Press faces new year of old problems

Tuesday, December 28, 1999

The American press shuffles into the new century heavily burdened by baggage from the final years of the old one.

Its legions of critics proclaimed that the press had hit rock bottom with the O.J. Simpson trial, then with the Princess Diana tragedy, then with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. But the less-spectacular missteps in daily performance rival even those hallmarks in cumulative damage. Complaints about its accuracy, invasiveness, superficiality, sensationalism and ethics jeopardize not only the press’s credibility but also its viability.

The bad news doesn’t take a holiday, either.

A few days ago, the venerable Los Angeles Times rent its raiment on the front page, confessing financial deals that breached the wall between the news and the advertising departments. That’s just the latest in a procession of the news media’s self-inflicted injuries: CNN apologized for its investigative piece on the possible use of nerve gas by the U.S. military on deserters; The Cincinnati Enquirer disavowed a major investigation of Chiquita Brands International; several major publications fired popular writers in a series of plagiarism scandals.

But the messenger shooting itself in the foot is not the only source of problems for the press.

The courts grow increasingly unsympathetic to free-press arguments. Juries punish libel defendants with ever-higher awards. Judges approve record numbers of subpoenas allowing prosecutors and defense attorneys to paw through journalists’ notes and tapes and newsroom files.

Corporations are increasingly aggressive and inventive in thwarting media scrutiny. Rather than go after the accuracy of the reports, they launch tort-based lawsuits attacking the journalists and their newsgathering practices. They launch massive public relations campaigns to neutralize negative coverage. They bring their own videographers in to record journalists’ interviews of their executives.

Leading political figures relentlessly bombard the press with blame for social and political ills and spew out a constant flow of proposals to bring it to heel.

Finally, there is a heightened public antipathy toward the press. National surveys show a staggering number of Americans who believe that the press has too much freedom.

These hard facts of life have spooked news-media leaders to the point that when it comes to legal or public relations battles, they have chosen to run rather than fight in several high-profile instances. Examples include payments by news organizations to Richard Jewell, The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s payment of $10 million to Chiquita, and the decision by “60 Minutes” executives to back off the airing of an anti-tobacco interview.

Even when the press fights and wins a legal battle, the victory is bittersweet because of the cost in time, money and resources. Or, as in the case of Food Lion’s lawsuit against ABC News, the appeals court reversal of a nasty jury verdict ruling offered cold comfort because although it may have let ABC off the hook, it didn’t preclude similar suits in the future.

How is the press confronting this dismal state of affairs?

Through a combination of ignorance and arrogance, most journalists, from the trenches to the executive suites, actually pay little heed. Fortunately, many do recognize the threat and are trying to reduce it. Editors and news directors struggle to improve journalistic and ethical standards in their own newsrooms. A significant number of broadcast and print operations have embraced public journalism as a way of connecting with the communities they serve. More than three dozen press organizations and foundations have launched media-credibility and fairness projects.

Those efforts may prove too little, too late — because there is an even deeper danger for the press than these immediate threats. Massive plates are shifting beneath the political, cultural and intellectual landscape that has until now proven stable terrain for press freedoms. This ominous movement is driven by an influential band of scholars, political leaders and others who are persuaded that the structure and goals of the commercial media are inimical to a truly democratic society.

They advance arguments for a radical reform in the American press. The proponents of these reforms are knowledgeable, thoughtful and insistent. They include Noam Chomsky, C. Edwin Baker and a host of others in the academic world. They include such public-sector luminaries as Ralph Nader and Bill Moyers. Leading political figures, including presidential candidates in both parties, pluck proposals from this media-reform agenda. Many of the proposed reforms were a part of the agenda of the so-called Gore Commission, which included a number of media executives.

For the most part, these proposals have been ignored by the press establishment. That is a huge mistake. The reforms they propose would radically change the press as we know it and would challenge the press’s claim to a secure First Amendment franchise.

So what exactly are these reform ideas and why should both the public and the press be concerned?

One of the most compelling voices in this movement is Robert C. McChesney, whose latest book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, asserts that democracy is in a decrepit state and that the media bear a huge portion of the blame as well as the responsibility for repairing it.

Here are some of the things McChesney prescribes as a remedy:

  • Increase broadcasters’ public-service obligations by taking four to six hours out of the “heart of the schedule” each day; use the “liberated” time for children’s programming and news and public affairs.
  • Secure similar public-service commitments from cable television.
  • To pay for the liberated time, impose a special tax on advertising or the sale of stations, or charge broadcasters “fair compensation” for the use of the public spectrum, or rent the spectrum.
  • Require free air time for political candidates.
  • Prohibit all paid television advertising for candidates, or provide equal time to opponents of candidates who do buy commercial time.
  • Reduce general advertising, ban advertising directed at children, and replace the lost income with taxes and government subsidies.
  • Guarantee universal public access for the Internet, either at low rates or for free.
  • Repeal the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and replace it “with a law that reflects not just the interests of Washington’s corporate lobbying superstars but the informed consent of the bulk of the citizenry.”
  • Enact a new antitrust law that breaks up the largest media firms and establishes more-competitive markets.

Dismantling the current media structure is a key component of this program because that is the best way to create a new media structure that will properly serve democracy, McChesney reasons. Taking the place of the old commercial structure would be an amalgamation of national networks, local stations, public-access TV, and independent community radio stations, along with low-power television and radio stations.

McChesney concedes that there are no good options for preventing bureaucratic ossification in this new, public-service oriented media structure, or, for that matter, for warding off political influence and censorship. But he forges ahead anyway, drawing a picture of a press controlled by corporate interests that are relentlessly conservative — an intriguing news bulletin for the conservative political leaders and commentators who have thrived on the proposition that media is unflinchingly liberal.

Thus, the American press finds itself in an ideological pincer movement, with the left on one flank, the right on the other. And in full-scale attack right down the middle is an unhappy and hostile citizenry.

McChesney’s ideological arguments aside, it is the constitutional adventurism in his proposals that should give pause to both the press and the public. They are premised not just on government involvement in the business of the press but in the nature of the news it delivers to the American people.

For in addition to their impact on the structure of the commercial media, these reforms would have a decided influence on First Amendment principles and traditions.

The new antitrust law, for example, “would put an emphasis on valuing the importance of ideological diversity and noncommercial editorial content.”

Labor contracts would allow unions a voice in the editorial and creative decisions of news organizations.

Expanded public-service obligations would amount to compelled speech for the news media.

The free-press clause of the First Amendment would be downgraded to commercial speech.

McChesney argues in effect that speech is a finite commodity, so we must take away some of the speech rights of the media in order to give more speech rights to the disenfranchised and oppressed “people.”

He does not take on the constitutional issues, other than to concede that they are inconvenient but insubstantial impediments to his agenda. “[T]he First Amendment cannot simultaneously protect the privileges of corporations and the wealthy and protect and promote the democratic rights of the many.”

How or whether the press establishment responds to these challenges will determine the future and the freedom of the press in America. Unfortunately, media executives are conditioned to looking at immediate threats and economic factors, so the prospects for their recognizing, let alone addressing, these proposals are slim.

Very few people, whether in the academic, political or public sectors, are stepping forward to respond to these media-reform proposals, either. So the debate has yet to be fully engaged. It must be, however, and soon, because it is not the media titans’ fate that is of vital importance, but the vitality of the First Amendment franchise they hold.

Ultimately, the press and the public snooze through Professor McChesney’s lectures at their peril. He has done his homework, he is not alone, and he won’t go away.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at