October 28, 2003

Bill Moyers is Insightful, Erudite, Impassioned, Brilliant and the Host of PBS' "NOW"

Bill Moyers: And, a phalanx of conservative publications and right-wing radio and television talk shows has created a cavernous echo chamber for a Republican agenda, with no real-time opportunity for rebuttal of the propaganda or the refutation of the lies. Everyone operates today in what a friend of mine calls "the blinding white light of 24/7 global medium" -- an increased conglomeration of megamedia corporations has essentially stripped journalism of purpose except pleasing consumers.


October 28, 2003
Bill Moyers is Insightful, Erudite, Impassioned, Brilliant and the Host of PBS' "NOW"


Bill Moyers will be the keynote speaker at the
National Conference on Media Reform
(http://www.mediareform.net/conference.php) in
Madison, Wisconsin, on Nov. 8. Media reform is a
subject near to his heart and a topic central to this
BuzzFlash interview with him.

Moyers is someone who knows both sides of the world of
political media coverage, having served as Lyndon
Johnson's press secretary. Over the years, we have
come to know him as a thoughtful, impassioned
journalist who has developed a voice and vision
uniquely his own. Unlike today's crop of
cookie-cutter, blow-dried corporate television news
celebrities, Moyers is a man who chooses his words
carefully because he values and respects the power of
language and the importance of his own integrity. He
is a craftsman in an age that values the assembly line
production of indistinguishable news churned out at a
numbing pace.

Moyers is host of the PBS news and public affairs
program "NOW with Bill Moyers," airing Friday nights
at 9 p.m. (http://www.pbs.org/now -- check local
listings, because some affiliates air NOW at different
times). BuzzFlash readers who complain about the vast
right-wing wasteland of television news and commentary
should watch "NOW," if they don't already. It's an
oasis of journalistic integrity and pro-democracy

But for right now, you don't need to turn on the
television to partake of the incisive, erudite
perspective that Bill Moyers brings to an
understanding of what's gone wrong with today's media.
For right now, Bill Moyers will enlighten you right
here on BuzzFlash.com.

* * *

BUZZFLASH: You served as a press secretary for Lyndon
Johnson. Based on your personal experience, how do you
think the relationship between the White House and the
White House press corps has changed since the l960s?

BILL MOYERS: Every era has its own unique issues, but
the basic tension between president and press is
always there. Presidents want their options protected,
their good intentions emphasized, their sins
unreported, and their mistakes forgiven; journalists
want to find out what's going on. That much hasn't

LBJ was waging an unpopular war and that made the
usual tensions even more acute, especially with
reporting from Vietnam that was at odds with the
official view of reality. Since the 60s, the number of
reporters covering the place has grown almost
exponentially. Government's bigger and its expertise
in public relations more sophisticated. Access to
officials is much harder except when they want to leak
or spin. And, a phalanx of conservative publications
and right-wing radio and television talk shows has
created a cavernous echo chamber for a Republican
agenda, with no real-time opportunity for rebuttal of
the propaganda or the refutation of the lies. Everyone
operates today in what a friend of mine calls "the
blinding white light of 24/7 global medium" -- an
increased conglomeration of megamedia corporations has
essentially stripped journalism of purpose except
pleasing consumers.

There was a study not long ago that asked mainstream
journalists how they view their own professional
situations. Not happily, it turns out. A majority felt
that much of the control over their work has passed
from editors to corporate executives and stockholders
whose interest is not necessarily informing the public
with the information we need to have to function as
citizens. Journalists who don't serve a partisan
purpose and who try to be disinterested observers find
themselves whipsawed between these corporate and
ideological forces. I agree with Eric Alterman that
"the constant drumbeat of groundless accusation
[against mainstream journalists] has proven an
effective weapon in weakening journalism's watchdog

I think these forces have unbalanced the relationship
between this White House and the press. Frankly, even
if we had tried it in LBJ's time, we wouldn't have
gotten away with the kind of press conference
President Bush conducted on the eve of the invasion of
Iraq -- the one that even the President admitted was
wholly scripted, with reporters raising their hands
and posing so as to appear spontaneous. Matt Taibbi
wrote in The New York Press at the time that it was
like a mini-Alamo for American journalism. I'd say it
was more a collective Jonestown-like suicide. At least
the defenders of the Alamo put up a fight.

