Calame’s Cowardice: The New York Times Retracts Its Integrity

Last June, in a rare display of journalistic responsibility, the New York Times published an article exposing the Bush administration’s efforts to further undermine civil liberties by prying into private banking transactions without due process. The following month, Byron Calame, the Times’ Public Editor, backed up the story and the paper’s decision to publish it. But now he’s had a change of heart:

Calame’s new position is an endorsement for even less oversight and more absence of media attention.

“After pondering for several months, I have decided I was off base. There were reasons to publish the controversial article, but they were slightly outweighed by two factors to which I gave too little emphasis. While it’s a close call now, as it was then, I don’t think the article should have been published.”

The two factors he cites as having prompted this back flip are, “the apparent legality of the program in the United States, and the absence of any evidence that anyone’s private data had actually been misused.”

On Factor One – Apparent Legality:
Mr. Calame now has doubts about the program’s illegality because, “there have been no Times reports of legal action being taken.” Well, there has been no legal action taken about dozens of BushCo’s legally suspect adventures. Since when is that a determinate of legality from the standpoint of investigative journalism? We have a Republican controlled Congress that refuses to perform its oversight obligations, and a Justice Department headed by Bush’s long-time personal lawyer. If the Times is waiting for them to prosecute wrongdoing on the part of this president, they might as well be waiting for Bush to admit he lied about WMDs. And if Calame thinks he has to wait for the Times to report on prosecutions he should know will never take place, he is being strikingly disingenuous, naive, or both.

On Factor Two – Private Data Misuse:
Mr. Calame is also second-guessing his original conclusions because he has not seen any documentation of harm resulting from the program. Does he really believe that a program that has the potential to produce harm must produce it before the program can be examined by the press? By that standard he would have the Times ignore proposed legislation to bar Episcopalians from voting until the law passed and an Episcopalian voter was turned away at the polls.

Calame cites, “The lack of appropriate oversight – to catch any abuses in the absence of media attention,” as a key reason for originally supporting publication. His new position is an endorsement for even less oversight and more absence of media attention going forward. This is a disappointing reversal that nonetheless affirms the philosophy of News Corpse: The media is dead.

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YouTube Shared User Data With Studio Lawyers.
Lawyers for Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures convinced a federal judge in San Francisco to issue a subpoena requiring YouTube to turn over details about a user who uploaded dialog from the movie studio’s “Twin Towers.” YouTube promptly handed over the data to Paramount, which on June 16 sued the creator of the 12-minute clip.

The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting.
The introduction of Fox News had a small but statistically significant effect on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000.

Boy Scouts Get MPAA-approved Copyright Patch.
The MPAA partnered with the Los Angeles Area Boy Scouts to develop the “Respect Copyrights” patch, a merit badge that Scouts can earn after reading some propaganda information on what you are not supposed to do with copyrighted works.

Google Flexing Political Muscle.
Google is trying to boost its influence in Congress with the first campaign contributions from its new political action committee. The initial round of $1,000 donations…[went] to three Republicans, including two of the most endangered GOP House members.

Terrorist Media Strategy = Bush Media Strategy

On October 21, 2006, President Bush delivered another in the series of radio addresses that seem now to be presidential obligations. [Can anyone explain why these anachronisms persist in an era when media access is so abundant?] In this address the president makes some interesting remarks that unintentionally correlate his media policy with that of the terrorists.

“Another reason for the recent increase in attacks is that the terrorists are trying to influence public opinion here in the United States.”
The Bush Administration is also trying to influence public opinion here. Through the use of uncredited, government-produced video news releases and payments to friendly pundits, the American government has directed a flood of propaganda at the American people.

“They have a sophisticated propaganda strategy.”
They might have learned it from the Pentagon that has an ongoing policy of paying Iraqi newspapers to publish positive stories written by American PR firms.

“They know they cannot defeat us in the battle, so they conduct high-profile attacks, hoping that the images of violence will demoralize our country and force us to retreat.”
Sounds a lot like Shock and Awe.

