Archive | October, 2004

A Hunger for Truth About Media

My friend John Anderson of has enrolled in graduate school here at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois. His assistantship is to produce a weekly 5-minute media reform newscast called Media Minutes that is posted to the Free Press website and airs on Robert McChesney’s Media Matters program on public radio WILL-AM.

The first edition of the program was posted last week, and second one went up last Friday.

I helped John set up a little mini-studio in an office in the Armory building on the U of I campus where he produces the program. I’m impressed with the very high-quality results he gets with relatively inexpensive equipment connected to a garden-variety PC laptop.

As a side note, apparently McChesney’s Media Matters program broke the WILL-AM pledge drive record a week ago during a special two-hour pledge drive extravaganza. I think it’s cool that the program beats the likes of NPR blockbusters such as All Things Considered. NPR and the CPB have for the last decade been trying to get public stations to carry more national syndicated programming (instead of local programming), always singing the siren call of increased pledge drive revenue for national programming. Media Matters’ success shows that public radio listeners do value local programming, especially when it values dialog and bringing in critical voices who challenge the ruling media oligarchy.

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Jesse Walker Responds on Sinclair

Jesse Walker sent me a clarification and response to my post on Friday about his article, “First Amendment Hypocrites: The Democratic Party vs. the Sinclair Broadcast Group.”

Jesse gave me permission to post it here, which I appreciate, since I’m always glad to have dialogue with mediageek readers and other bloggers and writers.

This sort of open exchange is similar to the function that pre-20th century newspapers played, where much of the content of any given newspaper was made up of lively (thought not necessarily civil) letters going back-and-forth on the issues of the day. You still see this a little in the letters pages of local newspapers, although it is much more dilute, since space limitations and the tolerance of editors dictate what and how much gets published.

Here’s Jesse’s response:


Thanks for linking to my article on Sinclair’s Kerry show (which, after
all the hubbub, I forgot to watch last night). I’m not sure why you
said that I think “somehow our current system is fair,” since I didn’t
write that & don’t believe that, and in fact have elsewhere argued the
exact opposite. What I do believe is that going after Sinclair will do
nothing to make the system more fair, and a lot to make it worse.

My disagreement with you — my most important disagreement, anyway — is
whether the DNC’s action at the FEC & the threat to challenge Sinclair’s
licenses have anything to do with consolidation. Sure, there’s obviously
consolidation issues involved in the greater question of Sinclair and
its programming. But the DNC’s complaint doesn’t rest on Sinclair’s
size, and the efforts to challenge their licenses don’t either. Neither
does anything to change the basic regulatory structure when it comes to
ownership or spectrum. But both involve government regulation of
*speech*, and one could actually extend the state’s power.

I get a feeling of deja vu as I watch anti-consolidationists jump on this bandwagon, because I saw the same thing happen as the crusade against media consolidation melted into a crusade against “indecency.” Except this time the speech is more important, because it’s political opinions expressed at the height of a national election, not a bare breast at the Super Bowl. It’s the same spirit — not the same political faction, but the same spirit — that motivates Rep. Chris Cox’s charge in Congress to have an official government investigation of CBS.

Now, I don’t like Sinclair and I don’t like CBS, so I’m not really eager to defend them. But aside from general free speech principles, I just don’t expect such powers to *only* be used against places like CBS and Sinclair (just as other FEC regulations theoretically devised to restrain big corporate donors end up being used against low-budget grassroots groups that violated some technicality). To quote your blog post: live by the sword, die by the sword.


Click MORE for my follow-up…

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Sinclair: A Question of Consolidation, Free Speech, both or neither?

Over at Reason magazine, Jesse Walker files a column taking the DNC to task for purusing Sinclair over its forthcoming anti-Kerry program. Himself a libertarian who isn’t supporting Bush, Walker is critical of the DNC’s attempts to threaten Sinclair’s broadcast licenses. He writes:

Sinclair’s show doesn’t qualify [as a a news story, commentary, or editorial], the [DNC] argues, for two reasons. One, because “the company is obtaining the film, not from a legitimate documentary producer, but from a disgraced former reporter who has never before produced a documentary.” And two, because Sinclair is not “acting as a press entity” but as a supporter of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The first objection is more obviously appalling, since it amounts to asking the feds to get into the business of determining who is or isn’t a qualified filmmaker. But the second statement is insidious as well. In the wake of the forged-documents scandal at CBS, it has become an article of faith of many on the right that Dan Rather’s network is in the Kerry camp (and that Rather himself is basically a “disgraced former reporter”).

I have to say that I agree with him on both these points in principle — the last thing any oppositional media maker wants is for licenses and penalties to be doled out based on content or qualification (even that is what actually happens right now in the US). Indymedia, for instance, thrives on the argument and legal precedent that there is no accreditation for journalists.

However I can’t follow with him through all of his conclusions, especially when he refuses to see the situation as an ownership issue:

The strangest, most misguided response to McAuliffe’s censorship effort has come from those who support it because they believe this is somehow about media consolidation.

