This week we learned that some 90 major corporations demanded that their ads be pulled from radio stations that run Air America programming, demonstrating the fundamental challenge facing everyone working to promote critical journalism and a vibrant free press.
First off, let's clarify why this is taking place: The crime isn't that Air America is partisan. All or most of these firms advertise on politically conservative talk radio programs and/or stations. And the crime isn't even being "liberal." Some of these advertisers have moderate or liberal executives who donate to Democratic candidates and are far from rabid conservatives.
So what is the problem? While "liberal" Air America clearly favors big D Democrats, unlike virtually all other programming on commercial radio and television, it gives airtime to reports that are critical of corporations and the powerful politicians they keep in Washington.
This is the heart of the problem: Air America commits a crime called journalism. Almost none of the so-called conservative radio shows or networks do any semblance of actual reporting. They merely pontificate -- repeating talking points that seem to be emailed straight from Karl Rove's laptop.
Air America does its share of pontificating as well, and we leave it to others to compare its integrity to that of Limbaugh and Hannity. But we can say that Air America journalism occasionally focuses on corporate malfeasance. It examines closely the deeply corrupt relationship between corporate power and government officials.
This brand of journalism is found almost nowhere else on the commercial dial. It is brandished as "liberal" because it does not practice journalism as stenography to those in power. This is the same reason that Bill Moyers doesn't have any of these 90 firms lining up to underwrite his PBS reporting.
So what should we learn from this episode?
1) Commercial media are highly concentrated and corporate advertisers have massive budgets, giving their programming decisions profound implications. According to its own Web site, ABC Radio has more than 4,400 affiliate radio stations reaching nearly 105 million people nationwide. Monopoly media power translates into significant political power and that is dangerous. This is a big deal.
2) Media are concentrated in the hands of massive corporations who are only concerned with profits. Anything that reduces or threatens those profits is eliminated: Investigative journalism because it's too expensive; government accountability because it pisses off politicians and regulators who dole out billion-dollar policy favors like media "deregulation"; corporate accountability because it angers corporations like the long list that pulled Air America funding. Good journalism can be bad for business.
3) Note the presence of the U.S. Post Office and U.S. Navy on the list of advertisers who have blackballed Air America. It is an outrage that public monies are being deployed to push the ideological agenda of the Bush Administration, or any other administration for that matter. This is one more example of the corruption of governance in Washington, where big money and political power are picking over the bones of democracy.
What's left? Timid, lapdog journalism that fills our TV screens and radio dials. A newspaper market dominated by a handful of massive firms that suffer the same symptoms. Cheap to produce reality shows, celebrity fluff, regurgitated press releases, spin assessing other spin, and entertainment-as-news that titillates but rarely informs.
Obviously we have to stop the corruption in Washington that allows this "business as usual." But there are three specific and crucial areas that demand our attention:
First, we must stop further media consolidation. This episode vividly illustrates the peril of monopoly media power. Bush's man at the Federal Communications Commission is actively moving to lift some of the last remaining ownership limits. The dream scenario for Big Media: eliminate ownership rules so one company can own all the media in a town, and have one newsroom serve all outlets. Heaven for the conglomerate; hell for everyone else. Public backlash stopped a similar move in 2003, and the battle is being fought again at www.stopbigmedia.com.
Second, we must understand that virtually all media - TV, radio, phone - will soon be delivered digitally through the Internet. With increasing speeds, every Web site holds the revolutionary potential to become a TV or radio network, breaking the corporate bottleneck on media access and distribution. But today, cable and phone companies are mounting a full-court press in Washington to privatize the Internet, and make them the gatekeepers to all media - by removing the long-standing principle of "Net Neutrality" on the Internet. Fortunately, public backlash is winning the day (so far), buoyed by the SavetheInternet.com Coalition.
Third, noncommercial media, including PBS, NPR and community broadcasters, must be well funded and insulated from political pressure. The United States has the lowest per capita funding of public broadcasting in the industrialized world. Our dysfunctional system has the president appointing partisan operatives to the board that funds PBS and NPR programs. Once again, the public must be engaged, and the public broadcasting system must be overhauled and reinvigorated.
Critical journalism is bad business for media corporations and their advertisers. It is time to engage the public and demand a media system that will inform and protect America, rather than one that is, in the words of Jon Stewart, "hurting us."
This post was co-written by Robert McChesney, co-founder of the nonpartisan media reform organization Free Press.