Thursday, June 30, 2005

What Big Brother watched at PBS

The thought cop hired to police public broadcasting by the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting not only rated guests on his perception of their political leanings but also on whether they supported White House policies.

This shockingly inappropriate intrusion on the independence of the press by a secretly retained government hireling was reported bravely, and ironically, on the eve of the Independence Day weekend by National Public Radio. NPR and the Public Broadcasting System, the TV network, have been major targets of the Bush administration’s full-court press on the press.

Public broadcasting is particularly vulnerable to political pressure, because 15.5% of its funding comes directly from CPB and another 4% comes from other federal sources. The biggest chunk of funding, 26%, comes, as they say, from viewers and listeners like you.

As previously reported, Republicans in Congress threatened to decimate federal funding for public broadcasting at the same time Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of CPB, powered through the appointment of Patricia S. Harrison, the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, as chief executive of the previously apolitical organization that dispenses nearly $400 million a year to public broadcasting.

In Chairman Tomlinson’s quest to purge "liberal" bias from public broadcasting, it turns out, he surreptitiously paid $14,000 in federal funds to a little-known consultant named Frederick W. Mann to rate the perceived political tilt of two PBS and two NPR broadcasts. Big Brother, as it were, hired a Little Brother to do his dirty work.

Although CPB declined to release a copy of Little Brother Mann’s findings, because the inspector general of the corporation is investigating the case at the request of congressmen irked at the impropriety of it all, NPR got hold of the reports and courageously put them on the air and on the web.

Little Brother’s analysis would be hilarious, if it were not such a frightening and abject breech of the firewall between government and the press established by the Founding Fathers, whose initial handiwork will be celebrated this weekend.

In one example, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska was branded a "liberal," even though he last year earned 100% ratings from such conservative organizations as the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum. His generic concerns over the war in Iraq landed him on Little Brother’s anti-administration list when he told Tavis Smiley on NPR in June, 2004:
I think we are still on the edge in Iraq. It will depend on whether are able to bring the United Nations, our allies, other Arab countries into this soon enough, and if we are able to define this in a way that the Iraqi people will trust our leadership, have confidence in our leadership, trust our purpose. If we do that, we'll win. If we don't, we will not win.
Little Brother catalogued guests on the monitored programs according to his impression of whether they were liberal or conservative – and whether they were friends or foes of the White House. "On all the shows, including that of the conservative Tucker Carlson, Little Brother found more liberal guests than conservatives," reported NPR. "And he found far more critics of Bush than supporters."

By all accounts, the PBS program "Now with Bill Moyers" struck a particular hot button for Big Brother. Analyzing 136 segments of the show, Little Brother found that 92 opposed the Bush administration; that 67 out of 90 guests were "liberal or Democrats," and that even "most conservatives were seen to be opposed to Bush policies," according to NPR.

"They hired right-wingers to do it – you know, go looking for bias with bias," said Mr. Moyers in an interview on the Jon Stewart show quoted by NPR.

"I hope we never have a situation where journalists perceive intimidation in all this," Big Brother told NPR in an interview earlier this month.

Oh, really? Oh, Brother!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Why BO stinx at the flix

Unable to bridge a generational and cultural divide, theatrical movie revenues have fallen into a chasm from which they never may emerge.

For the 18th week in a row, ticket sales have slid below those of the same week in the prior year, an all-time record swoon. Year to date, industry revenues are 7% lower than in 2004. Factoring out higher ticket prices, sales are fully 10% lower than a year ago.

The box office stinks at the movies for a number of obvious reasons, including thin plots, high prices and fake butter flavoring – any of which could be resolved with sufficient resolve on the part of the industry. But the problem is worse than that.

Movies are hopelessly stuck in the one-size-fits-all mindset that worked great in the era before people could pick and choose among competing entertainment offerings. Declining sales show that consumers increasingly are viewing movies (or, actually, not viewing them) as being literally more trouble than they are worth. One recent survey, for example, found that nearly three-quarters of respondents would rather stay home and watch a DVD.

The movie audience, like all legacy media audiences, is not monolithic. It is composed of three separate groups with distinct social, cultural and economic values. Here’s who they are – and why each is getting fed up with the flicks.

The Geezers

The Geezers are old folks, like your correspondent, who fondly remember the excitement of getting dressed up on a special occasion and going downtown to see a movie at a spacious and elegant theater, where people didn’t dump sticky stuff on the floor, didn’t bring squalling babies and couldn’t talk on their cell phones because they hadn’t been invented yet.

Another attraction was that the films had plots, strong character development and decent acting. Vehicular destruction was incidental to some movies but not the primary point of most productions. Sex was suggested sensitively and nudity generally was confined to four-legged creatures and the occasional bird.