“They carry video cameras and film their atrocities, and broadcast them on the Internet.”
This is not so different from the practice of embedding reporters in military units to produce tainted coverage that is then broadcast to the rest of the world. But we could also include the scandalous events at Abu Ghraib as examples of atrocities on film.

“…their goal is to, ‘carry out a media war that is parallel to the military war.'”
That is precisely the goal of the U.S. according to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who said that, “the military needs to focus more on adapting to the changes in global media.”

“The terrorists are trying to divide America and break our will.”
The president is also trying to divide America with characterizations of his critics as soft on terror cut-and-runners who want America to lose. His “with us or with the terrorists” rhetoric is designed explicitly to rip apart the fabric of the American people who, in their hearts, all want the same thing – Peace and security.

If there is one thing that we can claim credit for, it’s that we have been a stalwart role model for the forces we are fighting in Iraq and elsewhere. It is easy to observe that the terrorist’s media strategies, about which the president is complaining, were learned from studying the media strategies employed by Bush and his deputies. We are, if nothing else, good teachers.

NBC Layoffs – The Hidden Victims

The immediate pain of the just announced layoffs at NBC will be felt by the 750 employees that lose their jobs. But there is more harm in this plan, and it may spread even further.

First, many analysts note that the bulk of the cuts are going to come from the news divisions. NBC has stated that they will be consolidating operations from the network news, MSNBC, Telemundo, the station group and the NBC News Channel into one or two sites. This will reduce the diversity of reporting to an ever narrower stream of homogenized content. Good going NBC, that’s just what television news needs.

Secondly, NBC revealed that they will be turning the 8:00 pm hour into a reality block. Reality shows are cheap to make and are owned in greater measure by the network. This decision is a double punch in the gut to the creative producers of scripted programs (comedies and dramas). Not only will there be fewer timeslots available to place their product, they are also being shut out of the market because the network is choosing to buy programs from itself. The result is that independent production companies, which have been disappearing rapidly, will accelerate their exit from the television stage.

So to summarize:

  • 750 people lose their jobs.
  • Creative programming loses out to Reality programming.
  • And all Americans lose even more outlets for their news.

And this is what NBC Uni Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker says is his blueprint for TV 2.0. If this is his idea of an upgrade, I think I’d prefer to stick with the old version. And that’s a pretty depressing thought in and of itself.

But the bottom line is that NBC’s initiative to streamline it’s operations is going to hurt millions more than the 750 unfortunates they are leaving on the cutting room floor. And these decisions are being made by the same executives that plunged NBC into 4th place. If these losers think this plan is going to be good for business, they are just providing new evidence of their cluelessness.

Fox Takes Both Sides

Maybe the Fox News Channel really is fair and balanced after all. With a nod to Stephen Colbert, here is an example of Fox’s famous even-handedness.

On May 1, Fox’s Steve Doocy reported on the performance of a Bush impersonator at the White House Correspondents Dinner who worked alongside the president.

Fair: “…the second president was actually an impersonator by the name of Steve Bridges, who nailed the commander in chief’s mannerisms and vocal patterns.”

On October 12, however, Fox’s Mike Straka had a different take on Bridges, this time paired with Barbara Streisand.

Balanced: “During her show, La Babs employed a bad Bush impersonator to sing a duet with her, all the while lambasting the real administration’s policies.”

According to Fox, Bridges is a bad Bush impersonator when working with Streisand, but when working with the president, nails him. The lesson for Bridges, I suppose, is never to work with Democrats. Ironically, that’s philosophy of President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress as well.

Murdoch’s Poison Pillory

A couple of years ago, Rupert Murdoch orchestrated the adoption of a “poison pill” that would act as an obstacle to any investor that sought to wrest control of News Corp. from the Murdoch family. John Malone of Liberty Media, who had been buying up shares of News Corp., was the unnamed target of this ploy. Liberty Media is a holding company that investments in media properties like QVC, Encore, and Inter/Active Corp.

Now the measure is up for renewal and there are those who would like to see it expire. The Murdoch family presently controls about 30% of News Corp.’s stock. Liberty has about 19%. If shareholders vote against the pill, it could result in Murdoch losing the iron grip he has on the company.