BUZZFLASH: That's a good point for my second question.
We have seen many trends in how media organizations
are structured. Let me ask you about two of these
trends. First, to what degree have news divisions at
television stations become less independent than they
were in the l960s, to the extent that they are more
integrated into the overall ratings and profit
strategy of their parent corporations?

MOYERS: Well, I don't want to suggest some Golden Age
of Broadcast Journalism -- with the possible exception
of that remarkable period when Murrow's Boys, as they
were called, showed what radio could do. Broadcast
journalism came wrapped in an entertainment medium and
was compromised early on because of it. The conflict's
just become more pronounced through the years with one
merger after another, so that Harold Evans [former
editor of The Times of London] says: "the problem that
many media organizations face is not to stay in
business, but to stay in journalism."

I'll give you a very recent example, one read in the
Washington Post. Seems the NBC affiliate in Tampa is
selling segments on its morning "news" show. You pony
up $2,500 and get four to six minutes of what is in
fact an infomercial. I'm not making this up. One of
the show's hosts confessed: "You pay us, and we do
what you want us to do." So Wendy's restaurant chain
paid to have a chirpy co-host tout the company for its
awards program for young football players who perform
community service. According to the Post, the
conglomerate that owns WFLA, Media General, wasn't at
all embarrassed by the disclosure. The Post went on to
say that stations in Washington and Baltimore are
running health segments featuring hospitals and
medical centers that pay for the pieces. Whether we're
being pushovers or prostitutes, it's a sad day for
what used to be called "a free and independent press."

There's a price for this, and democracy pays it.
Somewhere around here I've got a copy of a study The
Project for Excellence in Journalism that examined the
front pages of The New York Times and The Los Angeles
Times, looked at the nightly news programs of ABC, CBS
and NBC, read Time and Newsweek, and found that
between 1977 and 1997 the number of stories about
government dropped from one in three to one in five,
while the number of stories about celebrities rose
from one in every 50 stories to one in every 14. More
recently the nightly newscasts gave four times the
coverage to Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign in
California than to all gubernatorial campaigns in the
country throughout 2002.

Does it matter? Well, governments can send us to war,
pick our pockets, slap us in jail, run a highway
through our back yard, look the other way as polluters
do their dirty work, slip tax breaks and subsidies to
the privileged at the expense of those who can't
afford lawyers, lobbyists, or time to be vigilant.
Right now, as we speak, House Republicans are trying
to sneak into the energy bill a plan that would
prohibit water pollution lawsuits against oil and
chemical companies. Millions of consumers and their
water utilities in 25 states will be forced to pay
billions of dollars to remove the toxic gasoline
additive MTBE from drinking water if the House gives
the polluters what they want. I can't find this story
in the mainstream press, only on niche websites. You
see, it matters who's pulling the strings, and I don't
know how we hold governments accountable if journalism
doesn't tell us who that is.

On the other hand, remember during the invasion of
Iraq a big radio-consulting firm sent out a memo to
its client stations advising them on how to use the
war to their best advantage -- they actually called it
"a war manual." Stations were advised to "go for the
emotion" -- broadcast patriotic music "that makes you
cry, salute, get cold chills…." I'm not making this
up. All of this mixture of propaganda and
entertainment adds up to what? You get what James
Squires, the long-time editor of the Chicago Tribune,
calls "the death of journalism." We're getting so
little coverage of the stories that matter to our
lives and our democracy: government secrecy, the
environment, health care, the state of working
America, the hollowing out of the middle class, what
it means to be poor in America. It's not that the
censorship is overt. It's more that the national
agenda is being hijacked. They're deciding what we
know and talk about, and it's not often the truth
behind the news.

BUZZFLASH: Are you saying the bottom line corporate
culture of large media conglomerates such as the
Tribune Company, Time Warner, New York Times Company,
Clear Channel or Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp affects the
perspectives of their individual media outlets -- as
well as the reporting of political and governmental
news in particular?

MOYERS: Sure. Rupert Murdoch is in a category by
himself -- overtly political. He makes no bones about
it. Sure, he wants NewsCorp to turn big profit, as it
does. But he'll take losses on the New York Post and
subsidize The Weekly Standard to advance his political
agenda, which, of course, is ultimately aimed at the
kind of government favoritism that boosts his
corporate earning. I'm sure you know he's lobbying
hard right now for FCC approval of his purchase of
DirectTV, which will give him a network of satellite
systems spanning Europe, Asia, and Latin America. He's
starting all-news networks in Italy and India, and
he's so desperate to please the Chinese that he
dropped the BBC from his satellite operation in China
just to please the communist leaders there who didn't
like the coverage.