Apart from the obvious thematic limitations of the shlock produced today, Geezers are hard-pressed to find theaters where people mind their manners. Further, many of us suffer from multiplex claustrophobia, wherein too many people are jammed into too small of a room and seated too close to too large of a screen. A week after being forced to watch Batman from the second row at a mega-mini-multiplex, Newsosaur continues to nurse a stubborn case of cinematic whiplash.

The Breeders

The Breeders are the folks who are making and raising the children who, I guess, will grow up to known as Generation Alpha, since Gens X, Y and Z already are out and about. Much as they love their youngsters, The Breeders, more than anyone, could use a nice night out. The problem is that most of them aren’t exactly flush with money.

But flush is what you’ve got to be to go to the movies these days. With $19 for two tickets, $10 for popcorn and a soda, $6 for parking and $25 for a babysitter, that four-hour outing costs $60. And you still get fake butter on your popcorn.

The same money spent on one night at the movies will buy a dozen pay-per-view movies on DirecTV or four months of unlimited Blockbuster rentals. Beyond the self-evident economics, these alternatives deliver far more choice than the half-dozen titles available at the average 14-screen multiplex. They let you watch a movie when it’s convenient and rewind to the ending you missed when you fell asleep on the sofa.

The Kidsters

The primary customers targeted by movies, of course, are high school and college students and other young singles. If nothing else, the movies are a great place to be alone with that special someone. Who didn’t steal a first kiss in a darkened theater?

Although movies continue to be packed with more sex, drugs, sex, action, sex and rock ’n’roll than ever before, a growing number of Kidsters would rather make their own movies, MP3s, blogs, podcasts, games and other digital diversions. It’s cheap, fun, easy, and, if sex happens to be involved, you can join right in.

While Geezers figure it isn’t a movie unless they have seen it on a big screen, Kidsters, who grew up glued to Game Boys, computers, PDAs, iPods and mobile phones are perfectly content to get the picture, any picture, on everything from a plasma screen to a cell phone. With synapses and attention spans attenuated by years of kinetic electronic stimulation, Kidsters prize unlimited choice and maximum mobility over a medium so static, Dude, that there’s not even a remote control.

Fortunately for the movie industry, theaters still have a lot of appeal to Kidsters as a social venue. Today’s young people will keep going to the movies until greedy exhibitors price them out of the market.

But it remains to be seen whether Generation Alpha will acquire the movie habit. Saturated from birth with everything from Baby Mozart tapes to preschool computer instruction, the Alphas may be perfectly content to stay in their well-wired rooms and socialize via IM, SMS, My Space and all the other available electronic surrogates for human interaction.

If they get a craving for popcorn with artificial butter flavoring, all they’ll have to do is hit the pause button, run downstairs and make some in the microwave.

Monday, June 27, 2005

A license to chill

Why are Judith Miller and Matt Cooper being prosecuted for not identifying the sources they interviewed for stories they never wrote about a crime that evidently wasn’t committed and for which no one, except possibly the reporters, ever will do time?

In a Catch-22 case that sends a shiver down every journalist's spine, the reporters for the New York Times and Time Magazine face 18 months in the slammer for refusing to name their sources, even though this right is protected by the laws of every state except Wyoming. Unfortunately, this is a federal case, so the shield laws don’t apply.

The reporters moved one step closer to jail when the U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to review a contempt-of-court sentence meted out by the federal district judge overseeing the investigation into who identified a former covert CIA agent whose husband wrote an article critical of the Bush administration. In refusing to act, the top court disregarded entreaties to spare the scribes from the attorney generals of 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Ironically, the investigation into the leak was concluded “for all practical purposes” in October, 2004, and it appears no charges will be preferred, according to court filings earlier this year by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. The only unfinished business, evidently, is the sentencing of the two reporters, who have been free on appeal since October.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan in October declared he would jail the reporters for up to 18 months, unless they either reveal their sources or the grand jury concludes its business. If the case has been concluded “for all practical purposes,” why is the witch hunt continuing?

The case commenced when unnamed administration official(s) evidently revealed the identity of Valerie Plame, a former undercover CIA agent, whose husband wrote an article in 2003 discrediting the phony pre-Iraq invasion tale that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy enriched uranium from Niger to make nuclear weapons. “Some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat,” said Ms. Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph P. Wilson IV. By all accounts, the ambassador was right.

Although Ms. Plame earlier in her career had been an undercover agent, she was working openly in 2003 as an analyst at the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. While it is against the law to reveal the name of a covert agent, commentators argue that Ms. Plame was not a covert agent at the time her identity was revealed.

