Dan Rather Has an Idea

According to stories in the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times, newspapers of record for the nation’s elite snowboarders, Dan Rather gave a speech at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday, asking that President Obama create a national commission to “save journalism.”

As one of the papers put it, without a skosh of irony, “Rather told an Aspen audience that journalism has declined to such a point that it is time for the government to intervene.”

Attributing the decline of "great American journalism" to “corporatization, politicization, and trivialization of the news,” Rather suggested that the commission “ought to make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to keep news organizations alive.”

"If we do nothing more than stand back and hope that innovation alone will solve this crisis," he said, "then our best-trained journalists will lose their jobs."

It’s not every day that one encounters such a rich vein of stuff.  Puts one in mind of the children’s illustrations that ask the question, what’s wrong with this picture?  So many upside-down daffodils and trees growing carrots.

First, you know, there’s the problem that some consider the author of this scheme himself to be a disgraced figure in the world of journalism, having lost his job at CBS for the role he played in the airing of a bogus report about President Bush.

Then there’s the (unintentionally) droll picture he conjures up of a presidential commission as a kind of jobs program for the rescue of threadbare journalists, and the linking of the employment status of some of them with the very survival of journalism itself.  

But the most grievous error — that aspect of the Jabberwocky that fairly leaps off the page — is the very suggestion that government is the solution to what ails the media today.  Make no mistake, there are governmental policies that could, and should, be changed (like, for instance, an end to the newspaper/broadcast cross ownership rules), but there is no need for a presidential commission or “media czar” for the purpose.

One would think that a former network anchorman would understand the peril inherent in any intervention by the government into the affairs of the press.  It is this, after all, that is the primary concern of the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  What are the chances, for instance, that any such commission would use its mandate, and the media’s genuine agony, as cover to advance content regulations that parallel the commissioners’ political beliefs?

Speaking of his idea, Rather said that he was “throwing it out there for what it’s worth.”  Since the Aspen Institute charged $15 per ticket to this event, we know what they think it was worth, but I think admission should have been free.  It wouldn’t have improved the speech but the price would have been right.

Ship of Fools

Imagine that every person in the United States were aboard a large life raft, in the open ocean, amidst a hurricane.  In that circumstance how many of the nation’s factions would be pressing their special interests?  Would the environmentalists yammer on about “global warming"?  Or the political class about the likely composition of the presidential tickets in 2012?

Surely the answer to those questions is no.  In that situation the only issue that would be of interest to everyone aboard would be how to survive their predicament.

As it happens, everyone in the United States is aboard that life raft.  It’s called the USS Economy.  But because of their own tunnel vision and fundamental lack of knowledge, aided and abetted by the distracting, sententious, and superficial reportage of the media, the people still don’t fully realize it.

This country’s current and prospective fiscal and economic problems are of such a magnitude that if they are not satisfactorily addressed, and soon, the United States is at serious risk of evolving, at tremendous speed, from a prosperous and democratic country into a banana republic.

The evidence of this calamitous portent is not only easy to find, it’s coming in the windows!  It’s shown in the decline in GDP, employment, tax revenue at all levels of government, and in the growth of the national debt.  And these depressing data are reflected in the decline of virtually all asset classes as investors here and abroad reset their portfolios to the new and emerging realities. 

Nor is the threat of declining living standards and loss of opportunity the only thing we have to fear.  Though it’s noted almost never, the principal reason the United States won the Cold War is because our economy was bigger than that of the Soviet Union.  Because of this we were able to steer the course of commerce and technology around the world.  And because of this our military was bigger and better than the USSR’s.

But today it’s the Chinese who have the momentum in their economy — the same Chinese who, though they’ve adopted capitalistic economic reforms, much to their advantage, are still led by a corrupt and undemocratic political regime.  How long after the Chinese economy surpasses our own will it take before the Chinese military surpasses our own?

Despite these hard truths, too much of the media continue to misreport and under report the nation’s economic affairs.  Like a bakery offering everything from crullers to éclairs to donuts, they persist in delivering news that puts the trivial and fatuous on the same footing as the crucial.

Which is why I offer this modest proposal.  How about creating a national observance (call it Get Serious Week) during which all of the media, print and electronic, refrain from reporting on anything but the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges?  For one full week no stories, for instance, about professional sports (the true opiate of the masses); pop culture celebrities, quick or dead; or the campaigns of single-issue zealots who enjoy such a disproportionate claim on the media’s attention.

It would undoubtedly cost some eyeballs and ad revenue, but at a time when the concept of the “public interest” has been reduced to a cliché, it would be a refreshing demonstration of the virtue in the real thing.


