avatar
Speaking Back to the Media


Danny Schechter

There

used to be something called equal time and the right to reply to TV editorials

and coverage. I am reminded of this by the publication, in a thin booklet called

Poems for the Nation, of the text of a previously unpublished television address

delivered in l972 at a local TV station in Charlotte North Carolina It was

written by a citizen upset about the way the protests at the Republican

convention were covered that year on TV. (Some of those protests would later be

restaged by Oliver Stone in his film, "Born on the 4th of July.")

I happened to have been there, in Miami, reporting on movements critical of

President Nixon’s reelection and all his cheerleaders chanting "Four More

years." I was also reminded that while I was reporting those protests,

another journalist of my generation, Al Gore, was in Vietnam reporting on the

war for U.S. military propaganda publications. (Today his slogan is in effect

"Gore More Years.") Although the boy from Carthage Tennessee later

turned against the carnage, I wonder about his position is on the rights of

dissenters to be heard in the mass media today.

All the media’s top guns were focused on Al big speech’s on the convention’s

final night-would it be exciting, they wondered, would he come off as an

android, would he have anything to say? Writing in the New York Observer Jason

Gay reported on conversations with well known TV reporters who echoed each

other’s putdowns. "He’s too stiff. He’s too flat. He’s too condescending.

He’s too talky. He’s too earnest." But none of them had much to say about

the content of his content or what the media itself was not saying-or doing.

Flashing back to ’72, that citizen with something to say on TV was hardly a TV

performer. There was no big build up to his short speech, no Tipper with family

photos or friends to testify to what a great guy he was. He also had to

introduce himself, but at least back then the station was legally compelled to

broadcast his remarks. I knew the man who spoke out in that studio 28 years ago.

He was a bearded bard, best known for a poem called "Howl."

He began: "My name: Allen Ginsberg, responding to this stations’ editorial

denouncing violent behavior of some protesters at Republican Convention

Proceedings at Miami Beach late August (l972)." The late poet Ginsberg went

on to question what was shown and not shown and to challenge a war he disagreed

with. Today, his then controversial anti-war view is the majority view. Back

then it was considered subversive. And also today, even as Gore mixes his vague

disenchantment with the war with praise for those who fought it, most of the

media speaks of Vietnam as an "era" not a conflict, strangely

disconnected from the passions it invoked or the lessons that have gone

unlearned.

So, just as those red white and blue balloons cascaded down to close another

political convention season Thursday night, (did the Democrats recycle those

look alike balloons from the GOP convention two weeks earlier?), I wondered what

I would say on TV, if I was ever invited on to say it. This is a bit of a

fantasy of course because in all of the convention coverage, in LA and

Philadelphia, there was no one I saw on the air who reflected the outsider media

critique I have been elaborating in this daily diary.

But just as Ginsberg was obsessed by a war, I am too. The war he opposed was at

least recognized as an issue; the one I am opposing, not yet. His war was

televised in the media. Mine is the media. Quite simply, we are living in the

age of a media war, warring on our understanding of the world we live in. Like

Vietnam, it is an undeclared war and we are its targets. It is a corporate war

for market share and mind share And truth is its casualty just like in every

war.

So wouldn’t it be great to get my "anti-war" perspective on the

air?" In my head, I rehearse what I might say:

"My Name: Danny Schechter, responding to media coverage of the conventions.

I am TV producer who has been part of network teams covering conventions and I

know how it’s done.

"Let me tell you how the political parties and the media work together to

construct a televised spectacle staged for the cameras

"Like most TV stories, the coverage flows from how the story is predefined.

If politics in America is placed only of in the context of two major parties and

the formal institutional frameworks of power, then the coverage is going to be

structured along narrow and fairly predictable lines. If there are just two

legitimate players-or maybe a third if you throw in Pat Buchanan but then

exclude Ralph Nader, the range of permissable reporting and commentary has been

narrowed before the event even begins, in the same way that political races are

determined ultimately more by which candidates are selected than which are

elected."