“If it were known on the Washington cocktail circuit, as has been alleged, that Wilson's wife [was] with the agency, a possessor of that gossip would have no reason to believe that information is classified,” said two lawyers who drafted the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and who expressed their views in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Therefore, they argue, the leak itself was not a crime under the act, which is the dispositive law in this matter.

The original story “exposing” Ms. Plame as a spy was written by columnist Robert Novak, who reportedly has testified to the grand jury investigating the leak but evidently does not face prosecution.

The Identities Protection Act “had no intention of prosecuting a reporter who wanted to expose wrongdoing and, in the process, once or twice published the name of a covert agent,” said Victoria Toensing and Bruce W. Sanford, the authors of the Post op-ed. “Novak is safe from indictment.” It wouldn’t have been a crime to mention Ms. Plame even if she had been a covert agency on active duty, according to the attorneys.

If there is no harm when an agent is exposed and no foul if a reporter writes about it, why are Judith Miller and Matt Cooper packing their toothbrushes for a stint in the federal pen?

Friday, June 24, 2005

Black, white and shades of gray

UPDATED: Aug. 23, 2005

The media have come a long way since the 1960s, when I was shocked as a teenager to realize the Chicago Tribune routinely made a point of identifying as a “Negro” any African-American mentioned in its pages.

No similar ethnic qualifier was deemed necessary for an Anglo-Saxon businessman, a Polish alderman or a Jewish judge. The practice, thankfully, was abandoned around the time lynching fell out of favor (even if 10% of the U.S. Senate at this writing has yet to condemn this particularly heinous blot on our history.)

Although racial equality and ethnic diversity have been embraced by the respectable media since the 1970s, the relative enlightenment in news coverage and hiring practices has made modern times increasingly difficult for the black newspapers that stood bravely for civil rights when it was downright dangerous to do so.

In Chicago, the Daily Defender, which is only one of two daily African-American newspapers remaining in the land, has reduced publication from five days to four as the result of an economic crunch. The only remaining African-American daily is the New York Daily Challenge in Brooklyn.

The nation’s first black-owned daily, the 77-year-old Atlanta Daily World, was scaled back to weekly publication in 1997, according to the PBS program On the Media. In Detroit, the circulation of the Michigan Chronicle has fallen to 47,000 today from 120,000 in 1971.

So it goes throughout this small, proud fraternity. Beyond the changing demographics and media consumption patterns that affect all publications, the black press suffers from a brain drain that, ironically, makes it a victim of its own success.

With the media today comparatively progressive and accessible, a growing number of African-Americans evidently are comfortable reading and working for the mainstream press. For the most part, they don’t relate to the black publications that sustained their community over decades of oppression. Within a generation or so, many of these papers may be lost forever.

And that might be the end of the story, except that a new kind of African-American press may be emerging: Black media owned and operated by mainstream media companies who see an opportunity to create new profit centers in ethnic publishing.

Just such a publication has been launched by the New York Times Co. in Gainesville, FL, where it publishes the dominant Gainesville Sun. The new “black” newspaper, which is called the Gainesville Guardian, has been decried by a number of African-American journalists, including one who was quoted as calling it a “a black publication in whiteface."

"It made me angry," said Clara McLaughlin Criswell, publisher of the Florida Star, the oldest black newspaper in the Gainesville area. "We'll get the readers and they'll get the ads, because they're a white company and they have a stronger base," said Ms. Criswell, as quoted by Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute.

Charlotte Roy, the editor who helped launch the Guardian but was discharged before it began publishing, responds that the Florida Star is based approximately 90 miles away from Gainesville in Jacksonville. "Saying that the Gainesville Guardian will publish at the expense of the Florida Star is like saying that the Macon Telegraph will publish at the expense of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution," says Ms. Roy. "The Star has no presence or circulation in Gainesville; the Guardian will have no presence or circulation in the much larger market of Jacksonville. We will not compete in one another's markets for advertising."

The NYT is well within its rights to start an ethnic publication, if it believes there is a market for it. Newspapers from Miami to Los Angeles have started Spanish-language editions to more fully serve (and sell advertising in) their ethnically diverse communities. The San Jose (CA) Mercury publishes a Vietnamese weekly and Journal Register Co. runs a Portuguese paper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

So, what’s wrong with a “white” company starting a “black” newspaper?

While all’s fair in love and commerce, there is hardly likely to be a fair fight in Gainesville, if the Florida Star indeed counts on circulation and ad sales in the community as much as its publisher suggests. Supported by the superior resources and abundant cash flows of its parent, the new Gainesville Guardian will enter the marketplace as an exceptionally well-endowed competitor.

