Big Media Takes Over Our Airwaves

By Daniel Meltzer

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.

Wondering why the media has been so uncritical of an administration that went to war on circumstantial evidence, and cut taxes for the rich but not the poor? Look no further than this week’s Federal Communications Commission decision to reward the country’s principal media players by making it easier for them to control all of what you will see, hear and read — and what you won’t.

Those of you who thought television news and entertainment programming could not possibly get worse, get ready. Television — the miracle invention of the mid-20th century, turned by advertising and greed into “The Appliance that Came to Dinner and Ate Our Brains” — wants more.

I remember my immigrant grandmother’s awestruck reaction to the miracle of the first “live” pictures, carried by coaxial cable, beamed from atop the Empire State Building to our rabbit-ear antenna: images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Washington Monument, Grand Canyon, and Sophie and Richard Tucker.

The small black-and-white screen was haunted by ghosts, severed by mysterious diathermy interference. Still, it was a miracle. You no longer had to leave home to see the world’s wonders and the great entertainers. You no longer had to visualize events of the day from accounts in newspapers or over the radio. Newscasters John Cameron Swayze and Douglas Edwards showed us film of the day’s important occurrences all over the world, five evenings a week.

Edward Murrow went further; on a historic “See It Now” broadcast in 1954 he let Americans see first-hand how Joseph McCarthy had abused his Senate hearings to undermine the freedom he claimed to be defending, repeatedly crossing the line, as Murrow was unafraid to say, from “investigating to persecuting.” Americans, shown the truth on their home screens, rose up and stopped it. Television made America better.

Gifted writers from theater, cabaret and vaudeville turned their talents to television. Rod Serling and Paddy Chayevsky wrote original dramas like “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “Marty” for Hallmark Hall of Fame and Playhouse 90. Martha Raye, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball and Jack Benny were weekly household guests. TV sitcoms were born, along with westerns and cop dramas, game shows, the new vaudeville of Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” and Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater.” Everything was original. Everything was free. Commercials were amusing and infrequent.

On the first celebrity talk show, “Person to Person,” Murrow interviewed Marilyn Monroe and Fidel Castro in their homes, live. Castro had just overthrown the dictator Batista. He wore pajamas. Marilyn didn’t.

The future seemed unlimited. It wasn’t. The business of America is business, and television, even when still in black-and-white, began to show its true colors. Murrow was forced out of CBS when sponsors complained of his antiestablishment bias. The vaudevillians and theater pros retired or died, and were replaced by writers, producers and performers who had grown up with television and Madison Avenue — whose marriage has been one of the longest in history.

The pictures added color, the language became more “colorful.” Marketing and ratings experts saw to it the numbers always came first. A television program carries commercials and moves product. When it comes to audiences, size matters. There are, it turns out, no “niche” audiences.

Mergers, takeovers, bottom-line fever and pressure from conservative fundamentalists have successfully squelched any hope of anything that might be considered “sophisticated,” lest it alienate the broad base of loyal consumers. Bedroom and bathroom humor, which everyone “gets,” eliminate the need for wit, which is inherently subversive, as writers know. Laugh tracks still cue the hard thinking that something is funny, just in case it isn’t. “Educational TV” is virtually gone, except for a small number of children’s programs on the shrinking number of noncommercial channels.

Satellites have rendered news footage from overseas routine. But network cost-cutters have eliminated most overseas news bureaus. They now “pool” their video and use less of it.

Network news chiefs and anchors dine and travel with presidents and consult public opinion polls before deciding how, or whether, to report their actions or policies. Longtime correspondents have become too cozy with the government, having been “embedded” with the White House and its agencies for so long.

Talk shows cultivate a culture of crude callousness. Skepticism, the pilot light of progress, doesn’t dare to show its flickering flame.

The newly approved FCC guidelines permit further conglomeration of ownership. Fewer will own and control more, and less will be demanded of them. The air is allegedly free. Access to it is not.

When rebels seize a Third World country, they immediately take over the television transmitters. Whoever owns the media controls the message. Whoever controls the message controls the people. The gods of commerce own our air. Art, the truth, new ideas; all these must wait.

Daniel Meltzer teaches journalism and drama at New York University.



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