Monday, November 20, 2017

FCC enables more media consolidation. The result will be less real news.

By Marc Jampole

We typically blame the decline of the news media in the 21st century on one of two factors: the growth of the Internet as a 24/7 source of news and the proliferation of fake and false news.
But given much less attention is the consolidation of news media and news-gathering operations. It used to be that the federal government had strict regulations about the number of radio and television stations any company could own and forbade ownership of both newspapers and broadcast stations in the same town. Even when single newspapers came to dominate many towns, there were typically many different organizations searching for and presenting the local and national news. A series of laws and new regulations over the past 35 years—aka the Reagan Era—has consolidated media ownership.
The key law was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which enabled companies to own more stations. Larger companies bought smaller ones and suddenly instead of hundreds of owners of TV and radio stations across the country, there were only dozens.  We saw the impact on radio as Clear Channel, and recently Sinclair Broadcasting, and other companies owned by right-wingers gained control of the editorial policies of more and more stations.  Pretty soon the range of opinion on radio narrowed and moved extremely right. While Rush Limbaugh began making a name for himself before 1996, it was the consolidation of media ownership that led to the domination of talk radio by Rush and his clones—Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, ad nauseum.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a major step in making the problem worse by voting to allow a single company to own both print and broadcast media in the same town. The FCC also voted to increase the number of TV stations one company can own in any given market. It was a close vote, 3-2, on party lines. Don’t be embarrassed if OpEdge is the first you’ve heard of this awful decision. It received very little coverage; the New York Times buried the news on page two of the business section.
The Obama Administration FCC also announced its intentions to end the restriction on ownership of both print and broadcast media in 2011, but eventually backed down. This time, under its brand new Trump-blessed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, an Obama appointee to the FCC known for his pro-broadcasting industry views, the FCC has made good on the threat.
The rationales today and in 2017 are similar: That local media needs to consolidate to be able to compete against the giants of Facebook and Google. Pai, for example, has argued that local media companies would have a better chance to compete against Internet behemoths by combining local market resources.
The argument is completely specious for two reasons. First of all, most broadcast stations and daily/weekly newspapers are already owned by large chains. It’s not the case that the various media in Cincinnati will join forces to do one great job on local news. Instead, one national giant that also controls Toledo, Ohio, Syracuse, New York and four dozen other localities will end up owning all the media in Cincinnati. The new rule will surely lead to ever greater concentration of media outlets in the hands of fewer companies.
The second problem with Pai’s argument is the confusion of news-gathering with news media. Despite the alarming decrease in the number of daily newspapers over the past few decades, the number of absolute media outlets has increased: Internet news sites, cable news and specialty weekly and monthly pubs have more than made up for the decline in newspapers.
The problem is that while media outlets have increased, news-gathering on both the local and national level has decreased, as recent studies by the Pew Foundation and the FCC . And consolidation of media outlets is a major cause. When a company buys more than one newspaper, it can use the same news-gathering staff for all the news, except for the news that pertains to each newspaper’s particular readership, something most often defined by locality. All the newspapers in the Gannet or Tribune chains get the same national and international news and columnists. But each local paper has to find its own local news, typically in competition with the three or four local TV stations, the local business paper and the local alternative weekly.
Now that a single company is allowed to own all of these local properties, the company will be stronger, but primarily because it is able to cut costs through using the same news room to cover stories. The impact on overall news production will be horrific: Instead or more editorial boards deciding what is newsworthy, one will. Instead of three or more points of view on a story, there will be only one. Instead of three or more sets of reporters trying to dig deeper, only one will—that is, on those stories that the editors and business sides decide is worthy of delving. Instead of three or more sets of opinions on local issues, only one. Finally, instead of three or more organizations with ties to differing networks of national and international news gathering, there will be but one. The result will be less reporting.