Even though NYT undoubtedly will take pains to recruit a solid staff of predominantly African-American journalists to develop a strong and independent voice for the new paper, the success of the Guardian, if Gainesville is not big enough for both of them, most may come to a degree at the expense of the Florida Star. It also is fair to argue that the Guardian will create a new audience and, if so, a wholly new source of advertising revenue for itself.

Many commentators, African-American and otherwise, are worried that formerly black-owned media companies like Black Entertainment Television and Essence magazine are now in the hands of Time Warner (which, for the time being, at least has a black CEO). Similarly, NBC owns Telemundo, one of the two major Spanish-language networks in the United States.

So, we have a dilemma. Mainstream media companies can prosper by providing ethnic communities with sustainable, high-quality products that they otherwise might not have. In the process, however, the mainstream companies will squeeze the incumbent ethnic media, which typically are less well capitalized, and perhaps less professional, than the big guys. Even the best of the locals can’t compete with NYSE powerhouses like NYT, Time Warner or NBC’s parent, General Electric.

If independent ethnic publications are silenced or, alternatively, rolled into mega-corporations where they face future homogenization, we all lose, for the public discourse will be less vibrant and less rich than it ought to be.

An NYT-published "black" paper in Gainesville is better than no black paper at all. But I am rooting for the real deal, the Florida Star.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Down (and out?) at the upfront

Ratings-challenged NBC apparently has booked $1 billion less in upfront advertising revenues for the fall season that it did a year ago, causing some observers to proclaim the end of life as we know it for network TV.

But don't get too perturbed by the plunge in NBC bookings, says the imperturbable John Higgins of Broadcasting and Cable Magazine, who provided the estimated results in the table below. "Upfront numbers are always an imprecise reflection of the TV ad market. Buyers jawbone and bluff like mad."

Much of the 34% plunge in ad bookings at NBC was absorbed by the competing ABC, CBS and Fox networks, which collectively scooped up approximately $800 million of the $1 billion booted by NBC. If John's estimates are correct, then total upfront bookings are only a couple of hundred million lower than they were a year ago, a reduction of about 2%.

By promising to improve its programming, keeping its rate increases modest and asking very nicely, ABC staged a particularly strong recovery from a year ago, gaining about $500 million in revenues over 2004.

Still, there are serious signs of static for broadcasters.

Procter & Gamble, the big kahuna of consumer advertising, which last year devoted 80% of its $3 billion ad budget to television, reduced its spend this year on broadcast TV by 5% and on cable by as much as 25%, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"Some industry executives see P&G's cutback in upfront commitments as little more than a ploy to delay buying ad time until later in the year when prices may be lower, " reported the Journal. "But P&G's decision already has contributed to what has been a difficult year in the upfront market," where broadcasters typically sell between 75% and 85% of their commercial inventory and cable networks sell half or more of their inventory.

Even though total ad budgets are up, "TV budgets are down," says David Verkin, the CEO of the Carat media-buying company. Speaking last week at a publishing conference, he was quoted by Media Post as saying "The TV business is as soft as possible."

While the simplest explanation for the soft upfront that is media buyers are getting better at beating up broadcasters, the nagging concern is that the fragmentation of the audience -- and the rapid proliferation of TiVo-like commercial-zapping machines -- will alter irretrievably the industry's traditional economics.

Only time will tell whether this is an isolated case of ruffled peacock feathers or whether the golden goose really has been cooked for good. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Solstice on ice

Instead of the usual mumbo-jumbo gumbo, we are featuring today a cool statistical gazpacho to celebrate the summer solstice. No slurping, please.

:: Consumers today encounter from 3,500 to 5,000 marketing messages per day, vs. 500 to 2,000 in the 1970s, according to a Yankelovich study reported in USA Today. "There are so many ads out there that consumers actively avoid commercials today to an extent never before realized," said Prof. Dan Howard of Southern Methodist University, as quoted by America’s newspaper. "No matter how many more ads we put out there, it's not going to work...because it's not registering." Huh? What? Did he say something?

:: In light of the above, perhaps it comes as no surprise that 72% of DVR owners zap as many commercials as fast as they can, according to Magna Global, the media-buying agency. This useful statistic initially was reported in November by my pal Howard Finberg at the Poynter Institute, so I thought I ought to use it before it went to waste.

:: Fully 73% of respondents to a poll for AP and AOL say they would rather stay home and watch a DVD than go to a movie theater. Not even Batman could rescue movie revenues last weekend from a record-tying 17-week slump in which ticket sales fell short of the same period in the previous year. Maybe they should bring back original-recipe Milk Duds and real butter.

:: With newspaper circulation already at historic lows, Nielsen/NetRatings learned that even 21% of the remaining newspaper devotees prefer to read the paper online instead of in print. Suit yourself, folks. Just remember that you can’t wrap a fish in a laptop.