On a partisan basis, Malone may not be much better than Murdoch. He is a reliable source of contributions for the Republican party. Still, there is little evidence that he is as strident an advocate, or as willing to taint programming with his biases. Plus, it would just be a delicious irony if Murdoch’s megalomaniacal greed resulted in his being toppled from his throne.

There is something you can do. If you own shares of News Corp. vote them against renewing the pill. If you own funds that invest in News Corp. contact the portfolio managers and advise them that you would like for them to vote against it. Institutional investors are already amongst those who are inclined to oppose the measure.

But don’t waste any time because the vote is this Friday. This is an election that you can have a real impact on before that other election coming up in November. And if there were a significant shift in the journalistic philosophy of a media giant like News Corp., it would have a noticeably more far reaching effect than any electoral shift could ever have.

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Media Ownership Rules Are So ’70s

Jon Healey, in an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, devotes the first 5 paragraphs of his October 14th column to a rambling conjecture that a vengeful Richard Nixon conspired with the FCC to bar newspapers from owning TV and radio stations in the same market. After this 250 word conspiracy theory on the inception of cross-ownership rules, Healey admits that…

“Most of the evidence suggests, however, that the rule was not political skullduggery but merely a product of its time. An independent agency, the FCC has historically been more sensitive to pressure from Congress than the White House. And the cross-ownership ban was not just backed by the administration; it was supported by Republicans and Democrats alike on the commission and Capitol Hill.”

So why did Healey waste so much ink on the Nixon connivance? Perhaps it was to prejudice the reader with a negative association before dishing out the rest of his love note to Big Media. Healey argues that the media ownership rules are outdated. I agree, but I don’t share his reasons, or his solutions.

Healey serves up the typical canard that fuels the deregulation advocates. He asserts that technology and new media have produced a more competitive landscape for both television and newspapers. But he is misrepresenting the facts when he says that…

“The number of TV stations and radio broadcasters has increased by more than 50%, as has the number of TV broadcast networks. With most households receiving scores of channels via cable or satellite TV, the four largest networks now draw less than 50% of the prime-time audience.”

It depends on how you count. First of all, his reference to broadcast networks increasing 50% can only be true if you don’t count this year’s collapse of UPN and the WB into the CW network. If you do count it (and why wouldn’t you unless you intend to ignore events that contradict your bias), the number of broadcast networks has declined 16% this year.

Secondly, the contention that the number of TV stations and radio broadcasters has increased by more than 50% only speaks to the number of outlets, not the number of owners. There may be more outlets, but there are far fewer owners. In the past 25 years, the number of companies that controlled the majority of media output plunged from 50 to 5. And since the owners control the outlet’s administration and programming, that is a more significant measure in terms of both competitiveness and diversity.

Thirdly, Healey contends that cable television’s success has drained viewers from broadcast networks, leaving broadcasters with less than 50% of the prime-time audience. But can broadcasters really be said to have lost these viewers when the cable networks to which these viewers have migrated are largely owned by the very same broadcasters or the same parent corporations?

Finally, the flimsiest of all of the examples of alleged competition, is that the Internet has introduced a myriad of new voices that have broken the old media’s stranglehold on mass communication. The Internet is indeed a revolutionary platform for the distribution of information and ideas. But a realistic appraisal recognizes that most of these new voices are heard by only a handful of close friends and family. The truth is that 9 of the 11 most visited Internet news destinations are owned or controlled by the same familiar big media names.

Yes, media ownership rules are so ’70s. They are not keeping pace with the rapid concentration of media voices into such a small group of powerful, multinational corporations whose loyalties are bound to owners and shareholders, rather than consumers and citizens. To paraphrase the Times’ own Tim Rutten

“What this moment in the life of the [media] requires is recognition that the [media]’s social, intellectual and political value to [the public] needs to be unlocked and not just its monetary value to investors.”

Amen. And that will only be accomplished with sensible regulations that preserve independence and diversity.

Broken Media Covers Broken Government

“In the three weeks leading up to Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 7, CNN will marshal its resources and political expertise in multiple one-hour reports looking at the widespread dysfunction besetting Congress, the courts and the executive branch.”