Here, I have to dissent. I share Walker’s discomfort with bringing regulatory action against Sinclair, except for the fact that Sinclair has used and abused the regulatory framework for its own gain, especially for trying to own more stations that it’s legally allowed to. From a more pragmatic point of view, I think Sinclair gets what it deserves: live by the sword, die by the sword.

More fundamentally, it is an ownership issue. But it’s not about having a single company being able to unilaterally program 62 stations, per se. It’s about the fact that the company can program these stations with absolutely no regard to what the local communities hosting these stations want or don’t want. It’s about the fact that Sinclair can ram down viewers’ throats ham-fisted right-wing commentary tacked onto local news programs, leaving many viewers wondering, who is this Mark Hyman guy, and does he actually live here?

The Sinclair debacle is about the disconnect between broadcast rights and the responsibility that accompanies the out-and-out giveaway of valuable broadcast spectrum. As my college broadcasting professor said of radio and TV stationes, they’re “a license to mint money.”

In exchange for this mint, Sinclair owes the communities it serves something back. But airing the anti-Kerry program and commentaries like The Point is like spitting in the eye of these communities.

The combination of nearly eliminated public service requirements and greatly relaxed ownership rules allow and even encourage the creation of monsters like Sinclair. In this, Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty — the epochal Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed under Clinton’s watch, with both Kerry and Edwards signing on.

Now, what’s so ironic about the Sinclair situation is that the company doesn’t seem to be profiting so much from it’s ham-fisted tactics, with it’s stock price sliding away and advertisers, like Burger King, refusing to have their ads run during the anti-Kerry program. So, one might argue that with investors and advertisers balking, the market is taking care of Sinclair better than regulatory intervention would.

It may be true that Sinclair has violated some unspoken rules that unsettles the ruling order — but it’s also true that while the first one to break these rules often gets some flak, this also functions to pave the way for followers. Can anyone remember when TV programs like NYPD Blue garnered flak and advertiser pull-outs over airing more challenging adult fare? Now, ten years later, much of what airs on prime time cop shows isn’t much different, and hardly anyone raises a peep.

I’m glad to see Sinclair get hit any way possible — even though I agree that the DNC is a bunch of hypocrites, like the Republicans, willing to use concepts like censorship and bias liberally and whenever convenient. However, I don’t share Walker’s belief that somehow our current system is fair, and that in order to protect the rights of dissenters, such as Indymedia, that we have to protect the rights of Sinclair. I argue that Sinclair already has their rights well protected, and enjoys far more privilege–they’ve spent quite a bit to buy it. It’s clear that Sinclair management wants nothing but to use their ill-gotten privilege and influence to affect the forthcoming election in a way that no other group or company can (or is yet willing to try).

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UK Home Secretary and FBI Deny Responsibility for Indymedia Hard Drive Seizure

Sascha files an update to U-C IMC:

As legal pressure and public outrage grows, both the UK home secretary and the FBI are now claiming that they were not involved in the seizure of two Indymedia servers that shut down 20 Indymedia Websites and multiple other online projects.
According to questions asked by two British MPs, the UK government is now claiming that no one from UK law enforcement was involved in the server seizure…

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People Getting Pissed with Sinclair

I’ve learned that some local Champaign-Urbana activists are planning to picket our local Sinclair station, WICD-TV 15. In addition to Sinclair’s plan to air the anti-Kerry program, the activists also cite the slanted news commentary The Point with Mark Hyman as a key complaint.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been watching Sinclair and covering the company on my radioshow for a number of years now, and I’m glad to see people finally taking notice of the companies that own our local media outlets. It’s just too bad that it takes something as egregious as Sinclair’s plans to air “Stolen Honor” to get folks riled up.

The picket itself won’t make a difference to Sinclair or change the company’s mind — my bet is that they’ve gone too far to give in now. But one hopes it will attract other local media outlets (like Channel 15’s competition). All of this will at least embarass local station employees and help draw more attention to the wizards behind the curtain. It might even merit coverage by the channel’s own news staff, who, if they have any journalistic training at all, likely aren’t thrilled with “Stolen Honor.” It’s hard to justify ignoring a picket right in front of your studios. Unless, of course, Sinclair corporate sends strict orders to black it out.

The WICD news staff must know that most of them are only months away from being canned when the station flips from NBC to ABC affiliation and likely brings in Sinclair’s NewsCentral to replace the local newscast. The scuttlebutt is that NBC isn’t happy with it’s affiliates airing NewsCentral, which is why Sinclair is changing affiliation at its few NBC stations.

With all of Sinclair’s pro-war boosterism, it’s a bit strange to note that the station’s (still) local news did cover an appearance today of anti-war veteran and counselor Ray Parrish for a speaking engagement in town. I didn’t manage to see the story myself, but if the “headline” text on the website is any indication, it looks to have been pretty even-handed, “event”-type journalism.

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