Friday, June 17, 2005

One last scoop for Chicago Daily News

Although the presses stopped forever in 1978, the Chicago Daily News this week pulled off a posthumous scoop with the publication of a correspondent’s long-lost eyewitness account of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

George Weller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Daily News, evidently was the first American reporter to get to Nagasaki after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 9, 1945. At least 100,000 people were killed.

American military censors at the time suppressed the reports Mr. Weller filed from the scene and he died believing the stories had been lost forever. Two years ago, Mr. Weller’s son, Anthony, found carbon copies of the articles among his father’s papers. The Mainichi Shimbun in Japan this week published the recovered articles for the first time.

Mr. Weller arrived at the stricken city a month after the bombing and initially reported on Sept. 8, 1945, that “the atomic bomb may be classified as a weapon capable of being used indiscriminately, but its use in Nagasaki was selective and proper and as merciful as such a gigantic force could be expected to be.”

Within a day, however, he recognized that radiation sickness was ravaging the population, reporting:
The atomic bomb's peculiar "disease," uncured because it is untreated and untreated because it is not diagnosed, is still snatching away lives here. Men, woman and children with no outward marks of injury are dying daily in hospitals, some after having walked around three or four weeks thinking they have escaped.

The doctors here have every modern medicament, but candidly confessed in talking to the writer -- the first Allied observer to Nagasaki since the surrender -- that the answer to the malady is beyond them. Their patients, though their skin is whole, are all passing away under their eyes.
“Twenty-five Americans are due to arrive Sept. 11 to study the Nagasaki bombsite,” concluded Mr. Weller. “Japanese hope that they will bring a solution for Disease X.”

Sadly, they didn’t have one.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Not ready to bag it

"Paper or plastic?" was once the most agonizing question of our day. But it has been supplanted lately in the newspaper business by this one: "Secular or cyclical?"

With newspaper stocks trading at 52-week lows, some commentators are saying the best days of the publishing business are behind it, and that the industry never will recover from a long-term, or secular, change in the fundamentals of the marketplace.

"The current funk reflects weak advertising trends and concern about the industry's long-term health, stemming from eroding circulation, worsening demographics and a rising preference among advertisers for the Internet," reported Barron's. "One telling statistic: The $82 billion stock-market value of Google tops that of the 12 largest newspaper publishers combined."

On the other hand, some commentators believe the business (and stock prices) will improve with the economy. That would suggest the funk is cyclical.

Newspaper stocks are "potentially one slight pickup away" from turning back into shares that will outperform the market, says analyst William B. Drewry of Credit Suisse First Boston, cautioning nonetheless that the group should be avoided "for the moment, based on sub-par advertising and (earnings-per-share) growth."

His optimism is based on what he witnessed in the last decade. "From 1994 on, the Street was largely bearish on the secular outlook for newspapers," he recalls. By 1996, Internet IPOs and radio consolidation were "driving the perception" that fragmenting audiences and advertising revenues would be drawn away from newspaper companies. "Yet, the cycle bailed out the group," says Bill. "The stocks outperformed the S&P 500 significantly."

Although the 13 publicly traded newspaper stocks have lost an average 22% of their value in the last year, the same stocks have gained an average of 26.5% in the last 10 years and 33% in the last five years.

While Bill's optimism may be rewarded in due course, it is fair to observe that newspapers (and most other media) benefited smartly in the late 1990s from the jillions of marketing and help-wanted dollars spent on the Internet, Y2K and telecommunications binges. When the champagne stopped flowing, newspapers, like most other companies, whacked expenses to maintain reasonable levels of earnings growth.

The secular trends launched in the 1990s are accelerating. Newspaper readership not only is declining in the aggregate but also is particularly weak among younger readers (table below), who increasingly spend their time and money on the Internet, the TV, iPods, games and their mobile phones. Among those who still read newspapers, fully 21% of them prefer to get the news online instead of in print, according to a new study from Nielsen NetRatings.

Although advertising on the Internet and other new media did not achieve the initial outsize potential predicted during the Bubble (what did?), it has grown at hefty triple-digit rates in the last 10 years and today is being embraced ever more broadly by marketers seeking greater efficiency and accountability in their campaigns.

This is not to say newspapers necessarily are doomed. They have three huge assets:

1. Strong, generally well regarded brands in monopoly or near-monopoly markets.

2. The capability to assemble and disseminate compelling information to build valuable audiences.

3. Powerful, long-standing commercial relationships with nearly all the principal businesses in their communities.

These resources can be deployed readily and rapidly to create a wide variety of print and new-media products that would not merely save, but actually enhance, the value of these enviable franchises.

So, there's really no need for the industry to bag it.

