Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Media Under Siege

The Media, Under Siege:
And What KHOI Can Do About It
Nicholas Johnson 
KHOI-FM 89.1 Fundraiser: An Evening with Nicholas Johnson 
Ames, Iowa 
November 16, 2018

Thank you for the invitation I join you this evening. The only thing nicer than being asked to speak is to be invited back to speak.

The topic, and speech title, you have requested is “Media Under Siege.” Always the conscientious student, I feel obliged to say something about the assignment you’ve given me, and we’ll begin with that.

But it might be useful to put that siege in context, especially during our discussion period. So I’ll also have something to say about our democracy under siege; what it takes to create and maintain a democracy, the role of media in that process, the role of KHOI, and what you and I can do in our daily lives to help revive that democracy.

Media under siege. Five months ago, June 28th, five journalists were assassinated in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, near Annapolis. Last month, October 2nd, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist working for the Washington Post, was brutally assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Sadly, these six journalists are a small percentage of the 1000 journalists who have been assassinated over the past ten or fifteen years. Assassination is the ultimate silencing of the media, the ultimate example of media under siege. And those assassinated are just the ones killed because of the content of their reporting. Many more have died while reporting from a battlefield or during other dangerous assignments.

Assassinations are not the only threat. Newspaper subscription and advertising revenue is about half of what it once was. Television network affiliates, formerly guaranteed at least one-third of the potential viewing audience, now find themselves competing with 500 cable and satellite channels.

The influence of both broadcasters and publishers is further diminished by the competition for eyeballs. Every hour we spend staring at a laptop or smartphone screen, searching the Internet, checking our Facebook page, answering email or texting friends, watching YouTube videos, playing video games, reading or watching the thousands of online social media, news sources, podcasts and videos, are hours not spent looking at a TV screen or newspaper.

I’m informed there are some people who spend time tending their gardens, taking a walk in the woods, or reading books, without any electronic devices. Frankly, I find that unlikely; and at best a minuscule percentage.

Finally, media are among the first institutions to come under attack in the 49 nations headed by dictators, authoritarian strongmen or wannabes. Such leaders conduct massive propaganda campaigns. They revise the schools’ textbooks. The ruler’s control of the media can take the form of personal or government ownership of stations and newspapers, intimidation and punishment of publishers and journalists, criticism designed to erode the public’s trust of independent media, or blocking citizen access to external broadcast signals, Internet sites and publications.

We will return to the media in a few minutes and during our discussion period.

The Context: democracy under siege. But first, let’s provide a little context for KHOI and its need for our financial support. KHOI is a much more essential institution, in this place and at this time, than even its fans may be aware.

For the media is not the only essential institution that is under siege.

Our democracy may well not survive the current attacks upon it from home and abroad. Let me repeat that. Our democracy may well not survive the current attacks upon it from home and abroad.

Like climate change, there comes a time when the red line has been crossed, when the life of a democracy, or even life on Earth, can no longer be resuscitated.

Like a good marriage, a good democracy is something we must work at. An apocryphal story reported a poll in which local citizens were asked which they thought the greater problem in their community, ignorance or apathy. Most answered, simply, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

A democracy requires people who do know and do care; people who have an almost religious faith in both the idea and the reality of democracy. It needs those who know the questions to ask, have access to accurate and relevant facts, the education to understand them, and the interest, energy and motivation to act accordingly, to fulfill the responsibility democracy places upon us.

When one of the kids would come running into the house after school, they would say to my wife, Mary Vasey, “Hey, Mom, make me a sandwich.” Did you have kids like that? Mary’s response was to place her hand on their head, and solemnly incant, “You are a sandwich.”

Unfortunately, the creation and preservation of a democracy is even more difficult than turning a child into a sandwich. And yet the destruction of a democracy can occur almost as quickly as you can turn a sandwich into a child.

Most often democracies yield to dictators, not from external military aggression, but from internal defection, using the very freedoms and processes democracy provides. We like to say that it can’t happen here. But it has already happened here. On February 20, 1939. 20,000 Americans, dressed as Nazis, filled Madison Square Garden, with arms raised in the Nazi salute. They cheered as the speaker called for a “white, Gentile-ruled United States.”
Only three weeks ago tomorrow an anti-Semite with an AR-15 turned the Tree of Life Synagogue into a tree of death for 11 Jews in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Reports of hate crimes took a big jump last year, up to 7100.
You can’t buy a democracy in a store. You can’t create one by passing a law. In that sense there is no such thing as “democracy.” There are only the nations, and their people, whose institutions make a democracy possible. These institutions are to a democracy what the columns, or pilings, are to a beach house, raised above the relentless storm surge.