Few journalists have the guts to take on Murdoch the
way columnist Richard Cohen did. He described
Murdoch's properties -- including his Fox News Channel
-- for what they are: "blatantly political, hardly
confining Murdoch's conservative political ideology to
editorials or commentary but infusing it into the news
coverage itself."

That's the political side of it. Then there's the
commercial side. Look, the founders of our government,
the fellows who gave us the First Amendment, didn't
count on the rise of these megamedia conglomerates.
They didn't count on huge private corporations that
would own not only the means of journalism but vast
swaths of the territory that journalism is supposed to
cover. When you get a handful of conglomerates owning
more and more of our news outlets, you're not going to
find them covering the intersection where their power
meets political power.

The fact is that big money and big business,
corporations and commerce, are the undisputed
overlords of politics and government today. Barry
Diller came on my PBS program and talked about what
can happen when the media and political elites gang up
on the public. Diller says we have a media oligopoly.
Kevin Phillips says we have a political oligarchy.
Talk about a marriage made in hell! Listen, these guys
are reshaping our news environment. They're down in
Washington wining and dining the powers-that-be
insisting that any restriction on their ability to own
media properties is a violation of their corporate
First Amendment rights. They want to be the
gatekeepers not only over what we see on television
and hear on the radio but how we travel online.

Journalists feel squeezed -- those who simply believe
we are here to practice our craft as if society needs
what we do and expects us to do it as honorably as
possible. There's another study around here somewhere
done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press and The Columbia Journalism Review. More than a
quarter of journalists polled said they had avoided
pursuing some important stories that might conflict
with the financial interests of their news
organizations or advertisers.

My favorite example is what happened during the nine
months when Congress was considering the
Telecommunications Act of 1996. That legislation
amounted to some of America's richest and most
powerful corporations picking the taxpayers' pockets
of many billions of dollars. The three major network
news broadcasts, whose parent companies were part of
the heist, aired a sum total of only 19 minutes about
the legislation. None of those 19 minutes included a
single mention of debate over whether the broadcasters
should pay for use of the digital spectrum that would
make them richer.

Another example: Everyone knows political campaigns
have become a get-rich quick scheme for local
television station owners. But almost nobody knew in
the winter of 2002 -- because the media weren't
telling us -- that the broadcast lobbyists were
strangling in the crib a requirement that the networks
offer candidates their least expensive advertising
rates, so campaigning wouldn't cost so much.

Take the big story this year -- the White House and
its big corporate allies prodding the FCC to relax the
rules to allow the conglomerates to get even bigger.
Practically no major news outlets bothered to cover
it. Our little program on PBS stayed on the story --
the FCC became our beat -- and we kept throwing our
spotlight on it until the public caught on. Over two
million citizens bombarded the FCC and Congress with
protests. Suddenly Congress woke up and realized
people really care about these media issues. The
Senate has stopped the FCC from acting and there are
votes in the House to do the same except that Tom
Delay won't let it come to the floor. I was
flabbergasted to read the other day that even the FCC
chairman, Michael Powell, had to acknowledge that if
it hadn't been for PBS, there wouldn't have been any
media coverage of the most important media story of
the year.

BUZZFLASH: Many books and theses have been written
about this question, but just give us your quick take.
How has the prevalence of television in our lives
affected how we view news events and public policy?
How does the emphasis on the visual image in the
nightly television news impact public perceptions?

MOYERS: I don't have the social science skills to
answer that with authority. One of my heroes is Norman
Corwin, who wrote some of radio's greatest shows a
long time ago. He's still very much alive, in his 90s,
his spunk and spirit as vital as ever. He wrote a book
some years ago called Trivializing America. He was
prophetic about how media is saturating us with
violence, nonsense and trivia. Neil Postman died just
the other day -- a great professor of culture and
communication at New York University. He wrote a small
classic about how we are Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Let me read you from a Nation essay he also wrote: "If
knowledge is power, if the function of information is
to modify or provide direction to action, then it is
almost precisely true that TV news shows give nearly
no information and even less knowledge. Except of
course through their commercials. One can be told
about Bounty, Braniff and Burger King, and then do
something in relation to them. Everything on a TV show
is arranged so that it is unnecessary, undesirable
and, in any event, very difficult to attend to the
sense of what is depicted."

