now to the way the CIA report is being covered. I mean, this is one of the greatest, most devastating scandals in American history. And, are you getting that sense by opening up your newspapers every morning? Are you getting that sense by watching CNN?
I think one of the problems with journalism is that it's suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. So, basically, a story is covered, and then they move on to the other story. Sometimes the story is covered and covered and covered… Remember Kosovo? It was so covered that CNN had its own music for Kosovo: it was, "duh-duh-duh-duh-duh Kosovo," then they actually recycled that music and it became "duh-duh-duh-duh-duh Iraq." But, what happened to Kosovo now? I mean, how many people even in this extremely well-informed audience know how bad things are in Kosovo. It's suddenly off the radar screen of journalism. And one of the reasons for that is the fact that journalism has become so poll-driven.
I heard Paul say that we are an evenly divided country, and every time I hear that I must say I cringe. Because we are not an evenly divided country. We are only an evenly divided country if you exclude the 50% of eligible voters who refuse to vote. And mainstream journalism has now accepted this as a fact of life. Every time you hear we are an evenly divided country, please remember it's not true. Because, we cannot really be a thriving democracy and accept the fact that 100 million people will never vote again, which is the only way that we are an evenly divided country. But, see, we Greeks gave you democracy. And you've screwed it up. And I for one am not willing to accept this fact. But we have an endless series of facts like that being repeated endlessly on cable news, until, like the link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, they become absolutely accepted by large majorities. We also have, I basically refuse to watch them. When Kobe Bryant or Laci Peterson come on, I switch channels, and even if the only thing left for me to watch is the golf channel, that's where I'm going, and I don't play golf. But, this is the only thing we have left to actually do anything about this relentless triviality of the media, and the unwillingness to weigh what matters and what doesn't matter. The other problem with the overemphasis on polling is that often, journalism and the way politicians are covered is driven by their poll numbers. Do you remember those days when George Bush was hovering around 77%? There was a sudden reverence on behalf of journalism. Well, if his approval rating is over 70%, we can't really ask him any tough questions at the press conference. And I'm not saying that they actually think that way, but they act that way. It took his approval ratings dropping, before journalists started asking any tough questions. And that is another shameful way in which journalists are operating.
And, let me just say something about Outfoxed, which I watched yesterday since I won't be able to watch it tonight. Now, Outfoxed should have come out by mainstream journalism. Why wasn't any of the publications dealing with journalism… Why didn't they do an expose of Fox long before Robert Greenwald? Why didn't they find the memos that Robert Greenwald has? I mean, just that one memo that you are going to see there that says, basically, that we don't need to mourn too much the loss of American life, and then you see the same talking points in the memos repeated by anchor after anchor. Why didn't that surface in a different way than through Robert Greenwald's movie. That is a great indictment of the priorities of our journalists.
But let me end on an optimistic note. I believe that the media activism that is upon us through the blogosphere — through blogs, through kind of the relentless pursuit of a story — is where hope lies. If you remember the Trent Lott story, as just one example, there were many journalists, many mainstream media present when Trent Lott gave that racist speech at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. ABC showed it, actually, at 4:30 in the morning, and then did not show it again, not on Good Morning America, not on anything. It took George Marshall, and other bloggers, to stay on this story relentlessly, until Trent Lott had to resign. And that's the power of the blogs. That's the power of the internet. And that's really why, ultimately, there is hope. Because if journalists, whether in their blogs or in any publication, stay on with a story until there are results, then truly we can transform American journalism.
Nick, you can say whatever you want, but I have a question that I'd like you to keep in mind, which is: I wonder if anything you've heard tonight — in your capacity as dean of Columbia — strikes you as inappropriate criticism for journalism. In other words, are we asking journalism to be something it can't be and perhaps shouldn't be.
Let me sort of circle my way around to it. By the way, if you have a plane to catch, don't feel you have to stay to listen to me.
I will stay and listen to you. You may criticize me. I want to be here. (Laughter)
What I'd like to do is just raise a few points about which I think people are being a little too easy. But, before I do that, I want to raise a couple points where I heartily agree with what's been said. I'd rather speak as myself than as dean, because, you know, titles can't talk, and so on. The last thing I did before becoming dean was really cover the run-up to the war in Iraq. And I was quite profoundly disappointed with the general performance of my colleagues in the press, most of whom, when it counted, overwhelmingly were pro-war, didn't question the fundamental premises, and didn't get access to what we now know was readily available information that would have allowed for that questioning. I don't, by the way, think that that was… I think that's more of a sort of, anthropology of the Washington press corps phenomenon than an economic structure of the press phenomenon, but we'll leave that for later.
I also think — and this was in Mr. McChesney's article, and I really want to sign on to it big-time — that journalists are weirdly uncomfortable with this debate, and sort of absent from it. And journalists should be much more aggressively interested in the issue of media regulation and concentration. Why aren't they? Why aren't we? Again, I think it's a sort of an anthropological reason, or a reason having to do with the culture and psychology of journalists. Journalists like the idea of the heroic journalist who is the bringer of truth, and they are very uncomfortable with the idea that that person exists in a kind of web or context of arrangements: political arrangements, legal arrangements, economic arrangements, regulatory arrangements. So, it is intensely, sort of squirmingly uncomfortable for journalists to think — but we should think, we must start thinking hard and clearly about which arrangements are more friendly to journalism and which aren't. It's not — the most journalists are willing to do is say, "well, it's heroic journalists, I guess then we'll admit that it's good, hard-driving editors, and then I guess maybe we'll go one step further and admit that it's nice to have a benign owner, but that's about it. You know, don't talk to us about the FCC and the Commerce Committee, and so on." And that's really irresponsible of journalists, and we should sort of step up to the plate and engage.
