L. A. Times Promotes Tim Rutten

The Los Angeles Times is moving Tim Rutten from the Calendar section to the Op-Ed pages beginning in the new year. This is a promotion that is long overdue for one of the paper’s best columnists. While I’ve had a disagreement of two with Rutten, he is the most consistently honest and insightful writer the paper employs – particularly since they traded the brilliant Robert Scheer for the brain-dead Jonah Goldberg.

Rutten is unafraid of taking on the powerful, even if that means his own bosses. His last “Regarding Media” column for Calendar is a good example of this. While he has a much more optimistic view of the Times’ future under new owner Sam Zell than I do, he is also unambiguous in his contempt for corporate media:

“The era of corporate accumulation has been an unmitigated disaster for American journalism. Money has flowed like a fiscal Mississippi into the pockets of investors and fund managers, draining one newspaper and TV station after another of the resources necessary to serve their communities’ common good.”

There are a couple of unanswered questions surrounding Rutten’s promotion. Is some other progressive opinion columnist being let go to make room for Rutten’s op-eds? Will a less courageous writer, or a worse, a Big Media apologist, replace Rutten as author of “Regarding Media”? Time will tell. But all in all, I will be looking forward to Rutten’s work in the section of the paper where it really belongs. Two years ago I wrote an article praising Rutten’s criticism of a speech by Dick Cheney. I closed by noting the difference between Rutten’s substantive analysis and the relative intellectual vacancy of the Times’ Opinion writers:

“Perhaps I should turn first to the Calendar for insight into the news, then pick up the opinion pages for entertainment, where their newest columnist, Jonah Goldberg, is best known for his fiction.”

Beginning next year, it may be safe to read the Opinion section again.

Falling For The Myth Of The Liberal Media

Tim Rutten is the media columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He is rare bright light in a dark media sky. I have written approvingly of his insight on several occasions.

That’s why I’m somewhat surprised at an article he published this weekend. Much of it accurately portrayed some of the media’s obtuse gyrations to mold itself into whatever they think the audience wants, but on one point he was so far off the mark that the mark became a microscopic speck in a distant universe. Here is Rutten attempting to describe the current cable news landscape:

“…we now have a situation in which the three all-news cable networks each have aligned themselves with a point on the political compass: Fox went first and consciously became the Republican network; MSNBC, which would have sold its soul to the devil for six ratings points, instead found a less-demanding buyer in the Democrats. Now, CNN has decided to reinvent itself as the independent, populist network cursing both sides of the conventional political aisle — along with immigrants and free trade, of course.”

Indeed, Fox was first, but it didn’t become the Republican network. It was conceived and hatched as such. There was never any intention for the network to be anything other than a voice for rightist rhetoric and a counter balance to what their delusions told them was a “liberal media.” Their air is dominated by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, John Gibson, Bill Krystal, Geraldo Rivera, Charles Krauthammer, Ann Coulter, etc. Even their managing editor for news, Brit Hume, is overtly dismissive of Democrats and liberal points of view.

But Rutten stumbled when he wrote that MSNBC has assumed a Democratic posture. The only support he gives for that view is the presence of Keith Olbermann. It doesn’t take much observation, however, to erase the image that Rutten is painting. Countdown is a one hour daily program. Conversely, Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman, hosts three hours every morning. Tucker Carlson, the conservative son of the director of the Scooter Libby Defense Fund has his own hour. Chris Matthews, although he was an aide to Tip O’Niell, has become a reliable basher of progressive policy. And the guests on all of these programs run the gamut from neo-caveman Pat Buchanan to Pat Buchanan (seriously, is he the only number in their Rolodex?). And there is nothing notably liberal in their handling of straight news.

Rutten similarly tags CNN as reaching for a “populist” stance based solely on the blathering of Lou Dobbs. Beyond that the only identity CNN achieves is as a boot-licker for any symbol of political power. And if you extend the CNN profile to include it’s little sister, Headline News, you’ll find law and order priestess Nancy Grace, and the stupidest man on television, Glenn Beck.

Rutten cites a PEW study on the partisan make-up of viewers for the three cable news nets as proof that they are being divided by ideology:

“Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one (43% to 21%) among the core Fox News Channel audience, while there are far more Democrats than Republicans among CNN’s viewers (43% Democrat, 22% Republican) and network news viewers (41% Democrat, 24% Republican).”

But all this really proves is that Fox News is wildly out of touch with mainstream America by attracting such an imbalance of Republicans. The viewership of CNN and the other networks actually are closer to representing the nation’s political mood as revealed in another survey by PEW:

“Today, half of the public (50%) either identifies as a Democrat or says they lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 35% who align with the GOP.”