Now, it's possible to combat the trivializing, numbing
and dumbing down proclivity of manipulated images.
Many broadcast journalists have done so. Back in the
early 60s, I watched an NBC program -- I think the
name of it was simply The Tunnel -- about people
trying to dig their way under the Berlin wall to
freedom. I have never forgotten how moved I was at so
indelible a reminder of what people would do to be
free. Ken Burns's series on the Civil War connected me
to that seminal experience in our history much as
Bruce Catton's wonderful books had done on the same
subject many years earlier. I'd rather watch a
baseball or football game on television than in the
stadium, because the beauty of both sports -- the
double play, the long bomb -- can be savored in the

Broadcast journalism can be truthful about reality,
too. I've been fortunate during my own three decades
in television to work with producers and editors and
other colleagues who think that images can be as
faithful to the truth as words and who strive to keep
faith with the viewer just as scrupulously as writers
do with the reader. One of my teams went back often
over 10 years to document the lives of two working
class families in Milwaukee as they struggled with the
economic realities of globalization. I don't think any
book I've read on the subject could have done those
families greater justice. Keeping faith with your
craft is more important than ever when we are
bombarded by propaganda, pornography, and
sentimentality. You have to work at it, of course; you
have to take care and time and vow to do the best you
can. Like words, images can honor the truth or subvert

BUZZFLASH: Some studies have indicated that many
Americans can't tell the difference between news they
have seen on newscasts, news they have received from
entertainment sources (Jay Leno, David Letterman and
Jon Stewart, for instance), and political ads.
Supposing this theory is true, is there any hope of
creating a more informed public?

MOYERS: I think Jon Stewart is the most astute
political analyst working today. He has more moments
of "Eureka" in a single broadcast than a month of
editorials. Who else sets off laughter and light bulbs
in your head at the same time? If I believed in
reincarnation, I would believe Mark Twain alive and

But your question was whether people distinguish
between a comedy show, a news show, and a commercial.
It seems to me they do. I think people know what they
are watching. The problem, once again, is whether they
know what they are not learning from a news broadcast,
or how the story's being spun. Print, too. I still
have in my files a headline that ran the day after the
bombing of Baghdad began: "Anti-War, Pro-Troops
Rallies Take to Streets as War Rages." There was
another one, too: "Weekend Brings More Demonstrations
-- Opposing War, Supporting Troops." That's a mistaken
and misleading formulation. You can be opposed to war
because you support the troops and don't think they
should be put in jeopardy in the wrong place for the
wrong reason at the wrong time.

Back to your question, though. Yes, I think people
distinguish between comedy, news and commercials.
Television's power of juxtaposition, however, and its
ability to arouse emotions at the expense of analysis
can take us down the slippery slope and over the edge.
I know from my own experience many years ago in the
1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater how tempting it
is to let images do your thinking for you. They're
like heroin, mainlined right into the emotional
vortex. How we feel becomes more decisive than how we

BUZZFLASH: Certainly with media consolidation, the
line between news and entertainment appears to
becoming more and more blurred. In the Iraq war, for
instance, the Pentagon paid to have a Hollywood-style
briefing room constructed, as though it were a
television show set. As another example, Arnold
Schwarzenegger announces he is running for governor on
Jay Leno. Morning news programs push news, products,
shows and movies that benefit the bottom line of their
parent corporations. So has the wall fallen between
news and entertainment, at least on the broadcast side
of the media?

MOYERS: Yes. Shakespeare said "all the world's a
stage." Today it would be "television studio." There
are exceptions, of course, but by and large most of
what happens on television is for entertainment.
Nothing wrong with entertainment, unless it leads to
thinking that everything is entertainment -- religion
and politics in the same dimension as sports and
sitcoms. And there is always the fact that if all the
world's a stage -- pardon me, television set -- we
don't see the reality off-stage, where the camera
can't go. That's where the money changes hands and
deals are done.

