Watchdogs and Lapdogs

Advocacy in defense of democracy is no vice

by Greg Guma

Toward Freedom magazine, December 1997/January 1998


About 29 years ago, shortly after I started reporting for the Bennington Banner in Vermont, an angry reader complained about my bias in a letter to the editor "I strongly doubt that he could cover the proceedings of a dog show without incorporating a message," he wrote. I took it as a compliment then-and still do.

That's why I was eager to join about 1000 other progressive media-makers in October for the second Media and Democracy Congress. For three clays, journalists and activists from across the US gathered in New York to talk about problems-concentration of ownership, the relentless slide into infotainment, an avalanche of gossip and "news" people don't need-and share some potential solutions. It was truly inspiring to be among colleagues and old friends who aren't afraid of the A-word-advocacy.

Twenty years back, in the post-Watergate era, advocacy journalists were often our heroes. Even mass media, although already well on the way to their current degeneration, were still considered by many to be a potential part of the solution. Today, however, most people don't trust reporters any more than politicians. In a recent Roper poll, 88 percent said corporate owners and advertisers improperly influence the press.

Of course, most journalists will deny this, a lack of self-knowledge (or candor) that makes matters worse. The fact that getting ahead too often means going along remains one of this profession's most debilitating little secrets.

The issue today isn't just that ten media giants may soon control the origination of most content, national distribution, and transmission into our homes, or that we're being set up for a pay-per-view world that will make notions about the Intemet's liberatory potential sound like science fiction-though much more should be said about both developments. The problem is also how the conversation about issues is defined by our media gatekeepers.

During a lively panel at the Congress, Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens noted that, for example, the word partisan is always used in a negative context, while bipartisan is offered as a positive solution. If that isn't an endorsement of the one-party state, what is? Reporters don't say Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton are liars, although these are verifiable facts. But they do say the two are great communicators, which is merely subjective opinion. The issue, Hitchens suggested, isn't a lack of information-it's all out there somewhere-but how most reporters think and how the news is constructed.

Which brings us to free markets and competition, the basic tenets of the new corporate religion. Unfortunately, most journalists are its faithful missionaries. For example, utility deregulation is commonly described in the so-called "straight" press as a "movement to bring competition to the electric industry." But that's a corporate sermon, not a fact. Sure, competition now, oligopoly later The same kind of thing was said-when anything was mentioned at all-about the Telecommunications Act of 1996. But the actual result of that legislation was to reduce competition and sweep away consumer protections.

The "straight" media also haven't said much about the $70 billion giveaway of the digital TV spectrum, a prime example of corporate welfare. Yet, that gold rush began in April. Making the giants pay for this enormous new public resource could dramatically reduce the deficit, or easily fund public broadcasting and children's TV. But, instead, spectrum rights that will allow broadcasters to launch up to six new channels each are being handed out for free. The only "string" is some vague contribution to be determined at a later date.

Fortunately, there are still some real heroes in the press, reporters and others who insist on being watchdogs rather than lapdogs. At a ceremony in the Great Hall of NYU's historic Cooper Union, a dozen were honored during a lively final gathering of the Congress. Among the recipients were Karl Grossman who brought the dangers of nukes in space to public attention; Amy Goodman, producer of Pacifica Radio's groundbreaking news magazine, Democracy Now; writers Jim Ridgeway, Gary Webb (who broke the CIA-cocaine story last year), and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert; and In These Times publisher James Weinstein.

Workers at the feisty Detroit Sunday Journal received a "media hero" award for standing up to Gannett and Knight-Ridder, which locked out 2000 union workers over two years ago. When was the last time you read about that continuing epic struggle? And journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who sits on death row in Pennsylvania despite evidence of his innocence, was given a standing ovation for his courage and compassion.

The Congress also looked at solutions: new anti-trust laws to deal with the world of global media, a tax on advertising-including the millions in political contributions that mainly end up in the coffers of media corporations-to adequately fund public broadcasting and public access, corporate divestment of news divisions, and a ban on children's advertising, to name a few. But such changes will take time, plus a public groundswell that is sure to be resisted (largely through omission) by the media giants. Meanwhile, at least we have journalists who go beyond official doublespeak, bringing us what mainstream sources don't see fit to broadcast or print. To paraphrase an old conservative motto, advocacy in defense of democracy is no vice, and objectivity in the face of corporate tyranny is no virtue. Or, as one of my favorite muckrakers, Lincoln Steffens, once put it, "This is all very unscientific, but then, I am not a scientist. I am a journalist."


Greg Guma is the editor of TF.


Reprinted from Toward Freedom, a progressive world affairs magazine, August 1997

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Media Control and Propaganda