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We Want the Airwaves blog!
Watching the degradation of our media...
Sunday, February 22, 2004
Bush and the Media:
New Threats to the Public Interest

Kevin Healey

Bush and the Media offers a detailed, well-documented account of the various media strategies the Bush administration has employed since taking office.


This problem is well illustrated in remarks made by Michael Powell, FCC chairman under George W. Bush, when he was asked in a press conference what he thought the term "public interest" meant. "I have no idea," he said. "The public interest at its core is the same thing as my oath of office: a commitment to making sure the American consumer is benefited... I try to make the best judgment I can in ways I think will benefit consumers. Beyond that I don't know."6 Such statements are remarkable in light of the fact that, according to FCC commissioner Michael Copps, "the phrase 'serving the public interest and necessity' appears 112 times, my staff counted, in the statute."7 In response to Powell's comments, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (hereafter FAIR) reminded its readers that "guarding and protecting the public interest is supposed to be central to the FCC's mission." Obviously Powell has other priorities.8

When media are treated primarily as business enterprises, editorial decisions are shaped—directly or indirectly—by the preferences of advertisers. As CBS president Frank Stanton once explained, "Since we are advertiser-supported we must take into account the general objective and desires of advertisers as a whole."9 Traditionally, news media attempt to attenuate this issue by establishing an organizational "wall" between editorial and business departments. But, as illustrated clearly in the 1999 case of the Los Angeles Times' deal with Staples, even this protection has come under fire: Mark Willes, then publisher of the Times, had promised to "use a bazooka, if necessary" to destroy that wall.10 In the firestorm that erupted in the press around the Staples Center controversy, the word on everyone's lips—from Times reporters themselves to outsiders at the Wall Street Journal—was "integrity." The episode seemed to encapsulate what CBS Evening News producer Richard Cohen had noted two years before: "The dumbing down, the demise of news is all about the hunger for advertising revenues and how that plays out in the newsroom."11

Cohen's remark notwithstanding, advertising is not the only threat to media integrity. As the corporate "bottom line" replaces the public interest as the center of focus for media owners, the media are beholden not only to advertisers but also to the government. "Good journalism is expensive," explains Robert McChesney, "and bottom-line results can be improved by staff cuts and filling the news gap with materials provided by the public relations industry, syndicated materials, and fillers."12 To a large extent, this includes materials supplied by the White House. As Michael Parenti notes, "a daily assembly line of proposals, tips, press releases, documents, and interviews rolls out of the White House."13 In fact, some of what "rolls out" of the White House is taxpayer-funded material from major public relations or "political consulting" firms like Hill & Knowlton and the Renden Group.

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