For years now small arcane provisions have been
written into legislation that nobody pays attention to
until years later, when we learn each one transferred
hundreds and billions of dollars from the pockets of
wage earners into the coffers of huge corporations and
wealthy individuals.

BUZZFLASH: Do you agree that war coverage, because of
government "news management," has generally become
more antiseptic and, therefore, made war more
palatable to the American public? We rarely, if ever,
see a shot or video of dead American soldiers, in
contrast to the coverage of Vietnam.

MOYERS: Or the wounded. The wounded get dumped at home
and soon forgotten. But you're right about the
antiseptic nature of coverage. There was a story by
Dana Milbank recently in the Washington Post that the
Pentagon is not going to allow news coverage and
photography of dead soldiers' homecoming on military
bases. Show 'em marching off to war but make damned
sure we don't see 'em coming back in pieces. It's the
Barbara Bush syndrome as official policy. Remember
what she told Diane Sawyer earlier this year. "Why
should we hear about body bags, and deaths … Why
should I waste my beautiful mind on something like
that …" No wonder her son is the only president in our
time who has not attended any memorials or funerals
for soldiers killed in action on his watch.

Something else: Did you notice last spring how the
news media here at home seemed more obsessed with the
deaths of journalists in Iraq than of civilian
casualties? It reminded me of what I think may have
been a defining moment in the history of broadcast
news -- back when Roone Arledge ordered ABC News to
broadcast the funeral of the anchor Frank Reynolds. I
knew and liked Frank; I think he would have been
embarrassed by the spectacle. It was as if the media
were announcing to the public: "We are more important
than you are. We want you to care more about us than
we do about you." Bizarre! We're such a
self-referential bunch.

BUZZFLASH: The drive for war appeared to be driven by
a public relations effort by the Bush administration,
using a willing media as its megaphone, particularly
television. How should the media, particularly
television, have covered the selling of the Iraq war
to the American public?

MOYERS: Here's where I question using the word "media"
as a catch-all. There are media and there are media.
You could find a lot of dissent on the Internet. There
were serious and challenging discussions on some
television shows. On the whole, however, it was a
stacked deck. Hussein, of course, was an undebatable
target -- the world really is better off without him.
You wouldn't want to stage an even-handed debate about
him! But on everything else we were at the mercy of
the official view that he was an "imminent threat"
without any reliable information to back it up. Here's
where we needed a strong opposition party to ask hard

The constitutional scholar Raul Berger once told me
that the main purpose of one party is to keep the
other party honest. We didn't have that. And the
burden on journalism was overwhelming to what too few
are equipped to do -- go to original material, provide
plenty of airtime to dissenting opinions. We wound up
with far more airtime going to official spokesmen than
to skeptics. I've gone back and reviewed transcripts
of many of the interview programs conducted in the
build-up to the invasion. Hawks like Richard Perle
were thrown softball after softball, and their
assertions for invasion basically went unchallenged.
Our mandate at NOW is to provide alternative voices
and views and when we started fulfilling that mandate,
the hawks wouldn't come on. They didn't want to be
challenged. Colin Powell's now largely-discredited
speech to the U.N. was hailed at the time as if it
were an oration by Pericles; there was no one with the
evidence to challenge him until some time had passed.

I guess I was most astonished at the imbalance of the
Washington Post -- something like three-to-one pro-war
columns on the op-ed page. The press seemed to throw
to the wind Ben Bradlee's Watergate requirement of two
sources for every allegation. Or some sense that
people other than the establishment should have been
heard on war and peace.

BUZZFLASH: Have we created a circumstance where we
have little perspective beyond the most recent news
cycle? The words of the White House on one morning,
for instance, may be contradicted by events in the
afternoon, but the news coverage rarely seems to bring
any information or comments from the past to compare
them to the unfolding news of the moment. It's almost
as if news no longer has a historical context.

MOYERS: Down the memory hole, as George Orwell would
describe it. And yes, it's all about stimulation now.
Watching the opening of the second game of the World
Series, I was struck at how effectively the Fox
producers mixed patriotic imagery with prurient
promotions for upcoming programming in what amounted
to a sedation of the viewer's critical faculty. It's a
fitting metaphor, I think, for what's happening in
politics as the mainstream media have been silenced
and the partisan media have turned propaganda into
"news." Wave the flag, stroke the sentiments, stir the
prejudices -- and you can keep the masses distracted
from the real game happening out of sight, behind
closed doors in boardrooms and oval offices.

