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by Joe Bevilacqua
Monday, Jul. 14, 2003 at 7:10 PM
"The media is kind of weird these days on politics," former Vice President Al Gore is quoted as saying in the June 30, 2003 issue of Time Magazine. "There are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party."
"Fox News Network, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh -- there's a bunch of them," Gore continued, "and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media."
The Time article revealed Gore's desire to start a liberal cable TV network, something already in the works on the radio side.
AnShell Media, led by Anita and Sheldon Drobny, is an investor group who have financially supported Democratic candidates. Investing million to seed a liberal radio network with Saturday Night Live alumnus Al Franken as its centerpiece, AnShell hopes to counter the influence of Right-wingers such as Limbaugh.
"We have a media landscape in the United States today that is unbalanced," says AnShell Media CEO Jon Sinton. "It's actually disgraceful. It's a very difficult and hostile landscape for a Progressive, Moderate, Liberal or anything but fire-breathing, reactionary Right-wing talk host to get clearance on."
According to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, the top five radio station owners currently control 45 powerful, 50,000-watt or better, radio stations. On those stations, on any given Monday through Friday, you can find 310 hours of nationally-syndicated Right-wing talk. As for liberal talk, you'll find a total of five hours, three of which feature the moderate Alan Colmes as part of Conservative Sean Hannity's show.
There's no successful precedent for AnShell to follow. Recent attempts at liberal media programming have failed. Phil Donahue's MSNBC program was canceled after only six months, and liberal radio hosts Jim Hightower and Mario Cuomo have faired no better. Left-leaning alternative broadcasters, such as Pacifica, Free Speech Radio and WorldLink TV, have relatively small audiences compared to their Right-leaning counterparts -- Clear Channel, ABC Talk Radio and Fox News.
Critics argue that the media deregulation begun in the 1980s during the Reagan Administration has led to a slow but steady consolidation of media control. Some say that has meant the death of local programming, that now fewer and fewer voices are being heard, and it has led to an enhanced ability to use television and radio as a propaganda tool for the conservative Right.
Danny Schechter, a television producer, independent filmmaker and Co-Founder of Globlevision, says that allowing media companies to own as many outlets as they want and virtually eliminating the "Fairness Doctrine" that regulated equal time for opposing viewpoints, set the stage for right-wing dominance.
"The emergence of the Murdoch Empire, Fox, and a whole strategy of polarization... polarize people. 'You're either with us or against us,' as President Bush says. Polarizing people in a way that in a sense intimidates the center, tries to move the center to the right and this is what has happened," Schechter says.
Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy concludes, "The real failure of the Left is to not pay attention to media mergers generally and media policies specifically."
The days of the smoke-filled back rooms where deals are made solely by political honchos are in the past. Political battles now are waged through media dominance, by convincing the public of your chosen message. The Right wing is good at this; the Left is not.
"New politics is media politics," says Danny Schechter, "What I call a mediaocracy, has replaced democracy. Most political candidates spend most of their time raising money to buy air-time, because the only way they can get on the air is through a commercial, which is often the most manipulative form of communication."
Schechter says that the Right blamed the so-called Liberal media for a number of landmark setbacks: the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater for President, public sentiment against the Viet Nam War, and the Watergate Scandal. They sought to gain media power legislatively through deregulation.
Meanwhile, media outlets were moving away from investigative journalism toward a kind of entertainment news.
"This was a structural change that favored conservatives in many ways," Schechter says. "The debate type talk shows were replaced by a kind of Shout shows," more entertainment oriented-Crossfire, where right wing was [Pat] Buchanan and the left wing was a former CIA director. In other words, things tilted right and this effected the culture of the liberal media and it allowed the more conservative media to frame what most of the issues were."
Both Schechter and Chester complain that Democrats have too long ignored the slow deterioration of laws curbing media ownership. And Chester believes liberal and mainstream foundations have been reluctant to take on powerful corporate media interests.
"They are often concerned," he says, "that doing so will affect their overall relations with the media, including getting PR for their other efforts. The media industry also does a good job schmoozing the same foundations. Chester says, "there is a lack of vision and leadership at most foundations. Consequently, they have failed to understand the role that communications policy plays in promoting democratic values."
"But now they have an opportunity," Chester continues, "during this transition to a full digital system where the Internet and the television are merging, to do so."
But it may already be too late to close the Pandora's Box. On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission, run by Michael Powell (son of Colin), voted on new rules to further ease media ownership restrictions in the U.S. This will result in the concentration of media ownership into even fewer hands.
As Jeffrey Chester recently wrote with AlterNet's executive editor, Don Hazen:
It will then soon be possible for a single conglomerate to control most of a community's major media outlets, including cable systems and broadband Internet service providers. There will be fewer owners nationally of all major media outlets of communications. Right-wing powerhouses are also likely to grow more powerful soon, unless opposed. Meanwhile, liberals -- let alone progressives -- have no ownership influence over any major media outlet.