Democracy's institutions.
  • Education. Well-funded free public K-12 and higher education
  • .
  • Libraries. Free public libraries for those with the education to use them
  • .
  • Courts. A respected, independent judiciary to check the leader’s abuses
  • .
  • Voting. Legislators representing constituents’ interests, not special interests, elected from districts that have not been gerrymandered, with voting systems designed to encourage, rather than discourage, citizens’ participation
  • .
These are among what I have called the Columns of Democracy in my most recent book by that title. If those institutions are supported, adequately funded, respected, and encouraged a democracy is possible. When they are damaged or destroyed democracy collapses, just like that beach house when it loses its columns.

Communications. All of these institutions are essential to democracy. But communication and the media were thought to be central by our founders and remain so today.

Look at all our predecessors did.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” To which he immediately added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
["The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." – Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington," January 16, 1787, Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 11:48-49 (emphasis supplied).]
In two sentences he made the case for the First Amendment, free public education, and universal postal delivery of newspapers, magazines and books at subsidized rates. Jefferson made no mention of his presidency on his tombstone, but did include, “Father of the University of Virginia.”

We’ve had public schools since Boston Latin School in 1635, a central purpose of which was always civics, turning Americans into participating citizens.

Jefferson also saw the necessity of libraries. Following the 1814 Library of Congress fire he doubled the former collection, making available his personal library of about 6500 volumes.

In addition to the postal system with its Pony Express, the subsidization of canals, railroads, universal telephone service (plus today’s broadband), airlines and the Interstate Highway system also served in part to facilitate communication.

Let us first be a little more precise about what we mean by “the media” and its contribution to democracy. Much of what’s on radio and television, and in books and magazines, has little to nothing to do with the Columns of Democracy or citizenship. It may even be counterproductive.

Entire sections of newspapers are devoted to sports. Even the New York Times has its popular, if incredibly difficult, crossword puzzle.

The 19-minute “ABC World News Tonight” contains little world news and even less of the information citizens need. It deliberately attracts an audience that apparently likes to be frightened, even terrorized, by an exited anchor person’s dramatic portrayals of the day’s worst disasters and dangers – some of which aren’t even legitimate local news where they occurred. Storms are “deadly”, a driver was “trapped” in her vehicle, school buses were involved in “tragedies,” there was a “scare” at sea onboard a listing cruise ship. There are “deadly” airline and highway accidents, shootings and stabbings, fires and floods, explosions and hurricanes.

ABC comes a lot closer to what Paddy Chayefsky predicted as the future of news, in the movie “Network,” than any CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. It certainly makes a fellow want to stay safely indoors watching television.

No, what we want to focus upon is the information a democracy’s citizens need to address the challenges and opportunities confronting their democracy; all sides of the problems and solutions, the public policy questions, and the answers offered from other communities and nations.

And speaking of other nations, let’s separate and identify some categories of the information we need and the media that provide it.
International news. What’s happening on the world’s continents, and nations’ capitals? There’s no shortage of sources. My iPhone has apps bringing me news from the world’s best newspapers: the Guardian in London, Le Monde from Paris, others in Berlin, Moscow, Karachi, Doha, Erbil, Beijing, Mumbai, Tokyo.

National news. For us, that’s mostly what happened in New York and Washington today, plus some regional centers like Chicago and Los Angeles – along with an occasional midterm election or huge California fire. Again, we can have multiple sources and apps on our smartphones: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, AP, Bloomberg, plus PBS and NPR.

State news. For state news, the Des Moines Register used to self-identify as “the newspaper all Iowa depends upon.” And it was; delivered by truck around the state, available on the counter of every small-town café. There is no equivalent today, although The Gazette does a nice job of state news for eastern Iowa, and the Register still serves central Iowa.
Local news: communication and community. All of which brings us to KHOI, perhaps the Ames Tribune, and the subject of local news.

Americans may have multiple sources for international, national, and even state news.

But if you want to know the arguments for and against the new water plant, who’s died and who’s opened a new business, what roads are closed for construction, what’s happening with property taxes, or the results of your local school board election, for most Iowans neither the New York Times nor the Register are going to be much help.

Unlike international and national news, there simply are no alternative sources for the local news that is the most important supporting column for a community's democracy. This is an essential need that KHOI is uniquely positioned to provide for Ames.

