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Concentrated dilution


As if one "Powell Doctrine" weren't enough: On June 2, the prevaricating Secretary of State's son Michael, joined by two other Republicans on the five-member board of the Federal Communications Commission, dropped the Big One on media diversity.

            Michael Powell, the FCC chair, never left any doubt of his intentions. In interviews and speeches before D-Day, he promised to relax limits on media concentration and "cross-ownership" of print, TV, and radio outlets. Powell's position was largely ideological --- as a neoliberal, he's prone to dismantle public services and bow to "market forces." But let's not forget he was named to the FCC by Bill Clinton, not some Bush or other. (And don't forget that Clinton stood behind the 1996 Telecommunications Act, another milepost in this downhill slide.)

            The "market" in this case is almost exclusively one of sellers, not buyers. Before the June 2 decision, the agency received around 750,000 public comments. One of the dissenting commissioners was quoted as saying the comments were "99.9 percent opposed" to relaxing the ownership rules.

Don't worry, says Powell. Bigger is better.

            You don't think he'd state it so crudely? Here's what he told the Media Institute in Washington, DC, this past March: "While many view big as always antithetical to the public interest, scale and efficiency are becoming more vital to delivering quality news and public affairs. The world is getting smaller... It is increasingly imperative to have a larger perspective on matters of public interest... This complex world requires ever more sophisticated news gathering and delivery capability. The scale and resources necessary to do it are increasing."

            Like his father, Michael Powell holds a powerful microphone. (His official bio proudly notes he was once chief of staff of the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division!) But people across the political spectrum are finding their voices. In the US Senate, for example, North Carolina's Fritz Hollings, Alaska's Ted Stevens, and North Dakota's Byron Dorgan are part of a bipartisan fightback.

            We might not see any Congressional action for a while. But with such forces arrayed against the FCC majority's faith in laissez-faire, I'm betting there will be at least a partial restoration of the old rules.

            Yes, I hate media concentration as much as the next guy.

            But what really gets me is a related phenomenon: media dilution, the tendency to speak to the least common denominator and to accept the easy lie over the difficult truth. I hardly need tell you this is a persistent feature of mass media in the US. But its roots go deeper than we usually think.

            The roots are sunk in basic psychology. Take the tendency toward repetition, most noticeable in the commercials but also present in the news. You find the same story across the channels at 6 and 11, and you hear the same "analysis" on PBS in the evenings and in the public-affairs ghetto on Sunday morning. Expect more of the "more is less" approach when Murdoch rules the world.

            Columnist Arianna Huffington recently explored the problem. She drew on social scientist Gustav le Bon, who she said "has stressed the importance of repetition as a weapon in the fanatic's arsenal. Repetition breeds blind acceptance and contagion. 'Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs,' writes le Bon, 'possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.'" Huffington noted how repetition persuaded many Americans of an outright lie: that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.

            Repetition's first cousin is dullness: pure, unadulterated drivel. There's plenty of this already, and not just on the "reality" shows, which in some ways are superior to straight news. (Joe Millionaire, after all, told the audience up-front that its premise was a scam.) The fact is, the US media are so shallow and boring that serious readers and viewers are deserting in droves, often via the Internet.

            After 9/11, for example, Americans thronged to BBC broadcasts and webcasts and to UK papers like the Independent. Speaking of the latter: Many people, myself emphatically included, have become big fans of Robert Fisk, the Independent's Middle East specialist whose no-holds-barred reports from Iraq under US attack did not neglect the things Americans needed most to hear: for example, how American forces slaughtered civilians and destroyed communities and cultural treasures. Fisk, though he worked for years at the Times of London, has never excited much interest in the American mainstream. So it is with writers who don't read from the script.

But the concentrated-diluted American media have done lots worse than ignore a durable professional like Fisk. They've ignored a true American hero.

            First, let's be clear: That hero was not Jessica Lynch. But Lynch's story is a perfect example of what happens under a growing media oligopoly.

            I don't say this because of the myths and facts --- how Lynch was actually injured in a vehicle accident rather than wounded by hostile fire, how she was saved by rather than imprisoned by Iraqi hospital staff, and how US military personnel staged a "rescue" and manipulated the news.

            Nor do I say this because of the Jayson Blair angle. (The New York Times ex-reporter's fabrications included some fanciful word-painting about the Lynch homestead.)

            No, I say this because of the deal that CBS News has offered Lynch and her family. The deal may include the production of a two-hour documentary and some "entertainment" options with CBS, Simon & Schuster, and MTV --- all of which are Viacom properties. Suffice it to say, the deal sucks as bad as the media machine that created the "Saving Private Lynch" mythology.

            To appreciate the full foolishness, compare all this to what befell the true American hero I mentioned.

            This hero is Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old from Washington State who died under the blade of an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza, this past March. Corrie had gone to Gaza with a solidarity team who put their bodies on the line to prevent home demolitions in occupied Palestine.

            Not that Corrie's saga is entirely unknown: Some US papers, and not just out in Washington, gave the outline shortly after the tragedy. Sympathy was briefly extended. Predictably, some vitriol against Corrie contaminated the Internet, too.

            But the facts have pretty well been buried with the young woman --- facts which, however you shade them, reveal her active heroism. She stood up to the machine, and she paid for it with her life.

Not even the alternativepress, which increasingly prefers hipness to grand causes, has taken much interest in Corrie.

            I did a search of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' online archive of weekly highlights, gleaned from AAN's 116 free-circulation papers (including this one). The search turned up only one piece on Corrie, from The Stranger, based in Seattle. It's true the alt weeklies must concentrate on local news, but the honorific alternative was earned by countering the mainstream on the global front.

            Of course, many AAN papers now are owned by mini-conglomerates like Village Voice Media and NT Media, which throw their weight around the comparatively small pond. That may have everything, something, or nothing to do with the silence still hanging over Rachel Corrie.

            If you're interested, Harper's (June 2003) has a selection of Corrie's e-mails from Gaza. The UK Guardian ran some of her e-mails a while ago. Kudos to both.