Harry Truman once wisely observed that, "You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper, and unless you have all the facts, you cannot make proper judgments about what is going on."
One can only assume that if Give 'Em Hell Harry was around today he would blow a gasket when he realized that not only do American's rely on a single news source, but whatever particular source of the news they depend on is most likely slowly coagulating into one mega-news corporation. Maybe even more upsetting would be the way Democrats have responded, or not responded.
In the past couple of weeks, momentous news about the continuing elimination of variety in our news sources, was barely reported.
First, it was announced that Village Voice Media intended to merge with the New Times. The Voice was, for years, a dependable independent news source available not only in New York, where it is based, but in major cities everywhere, while its sister papers independently covered local news in four other areas. Meanwhile, the New Times worked independent reportage on its own, and covered many of the gaps that the Voice didn't fill, both in terms of reporting and geographic coverage. Now, the media conglomerate, if approved by the Justice Department, will comprise newspapers covering seventeen of the top markets in the United States, and 25 percent of alternative weeklies. Smaller papers that now find themselves in competition with the indie giant fear that they will be squeezed out of the markets they are in, and bought out in others. The companies insist it's not about a financial move. Right, and as George Strait sings in his country song, "If you'll buy that, I'll throw the Golden Gate in free".
Second, just a few days ago, it was reported that Knight-Ridder, the publisher of 32 newspapers, will most likely go up for sale, and the growing conglomerate vultures are circling. Gannett, a likely suitor, already owns 99 daily newspapers.
This trend has been happening for a long time, not just in print, but in broadcast, and even the internet. Today, ninety percent of the top fifty cable stations are owned by the same conglomerates that own the top broadcast networks, where more than 80% of prime time viewing is dominated by these same 5 media giants. They also own the top twenty internet news sites! And it's only going to get worse.
It may be decades before we see a single corporation controlling the entire flow of information, but we are certainly on that path. In the interim, the consolidation has already had a severe impact on the quality of news. Even more troubling, in my view, media consolidation eats away at the very fabric of American democracy. True democracy, as Josh Silver executive director of Free Press, a nonpartisan media reform group, points out, "demands an informed citizenry with access to a variety of voices and viewpoints."
Investigative reporting is expensive, but talk is cheap.
Very little investigative journalism is done by television news anymore. When is the last time you heard of Fox News Channel breaking a story, for example? But the problem is not just confined to TV news. Overall competition in the news business has increased dramatically, and this has led to a decrease in the ability of news organizations to take risks. The result, Josh Silver of Free Press notes, is "out with expensive, time-consuming investigative reporting. In with crime stories and celebrity puff pieces that are inexpensive and offend no one in power".
To compete and avoid takeovers, outlets are cutting budgets, which means fewer reporters have to cover more stories. When Knight Ridder bows to pressure from it's largest shareholder, after posting a $326.2 million dollar net income last year, no one is safe.
A poll of journalists, editors, and news executives around the country by the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that 43 percent of national editors say their staff size has decreased in the past three years. Forty-four percent of national journalists say they write or produce four or more stories a week, with just 35% saying they cover three or fewer. When asked if the "bottom line" was hurting news coverage or just changing the way organizations do things, 74 percent of journalists said it was hurting coverage, as did 69 percent of editors.
Democrats, traditionally hostile to large corporations, have been fairly good at taking on the issue of media consolidation, particularly when they are not in power. For instance, Al Gore spoke out on media ownership many times in his 2000 campaign, and Democrats, like Senator Dorgan and Congressman Dingle have largely led the campaign to diversify ownership (joined by some unlikely allies like Trent Lott). The grassroots in the liberal blogosphere have made media consolidation a pet issue of theirs. Yet, it isn't their adverse feelings towards corporations that is fueling their campaign against consolidation. Rather, many liberals feel, media consolidation is a conspiracy that slants the news to the right.
There are, of course, facts to back up this line of reasoning. One example: On a recent edition of CBS' Face the Nation that I watched, the panel of politicians brought in to discuss the indictment of Republican House Leader Tom DeLay was made up of all Republicans, sticking to the party line. If you are interested in other cases, visit the web site for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) or Media Matters. What Democrats have failed to grasp is that there is no conspiracy to shut them out of the consolidated media, it's just that they aren't very good at playing under the current rules of the game.
When television news became more entertainment than news, and newspaper reporters, in a time crunch, needed more pithy quotes, Democrats failed to adapt. Essentially, they are showing up for a hockey game wearing cleats and a baseball glove.
CNN President Jonathan Klein explained that Democrats have a hard time getting booked because they don't get "angry" enough to excite the viewers. He told Charlie Rose, "[Liberals] don't get too worked up about anything. And they're pretty morally relativistic. And so, you know, they allow for a lot of that stuff."
Is that fair? Absolutely not. But, unless the rules of the game are changed, that's the reality progressives are facing. They can't change the rules unless they gain power, and they won't gain power until they work their way into the media.
Instead of huffing and puffing about how unfair it was that the media didn't take the time to learn the nuances of John Kerry's convoluted thinking like, "voting for the $87 billion [for Iraq], before I voted against it," or that disingenuous conservatives like Ann Coulter get too much air time, Democrats need to reinvent themselves.
It sounds stupid and superficial (because it is), but Democrats, need to start talking in pithy sound bites instead of wonk-speak, show emotion sometimes, connect with the audience on a visceral emotional level, and for goodness sake brush their hair and get rid of all tweed and clothes that don't fit. There is a reason you don't see your English Lit professor on with Tucker Carlson.
In the 1950s, both political parties were struggling to figure out the relatively new medium of television, and I’m sure a lot of curmudgeons back then were griping about how television was dumbing down the news. Yet, instead of stubbornly sticking with the old way of doing things, a young candidate named John Kennedy figured out how to play by the new rules to win, yet succeeded in forcing more sophisticated debates once in power. Clearly we are at a point of similar change in the media, with consolidation ruining the national debate. The question now is will the Democrats find a few new John Kennedys?
Flavia Colgan is an MSNBC commentator.