Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Damn The Disc Jockeys (and other comedians): Resistance is Newsworthy.
by Lisa Barr
The October 5, 2010 New York Times article about the Chicago Tribune fails to link past U.S. news media failures with the crude infidels the Times only recently discovered inhabiting Chicago’s Tribune Tower. As if the failed economic model of the U.S. mainstream media is something worth mourning. This is what educators call a teaching moment. The lesson concerns the need to resist a new spiral of silence regarding the lack of free speech for those resisting the U.S.’ increasingly anti-democratic society. I speak as a person who ran screaming into the arms of television news for ‘sanity’ and the ability to tell a story with an extra minute’s time. In my defense, it seemed the thing to do after being literally thrown around a Houston newsroom by a wee-hours disc jockey upset that an obit piece featured comments from formerly blacklisted entertainers regarding the then-recently-expired Arthur Godfrey. (The DJ REALLY liked Mr. Godfrey).
Disc jockeys and news being like oil and water is no surprise. But lest anyone kid themselves--with rare exceptions, U.S. news managers post World War II have almost always shared the same brutish pragmatism regarding the U.S. empire. It’s why Esquire, Ramparts and the G.I. Resistance newspapers stood out (and prospered) during the Vietnam War. I believe what the Times article really decries is the lack of elegant expression of support for Pax Americana.
Michael Moore’s press conference in Montreal two years ago offered more insight into the economics of the rapid decline in jobs. Moore explained that, unlike European or Japanese newspapers, U.S. news organs relied upon advertising for funding. Andd, also unlike successful overseas outfits, U.S. media moguls eliminated key beats--a job in which a reporter routinely gets in the face of officialdom and does more than mere stenography. Moore gave the example of the Baltimore Sun knifing through courts, crime, labor, and poverty beats. They saved money. But they ‘slit their own throats’ by eliminating the possibility their news outlet would possess any information vital enough to buy as opposed to ‘steal’ online. And Moore made his point with a sense of humor: “I don’t know if you’ve ever BEEN to Baltimore, but, CRIME? POVERTY?”
I will assume readers enjoy a rationale without humor. Here we go. Academic studies of how U.S. journalists are socialized to news work began in the 1950s. Beyond examinations of routinized work that led to ‘gatekeeping’ notions of how certain stories are selected, there was little discussion in ‘prestige’ journalism journals until the mid 1980s of how ideology permeates every aspect of narrative production. One quick example--the use of ‘we’ instead of ‘U.S.’ in news narratives. That this still occurs 20 years after the The McBride Report of the United Nations--which decried the U.S. ‘top-down’ approach to ‘development work’ in order to mask corporate exploitation--shows a failure to integrate critical media theory into journalism education.
McBride’s long-term effect apparently was only good for some professors’ tenure quest. And Noam Chomsky. It’s pretty much accepted by serious media scholars that, while U.S. journalists may self-identify as ‘liberal’, their product increasingly favors a military industrial complex status quo. Critical media scholarship is on the wane, partly due to a stacking of the U.S. journalism academy with those lacking major market journalism experience, advanced degrees in mass media, and any notion that the parameters of debate must be wide in a self-regulating democracy.
The doors of debate used to be wider. I know this from personal experience. In 1981, after about 5 years on the job, my profession was supposed to end. Radio news was deemed superfluous under Ronald Reagan’s FCC Commissioner, a Florida product (go Gators!) who said that a television is just another appliance. Why would you regulate a toaster? About 5,000 radio news people were ‘on the beach’ I was told by a Boston news director. Where was my master’s degree? By then the five years’ experience formerly used for applicant weed-out was passe--so many others had a master’s and 5 years experience. And then he lost his job. Because even under Democratic presidencies, the FCC allowed ownership truncation to the point where entire cities’ media outlets can now be pretty much owned by one corporate entity.
What the U.S. lost was more than KULF’s 9-person newsroom where I worked in Houston. Journalism lost a sort of safety-in-numbers game. You could get some of the same stories now only available via radio on Democracy Now! on relatively ‘mainstream’ radio stations in many different markets. For instance, an ABC-affiliate reporter thanked me for having interviewed a C.I.S.P.E.S. (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) representative who blew into town for an event. “My news director said that since someone else in town had done it first, it was okay for me to have him on.”
A few years later (and with much better makeup and hair) I was called on the carpet at New Orleans’ ABC affiliate for having let a Tulane pre-med student document Boland Amendment violations via news clippings and a terse Sunday morning ‘No comment,’ from Elliot Abrams. This was a year before the Iran Contra hearings. “We’re moving you off weekends so we may monitor your work more closely,” said Gary Luczak, a former Republican congressional aide turned WVUE-TV Assistant News Director. I smiled and began reorganizing our nearly decertified AFTRA chapter for an eventual facedown against what would become a formidable union-busting firm. We got our asses kicked--and I decided to enter academe.
Thus, I know from firsthand experience how difficult it was getting hard facts and different voices exposure on the local level (with an occasional national freelance report done on ‘spec’) in the 1980s. But it was still possible. So when last week’s New York Times piece on the Tribune evoked the image of a more ethical, brave past for U.S. journalism, I blanched. Things were bad but getting rapidly worse in terms of free speech. The problem is bigger than the admission of a poorly behaving disc jockey into a newsroom void of newsworkers jettisoned by managerial greed.