“Whale Wars”: Just Another Fish Tale

If you believe, as I do, that Greenpeace is to conservation what televangelism is to religion, all that  would need to be said about Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” is that the “captain” of the Sea Shepherds’ vessel, Paul Watson, is a co-founder of that organization.  Because, however, Greenpeace disputes Watson’s claim, amidst what appears to be a long-running feud between them, perhaps more may be required.

So here’s some.  As reported on Wikipedia, Watson has, at one time or another, been involved in campaigns on behalf of wolves, sharks, seals, dolphins, American Indians, and now whales.  Along the way he has relieved himself of opinions like his belief “that ‘no human community should be larger than 20,000 people,’ human populations should be reduced to ‘fewer than one billion,’ and that only those who are ‘completely dedicated to the responsibility’ of caring for the biosphere should have children.”

Though the fact of it may not have reached Animal Planet, Watson has also developed quite a revealing take on the media.  As he says in his book, heroically titled Ocean Warrior: “Survival in a media culture meant developing the skills to understand and manipulate media to achieve strategic objectives.”

But enough about Watson.  It’s the show that’s the thing, and a good critique of “Whale Wars” was published earlier this month on the Huffington Post.  The author, Richard Spilman, harpooned the series for its approving portrayal of vigilantism and feckless grandstanding.

“So what’s the problem with Whale Wars?” he asks.  “The problem is that it is cheap exploitation in praise of what is nothing less than eco-terrorism.  It is the glorification of vigilantism on the high seas.  And oh, by the way, the Sea Shepherds do almost nothing to protect the whales where they really do need protection.”

Mostly what they do is speed around offending ships in inflatables and attempt to loft stink bombs onto their decks, all the while flying and wearing the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger, an amusing choice of insignia considering that they don’t actually fight, or even scare, anybody.

In any contest between whales and whalers I would root for the whales.  But if the choice is between whalers and the Sea Shepherds, I’m with the whalers.

‘Breaking Bad’: An Appreciation

Every once in awhile something happens in medialand that elevates and refreshes, and at least partially reclaims the enormous potential of the industry.  Media coverage of the events of 9/11 is one example, and the minor miracle that is AMC’s series "Breaking Bad" is another.

For the uninitiated, who unfortunately are legion, "Breaking Bad" is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, discovering that he has late-stage lung cancer, embarks on a career as a methamphetamine producer.

As measured by the awards, which already include a Peabody and two Emmys, and by the reviews, "BB" has already established itself as perhaps the best show on television.  The writing, acting, directing, and camera work are achingly good.  Unlike the X-rated products that are consumed by people with the emotional maturity of children, whatever their age, "Breaking Bad" really is adult entertainment.

In this brilliant series human beings are complex, neither all good nor all bad, itself a kind of challenge to a world immersed in the poses and pieties of political correctness.  And then there’s the subtlety of it; the communication, with no more than a look or a word, of a world of meaning. 

But the best is the essential humanity of the production — the notion that, no matter how unequal our circumstances, we are essentially the same, and capable of great understanding and empathy.  How else to explain the poignant and touching relationship between Walter and Jesse, Walt’s wayward former student and now partner in crime?

Because of the way the series ended its second season — and because the producer (Vince Gilligan) has told us so — we know that "BB" will be back for a third year, a fact that virtually guarantees more awards and critical acclaim.  And that’s all to the good.  But there are aspects of this phenomenon that invite some further comment that go not to art but to the lesser realms of politics and commerce.

One such observation is the folly of trying to enforce content standards on TV fare where no account is given to the context in which certain words or pictures are used.  "Breaking Bad" features a number of words, and acts of violence, which by themselves might offend some people.  But where, as here, such things are employed not to titillate but to deepen and extend the reality of the experience, one would think many people might see what a mistake it is to allow any kind of governmental censoring scheme that is blind to such distinctions.

The commercial aspect of this show that rankles a bit is the fact of its distribution by American Movie Classics (AMC), owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, itself a subsidiary of the cable operator, Cablevision Systems.  Which is not to say anything derogatory about AMC.  Far from it, the network, and all involved, should be enormously proud of what they’re delivering.  (Which, by the way, also includes the terrific original series, "Mad Men.")

But why, one wonders, isn’t "Breaking Bad" being shown on one of the bigger cable networks, or indeed on one of the broadcast networks?  Kind of hard to imagine that AMC was the producer’s first choice when, were the show being aired on USA or TNT — not to mention, say, ABC — the audience would likely be orders of magnitude larger.  One assumes it may have something to do with the very qualities that make the show so rewarding —that  it’s seen as too smart or sophisticated for a mass audience. 

