When the CBS suits shuttered WBCN in Boston, the radio station I used to work for, one more institution that at time was known for offering critical and independent news was snuffed out.
A former reporter and DJ there, Bill Lichtentsein wrote, "From the moment it hit the air, the station helped define, as well as promote, popular culture and politics in Boston for the ’60s/boomer generation in a way that nothing had before. And its impact quickly spilled over nationally."
The station is gone but the memories lived on last week at a rock wake in Beantown attended by a large crowd of listeners and volunteers for whom the station was a community-building touchstone for 41 years. It was part of what was then considered a popular alternative radio movement that combined independent news with commercial music formats.
That movement was crushed by corporatization and media concentration. It has gotten to the point that with a few exceptions like Pacifica outlets, Community Access TV stations, and small chains like Air America, we have as much uniformity of approach on the airwaves here as existed in the old Soviet Union where the Master’s Voice was not RCA Victor but the Politburo.
That’s why I was pleased when Russian television came to interview me for a TV network with more than l00 million viewers about my thoughts on the financial crisis and Michael Moore’s new movie lambasting Capitalism.
The ironies abounded.
It was the old Russia that sounded like Moore well before he made his film trashing Capitalism that made $42 million on its first weekend. The Village Voice reports that the movie is brought to us by a company run by Limbaugh-loving John Malone, once called "The Darth Vader of Cable’ by Al Gore and recently fined $1.4 million by the Justice Department for illegal stock purchases. Malone wants to be considered an equal opportunity monopolist—some years ago he bought the McNeil Lehrer NewsHour company.
As Russians, they initially welcomed capitalism because their authoritarian system posing as socialism was such a disaster. They thought all would now be "normal," life would get better. But then, they saw how a handful of oligarchs and Mafia henchmen took over, corrupting the system, stealing resources that used to, theoretically at least, belong to the people, dismantling social safety nets and driving millions into poverty.
And now, they see the collapse of our own system underway, and wonder why capitalist film companies would finance a film blasting the system they profit from. They didn’t get it.
They didn’t seem to like Moore either, who I ended up defending and explaining, because of his loud and showy antics and what they saw as a superficial approach that jumped from issue to issue. They followed him out to Flint Michigan, his revered hometown, and came across many locals who think he is exploiting their pain. I praised him as one of the few filmmakers who even tackle working class issues.
I then tried to use the interview to talk about my new book, The Crime of Our Time, on the financial crisis as a crime story and share some of the research and investigative reporting I did.
There was a disconnect for me too-trying to put the crisis in language that Russians could relate to while rarely being given the opportunity to go on the air on outlets here, stations I worked for in my own country, like ABC, CNN and CNBC to bring my argument closer to home. They prefer to "use" the "experts" who got the story so wrong for so long. They, like CBS, want nothing to do with voices outside the certainties of the mainstream conventional wisdom.
So if the editors in Moscow don’t cut me out, I will have my fifteen seconds of fame in time zones I can’t name and in towns with names I can’t pronounce. And where, of course, my work is not available.
Years ago, Michael Moore realized that the only way to get on the air was to join that world that the media bookers get wet for, to become a certified (and when possible, certifiable) celebrity with name recognition and an unyielding personality.
He also recognized–what I later reluctantly realized— that comedians have more freedom to speak in our media than journalists. No wonder the best news these days on TV is on the Daily Show and Bill Maher. You can indict capitalist practices on the air as long as the indictment is wrapped in yuks. (This approach allows a kind of ‘plausible denial’ as in ‘that was only a joke.’ Ha. Ha.)
I am not even Michael Moore’s Mini Me in that category. He wants to be funny and has won access on the talk show circuit as a promote able, larger than life star and entertainer, a designation he’s earned over twenty years of making films that meet the industry’s real test: they make money. No dummy he! He knows how to give enough of the movie-going public what it wants
Hence, he wears a baseball hat and plays in the major leagues. Hence, his entrée to Larry King’s clubhouse. Hence, Russian TV tracking him to Michigan. Hence, me and so many others writing about his work.
When I saw him speak recently, I was impressed by his humility and sense of irony. As for TV guests, better Michael Moore than Tom Delay.
Disclosure: I have made a doc, PLUNDER: THE CRIME OF OUR TIME, that is similar in subject but very different in approach than Moores’, and if it ever gets seen, folks can assess the difference for themselves. Clearly there is plenty to say about a crisis that is itself doing a better job of demolishing capitalism than any film.
And I hope it won’t be only folks in the distant four corners of the world that get to see it. Over the years, I’ve met some very cool Russians, and my grandparents came from that vast soil, but I am also an American outraged that our people in this "land of the free" aren’t exposed more regularly to a wider range of ideas.
By all means, see his movie but see some of the other amazing political docs out there too—The Most Dangerous Man in America, The Yes Men, The Age Of Stupid, etc. And check out Plunder when and if you get a chance. In fact, let me add that Michael Moore’s "people" bought some footage from us which enabled me to finish our film.
That’s my Michael Moore love story du jour.
News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs for Mediachannel.org, and is anauthor filmmaker, and troublemaker. Comments to [email protected]