If it does, however, here's where the Sierra Club stands on paper vs. plastic:

The energy and other environmental impacts embodied in a plastic grocery bag is somewhat less than in a paper grocery bag. But paper is easier to recycle, being accepted in most recycling programs. The recycling rate for plastic bags is very low. So, which is better for the environment? Neither! The fact is that the difference between paper and plastic RECYCLING is small compared with the REUSING bags.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Whole world retching

There are but a handful of pivotal events in a generation, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F. Kennedy, where you remember where you were and what you were doing when the news broke.

As for me, I am pretty sure I was taking a nap yesterday when the bustling global village stopped in its tracks so everyone could learn, via a live audio feed, whether Michael Jackson had been convicted of a host of child-molestation allegations. He wasn’t.

While the whole world was watching, I was drooling unawares on the new sofa at my sister-in-law’s house in a tiny town in Arizona, where they don’t have a telephone, don’t have an Internet connection, don’t have a television and didn’t happen to be listening to NPR. (You can get a newspaper by driving 10 minutes into town, which, owing to my demanding nap schedule, I wasn’t always inclined to do.)

For all the efforts of the 2,200 enterprising journalists attending the verdict, I was fully 24 hours late in learning from the enterprising New York Times that the newly acquitted Jacko had sworn off under-age sleepovers on the advice of no less a figure than the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

If only our media could bring the same level of enterprise to bear on the truly momentous issues of our day. But, hey, what can you do?

"It's just one of those events that people are connecting with," said Tom Bolton, the editor who published an eight-page Extra edition of the Santa Maria (CA) Times, the enterprising newspaper of record in the town that hosted the trial. "It's a piece of history."

Yes, the long-running coverage of this case was a piece of something. But not history.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Full court press on the press

From the ruthless effort to purge a contrived liberal tilt from public broadcasting to the cynical flogging of Newsweek magazine, the self-righteous Right is succeeding brilliantly in the most ambitious campaign to chill the press in modern history.

In the latest effort to bullyrag the media into submission, a Republican-dominated House subcommittee last week voted to cut in half the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Not content to combat dangerous Blue State-thinking among adults, the lawmakers, evidently anxious to shield impressionable young minds from the yellow peril and the red menace, also gutted the funding for Big Bird and Clifford the Red Dog.

The punishing budget cuts, which exceed even those requested by the zealously media-phobic White House, elegantly complement the administration’s successful effort to put Right-thinking politicians in charge of the previously apolitical organization that dispenses much of the funding for the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio.

[UPDATE on 6.24.05: Although cuts have been restored in a new draft of the spending bill the assault on public broadacsting continues across several fronts, including the appointment of Patricia S, Harrison, the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, as CEO of the previously politically neutal CPB.]

Twisting the truth with its trademark disdain for reality, the administration and its adherents have concocted a preposterous calculus that appears to define “liberal bias” as anything less red-blooded and less blood-thirsty than the hypertensive hyperbole hyped 24/7 by the Fox News Channel.

The worst part about the mugging of public broadcasting is that this unfair charge puts a high-minded group of distinguished professionals in a no-win position. If they ignore the story, the administration gets to peddle it unchallenged. If they cover it, they not only lend it undeserved credence but also expose themselves to fresh criticism for being biased in reporting on their bias.

Karl Rove, the prize bull(y) plucking the ventriloquist strings at the White House bully pulpit, knows he can fool most of the people most of the time by slip-sliding around the truth and relentlessly powering forward whatever self-serving constructs are required to achieve political rapture for the rich and Righteous.

The subtlety and skill of Der Maestro’s prestidigitation was on full display when Newsweek was forced to retract a technically incorrect story that nonetheless appears to have spoken volumes about the abuse of the prisoners being held indefinitely without due process at the remote U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Make no mistake: Newsweek was right to pull back the story when its single unnamed source waffled, and, yes, it should have done a better job of reporting in the first place.

For the record, however, note that a Pentagon report, which was released late on a Friday night a couple of weeks after the Newsweek flap, did confirm a number of desecrations of the Muslim holy book by Americans at Guantanamo. Among the admitted incidents was an episode in which a guard's urine somehow came through an air vent and splashed on a detainee and his Quran.

Seizing on Newsweek’s stumble, the Bush administration managed to turn Newsweek’s error into the story, thus de-emphasizing the real issue: The unconscionable treatment of the 540 souls being held, for the most part without charges, at an isolated American base in Cuba. Along the way, the administration took the press down another notch in public esteem, not that it had much further to go.