Just as I am getting started, winding up my rap, I glance at the

teleprompter-and it says "TIMES UP. CUT TO COMMERICAL." My imaginary

speech has now been rendered a soundbite which has gone on too long. I must have

made a cardinal error, trying to turn words into sentences and sentences into

paragraphs, to make a coherent argument instead of offering punchy slogans and

posturing applause lines. I can just imagine the verdict of those pundits who

blather on endlessly about the trivia of politics regurgitating their same

litany of dismissive commentary towards my vain attempt to call attention to how

the audience is being had.

"He’s too stiff. He’s too flat. He’s too condescending. He’s too talky.

He’s too earnest."

Guilty!

The question of course is ‘compared to what." Gore clearly tried to create

an entertaining family friendly environment to set up the ambiance for the much

ballyhooed "speech of his life." It was a slick, well produced and

very media savvy act, using TV as an entertainment, not a political medium. A

well crafted video and lovey dovey wife softened up the crowd. There was coming

of age narrative story line on the love they shared, the kids they had, and the

dreams they dreamt; there was the family together against the world, overcoming

adversity and now moving on to greatness. It was a dramatic character driven arc

rich in symbols drenched in Hollywood formula. True, Gore ran through laundry

list of "issues" and "stands" and promises but his mission

was to sell himself-and sell he did.

<?/bigger><?/bigger><?/bigger><?/fontfamily><?bigger><?bigger><?bigger><?fontfamily><?param

Times_New_Roman>"We’re entering a new time, we’re electing a new

president, and I stand here tonight as my own man. I want you to know me for who

I truly am," he said.

But who is he truly? Is there even a there there? The kids on the streets call

him a "Gorebot" as they danced around the convention hall to the

sounds of Rage against the Machine and later the sound of rubber bullets flying

their way. (On the morning of the great speech, the New York Times reported that

Gore had at one point hired a dance coach to loosen him up.) But then I thought

of what politician the newsheads in the sky boxes really think of when they

think (at all) of an effective pol. They respect Bill Clinton’s skills but for

the most part detest him, perhaps because they see themselves in his

manipulative charismatic style and sleazy behavior. Their real role model was

Ronald Reagan who the media deemed for all time, the "great

communicator." Ah, if only Al was more like Ron, I could hear them saying

to themselves. So the terribly truth is that the media masters want a better

actor, not a passionate political leader. It is they, not the public, who

ultimately determine who is popular as well.

If you doubt me, have a look at a provocative analysis of "The Press and

the Illusion of Public Opinion: the Strange Case of Ronald Reagan’s

"Popularity" by Eliot King and Michael Schudson in a collection called

"Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent" (Guilford Press,

l995).It concludes: "We believe the evidence indicates that Ronald Reagan

came to be described as the Great Communicator in the press not because of

special skills in communicating directly to the American people but because of

significant skill in communicating with key elites, including the mediaŠ.the

feeling in the press corps that Ronald Reagan was a nice guy, a feeling

confirmed by other Washington sources who also judged him from first hand

experience to be a nice guy, was attributed to a wider public."

In short, the whole "Great Communicator" bit was a media created

illusion, a fraud.

Covering the conventions this past month just underscored for me that we will

only transform our politics when we transform our media. They march in lock step

together, with the press often significantly to the right not in its ideology

necessarily but in its impact on political discourse. While the political

parties pay lip service to inclusion, the media does not. Once again, and partly

because of its diffuse messages, the Party of the People in The Streets was not

heard in any depth in prime time-or virtually at any time.. I was struck by a

letter that Scott Harris of WPKN radio in Bridgeport Connecticut sent to the PBS

News Hour denouncing its unwillingness to give the protest movement real air

time.

"Those around the table summarized the important role protests played in

social change during the 1960′s. Unfortunately these commentators demonstrated

not the slightest bit of knowledge about the short history of this current

movement for global social justice. Without exception your panelists were

dismissive of the future effectiveness of this new movement – not even noting,

ironically, that this new burst of political activism was only 8 months

old."

Too "earnest," no doubt."

Next time out, they will have to do a better job of communicating their issues

in the media , and one of them will have to become pressuring the media to do

the same.

Danny Schechter is the Executive Editor of Mediachannel.org and the author of

the forthcoming "Falun Gong’s Challenge to China" (Akashic books)