Instead of actual reporting, what we’ll see once large media companies start buying up local properties is more of the same filler that has been replacing real news for the past 15 years or so, including more opinion pieces like this blog; more coverage of celebrities and sports; more repackaged how-to’s and advice columns; more part-and-parcel use of news release, fact sheets and “articles” produced by the government, rightwing think tanks, large companies and public relations firms; and more “sponsored” news reports, which are advertisements pretending to be news.
If the FCC and the current administration really cared about freedom of the press and creating a stronger marketplace of ideas, instead of allowing companies to buy more media properties, it would implement regulations and put pressure on Congressional leaders to break up the media industry oligarchy and stop the pilfering of free content that occurs on Facebook and Google News that denies news-producing media outlets needed revenues. Unfortunately, it would take Congressional action to do most of what I’m recommending:
  • Limit ownership of media properties to a total of 10 properties, including television and radio stations, newspapers, news magazines, cable networks and websites, and push for expedited divestiture by the current media giants.
  • Prohibit companies from owning more than three cable networks, and make all cable networks provide at least two hours of news coverage a day.
  • Prohibit companies owning ISPs from also owning media outlets.
  • Reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine, which used to make every broadcast television and radio outlet to devote some airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. The Fairness Doctrine was the law of the land from 1949 until 1987, when the Reagan FCC voted to end it.
  • Allocate billions of dollars in aid to nonprofit or small for-profit media outlets to produce original reporting and fund it at least partially by taxing social media services and Internet service providers (ISPs) like Spectrum and FIOS for their “free use” of news.
  • Legalize strict principles of journalistic ethics and start to prosecute journalists and media company executives for knowingly disseminating fake and false news. I propose to walk a fine line between censorship and responsible reporting. But by focusing exclusively on the reporting of facts and not the spouting of opinions, I think we can protect true freedom of the press.
I am not very optimistic about any of my recommendations being pursued by either a Republican or Democratic administration and Congress. Politicians of both parties have cozy relationships with the mainstream news media and conservative ones seem not to mind that so much in the rightwing media is false or fake news. Thus we face an ironic future in which there are many ways to access the same limited and somewhat flawed set of facts and conjectures about current events, society and government activity.
We like to conceive of history as a steady progress of human ingenuity solving problems and bringing an ever higher standard and quality of life to more and more people. But our 10,000 years of recorded history has seen many eras in which people were far worse off economically than the decades and centuries before, for example, during the 300 year transition from medieval times to the industrial revolution during which the world experienced the “Little Ice Age.”
In the same way, we have not seen steady progress in the spread of knowledge. After the death of Charlemagne, for example, Europe entered a centuries-long epoch in which scientific knowledge and literacy declined and intellectual activity retreated into monasteries.
It seems to me that America is are entering another intellectual dark age, in which people in general will know less, be able to reason less effectively and have less access to the gamut of human knowledge, from science to the arts. It’s not just the consolidation of the media and the decline in the number of news-gathering operations that is driving the drift towards ignorance. The large number of ideologically inclined think tanks churning out false research. The gradual starving of public schools. The increased involvement of for-profit corporations both in operating schools and in supplying material such as learning guides to public and private schools. The blurring of the distinction between the entertainment and news divisions of media companies and between advertising and news. The politicization of text books. The denial of basic scientific facts by one of our two major parties. The continued glorification of celebrity and mocking of intellectual achievement in the mass media. Virtually every trend in the marketplace of ideas is making Americans less educated, less informed and less capable of sifting through assertions and understanding which are reliably factual information and which are sheer nonsense.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Editorial: Resistance Strikes Back