BUZZFLASH: And what is that game?

MOYERS: Class war. The corporate right and the
political right declared class war on working people a
quarter of a century ago and they've won. The rich are
getting richer, which arguably wouldn't matter if the
rising tide lifted all boats. But the inequality gap
is the widest it's been since l929; the middle class
is besieged and the working poor are barely keeping
their heads above water. The corporate and governing
elites are helping themselves to the spoils of victory
-- politics, when all is said and done, comes down to
who gets what and who pays for it -- while the public
is distracted by the media circus and news has been
neutered or politicized for partisan purposes.

Take the paradox of a Rush Limbaugh, ensconced in a
Palm Beach mansion massaging the resentments across
the country of white-knuckled wage earners, who are
barely making ends meet in no small part because of
the very policies of those corporate and ideological
forces for whom Rush has been a hero. I recently came
across an account of the tabloid era of British
journalism in the late 1950s when the Daily Mirror,
for one, presented itself as the champion of the
working man, fearlessly speaking truth to power, when
out of sight its gluttonous and egomaniacal chairman
was demanding and extorting favors from frightened or
like-minded politicians and generally helping himself
to greater portions of privilege like any other press
baron. It's the same story for Limbaugh, Murdoch and
his minions, and the tycoons of the megamedia
conglomerates. They helped create the new Gilded Age
to whose largesse they have so generously helped
themselves while throwing the populace off the trail
with red meat served up in the guise of journalism.

As Eric Alterman reports in his recent book -- a book
that I'm proud to have helped make happen -- part of
that red meat strategy is to attack mainstream media
relentlessly, knowing that if the press is effectively
intimidated, either by the accusation of liberal bias
or by a reporter's own mistaken belief in the charge's
validity, the institutions that conservatives revere
-- corporate America, the military, organized
religion, and their own ideological bastions of
influence -- will be able to escape scrutiny and
increase their influence over American public life
with relatively no challenge. Eric calls it "working
the refs," and it's worked.

BUZZFLASH: You will be the keynote speaker at the
National Conference on Media Reform
(http://www.mediareform.net/conference.php) in Madison
on Nov. 8. It is described as a groundbreaking forum
to democratize the debate over media policymaking. How
do you give optimism to those who feel that the
struggle against multi-billion dollar media
conglomerates is hopeless, considering their financial
and political power?

MOYERS: By reminding ourselves of what's at stake.
We're not just talking about the media here; we're
talking about democracy and what kind of country
America's going to be. It's too late to transform the
global structure of media ownership or Wall Street's
appetite for higher and higher profits no matter the
cost to journalism. But we can fight for more
accountability to democracy by the big companies, we
can encourage alternative and independent journalism,
and we keep our searchlights trained on the towers of
power, including the contradictions, absurdities and
excesses of the right-wing media that now dominate the
public discourse.

That's just the beginning. We have to get people
involved in the crucial public policy fights that are
taking place. Over the last decade there's been an
astonishing explosion of new-media diversity, as
online and other digital media have made more outlets
for expression possible. The Internet has enabled many
new voices in our democracy to be heard, including
those of advocacy groups, artists and nonprofit
organizations. Just about anyone can speak up online,
and often with an impact far greater than in the days
when orators had to step onto a soap box and address
passersby in a park. The virtual soap box has the
potential to reach anyone, anywhere, anytime -- and to
spread virally good ideas and good works of
journalism. It's where people can fight back.

Now, media industry lobbyists point to the existence
of the Internet, as well as to the many new digital TV
channels now found on cable, when they argue that
public policies to ensure ownership diversity or
promote competition aren't really necessary today.
They argue that concerns about media concentration are
ill founded in an environment where anyone can speak,
and when, they suggest, there are literally hundreds
of competing channels. I grant this is a dramatic
change from the time, not so long ago, when just three
TV networks dominated American political and cultural
life. However, there's less here than meets the eye.

This seeming diversity of programming choices that we
are presented with today is more illusory than real.
The Internet may have made it easier to speak than
ever before, but finding an audience for that speech
is as difficult as ever. Jupiter Media Metrix has done
a study showing that AOL Time Warner (as it was then
called) accounts for nearly a third of all user time
spent online, and two other companies -- Yahoo and
Microsoft -- bring that figure to fully 50 percent.
The traffic patterns of the online world, in other
words, are beginning more and more to resemble those
of TV and radio. While there is an abundance of
alternative voices at the margin of the system, the
mega-gatekeepers would like to move that margin
farther from the center, so that those independent
voices grow fainter and fainter.

