The Little Picture: The Bottom Line Trumps the Editorial Line Again

Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Was that it? The great American media ownership debate, come and gone? A burst of sound and fury that lasted no longer than all the Katharine Hepburn tributes?
In Canada, a recent lead story concerned a blue-ribbon panel that had issued its recommendations for changing that country’s media ownership rules. What was stunning to me was that it was a preliminary report. You wonder. Are Canadians just wonkier than us? Or have they been conditioned to watch stories that our highly paid news doctors assure their clients are “boring” to viewers? Whatever the reason, the discussion of media ownership and its cultural impact seems to be going on every place but here. Just last month, a yearlong tussle over media reform in Australia was followed closely by the national press (including the Murdoch-owned Australian). Two weeks ago, a bill containing the proposed changes went to that country’s senate-and was defeated.
Lest I be confused with somebody who thinks talking about media regulation is good only if it leads to more media regulation, I actually supported the changes enacted June 2 by the Federal Communications Commission. Though I wish we had heard more from the opposition; their rhetoric too often exaggerated the impact of the proposed changes and conjured up doomsday scenarios based on dubious marriages of cause and effect.
All the same, I was appalled by the so-called debate in the weeks leading up to the commission’s June 2 vote. I said so in an essay that appeared in the Kansas City Star.
That evening I received an e-mail from FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein taking me to task on several points. In particular, I had rebutted his claim that the commission was enacting “the most sweeping and destructive rollback of consumer protection rules in the history of American broadcasting.” Mr. Adelstein fired back, “Name a bigger one? Never before has the FCC done anything even close!”
I see a different media landscape than Mr. Adelstein does, but he makes good points-and we both agreed that now is the ideal time to extend the conversation. Instead of fixating on how the media should respond to consumers, in the unsatisfying paradigm of FCC chairman Michael Powell, we should be talking about how the media should serve citizens.
In every other civilized country I can think of, there is at least one state-run broadcaster that is big enough to hold its own with the commercial networks. That is why media reform is a hot-button topic in other countries: The citizens are literally invested in public media, and they expect a return.
We, on the other hand, have PBS, an opt-in service. Public TV does terrific documentary programs, but after that it’s all chatter, because that’s all it can afford.
It didn’t have to be this way. As Evan Schwartz points out in his wonderful book about the birth of television, “The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television,” just out in paperback, RCA’s David Sarnoff initially planned a commercial-free network to sell his radio consoles. But the legal fees incurred while forming his monopoly forced him to scrap that plan. Thus NBC turned a profit from day one, while Great Britain, Canada and other countries went a different route.
The more I watch those state-run newscasts-and thank you, digital cable, for bringing me the BBC, ITV and CBC-the more I envy the people for whom these have been their nightly windows to the world.
The new issue of Television Quarterly has a withering cover story, “The Downward Spiral of TV News,” written by the esteemed producer Av Westin. “Since the ’90s,” Mr. Westin writes, “when the bottom line became paramount, it has trumped the editorial line every single time.”
Reregulation is not the cure. The only solution is a fully funded and truly noncommercial news service that’s beholden to its viewership and no one else.
If that’s too boring a topic for us to talk about, God help us.