It’s been a long year since Russian Internet trolls and Republican voter suppression tactics combined to deliver the White House to Donald Trump. Voters on Nov. 7 finally got the chance to express their outrage at the trail of lies, mindless tweets and broken promises left by the Grifter in Chief.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that Democrats would win back the governor’s office in New Jersey, after outgoing Gov. Chris Christie (R), who once had presidential ambitions, bottomed out with a 15% approval rating. Being Christie’s lieutenant governor didn’t help Kim Guadagno, as Democrat Phil Murphy won with 55.6% of the vote.

The most widely watched race was in Virginia, where Dems should have expected an advantage since the outgoing governor is a Democrat and Hillary Clinton won the state by 5.3 points in 2016.

But Republican nominee Ed Gillespie adopted Trump campaign themes such as appeals to white supremacism, neo-Confederates, immigrant bashers and climate science deniers and, in the weeks before the election, polls showed Gillespie running neck and neck with Democrat Ralph Northam.

When the votes were counted on Nov. 7, not only did Northam beat Gillespie by nine points, but exit polls showed twice as many voters (34%) said they cast their ballots to express opposition to Trump, as the 17% who voted to express support for Trump.

Women, young people and minority voters provided the margin of victory for Northam. Men were 51% of voters and favored Gillespie by two points, but that’s down from Trump’s nine-point edge among men last year. And women favored Northam by 22 points, up from Clinton’s 17-point advantage last year. Gillespie won white voters by 15 points, but that was down from Trump’s 24-point advantage last year, while black voters, 20% of Virginia’s electorate, went 87% for Northam. The vote was still polarized by geography, as cities and D.C. suburbs supported Northam while almost two-thirds of voters in the mountainous and western parts of the state supported Gillespie.

Democrats also won the two other statewide elections in Virginia — for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and they picked up at least 15 seats in the state House of Delegates, which Republicans had ruled with a 66-34 majority that was now cut down to a one-vote majority, with recounts in three districts that could flip the House to the Dems. Eleven of the Democratic winners were women, including the first Asian American, two Latinas and transgender Danica Roem, who beat the chamber’s self-proclaimed leading homophobe, Bob Marshall, by focusing on better roads in the district.

The downside of the election is that Virginia voted by a margin of nearly nine points for Democrats but still fell short of a legislative majority because of gerrymandered district lines. Democrats will face similar obstacles in trying to turn around Republican majorities in Congress and other state legislatures next year. Democrats need to flip 24 seats now held by Republicans to regain the majority in Congress, but Nick Stephanopoulos, an expert on gerrymandering, told the New York Times Democrats, could get 54% of the national House vote and still see the Republican maintain control.

In the Senate, Republicans have a two-vote majority, and that majority may be reduced if Alabamans decide on Dec. 12 they would rather not send accused child molester Roy Moore to the Senate. (Many evangelical “Christians” say the accusation that Moore molested a 14-year-old girl 38 years ago is no major bar to service if the alternative is a Democrat such as Doug Jones, former federal prosecutor of the KKK.)

Next year, Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats, along with two independents allied with the Dems, while Republicans have only eight seats up for election. Democrats hope to gain the Arizona seat Jeff Flake is giving up, as well as the Nevada seat Dean Heller holds. Longshots are Ted Cruz’s seat in Texas and the Tennessee seat Bob Corker is giving up, but Dems also have to defend Sens. Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, the main lesson Republicans probably will draw from the recent election is that voter suppression has not gone far enough. Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach are helming a special presidential task force to develop new methods of keeping Democrats from voting or preventing the counting of their votes.

It’s been frustrating, as editor of The Progressive Populist, to listen to Trump being described as a populist who would protect American workers and “drain the swamps” in Washington. Populists believe that people are more important than corporations, and the government needs to be strong enough to keep corporations in line. Trump has always been a grifter with authoritarian leanings and a history of stiffing contractors, fighting unions and looking out for No. 1. But it’s getting easier to show Trump is a charlatan as he has packed his administration with half a dozen former executives of Goldman Sachs as well as pro-corporate administrators at federal agencies to prevent health and human services, environmental protection, public schools, federal lands and fair labor and housing standards. And Trump on Nov. 13 named Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive who has repeatedly opposed measures to restrain drug company profiteering, to succeed Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Resistance has organized largely on the Internet, with the progressive press helping to identify the targets. The coalition and Dems in Congress have racked up a pretty good record in the first year, knocking down attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, and fighting Trump and the GOP Congress to a virtual standstill on the worst of the bad bills so far. But the billionaires have told their Republican Congresscritters they’d better get a big tax cut or they’ll cut off funding for campaigns, so Republicans came back with a 2018 budget that would cut $1.5 trillion from health care spending, including $1 trillion from Medicare and $473 billion from Medicare, to set up those tax cuts, regardless of Trump’s campaign promises to protect those health programs. And we’ll see what House Speaker Paul Ryan has in store for Social Security.