The pro-military industrial complex domination of media content is akin to what U.S. journalists faced from pro-slavery forces nearly 200 years earlier. Remember Elijah P. Lovejoy. After the abolitionist newspaper editor was finally murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837, he was blamed for his own misfortune in Boston’s Faneuil Hall by Massachusetts Attorney General James Austin. A relative unknown at the time, Wendell Phillips spoke in Lovejoy’s defense after Austin sat down:
“The gentleman says Lovejoy was presumptuous and imprudent...no citizen has a right to publish opinions disagreeable to the community! If any mob follows such publication, on him rests its guilt! He must wait, forsooth, til the people come up to it and agree with him! This libel on liberty goes on to say that the want of right to speak as we think is an evil inseparable from republican institutions! If this be, what are they worth? Welcome the despotism of the Sultan, where one knows what he may publish and what he may not, rather than the tyranny of this many-headed monster, the mob, where we know not what we may do or say, till some fellow citizen has tried it, and paid for the lesson with his life.”
Lovejoy had moved his press three times prior to its destruction on the night of his murder in Alton, Illinois. Talk about a free speech nomad. The U.S. radio news diaspora has also moved around a bit. Twenty years ago I tracked down a sample group of my former radio newspeople in a summer’s extra credit graduate course. The supervising professor took little interest in the results. (That person is now a journalism administrator peppering alums with e-mail invitations to come ‘tailgate’ at football games.) But the results were stark. Most of the radio newsrooms closed were at stations that were, as of the mid 1980s, owned by fundamentalist Christian outfits. Of about 30 people tracked down, 2 had developed alcohol problems, and one unfortunate person had retooled as a pilot for the doomed Eastern Airlines.
This is about more than personal career difficulties. That era of radio journalists interviewed different people and covered different events than we hear today, expanding the parameters of acceptable debate in the process. To stand out, radio stations’ news people covered events regularly ignored by newspapers and television--stuff you now can usually only hear if there is time in the national/international news budget of Democracy Now!, for instance. Absent license requirements to keep a newsroom running, commercial radio stations have slit their own throats. And not many places in the U.S. have a community radio station with a locally staffed newsroom.
As a result, public officials are no longer regularly challenged, let alone questioned. The mere idea seemed merely ‘rude’ prior to 9/11, but now journalists covering the peaceful resistance are treated as potentially violent threats. So the perception of those who engage in resistance to those in charge is now horribly lacking in detail and nuance. The portrayal of domestic resistance is skewed to weird notions that those who protest or even discuss the U.S.’ radical past should be treated as bomb-throwers threatening a just or benign status quo.
Back to the specific example of the Chicago Tribune. There was little exceptional performance even before its ‘Zell takeover’--an event which ed about a decade after Northwestern University students scooped the paper on the state’s attorney office corruption regarding innocent men on death row. Forgive also, if you will, the Trib’s belated embrace of Studs Terkel and Elmer Gertz after decades of abusing the respective activist reporter and civil rights lawyer. But, citizens testifying in 2007 before the FCC hearing on Chicago’s South Side were not forgiving about Chicago media’s failure to cover key stories concerning police brutality, peace actions, or Muslim rights groups.
This is where geezer journalists like me, today’s Lou Grants, if you will, could come in handy. Imagine a newsroom inhabited by more than the twenty-somethings I saw during a Tribune Tower field trip two years ago banging out ‘news’ gathered chiefly via computer and telephone. It’s not that we’d be yelling cliches like ,”There’s no ‘news in the newsroom!” or “If your mother says she loves you check it out!”, or GOYA KOD! (“Get-Off-Your-Asses-Knock-On-Doors”).
Hopefully we wouldn’t yell at all. Experience is more subtle than that. The radio news diaspora would know the difference between astroturf (Tea-Bagger/One Nation”) protests and January’s peace coalition protesting outside CIA HQ the Obama Administration’s use of killer drones on Pakistani civilians. It would see through the fallacy of equating the Oklahoma City bombers with people like Gregory Koger, a videographer who ran afoul of ‘liberals’ tied to Obama administration employees who attend a humanist society in Skokie. A man arrested, denied bond, and tried by kangaroo court for what he was (a homeless child turned juvenile delinquent) and what he reads (Bob Avakian’s Revolution) and videotapes (Sunsara Taylor, Revolutionary Communist Party member). Koger’s story is virtually ignored even by elements of Chicago media not controlled by drunken disc jockeys.
The police brutality of macing a man already in handcuffs on the floor of a place about to send kiddies to a ‘Golden Rule Sunday School’ should also serve to make that a worthy “Chicagoland” story. But Koger’s story has a news angle of resistance. And that makes it a suspected third rail in the post-Vietnam era news climate.
I think today’s journalists need to worry less about being labeled ‘radical’ by news managers or even ‘edgy’ Comedy Central ‘News’ hosts. They need to revisit the abolitionist movement’s brave advocates. Those people had much more to lose than does any journalist or freelancer today. Wendell Phillips had the right idea about resistance in times like these:
“...(Lovejoy) and his advisers looked out on a community, staggering like a drunken man, indifferent to their rights and confused in their feelings. Deaf to argument, haply they might be stunned into sobriety. They saw that of which we cannot judge, the necessity of resistance. Insulted law called for it. Public opinion, fast hastening on the downward course, must be arrested....”
Any radio news worker laid off in the 1980s who cares to launch a freelance career could perhaps do no better than to chronicle the increasingly ignored, marginalized, and harassed peace movement. Learn to shoot and edit some video. Post it. Because, The New York Times could provide true ‘paper of record’ service to U.S. citizens by leading the way in this regard, despite the appeal of misbehaving disc jockeys. But, I, for one, am not going to hold my breath waiting for this to happen.
Journalism stalwarts are surprisingly silent regarding a Michigan legislator’s plan to ‘license’ journalists by having approved peers judge their integrity. Having seen how ‘mainstream’ journalists treat those who actually speak at length with those involved in peaceful resistance to military violence, I think that’s a bad idea. This video explains why.