Therefore, the fact that more Democrats than Republicans watch CNN and MSNBC is simply because there are more Democrats than Republicans. The fact that the numbers are reversed for Fox News is because Fox blatantly solicits Republican viewers via the conservative agenda planted in their reporting.

Rutten does make some good points including that CNN has become a “traveling wreck of a journalistic carnival” (Good one, Tim). But he closes his column by tying together Olbermann, O’Reilly and Dobbs as “the three points of what amounts to an ethical Bermuda Triangle.” The problem with that analysis is that there are many O’Reillys and Dobbs’ across the TV dial, but there is only one Olbermann. Nowhere on any of the news channels is there a such a reliably left-of-center voice – even on MSNBC which Rutten characterizes as the liberal point in the triangle.

The big question then is…Why not? Since we know that Democrats outnumber Republicans; we know that a majority of Americans rate Democrats higher on every major issue including Iraq, health care, the environment, the economy; we know that the Republican president’s approval rating has sunk to historic lows; knowing all of this, why is there only one program that serves the majority of the viewing audience? Some media critics claim that the partisan slant of the media is due solely to the marketplace and that if the public wanted more liberal views, the media would supply them.

Oh yeah? By any objective standard, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

A Declaration Of Independence From The Los Angeles Times

Human beings are creatures of habit. We find great comfort in familiar surroundings and established routines. That’s why, despite the abundance of persuasions, it is still difficult to break free from a decades long ritual of breakfast with the Los Angeles Times. Difficult, but not impossible.

The time has now come when the negatives outweigh the positives. There are many who would say that that time came long ago. So many, in fact that the Times has the distinction of having lost a larger percentage of subscribers than any other major American newspaper. And now as I join them, I shall, paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, “declare the causes which impel [me] to the separation.”

The past couple of years have been tumultuous for the Times and its parent, the Tribune Company. Along with rapidly declining circulation, they also have been undergoing close scrutiny by investors who have forced them to seek opportunities to sell the paper or the whole company. There was lukewarm reaction to their emergence on the market, but a few curious parties emerged. They included the Chandler family (the previous and historical owners of the Times); a management consortium (of current Tribune executives); the McCormick Foundation (which is also dominated by current Tribune executives); local L. A. billionaires (Ron Burkle, Eli Broad and David Geffen in separate deals); and Sam Zell (the Chicago billionaire real- estate developer).

In addition, the newsroom has been roiled by slashes in personnel – more than 20% since Tribune acquired the Times in 2000. They have also run through several publishers and editors. The latest executive heads to roll were publisher Jeffrey Johnson and editor Dean Baquet, who were both cut loose because they balked at firing even more news staffers. Before his dismissal, Johnson wisely cautioned that, “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future.” Unfortunately for Johnson, Chicago responded by cutting him. More recently we’ve been forced to sit through the embarrassing departure of the editorial editor, Andres Martinez, amidst a newsroom soap opera that included a Hollywood producer and his publicist, whom Martinez was linked to romantically.
Contine reading

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.

Let My Newspapers Go

“American newspapers are passing through an era… in which a corporate ownership model seems increasingly unworkable.”
Tim Rutten

The Tribune Company is emblematic of the pitfalls of corporate ownership of media. It’s portfolio includes 11 daily newspapers, 25 television stations, and cable superstation WGN, as well as WGN-AM radio, the Chicago Cubs, and news, information and entertainment websites.

One of its newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, is at the cornerstone of a conflict that encompasses disgruntled shareholders, rebellious executives and underserved customers. Through all of this turmoil, some insight and inspiration has come from Tim Rutten, the paper’s Associate Editor of Features. Rutten has taken a hard line position on the question of corporate ownership. How often do you see a reporter give his employer an ultimatum like this:

“American newspapers are passing through an era not only of technological change but also one in which a corporate ownership model seems increasingly unworkable. If the Tribune Co. does not feel able or willing to resist its investors’ unreasonable demands on behalf of the public’s interest, then it should put The Times into the hands of somebody who will.”

And a couple of weeks later:

“No one can argue that Tribune or anyone who owns The Times is obliged to lose money. On the other hand, no one should argue that a newspaper’s proprietor has no obligation except to make as much money as it can. Somewhere between those two extremes is a fulcrum called responsibility on which a balance must be struck. Doing so requires the recognition that, although stockholders certainly are stakeholders in this process, so – and just as surely – are a paper’s readers.