Like a tai-chi master performing at a serene level of perfection, Der Maestro let the negative energy of the initial Newsweek charge flow past him. Rather than aggressively disputing the charge, the administration asked for the proof behind it. When Newsweek’s story started unraveling, Der Maestro and his minions turned the negative energy against the magazine, amplifying Newsweek’s embarrassment by emphasizing the deadly riots in Afghanistan that erupted in reaction to the story.

No sooner did Newsweek back off, then it was time to quietly release on the eve of a sleepy summer weekend the report admitting to the several abuses of the Quran at Guantanamo. Although the Pentagon’s findings would have been damning if they had come to light in the absence of the Newsweek story, they seemed less offensive when compared with the discredited allegations published in the magazine.

Score another round for Karl Rove. In his skillful handling of this episode, he (a) took the edge off a potentially damaging story, (b) made the press, not the administration, the problem and (c) further undermined the credibility of the press so as to inoculate the administration from future negative publicity.

This approach has become a familiar practice for the Bush administration, whose flagrant manipulation of facts and "news" demonstrates a contempt for the truth (and the voters) that surpasses anything I have seen in 35 years as a producer and consumer of the news.

Throughout the Bush administration, reporters have been placed in an impossible position of having to treat bald-faced government misinformation – like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, No Child Left Behind, Medicare drug cards, etc. – as legitimate issues.

The rules of journalism require the press to play it straight, treating government assertions as fact, even when they are calculated distortions or outright lies. In the absence of the ability to independently confirm the existence of the WMDs, the press, following the long-standing rules of journalism, was obliged to report on the WMDs as though they existed.

When the fabrications subsequently are revealed, the press, not the deceptive policy makers in the White House, is blamed for getting it wrong. Capitalizing on the ongoing manufactured crises of credibility, the White House and its adherents excoriate the media for unreliability and bias. Thus, the stage is set for things like the ambitious assault on public broadcasting.

The concerted attack on the press has achieved sensational results. Even fair-minded individuals, who ought to know better, now accept as an unchallenged fact that the media is inaccurate and biased.

Yes, our democracy is threatened by the spread of misinformation. But don’t blame the press. Blame the Pres and the partisan cadre in our government that thinks nothing of manipulating the truth to terrorize and deceive the electorate for fun and political profit.

There’s nothing new, of course, about government officials playing it fast and loose. What is unusual and terrifying in this case is that the press, our first and best line of defense against such shenanigans, has been weakened by the assault on it. With its motivations and reliability widely questioned, the media, which should be mad as hell, has become increasingly passive and deferential, if not downright defensive.

The truth in these troubled times, accordingly, has been left to the mercy of Karl Rove. Mercy!

Saturday, June 04, 2005

All talk, all the time

Two media luminaries this week showed they know how to talk the talk. The issue, of course, is whether their companies can walk the walk. As you will see, they talk way better than they walk.

Luminary No. 1 is CNN founder Ted Turner, who has graduated to emeritus status at the network now celebrating its silver anniversary. In a free-ranging address to the staff, the free-range former Mr. Jane Fonda tweaked the troops for relying excessively on “pervert of the day” coverage at the expense of higher-minded fare

"You know, we have a lot of perverts on today, and I know that, but is that really news?” he asked the staff. “I mean, come on. I guess you've got to cover Michael Jackson, but not the three stories about perversion that we do every day as well."

In the last 25 years, CNN has learned, to its founder’s professed dismay, that wars, sexual improprieties by presidents, grisly crimes and other high-profile catastrophes boost ratings to a considerable degree. In the unfortunate lulls between wars in Iraq, the network had a choice of either letting its ratings slump or manufacturing a catastrophe to boost them.

Hence, the “pervert of the day” strategy, which elevates to the level of a national emergency a (sadly) routine case like the Lacy Peterson murder. Given the need to feed the relentless ratings beast, we reliably can count of more of the same.

"Somebody's got to be the most respected name in television news, and I wanted that position for CNN,” said Ted. "I wanted to be The New York Times of the airwaves. Not the New York Post, but The New York Times.”

For the record, Ted Turner himself was at the helm when CNN perfected the fine art of “pervert of the day coverage” during the admittedly dramatic trial of O.J. (“If the Glove Don’t Fit You Must Acquit”) Simpson.

Nice talk. Let’s walk.

Luminary No. 2 is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the man born to be, if not wild, at least the publisher of the New York Times. Chatting with journalists at a publishing conference in Korea, Pinch emphasized the urgency for newspapers to embrace the Internet to attract younger readers.

"Some mention the crisis of newspapers, saying young readers no longer read print newspapers in the Internet era,” he was quoted as saying in the Korea Herald. “But it's not that the Internet is eroding the newspaper market but that newspapers have gained a new medium to deliver information."

