Democrats Wrong to Ask that 9/11 TV Movie Be Kept “Off The Air”—But They Should Be Asking Hard Questions About the Lack of Quality News and Entertainment and Media Policies

We don’t agree with the drumbeat coming from Democrats and others that this weekend’s Disney/ABC TV movie be pulled. Censoring such content is unhealthy in a democracy. ABC cannot afford to buckle under from Dem critics. The Dems pressure campaign, while helping to bring about some (much needed) editorial changes, appears self-serving. The Clinton Administration does bear some responsibility for the country’s lack of understanding about the rising tide of anger against the U.S. from abroad. The Clinton folks weren’t saints. Think what they did to the poor with welfare reform; how their egos bungled getting us national health care; or how they hailed the passage of the lobbyist-written (and media concentration giving) 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Democrats, by the way, were openly critical of CBS buckling under GOP pressure when the network cancelled its airing of “The Reagans” in 2003 (parent company Viacom eventually ran it on pay cable channel Showtime).

TV movies have always been confabulated affairs. Granted, Disney/ABC should have hired writers who are politically independent. And they should have stuck to the “script” of the actual 9/11 Commission report. But the real problem is that our media consolidated, ratings and right demographic audience targeted TV system isn’t focused at all on providing the public with a steady and serious examination of the world. TV lives in a fantasyland so it can better generate profits from advertisers. The networks and stations have no real public interest responsibilities, thanks to years of scuttling FCC rules. Congress keeps giving the TV networks everything they want, such as billions of free airwaves. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and at the FCC over the years have given permission for the TV industry to engage in ever-lowering standards. Except for Newt Minow’s sharp retort back in 1961 that television was giving the public a “vast wasteland,” broadcasters and cable companies have been given high-fives from a Congress satisfied with the system (meaning lots of campaign contributions and little analytical coverage of what’s really going on).

Rather than ask Disney to drop this docudrama, it would better if the Democrats called for a serious national debate about the quality of TV in the U.S. I’m not saying censorship. But they should be asking the TV industry to provide the public with more in-depth news and analysis—locally and nationally. No more 22 minute evening news broadcasts or countless headlines repeated on cable TV. We require serious investigative reports and more time overall spent on examining the country’s myriad problems—and what can be done about them. The networks should be urged to produce TV movies and series that are derived from (dare I say it) literature. TV should be asked to embrace young writers and other creators from diverse perspectives and backgrounds to develop programming that changes the dumbing down formula of television. [Are they coming to take me away yet!].

The Dems—and the GOP—should also call for public policies that ensure the public can receive a more diverse stream of content. They means network neutrality for the Internet, along with new rules that prevent the broadcast, cable, and satellite business from being TV gatekeepers. The TV conglomerates must be required to pass thru to viewers and users all news and public affairs programming–especially in this era of interactive digital media (such as video on demand, etc).

Ultimately, we need a more informed U.S. public if we are to better understand the real path to 9/11, so many other critical issues, and what we must do to address them. That should be the drumbeat of the DNC and others.

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The White House and FCC Connection: New Giveaway to Big Media

The Bush Administration and the U.S. newspaper, broadcasting and telecommunications industry are now involved in subtle conversations/negotiations about media ownership policies that will likely have an impact on journalism. The newspaper and broadcast lobby wants the Administration’s help to over-turn what’s left of the media ownership safeguards. This week, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told a meeting of the powerful newspaper publishers lobby, that he—like his predecessor Michael Powell—was ready to hand them their key political objective: the scuttling of the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule. That policy has helped ensure that one company in a community couldn’t simultaneously operate the two most important sources of information: TV channels and the daily paper. The rule has also protected newspapers from being swept up into ratings-driven/show-biz focused TV industry empires. If the cross-ownership rule is axed, expect even less serious print reporting and more tabloid/infotainment TV-business models for dailies.

Mr. Martin clearly doesn’t have the facts with what’s causing the crisis in U.S. journalism today. Nor can we expect either Martin or his Commission to actually honestly investigate what is happening with journalism. His speech to the publishers was lifted from their lobbying playbook, including the absurd notion that allowing one company to operate several TV stations and the daily paper can bring “a significant increase in the production of local news and current affairs…” Media consolidation and cost-cutting to please Wall Street has led to this crisis. Additional consolidation will further weaken the last vehicle currently capable of sustained and meaningful serious journalism: the daily newspaper (we believe it’s too early to say whether online journalism will evolve into a permanent robust alternative in the near term.)

In another example of Martin (and the GOP) currying favor with big media, the chairman published an op-ed in the Financial Times that declared once again his support for the Telco/cable monopolies stance that they should be able to fully control the future of the high-speed Internet in the U.S.

Martin’s zealous advocacy for the telephone, cable, broadcast, and newspaper industry certainly reflects the view of the Bush White House. The chairman’s wife, Catherine Martin, is Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Communications Director for Policy and Planning (before that she was key aide to Vice President Cheney; prior to her White House position she was an aide to then Texas AG John Cornyn (now a U.S. Senator). We have a difficult time believing that whatever Kevin Martin is doing has not been vetted by the White House (just as the Clinton Administration did with its FCC agenda).

But as we proceed into the 2006 election, it will be interesting to look at how both the newspaper and broadcast TV news operations treat the Bush agenda. Will it be—as it was during the run up to the war in Iraq—a subtle quid pro quo: you waive the rules and we’ll waive the flag?

PS: Here’s the link that will take you to the great speech given by FCC Commissioner Copps at the Freedom to Connect conference on Tuesday.