Monday, February 29, 2016

The State of the Media

The State of the Media

Nicholas Johnson

League of Women Voters of Johnson County, Iowa
Sunday Speaker Series

Iowa City Public Library
February 28, 2016, 2:00 p.m.

The media. Mass media. Mainstream media, or MSM.

What’s in, what’s out? What are we talking about? The local publication, Little Village? My blog, FromDC2Iowa? The public’s access channel on local cable, PATV? Or, locally, is it just things like the Iowa City Press-Citizen and WSUI?

“State of the media.” What does that mean? Financial health? And, if so, whose -- the income of the owners, or Iowa City’s economy, since media is a major driver of the consumer spending that constitutes 70% of our nation’s GDP? Broadcast stations are still licensed to serve “the public interest.” So what does that mean? And whatever it means, should we evaluate the state of newspapers by the same standard as broadcasting?

You and I are concerned about the adequacy of the media to support a democracy. And how should that be measured? Is it, like voting, something that we offer citizens but, unlike Australia, do not demand of them? Is it enough that what a citizen needs to know is potentially accessible – like books in this library that are never consulted – or is it the media’s responsibility to do whatever is necessary to ensure that a critical mass of citizens actually know what they need to know?

There are more creative approaches to public education than just serious news and documentaries. For example, health and safety information has been embedded in soap operas for third world audiences. Comedian John Oliver gives his multi-million followers some of the best public policy presentations available on television today. The Harvard School of Public Health reduced auto accident deaths by working with Hollywood producers and writers to include brief shots of police fastening their seat belts.

Our task of searching for the state of the media is further complicated by what might be called a multiple-variable analysis. That is to say, we are dealing with many streams and trends of change, sometimes in isolation, sometimes overlapping, that impact upon the media.

Here are but a few.

We have been witnessing both a concentration of media control and, simultaneously, an increase of citizens’ choice of media and an increase in citizen power to affect its content.

Twenty-five years ago or more, when Time and Warner wanted to merge, a number of us opposed the merger. I asked one of their executives why they wanted this merger. He replied, “Well, Nick, someday there are going to be five firms that control all the media on Planet Earth, and we intend to be one of them.”

For example, when I was a boy there were human owners of the Des Moines Register and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Today, both are part of the Gannett empire that controls over 90 daily newspapers, nearly 1,000 weekly newspapers, and the national paper, USA Today, with operations – and political influence -- in 41 U.S. states and six countries.

There have also been efforts to combine multiple media types – with financial advantages for shareholders, and content disadvantages for the audience. A single firm may control significant subsidiaries in newspaper, magazine and book publishing; movie studios, and television production; theaters, TV and radio stations and networks; cable and satellite distribution companies.

As journalism has morphed from a profession of individuals into an industry of corporations, citizens have lost out. What Wall Street banks and hedge fund managers have done to banking, they have also done to democracy’s journalism.

The Los Angeles Times was doing quite well, thank you, with its 20% profit margins – until Wall Street decided to demand 30% returns. Because of a profusion of alternative sources of news, and a decline in younger persons’ interest in newspapers, it was difficult to increase readership. Without an increase in readership it was difficult to increase advertising revenue. The only way to increase profits was to decrease costs. And the easiest way to decrease costs was to fire journalists.

Here in Iowa City we’ve seen what Wall Street’s pressure on Gannett has done to the Press-Citizen. It tried to increase profits by selling off its building and doing away with reporters and other staff members. Not content with those savings, it has now decided to not only reduce the number of pages in the paper, but to totally eliminate the opinion page on Mondays and Tuesdays – thereby increasing the proportion of the paper devoted to sports fans.

When I was a commissioner of the FCC I studied media in other countries – Great Britain, Sweden, German, Japan, and elsewhere. I discovered that NHK, in Japan, had more minutes of news about the United States everyday than did NBC. In addition to which NHK also covered news from Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe – and of course, Japan.

ABC, CBS and NBC once had foreign news bureaus. I asked an executive about their coverage of African countries. He assured me they had an African bureau. On further inquiry I discovered it had only one reporter, and she was based in Paris. Recently I shared that story with a reporter who informed me she was no longer there.