In a recent Op-Ed, Eli Pariser, editor of MoveOn.org, wrote that under the new rules, "One company could be allowed to own ABC, CBS and NBC. Almost certainly, media companies will be allowed to own newspapers and TV stations in the same town. We could be entering a new era of media megaliths."
To understand just how concentrated media ownership has become in just a few years, consider that today Clear Channel Communications owns more than 1,200 radio stations, turning the nation's commercial radio system into, what Chester and Hazen call "a wasteland of conformity and commercialism. In contrast, in 1996, the combined total of the number of stations owned by the two largest radio chains was a mere 115."
According to Pariser, "There are only a third as many owners of newspapers and TV stations as there were in the 1970s (about 600 now; over 1,500 then). It's harder and harder for Americans to find out what's going on in their own back yards."
"It's not a conspiracy," explains Chester. "What these giant corporations have been able to do is simply come in and buy their way into control of the nation's media system. The basic reaction of the public interest community at the national level over the last 10 years, for example, has been to relatively ignore these issues. Often times you see huge amounts of corporate foundation money going into important liberal constituencies, including civil rights constituencies which have neutralized the ability of advocates to make meaningful progress. So it's not a conspiracy. It's more a tragedy."
Bob Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, believes, "It's not that the corporate media is so conservative but there is no liberal equivalent that helps liberals, that arms liberals with how to make their argument."
"You've got now [Rush] Limbaugh and Clear Channel and places that enormously, effectively train conservatives in how to make their case. So if you're a conservative. You can go a hundred places on the dial and you can find somebody who basically is giving you pure message. They're telling you, 'Here's how you make your case against liberals on the war, on the economy, on tax cuts, on this, on that, etc. And they're doing it in kind of pure unvarnished fashion and their doing it again and again and again. So if you're a conservative over the fence or in the bar when you're talking to your buddies, you're very confident you can make your argument. You've heard it before. You've heard people that you respect say it. You've got one-liners you've learned. You've got stories you're telling and you're sharing an e-mail with your friends. Etc. Etc. Etc."
Jon Sinton thinks the right-left imbalance is bad for democracy. He thinks that AnShell Media can help fill the void with a liberal radio network that runs original programming from six a.m. to midnight, and repeats in the overnight.
"We have had an outpouring of talented people who want to be involved at all levels of the operation from talent to production to research to booking to sales and engineering. We are still trying to arrange financing. It's a very expensive proposition, as you might guess, and that's where we are today."
Sinton hopes to get the network up and running on satellite radio and terrestrial radio stations by January 2004 if not before so as not to miss the start of the Presidential election cycle. Listeners can expect a more diverse programming schedule than can now be found on right-leaning radio stations, says Sinton.
"Salted throughout the day will be ninety-second commentaries. Vice President Gore has consented to lend his opinion on occasion, as have some amazing names from the world of politics, business, education, science, sports. Some [shows] will be more traditional, extemporaneous, listener involved talk format, but others will be magazine in nature with produced reportage and quite a bit of produced political satire."
In addition to Al Franken, AnShell is close to deals with comedian-activist Janeane Garafolo, and with Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary in Bill Clinton's second term.
Conservative pundit Jon Talton, recently wrote why he thinks liberal radio will fail: "Limbaugh is funny, attractive and principled. His views are closely argued and reasoned, and supported by extensive, if selective, research. Even his anger is carefully calibrated on a menu that serves exquisite parody, optimism and celebration of American bootstrapping. One result is that Limbaugh's audience members believe they are part of an intellectual enterprise, learning things they would never find in the mainstream networks and press. But even many liberals listen to the show for its entertainment value. Until liberalism can move beyond the dreary tut-tutting of its contemporary message, it won't attract a wide audience."
Whether or not liberal television and radio networks can succeed in the current political and financial climate remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the June 2nd FCC ruling will make it more difficult. There are some encouraging signs, however, with a movement within Congress to roll back some of the new rules, and a grassroots effort being spearheaded by public interest groups like Common Cause, Consumers Union, Free Press and the Center for Digital Democracy.
"This is one of the most critical times," concludes Jeffrey Chester, "and there's reason to be optimistic. Anti-globalization folks, folks disgusted with Clear Channel, the Iraq war coverage, Michael Powell and media industry excess. We need these folks working together, to have more folks involved with media activism. We're talking about an ideology that promotes civic engagement and discourse, cultural expression, as well as dissent. There's an audience out there for us. If we don't act now, we will be, as a community, further marginalized from the mainstream political culture in the 21st Century."
Joe Bevilacqua is an award-winning radio dramatist and documentarian whose work has aired on NPR, PRI, and internationally.
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