He’s absolutely right about building newspaper readership – and assuring the long-term health of the business – through the aggressive and creative use of the Internet and the other new media. But there is scant evidence his company has done anything of the sort.

The New York Times and its affiliated properties run excellent websites that dutifully port everything in a day’s newspaper right on to the Net for free. In truth, there’s enough at NYTimes.Com to keep geezers, journalists, government officials and professors happily occupied for several hours a day. It also is a perfectly good and reasonable thing the site is going to start charging for some of its premium content.

But NYTimes.Com has not taken steps to develop any specialized online content that would draw new types of readers, young or otherwise, to its web site. If the publisher really believes newspapers have to leverage their strengths and resources to create valuable new media content to attract younger readers, then where's the beef?

As the most-visited newspaper website in the world, NYTimes.Com can afford to be conservative about changing a format that draws some 1.7 million visitors a month. But the rest of the newspaper publishers, who are mere mortals, had better be very proactive about following Dr. Sulzberger's Rx.

While newspaper publishers are talking, their readers are walking. Step lively, folks.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Cut throat, Deep Throat, full throat

Availing myself of the modern miracle of the Washington Post message board, where you can commune with fellow connoisseurs of the news by posting your very own comments, I jotted a line of thanks to Deep Throat.

Right on schedule, I got the following energetic response:
Thank Mark Felt for what? For betraying the President of the United States? For betraying his oath to uphold the Constitution and instead breaking the law and giving classified documents and tapes in the dark of night to a bunch of beat reporters? [Note from Newsosaur: To the best of my knowledge, he gave advice and confirmation but did not provide documents or tapes.] For being a coward and a traitor instead of giving what he knew to the proper authorities? For keeping his identity secret long enough, so that the statue of limitations would pass, and he would avoid prosecution for obstructing justice, tampering w/ evidence and treason? Mark Felt doesn't deserve to be thanked; he deserved to be hung.
Although W. Mark Felt, the celebrated Watergate snitch, may have been motivated in part by his pique at not being chosen by President Richard M. Nixon to head the FBI, I believe he also was sincerely alarmed by the willingness of the White House to bend every rule, if not break a few laws, to preserve a presidency infused with Nixon’s dark paranoia.

Proof of Nixon’s tragic disconnection from reality came when he fired Archibald Cox, the special Watergate prosecutor, in what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Because half of the American population today was not alive on this chilling night in 1973 when the Constitution was suspended by presidential fiat, it is worth reviewing briefly the significance of this event.

The special prosecutor was appointed by Congress to investigate the Watergate break-in and cover-up so as to remove the inquiry from the control of the Justice Department, which was (and is) under the direct legal and political control of the White House. When Nixon fired Cox and abolished the office of the special prosecutor, he sought to regain control of the investigation. As Nixon and his advisers knew, the inquiry, if pursued unchecked, would lead directly to the Oval Office.

Nixon’s decision to abort the independent investigation was so odious to Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus that both refused to carry out the order and were summarily fired. The heretofore-loyal Nixon appointees were locked out of their offices on a Saturday night.

Ironically, this gross abuse of authority sealed Nixon’s fate. Outrage and embarrassment led to the intensive investigations in Congress that brought Nixon to the brink of impeachment in the summer of 1974 for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Rather than facing the music, he resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

It is hard to say what Mark Felt knew and when he knew it, but he was right to be offended by the break-in and the elaborate cover-up that attempted to use the FBI, CIA and other federal agencies to shield the guilty and mislead the public. The Saturday Night Massacre may have been Nixon’s most egregious abuse of authority, but the ample record illustrates that it was not unprecedented.

Whatever the full extent of Deep Throat’s motivations, he ranks among the few public officials who, as an act of conscience, make the difficult, yet righteous, decision to break the rules. Raoul Wallenberg most certainly abused his authority as a Swedish diplomat in Hungary to save as many as 100,000 Jews from the Holocaust, but he did the right thing. Deep Throat may not be another Raoul Wallenberg, but Felt was in the zone when he decided to betray his sworn duty by assisting the reporters exposing the Watergate scandal.

Felt notably crossed the line again when he helped to direct illegal FBI break-ins in the late 1970s at the homes of members of the Weathermen underground organization and their families and friends. He was convicted in 1980 of conspiracy to violate civil rights, but later was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan for acting “on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation."

Such is the line between duty and conscience. How might modern history have changed if FBI agents had leaked to the press their mounting concerns over Arab men asking flight schools to teach them how to fly jumbo jets without learning how to land them? What carnage could have been avoided if CIA agents alerted the media to the fabricated “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

In both the Watergate and the Weathermen cases, Mark Felt stuck out his neck in defense of what he believed to be the highest principles. When was the last time someone did something like that? Thanks again, Deep Throat.