Plutocrats have been working for more than 80 years to overturn the New Deal’s reforms that regulated capitalism and enabled the recovery from the Great Depression. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan provided the opportunity for the plutocrats, as they broke the unions that provided major backing for the Democrats; the National Labor Relations Board backed the unionbusters; and Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission killed the Fairness Doctrine, which since the end of World War II had required broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public importance to prevent fascists from rising in the US. The demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 allowed conservative broadcasters to consolidate control of the airwaves, with few opportunities for liberal and progressive voices. Now Trump’s FCC is moving to give corporations control of the Internet, and put more toll booths on the information superhighway, while Trump and other right wingers have worked to undermine the credibility of critical news media as “fake news.” Lately he has called for licensing journalists, taking another page from the fascist playbook of the 1930s.

The Grand Oligarch Party will keep coming with bad ideas, the money to promote them in the corporate media and financial backing for politicians who will do their bidding — and they don’t play fair. The Progressive Populist will try to restore the good name of populism. The Resistance will have to keep fighting back by getting the word out whichever way they can. But it was a good first year. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2017

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Selections from the December 1, 2017 issue

COVER/Lucian K. Truscott IV
You don’t cut taxes with two wars and 240,000 troops overseas

The Resistance strikes back


Young Evangelicals blurring theological lines

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
Food for thought: Why not thought for food?

McConnell concedes GOP tax plan will increase taxes on many;
GOP tax plan is all unicorns;
Landmine in GOP tax bill would give fetuses personhood;
GOP plan raises tax on graduate students;
Obamacare grows despite Trump’s sabotage;
Maine voters opt for Medicaid expansion;
GOP ready to push Trump judicial choices through;
Dems win with serious, affirmative agenda;
Big Oil loses big in Washington State ...

Rural despair

Gun control shouldn’t be this hard 

Trump’s tax cut challenge

If you want to collect Social Security, Trump’s tax plan is an outrage

What real tax reform could look like

Dems want to ditch leaders and move left; they’re right

Forests and trees

American voices: The Resistance, year one

Is a groundwater ‘trade deficit’ gurgling under our feet?

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Emergency rooms as Realtors: A micro point of light on the healthcare horizon

It’s never too early to discuss public safety

That Kennedy tax cut

President Trump: Nuclear business as usual?

Robots create made in the USA jobs

BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky
Sports safety advocacy

BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel
Questions before the Resistance

Royal flush

SATIRE/Rosie Sorenson
A tale of three Harveys

MOVIES/Ed Rampell
Stars, survivors, relatives, remember Hollywood blacklist’s 70th anniversary

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Sexualizing young girls while condemning adult-child relations: Outing Roy Moore highlights historical flip-flop

