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Rather, Moyers see deterioration in news coverage

COMMENTARY | June 09, 2008

Rather: Under today's corporate ownership the incentive to produce a good report isn’t there; Moyers says the press in many respects colludes with those in power.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

MINNEAPOLIS—Bill Moyers and Dan Rather told the Media Reform conference here that news coverage has deteriorated and blamed it in part on decades of media consolidation that threatens American democracy.   

The two were among the keynote speakers Saturday night at a three-day event that ended Sunday.

“In the current model of corporate news ownership, the incentive to produce good and valuable news is simply not there,” said Rather, the former CBS Evening News anchor who leads a news program on HDNet. “Good news, quality news of integrity, requires resources and it requires talent. These things are expensive, these things eat away at the bottom line.”  

[A transcript of Rather’s speech is available here. Video of speeches by Rather, Moyers and others and audio of panels are posted here. For additional Nieman Watchdog coverage of the conference, click here and here and here.]  

Like many speakers throughout the conference, Rather and Moyers charged that the press failed to serve as a watchdog in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Moyers, the host of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, praised the Knight Ridder Washington bureau for its coverage but saw other news organizations as all too willing to take the White House at its word and marginalize the skeptics.  

“Sadly, in many respects, the fourth estate has become the fifth column of democracy, colluding with the powers that be in a culture of deception that subverts the thing most necessary to freedom—and that is the truth,” said Moyers.

The mostly grim assessments of the news media were thankfully interjected by emcees Lizz Winstead, the co-creator of The Daily Show, and Baratunde Thurston of Laughing Liberally. In the spirit of conference’s theme—“media reform begins with me”—Winstead suggested that “you should put the ‘i’ in investigative journalism.” “Cable news is a terrible place for an idea,” said Thurston.

If Free Press’s occasional reminders that the nonprofit organization cannot and does not endorse candidates were meant to dissuade speakers from doing so, they proved utterly futile when Arianna Huffington took to the stage. The right-turned-left former California gubernatorial candidate and founder of The Huffington Post political Web site, argued that the media are “in love” with Sen. John McCain—“the Trojan horse of the right”— and are failing to report on “how he basically sold his soul.” She blamed the media for presenting every issue from global warming to Iraq as “though it has two sides” and executing a search for “truth by splitting the difference.”

Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, best known for her book, No Logo, on branding, condemned media’s early “coronation” of Sen. Hillary Clinton as the would-be Democratic nominee and argued that Clinton’s loss meant that she had “paid the price at last” for her support of the war. Lest Sen. Barack Obama’s supporters—a good chunk, if not the majority of the audience— got too comfortable in their seats, she went on to criticize his lack of policies on Iraq and the environment, warned against rock star treatment of presidential candidates and pointed out that Democrats received 52 percent of the defense industry’s total political contributions this year. “The disaster capitalists are organized and focused,” said Klein.  

A broadband panel

A gloomy history of media consolidation, faith in the media reform movement’s ability to rescue Internet from suffering the same fate and reminders that an open Internet does not equal an independent media were emphasized at the “Broadband to Broadcast” panel moderated by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman.

The social impact of the Internet will be comparable to that of the printing press, argued Free Press cofounder Robert McChesney. In this “communication revolution…all the laws” and “all institutions" are being questioned, said McChesney, a professor of communication at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He warned that a “free press” would not automatically result from a policy victory on Net neutrality—the principle that Internet service providers must not interfere with the applications their customers use or the content transferred. Online journalists, for example, would still face financial pressures that compromised content even with the necessary “free speech” protections.

Diversity of content and lack of regulation of the current Internet era was compared by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, to a communications revolution 100 years ago—the early days of telephone, film and radio. Wu described a pattern in American history of decentralized new media being consolidated, followed by government intervention to break companies that grew too powerful and eventual reconsolidation. He argued that the most important impact of AT&T’s breakup in the 1980s was that the telecommunications giant was “restrained from stopping the Internet from starting.”

Wu, who coined the term “Net neutrality,” recently succeeded McChesney at Free Press as the chairman of the board of directors.

In his later keynote speech, Wu argued that media consolidation meant that citizens had to push for the creation of “alternative mechanisms” that would guard against “abuse of private power.” America’s founders created laws aimed to stem the rise of a tyranny but did not foresee that private companies would acquire enough power to trample on the freedoms that are enshrined in the Constitution, Wu argued. “The First Amendment does not apply to Wal-Mart,” he said.

Malkia Cyril, the director of the Center for Media Justice in Oakland, California focused on the intersection of technology and social justice and the need for local organizing within the media reform movement. She said that “technologies don’t matter to most people” who aren’t versed in the jargon but who want to know “why aren’t the public schools wired?” in their communities and what would it cost them to access the Internet at home.

The conference mixed well-known speakers with community organizers and artists—but with conservatives speakers basically absent. Free Press’s campaigns, like SavetheInternet.com, include conservative groups like the Christian Coalition of America. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), among others, made a point of saying media reform is a bipartisan issue. As Wu put it, the preservation of local media and “the Internet as it has developed” is in line with conservatism, which is at the heart about “saving stuff that is good.”

Scholar & Gentlemen
Posted by J. DAVID RENO
08/01/2008, 12:50 PM

Your report is critical in the best sense of the word. The question asked as a conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors, of which I am a member still echos. I can't recall which speaker said it, but the question was "Is it interesting, or is it important?"
The sex lives of movie stars are interesting, but unless they name me it's not terribly important. A good press should be a loyal opposition to power everywhere.

I would recommend to everyone the late Professor Clark R. Mollenhoff's William Allen White lecture on the role of the media. Mollenhoff who won the Pulitzer Prize twice was an excellent reporter, but also a critic of the press. What he wrote forty years ago resounds today.

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