If so, that’s a shame, both for the country and for the industry, and something that’s being noted.  As Tim Goodman, TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and enthusiastic fan of the series, put it: “It’s like I’ve been freed from the tyranny of network programming.” 

‘Fixing’ CNBC

From a viral video to an online petition campaign, the Jon Stewart smackdown of the hapless Jim Cramer has spawned quite the kerfuffle.  As an Associated Press story describes it: “Some liberal political activists and economists are seizing on comedian Jon Stewart’s attacks of CNBC to push an online petition drive urging the network to be tougher on Wall Street leaders.”

According to the website put up by the organizers, FixCNBC.com, the petition has attracted more than 15,000 signatures as this is being written.  So what are we to say of all this?  A wholesome exercise in media criticism?  An earnest effort in promotion of journalistic excellence?

Well … no.  Actually, the whole affair is little more than a kind of “would you believe” gambit by people whose reason for being is the promotion of their ideological beliefs.  Truly, if there were a Madame Tussauds of the American Left, virtually all the organizations and individuals involved in Fix CNBC would be found there: Free Press, Robert McChesney, Media Matters for America, Eric Alterman, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.  The list goes on and on.

Like the conservative Brent Bozell’s minions at the Media Research Center, the only interest these people have in the media is as vehicles through which they may spread their political ideas.  That, and nothing else.  Not the public interest in quality journalism, nor in any kind of objective coverage of news and public affairs.  And most certainly not in any sophisticated and even-handed coverage of the financial and economic crisis.

So far the network has not responded directly either to the Fix CNBC organizers, or to Jon Stewart.  It will be interesting to see if they can maintain that posture, or if, given the temper of the times, they are obliged to treat the subject of their alleged malfeasance as though it had merit, and issued from people of independent character.

Interesting too will be the response to this flap of others in the media.  On those occasions in the past when conservatives have organized similar protests, their activities have been condemned as heavy-handed if not positively threatening to freedom of the press.  But of course those were conservatives while these are "progressives," so who knows?


Conservatives and the Media

For maybe 50 years, self-described conservatives have been alienated from the dominant U.S. media — the Big Three TV networks, big-city newspapers, the national newsweeklies.  This alienation of a group that comprises as much as a third of the electorate has provided opportunities for such as talk radio companies, and the FOX News Channel, to pick up the pieces.

And even on the Internet conservatives are having success.  They may not have the political influence on the Republicans that the “netroots” have on the Democrats, but websites like the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics are highly influential and display a clearly discernible right-of-center profile.

With this kind of success — owing entirely to the marketplace and deregulation — one would think that conservatives would be very chary about doing anything that might invite government control over media content.  And perhaps some are, but the loudest voices belong to those whose actions and agenda invite precisely this.

Take, for instance, the empire created by L. Brent Bozell.  From entertainment programming to journalism, the House that Brent Built gives voice to a brand of conservative criticism that spans issues from “broadcast indecency” to “liberal media bias.”

And if this were all that they did, there would be no qualms here about the Bozell-founded Parents Television Council (PTC) or his Media Research Center.  Media criticism, after all, is itself free speech.  But it isn’t all that they do.  Through organized letter writing campaigns, position papers, and filings at the FCC, the PTC actively encourages both legislative and regulatory action against “broadcast indecency.”

That this position contradicts one of the central tenets of modern conservatism — the imperative of limited government — is something that Bozell himself has acknowledged to be a conservative critique of his organization.  Alas, inconsistency (some would call it hypocrisy) of this sort does not weigh so heavily on the gentleman as to cause him to reconsider.

Like the late Reed Irvine, another conservative media critic who came before him, Bozell apparently believes that government regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  In Irvine’s case, the classic example of this was his support of the Fairness Doctrine.  Irvine believed that, without the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives would be bereft of any influence over the liberal sensibilities of broadcast journalists.  Of course we now know that repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led directly to the dominance in talk radio not of liberals but of conservatives!

In demonstration of the tenacity of history, this same Fairness Doctrine may yet prove to be Brent Bozell’s undoing too.  This, because these days all the talk, endorsed by such as the Speaker of the House, is of the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine.  Through the Media Research Center, Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against any such plan, but because of the pro-regulation stance of his PTC there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.

Oh, he will, one assumes, be able to organize a letter writing campaign, but such campaigns don’t equate  with credibility in the same way, and for the same reason, that power doesn’t equate with integrity.