These words open a CNN press release announcing the network’s 2006 election coverage. The same notice closes with this quote from CNN political director Sam Feist:

“As voters prepare to make critical decisions about the prosecution of the Iraq war, the wider war on terrorism and the economy, Americans of all ideologies have a nagging sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the way our government operates.”

If those sentiments represent the tenor of CNN’s reporting, we may actually witness an election season where the public is helped, rather than harmed, by television news.

Of course, it’s difficult to suspend a natural and earned skepticism that big media can suddenly perform its duties in the public interest. The facts that government has been dysfunctional, and that Americans have sensed this for some time, have been largely ignored by the media. As have the facts that the media has been dysfunctional and that Americans have sensed this as well. The decline in approval for the president and the Republican controlled congress is not a revelation to most Americans. But it did not gain much traction in the press until a Republican congressman heated up the debate with lurid tales of sex and depravity. Now the press is just noticing an electoral wave that has been building on the horizon for months.

Giving them the benefit a doubt that they don’t deserve, here are some of the upcoming programs that appear most interesting:

WEDNESDAY, OCT. 18, at 7 p.m. Lou Dobbs’ “War on the Middle Class,” conveniently borrows the title of his just released book to look “at the cost of housing, education and health care, as well as stagnant wages and the difficulty of achieving and maintaining middle-class status in this country.”

THURSDAY, OCT. 19, at 7 p.m. “Jack Cafferty’s: Broken Government,” presents the curmudgeon’s view of “government spending, corruption, abuse of power, electronic voting, the political party system and America’s borders.”

MONDAY, OCT. 23, at 8 p.m. “The Do Nothing Congress,” has Ed Henry explaining “the paralysis brought on by partisanship and obsession over raising money for elections.”

SUNDAY, OCT. 29, at 7 p.m. In perhaps the most profound topic of the series, Lou Dobbs and Kitty Pilgrim investigate, “Democracy at Risk: E-voting’s Threat.” This hour will cover the issue from “voter fraud and voter ID legislation to systematic problems with electronic voting machines.”

It remains to be seen if there will be any substance behind the fluff in this PR. It would be easy to produce the same kind of mushy programming for which these conventional media outlets are known. Some of the pitfalls that lead to inferior journalism are standard components of their reporting toolkit. For instance, the common practice of presenting opposing views, even when those views are baseless (or lies), is called “providing balance” in contemporary jounalism. If CNN can avoid falling back on the practices to which they are accustomed, the schedule above might actually hold some promise.

The Theo-Con Game

David Kuo was a special assistant to the president in the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. He is a long-time conservative Christian activist who has also worked for Bill Bennett and John Ashcroft.

Now he has written a book that demolishes BushCo’s disingenuous embrace of evangelical America. Tempting Faith is Kuo’s confessional account of an office that was purported to assist communities of faith in their missions to help disadvantaged neighbors, but instead manipulated those groups for political gain.

Kuo describes an office that has contempt for the groups they claim to serve. White House honchos like Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove would refer to their evangelical supporters as “the nuts.” Kuo writes:

“National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,'”

With support for the President and his party lurching ever lower, the story told by this book could severely damage their electoral prospects amongst their most reliable constituency. But the rest of us already knew that the usurpers in the White House were not to be trusted, didn’t we? Now the faithful will get a taste of how their false idol has betrayed them.

The President’s Advisors Revealed

In case anyone is wondering who the President turns to when forming policy, he revealed some of the inner workings of his braintrust today at a press conference. In answering a question about Iraq’s future, the President said:

“How do I know that would happen? Because that’s what the enemy has told us would happen. That’s what they have said. And as Commander-in-Chief of the United States military, and as a person working to secure this country, I take the words of the enemy very seriously, and so should the American people.”

Specifically, this is whose word’s the President takes seriously:

“…all you got to do is listen to what Osama bin Laden says. Don’t believe me that it’s a part of the war on terror; listen to the enemy…”

With consultants like that, it’s a little easier to understand why his presidency is such a miserable failure. It’s just too bad for the 655,000 dead Iraqis that Bush prefers the advice of his enemies to that of the 67% of his fellow Americans that oppose his disasterous war.