We pay a price as a democracy for our lack of information about what’s going on in the world and in our own town.

We are a nation approaching 325 million individuals, many of whom have so little memory of their education, and such obliviousness to basic information, that Jay Leno was able to make an entertainment format out of it on the Tonight show. Our gross ignorance of other countries and cultures helps create everything from "ugly American" tourists to endless, unwinnable wars abroad that actually increase the risk of terrorism at home. Many high school grads headed to Iraq couldn't find Iraq on a map -- 10% couldn't even find the United States.

Even if you want to engage in wars of choice, which I wouldn’t advise, you need knowledge. While I was handling sealift to Viet Nam as U.S. Maritime Administrator, President Johnson asked me to look around Southeast Asia and provide him my reactions. What I said was, “You can’t play basketball on a football field.” There are some places where war is just not a possible option – when you don’t know such things as your enemy’s language, history, culture, religion, and tribal relations. I later published an open letter to President George W. Bush with similar observations about his proposed adventure in Iraq.

I’ve always been a fan of the BBC since I was a young boy, first listening to its shortwave programming on a World War II surplus radio receiver – later when carried on WSUI during the night, and now with an app on my smart phone. There are countries that may go for a year without even being mentioned by name on U.S. media, and never covered, countries from which the BBC regularly provides us in-depth understanding.

But wait, it’s worse. Not only do our once big-three networks try to present the news without journalists, not only do they devote to it a fraction of the time of public broadcasting systems in other countries. With the time they devote to commercials and self-promotion, the so-called “half-hour news” becomes more like 20 minutes.

And it’s worse than that. It’s not just that they don’t tell us what we need to know, it’s the material they do offer us instead that we’d really be better off not knowing, or is at best is a waste of our time.

Mary and I watch the local news on the ABC affiliate KCRG that always has an ABC News promo before it feeds into the ABC Evening News (when we switch to the PBS Newshour). I became so appalled at ABC’s choice of content that I took notes for a couple of nights.

The unifying theme throughout ABC’s presentation seems to be a play on our emotions -- 15 minutes or more of drama designed to frighten us, increasing our fears and stress, followed by a happy close -- thereby playing with both our adrenalin and our dopamine.

Nearly 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the problems of the media,

go back to . . . the failure of self-governing people to . . . [create and organize] a machinery of knowledge. It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that [they] make such small headway against . . . violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. . . . [A]ll [of government’s] defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

ABC’s choice of frightening subjects is mostly a herd of three-legged calves interrupted occasionally by, "Oh, look at the squirrel."

Here are some illustrations.

A snowfall is a "deadly" storm. The early use of drones becomes a drone "scare." A White House intruder is a security "scare." Notwithstanding the absence of any supporting video, a pre-verdict Ferguson was a "State of Emergency." We were shown an "alarming image" worthy of a "Holiday Alert" that holiday gift packages are about to be stolen from our homes. There was a "mystery" involving a beauty queen. And the happy close? A couple given $14 million for their idea involving digital photos -- with the lottery-like closing line, "Is your idea next?"

Celebrity news is regularly given time -- the cancellation of Bill Cosby's show, Bono's auto accident, and the death of Motown singer Jimmy Ruffin – items more appropriate for "Entertainment Tonight," or other video versions of People magazine.

The next night was babies’ night. We were warned that our babies fingers might be cut off by their strollers. Another "warning for parents" was the segment headlined "Spying on Your Children," which informed us that the Russians were hacking into our security cameras and streaming the content of our baby monitors. We were told that the car crash tests' results were "the worst ever seen," truly "alarming." And then, as if to drive the point home, and add another threat to our survival to the long list of ABC-engendered fears, we were shown video of "Car Demolishing a Building" -- "an entire building demolished in seconds in a cloud of dust."

But most of the 20 minutes that night was consumed by Mike Nichols' death and a tribute to his life -- with occasional references to the fact he had been married to ABC's Diane Sawyer. That evening’s so-called "news" both opened and closed with lengthy tributes and film clips regarding Nichols.