Like every other industry, some newspapers are doing better than others. But the national average is that subscriptions and advertising revenue are now about half what they once were. Hundreds of papers have gone out of business. Virtually all have had to cut back on reporters, and therefore the number of government agencies, subjects and local news stories.

Television and radio stations have an ADI, their “area of dominant influence,” the geographical area within which residents not only can but do receive their signal. Newspapers have “circulation areas.” For many purposes, those ADIs and circulation areas are the most meaningful geographical definition of our “communities” – regardless of where the “city limits” may be.

Think about the number of words beginning with “c-o-m-m”: commune, the commons, communal, communitarian, yes; but also, community and communication. For community is the essential chemical element from which democracies are made. And communication networks are what create and define our communities – whether the family as a community; the teachers, parents and kids in a K-12 school; a church congregation; the workplace; suburban development; city, county, state, nation, and for some, their sense of being a part of a global community.

Without communication communities disintegrate, and without communities democracies fail.

What can we do? What can KHOI do? What can you, you and I, do?

Political. We can increase our political participation. Only 55% of Americans eligible to register actually vote. That makes us 26th in the world; eight countries are above 75%; Belgium is 87% and we’re 55%.

Iowa City is in Johnson County; what some call the “Peoples Republic of Johnson County.” We’re only two percentage points above the U.S. average. Of Iowa City residents eligible to register, often less than 10% vote in school board, City, or County Supervisor elections. Hopefully, Ames is better.

But merely voting is not enough. As Frederick Douglas observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” We must keep in touch with our elected officials: with personal visits, phone calls, emails, letters, and demonstrations.

You can volunteer to work for candidates or political parties. You can run for office, or agree to serve on one of our multiple governments’ boards and commissions.

Media. When conventional media suffer so does our democracy. If you have a business, support your newspaper by advertising. Think of it as a charitable contribution; one you can take as a tax-deductible business expense. Become a subscriber. Be a contributor of columns and letters to the editor. And support independent, nonprofit media financially: KHOI, Iowa Public Radio and Television.

If local media are not able to assign fulltime beat reporters to the school board or city council, consider doing it yourself. Become familiar with Ames’ Website, Learn about your 26 local government departments – the Planning & Zoning Commission, or Parks & Recreation Department – pick the one that most interests you. Then follow its work, write about it in a blog, social media, and submissions to newspapers. Produce or participate in a KHOI program reporting on local institutions.

K-12, Higher Education, and Public Libraries. One of the earliest purposes of American schools was “civics;” giving students the knowledge and skills they need to be citizens in a democracy. How well are your local schools performing that historic and essential function? If you don’t know, find out. Are they adequately funded?

Over 100 years ago Iowans decided that eight years of free public education was not enough. We began requiring12 years and high schools. Isn’t it about time Iowa go from K-12 to K-14, with free public community colleges, as Tennessee, California and other places are doing? You can play a role in increasing public funding of Iowa’s K-12 schools, community colleges, and higher education institutions like Ames’ own Iowa State University.

Free public libraries are an essential companion to education in creating and maintaining a democracy. Are yours – and Iowa State’s – adequately funded? Is there more you could do locally to increase citizens’ use of their resources?

Judiciary. We want a rule of law, not the law of rulers. How much do you know about legal services for the poor, our local and appellate judges, their qualifications, their independence, their budgets, the efforts to turn the judiciary into just another partisan branch of government?

Community. Each of us can do more to help build a sense of community with the little things we do each day, including the smile and greeting we give a stranger we pass on the street. We can do more to promote civility in our relationships; to go beyond tolerating diversity to celebrating diversity and the richness it adds to our lives. We can try to learn more about the needs of individuals in various segments of our community; needs for housing, nutrition, healthcare, transportation – and what’s being done to meet those needs.

And there is a role for KHOI with each of these Columns of Democracy: politics and governing, media, education, libraries, the judiciary, community building. You’re already doing much of this heavy lifting. But is there more you could do with your programming, identifying issues for discussion, and giving electronic voice to Ames’ voiceless?

When Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention a stranger asked him, “What kind of a government did you give us? A Republic or a Monarchy?” To which Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

For 230 years we’ve kept it. Our democracy has had its challenges – the Civil War, the Great Depression – but it has never before been threatened with extinction. Now that’s a possibility. We can no longer take it for granted, no longer assure our grandchildren that America’s democracy will forever survive.

Whether our democracy continues is up to us, how much you and I are willing to do, and what you do with KHOI. That’s what I’d like for us to now discuss.

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