Now, a few things that I want to just sort of raise some doubt about what seem to be too hasty assumptions.
One is, it hasn't been exactly stated, but sort of implied, that there was some golden age in the past when journalism was fabulous and now it's terrible. I mean, I feel this very strongly because what I happen to be doing right now is finishing a book about events in the year 1875, and I am in the middle of 1875 journalism, and it's not a pretty picture. The one pretty thing about it is that the quality of the prose is much, much higher than you read today. But, you know, it is heartbreaking to read — this is about the end of Reconstruction — to read, you know, the Nation, and the Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times saying it is not worth enfranchising Negro voters in the South, let's drop that… with passion.
I know the Nation at least has changed its position on that. I can't speak for the New York Times. (Laughter)
It has. They all have. But, you know, it's truly amazing how few voices other than maybe Frederick Douglass there were in the press that sound attractive today. During the period of Hearst's ascendancy, as Paul mentioned, he had a very small percent of the newspapers, but it should also be said that a huge majority of the newspapers, as you know, Arthur, were Republican and anti-Roosevelt with vehemence.
So, let's think about this as creation, not restoration, which I think leads to clearer thinking.
A couple of other things that I think are important distinctions to make. As John said briefly, but I just want to really hammer it home, the concentration issue is a bipartisan issue… "Bipartisan" sounds sort of goo-goo and neutral. It's a hotly partisan, ambidextrous issue, with a lot of conservatives, especially movement conservatives as passionate supporters of media de-concentration. What these people feel, you know, I would just sort of slightly mischievously note, only one of the big media companies has been mentioned on this panel so far. A lot of conservatives out there could have a panel like this where they say, you know, Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom are promoting a liberal agenda and we've got to break them up. What they mean by that is — and this is sort of the familiar paradox of American politics — they're thinking culturally more than politically, I think. They're thinking that these big media companies, their products emanate liberal culture in some way that is very hard to pin down but is very keenly felt by a lot of conservatives. Where I'm going with this is to say: don't assume that the victory of the media de-concentration forces will lead to either a decrease in conservative media or an increase in liberal media, or even a sort of political liberalization of the country. It could lead to more conservative media. There are a lot of conservatives out there in America, and a lot of them just burn with resentment against, you know, the big media companies, the media establishment companies.
So, I do think it's a good cause, but I think one should be careful about automatically assuming that it is a cause that will be friendly to liberalism. One other distinction that I want to draw, that I think is very important for everyone to think about, and particularly for journalists to think about: journalism is not a simple or easy thing. The truth is that we all talk about the line between news and entertainment. It's very hard to think of a news organization that we respect and love that doesn't have a single scintilla of entertainment. One thinks of the comic poems in the Nation, for example. Is that news or entertainment? And similarly, it's hard to think of a news organization that doesn't have a hint or trace of commercialism about it… You know, most do. If you de-concentrate the press massively, I think it will be a healthy thing for the country. It'll be a very healthy thing for free, open, less mediated political communication and debate in the country. What Arianna was talking about with blogs, you could see happening much, much more, particularly on cable television and on radio, and to some extent in newspapers as well. So, you could have a very rich brew of political opinion happening in the country, which as I say, won't necessarily be all liberal, probably won't be all liberal, could be mainly conservative. Something to think about.
There's another box that I don't want to set up neatly and call it journalism, but I want to sort of make a few cautionary points. If you think of something, just to pick an example close at hand, that wonderful New York Times series this week on railroad crossings, which is a real challenge to corporate interests and corporate power, presents a shocking picture I think will make a difference. It's really expensive to do that kind of thing. You have to send teams of reporters and pay them for long periods of time to do projects like that. You may have to have some institutional standing to go get a response from people in power. That clearly would have been helpful if the press had been more aggressive in the run-up to the war in Iraq. You might have to have a sort of trained force of journalists, but it certainly is capital intensive and labor intensive, and it's also nice to have the reach that the New York Times has. So, all I say is, don't assume that just by making a whole lot of bandwidth available for voices in the communications media, that that will necessarily lead to more of the kind of reporting — which is only one part of journalism, but it's a part dear to most of our hearts — that we admire.
I would propose in the debate — and this is sort of to close the circle — one reason why I think journalists should join this debate is, journalists should join this debate as being particularly interested in promoting reporting. What kind of structural and regulatory solutions would be most friendly to the kind of reporting exercises that not every blogger and radio host can do.
And I think I'll just end with the most uncomfortable possible truth for journalists, which is: it may be that federal compulsion is the thing — particularly in the realm of broadcasting — that would be most friendly to what most of us would think of as good journalism. And I do think there used to be more good journalism on TV, at least in documentaries, at least on the networks, and that was not just because Edward R. Murrow was a wonderful person, but because of federal compulsion. A tough thing for journalists to think about, but something that we should think about. I'll stop there.