By contrast, here's what the "PBS Newshour" included that first night: "A look at the Gulf oil spill after the cameras had gone"; "Will arming school administrators protect students?"; "What's next for NSA reform in Congress?"; "Protecting Afghanistan's Buddhist Heritage"; and "Debating the implications if Obama acts on immigration." There are also differences among commercial networks.

CBS took a positive, factual approach to the Ferguson story, offered data and insight about "cyber shopping" and Amazon's 15,000 robots filling orders, a significant Supreme Court case regarding threatening speech, and AAA research regarding the safe driving records of those over 65. The network had been tracking remedial programs for high school dropouts and reported on one more.

You may recall that I earlier mentioned that “We have been witnessing, simultaneously, concentration of media control and diffusion of citizen choice and power.”

So what’s the good news?

When I joined the FCC the world had one communications satellite and three dishes. The number expanded, as first military, and then governments and large corporations, like AT&T, used them. By the time the price of a dish had dropped from $3 million, to $300 thousand, to $35 thousand, the cable industry was using them. When it reached $3000 they started popping up like mushrooms in farmers’ yards, and soon thereafter the smaller, pizza-sized little dishes, at $300 were installed on 15 million homes and apartments.

We’re used to sales when prices are cut by 10%, or maybe even 50%. The reduction in price on communications technology is what I refer to as the 99.9%-off sale.

Such radical reductions in size and price mean that more people can have more electronics, that they can carry, and connect, from more places. There are almost as many mobile phones on Earth as people – 50% more than the number who have toilets.

Similar reductions in size and price, plus increased competition, and the existence of the Internet, mean that large and small media companies alike are entering many more media modes. Advertising is increasingly focused on telling consumers a company’s Web page address. Newspapers’ and magazines’ online editions present video as well as text and pictures. TV stations’ Web pages have text and transcripts. Companies like Netflix and Amazon don’t just sell others’ DVDs; they stream the content over the Internet – and compete with movie studios making their own movies.

There are over 1 million apps available for the iPhone. Television and radio programs offer streaming and podcasts. Nor are we limited to our local newspapers.

President Johnson had two teletype machines in his office, the AP news and the UPI. Both were the size of small refrigerators. Today, on my shirt-pocket iPhone, smaller than a pack of cards, I display links to the news not only from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, but from Al Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian of London, Le Monde in Paris, the Kurds’ news service Rudaw, and the South China Morning Post, among others.

But there’s another side to this coin. These changes not only give us access to more of others’ information in more forms, they also make it possible for us to enter this world of media with our own content.

We can become book publishers – writing, publishing and promoting the sale of our own books, and make them available through Amazon and other outlets, for little or no money. We can publish our own equivalent of a newspaper – in the form of a Web page, Facebook page, blog, or Twitter account. We can own and be the star of our own streaming radio or television station, by using YouTube – also free.

And this is where you, and the League of Women Voters, have a role to play. There are a number of models and proposals for a way out of our current “state of the media.”

We don’t have time to explore all of them – and none of them is an all-purpose answer anyway.

But something we can do is what I’ll call “citizen journalism.” Local newspapers with fewer and fewer reporters need all the help they can get. Our fellow citizens need more reporting from public bodies – school boards, county boards of supervisors -- than the papers can provide. Citizens need more identification, and exploration, of the major local public policy issues.

That is a major contribution that your organization, and each of you individually, can provide and to some extent already are providing.

Pick a unit of government, or office within it, or a local issue that interests you. Attend all the meetings, many of which won’t have a reporter present. Write up and post on your Web page or blog what you think is most significant about what you’ve observed or uncovered. Learn the ways you can promote it to more potential readers or viewers.

As some of you may know, that’s what I’ve been doing over the past six months, tracking the administration of our new UI President Bruce Harreld, providing links to almost all of the news stories and opinion pieces of relevance for anyone interested in this historical period of the University of Iowa.

In short, we can do more than merely bemoan the current state of the media. We can actually do something to make it better – right here in River City.

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