By Marc Jampole
Society has made an historical flip-flop in two paired values we hold about teenaged girls, especially aged 12-16.
In the old days, there was little wrong with a 32 year old man courting a 14 or 16 year old girl. As a citizen of the 21st century, I personally find it both distasteful and weird, a signal of an immature male adult. But in the old patriarchal days, the age difference didn’t matter that much. As recently as the late 1940’s, my Syrian grandfather—born and weaned in Aleppo—married off my 16 year old aunt to a man in his late twenties.
In those days, however, the sexuality of young girls was deemphasized, especially in middle and upper class families. Their dress was more modest. In some cultures, girls were educated separately or isolated from males of all ages. In some cultures, dates were chaperoned. For the most part, only bad girls manifested their sexuality.
Our attitudes about the normalization of adult-child marriage and the sexualization of young girls have both done a complete 180 over the course of the past century, not a sharp turn, but a slowly accelerating curve. Nowadays, we rightfully frown on sexual and romantic relationships between children and adults. From at least the 1970’s onward, there might exist some relationships between girls under 16 and boys between 18-24, but no gap as wide as 32 and 14, or 32 and 17 for that matter.
Yet American mass media sexualizes young women on a daily basis. No, change that to on a nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis. By the time a girl attains 14, she has been introduced to a wide array of clothes, cosmetics, toys, books, electronic games, advertisements and movies that reduce her and other young girls to sexual objects. Sexualization begins as early as four and five for girls participating in youth beauty pageants. Fulfilling or enhancing your sexual being unleashes a literal cornucopia of needs that products and services can provide, so it is a powerful tool for marketers and advertisers. As our consumer society has advanced, so has the sexualization of women—and men to a lesser extent—of all ages.
Through much of human history, the distinction between childhood and adulthood was not as stark as it has been in the 20th and the 21st century industrialized societies. Many children worked in prior centuries and there were few if any organized groups of or for children. Society in general was much less child-centered than today, for two reasons (if my memory of reading books on the subject has not failed me): Firstly, many children died in childbirth, which hardened people to death and caused them to invest less emotional energy in their children’s lives. Just as important, however, were the more constrained economic circumstances before the industrial revolution and then the great redistribution of wealth downward in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. As people have had more disposable income, they have gradually focused more of their expenditures on their children. A contemporary Thorsten Veblen would say that we are engaging in conspicuous consumption to demonstrate how much we love our children and how well-off we are. Children have joined—and perhaps started to replace—women on the fetishized pedestal of consumerism.
Today’s society has it three-quarters right. There should be a separation between childhood and adulthood. Societies in which children are protected and adults are expected to be responsible and independent corresponds to our developmental needs as primates with a long maturation process for our progeny.
In addition, open attitudes about sex, sexuality and sexual identity lead to healthier individuals and a healthier society. But while our advances towards a society accepting of everyone’s sexuality is positive, the market-driven sexualization of young girls is not. It forces young girls to be overly concerned with their bodies at a time of life when the body is rapidly changing and before their brains have developed enough to address the multiple sophistications of sexual relations in our complex society.
Additionally, we are seeing the lines between childhood and adulthood blurring over the past twenty years. Instead of adulthood being thrust prematurely on adolescence as in pre-industrial times, youth and adolescence have been extended into the twenties and the thirties, as more and more adults retain their entertainments and predilections of childhood. I’ve recited the litany of adult infantilization many times over the past few years, most recently a few weeks back.  Every year, more adults read Harry Potter and other adult fiction, watch movies about super heroes and fantasy worlds or about adult men—and now women—remaining adolescents, wear Halloween costumes to work, collect My Little Ponies and Legos, enjoy cosplay and participate in sleepovers in museums. Every year, more children remain at home or move back to live with their parents, often for economic reasons, but often also a sign of immaturity. All of these and many other cultural phenomena suggest that adults are thinking and acting more like children and that childhood is expanding to engulf part if not all an individual’s adult life.
The most telling sign that American society is becoming infantilized is that enough Americans voted for a 70-year-old infant with a child’s emotions, emotional needs, thought processes and level of education that a majority of Electoral College members could feel free to vote for him. Again, the dictates of consumer capitalism are to blame: it’s easier to convince a child to buy some shiny new, but useless, bauble than it is to convince an adult.
To be sure, our society has advanced to the point that victims feel they can come forward and identify their abusers. Coming forward of course discourages these creeps because they know in their hearts what they are doing is wrong and that, if made public, their actions will ruin their careers. Coming forward also prevents predators from becoming repeat offenders. The fall of Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey and all the other recently-outed prominent dirtbags gives us hope that we will soon have a society that is both non-sexist and non-sexually exploitive. That it came so soon after the election of an avowed sexual harasser and abuser only shows how much Americans were shaken by the results of the 2016 presidential election. All good.
But at the end of the day, the advances we have made in our mores through creating certain barriers between childhood and adulthood, having a more open society in sexual matters and now openly confronting sexual predators are corrupted and partial offset by our consumer-driven economy of conspicuous consumption that reduces all human experience to the buying of goods and services.