As for the growing number of channels available on
today's cable systems, most of these channels, it
turns out, are owned by a handful of companies. Jeff
Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy reminded
me just the other day that of the 91 major networks
that appear on most cable channels, 79 are part of
such multiple network groups as those of Time Warner,
Liberty Media, NBC and Disney. So in order to program
a channel on cable today, you must either be owned or
affiliated with one of the giants. The Writers Guild
of America, as I am sure you know, represents
virtually all of the writers who work on entertainment
programs, films and much of TV news. The Guild told
the FCC earlier this year that "consolidation and
control of program production, distribution, and
exhibition … had contributed to an already steep
decline in diversity, variety and quality" in the
programming that Americans see.

I know most of what I know about media policy from the
Media Access Project -- the public interest
communications law firm that, along with Jeff Chester,
does a great job of following these debates. I think
they are right when they warn even the wide-open
spaces of the Internet may soon be fenced off, that it
will be transformed into a system in which a handful
of companies use their control over high-speed access
to ensure they remain at the top of the digital heap
in the broadband era. The many noncommercial and civic
voices -- representing the democratic potential of the
Internet -- could be driven into digital twilight.
They will be harder, or more expensive, for users and
viewers to reach than the readily available commercial
fare, which will be bundled into our cable and
Internet access service.

Jeff Chester can get you very excited about the
opportunity before us to re-envision our
communications system and the ways that it can serve
both community and commerce. Thanks to technological
innovations, we now have the opportunity to
accommodate competing points of view and invite user
participation. Channels can be freed to serve the
civic and noncommercial needs of communities. Space
can be provided for free political debate,
eliminating, maybe, one of the most lethal cancers on
our body politic -- the need for politicians to raise
enormous sums of money to pay for commercials. The
Supreme Court has called the Internet the "most
participatory form of mass speech yet developed."
Maybe -- if we maintain those qualities as it evolves
into the high-speed multimedia system known as

That will take vigilance, because none of this will
happen if the public doesn't wake up to the
possibility that a handful of cable and local
telephone giants would like to be the only gatekeepers
of cyberspace, and that they would like to create and
control the content according to Hollywood and Madison
Avenue. Even as we speak, federal policymakers are
considering proposals that threaten the ability of our
media system to serve democracy. Media critics and
watchdog groups have spoken out, but few in power
appear to be listening, in part -- and this brings us
back to square one -- because the message is about the
role and future of our country's principal messengers,
the media themselves, the very business that won't let
its own watchdogs bark, much less bite, over the theft
of the public interest.

My friend Chuck Lewis runs the Center for Public
Integrity, the watchdog organization that I've
supported journalistically and financially. The Center
has gotten great play in mainstream media with its
investigative reports through the year. But when it
released an in-depth study of the new media's lobbying
efforts a year ago, you could have choked on the
silence. The TV networks were nowhere in evidence.
They just coughed politely and went back to cancer
cures and Michael Jackson. Let me read you what Chuck
Lewis said: "In this difficult time of recession and
massive media industry layoffs, what journalist is
going to propose to his editors or owners that they
expose the special interest influence peddling of the
media? There's an idea that will kill a promising
career. Most editors and reporters exercise
self-censorship or anticipatory restraint, when it
comes to investigating the media … Meanwhile, the
American people are not informed about how the media
barons are profiteering from democracy, and why it
matters. An entire part of our national discourse is
muted, with no debate, because the media doesn't want
to shine a spotlight on itself."

So we have our work cut out for us. If we don't do it
-- every one of us who has any measure of independence
and any forum whatsoever -- no one will. I just count
on our keeping in mind the news photographer in Tom
Stoppard's Night and Day who says, "People do terrible
things to each other, but it's worse in places where
everybody is kept in the dark." We have to turn on
some lights around here.


* * *

For more information on the Bill Moyers' "Now"
program, go to:

For more information on the National Conference on
Media Reform, go to:

(This interview was conducted via e-mail.)

Posted by richard at October 28, 2003 07:13 AM