What this moment in the life of the Los Angeles Times requires is recognition that the paper’s social, intellectual and political value to readers needs to be unlocked and not just its monetary value to investors.”

While these comments were directed specifically to the affairs at The Times, they could apply generally to almost any media conglomerate. The notion that a newspaper’s responsibility to its readers is at least equivalent to its fiduciary obligation to shareholders is one that should gain more acceptance in the journalism world. The more local the control, the more likely that outcome can be achieved. The Times deserves some credit for publishing Rutten’s provocative views. And Rutten deserves even more for having and expressing them.

Sneaking Up On Journalism

Let’s face it…The mainstream, corporate press is an insular confederation of stenographers in the newsroom and charlatans in the boardroom.

Reporters who are obsessed with access and privilege cannot possibly be relied upon for balance and insight. That’s why what often passes for balance is just the presentation of falsehood as a response to truth. Many reporters fear that providing context, or facts, will be perceived as subjectivity. By leaving out those critical elements, falsehood and truth are left to be judged as credible equals.

The executive suites of the ever-consolidating media giants are populated by seekers of profit and power. They are more interested in the performance of their stock than the practice of responsible journalism. And since their financial interests are aligned with those of their advertisers, and their patrons in Washington, the public they purport to serve will almost always be shortchanged.

Despite the obvious dysfunction evident in this system, one thing they have expertly engineered is their own self-defense. Should the specter of honorable reportage emerge from the moat, gendarmes will repel it with dispatch. The only way, therefore, to storm the castle, is to sneak up on it from behind.

Feature writers are in a unique position to have a beneficial impact on the state of journalism and the world around them. Who says these niche reporters can’t insert socially relevant content into their stories? In a prior article, I wrote of how Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times used his column on media criticism to lambaste the hollowness of a recent speech by the Vice President, as well as the failure of the media to provide coherent coverage of the speech. Why can’t that be a model for other feature columnists?

  • Restaurant reviewers could remind their readers to be grateful that they are able to eat, much less eat out at fine restaurants.
  • Sports writers could explore athletic scholarships and broader educational curriculum issues.
  • Business columnists could cover business from labor’s perspective and investigate corporate political activity.
  • Auto columns could address global warming.
  • Medical columnists could provide information about universal healthcare.
  • The real estate pages might consider stories on homelessness.

The point I’m making here is that, if we can’t get our voices heard in conventional news forums, then maybe we should be unconventional. These special interest columns have a broad appeal and are sometimes the only way to reach readers that pay little attention to the frantic world depicted on the front pages. This could be a way to have an impact by hitting people where they live – in their homes, cars, restaurants, parks, temples, theaters, etc. Perhaps we need to undertake the initiative to inspire writers of this specialty content to take a stand once in awhile, and to show that they care about the real world that their specialties embrace.

Burying The Lede

The The Los Angeles Times should pay my doctor bills for the heart attack they gave me by publishing an insightful, well-reasoned, and hard-hitting opinion column yesterday. Tim Rutten’s article, Cheney’s History Needs A Revise, is one of the best deconstructions of the Vice President’s hysterical hypocrisy I’ve read to date. In case you missed it, Cheney, after an insincere stab at advocating the right to dissent, immediately blasted dissenters as aiding and abetting the terrorists. He accused critics of the war of lying when they said Bush lied about pre-war intelligence. Even though that has been, in Cheney’s words, “…pretty well confirmed.” He went on to say:

Administration critics were engaging in “…revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety.”

“Any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped, fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false.”

And that critics were “dishonest” and “reprehensible.”

Rutten mercilessly pounds on Cheney’s own revisionism, hitting him with Curveball, torture, and his own desparation as the only BushCo rep with lower public ratings than Bush. And he wraps it up beautifully with this conclusion:

That’s why Cheney is right about at least one thing: Deliberately falsifying history for mere political advantage is a particularly noxious social perversion. It is, to borrow, his stingingly apt adjective, “reprehensible.”

But candid recollection and sober reflection do not amount to revisionism – unless, of course, you’re already committed to self-deception and determined to convince others to live with your lie.

So how then is the lede buried, as my headline states? You might expect that this thoughtful portrayal of current events by a significant newsmaker would have appeared in the opinion section, or in the news pages properly identified as analysis. You would be wrong. Tim Rutten is a media columnist and his articles appear in the Calendar section that contains the Times’ entertainment reporting.

This means I may have to radically alter my reading habits. Perhaps I should turn first to the Calendar for insight into the news, then pick up the opinion pages for entertainment, where their newest columnist, Jonah Goldberg, is best known for his fiction.