Thom Hartmann Here with an excerpt from my book “Rebooting the American Dream: 11 ways to rebuild our country.”
"So that's the story they have to run with on the news," the intern said, relating the substance of the network correspondent's thoughts, "because that's what the American people want to see. If the network doesn't give people what they want to see, viewers will tune away and the network won't have any viewers, ratings, or revenues."
The two other interns commiserated with the first about what a shame it was that Americans wanted the titillating stories instead of the substantive ones, but they accepted without question that the network was therefore obliged to "give people what they want."
When they finished their panel discussion, I asked these college students if they knew that there was a time in America when radio and TV stations and networks broadcast the actual news— instead of infotainment—because the law required them to do so. None of them had any idea what I was talking about. They were mystified: why would a station or network broadcast programs that were not popular or not what people wanted?
But the reality is that from the 1920s, when radio really started to go big in the United States, until Reagan rolled it back in 1987, federal communications law required a certain amount of "public service" programming from radio and television stations as a condition of retaining their broadcast licenses.
The agreement was basic and simple: in exchange for the media owners' being granted a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use the airwaves—owned by the public—they had to serve the public interest first, and only then could they go about the business of making money. If they didn't do so, when it came time to renew their license, public groups and individuals could show up at public hearings on the license renewal and argue for the license's being denied.
One small way that stations lived up to their public-service mandate was by airing public-service announcements (PSAs) for local nonprofit groups, community calendars, and other charitable causes. They also had to abide by something called the Fairness Doctrine, which required them to air diverse viewpoints on controversial issues. Separately, during election campaigns, broadcasters had to abide by the Equal Time Rule, which required them to provide equal airtime to rival candidates in an election.
But the biggest way they proved they were providing a public service and meeting the requirements of the Fairness Doctrine was by broadcasting the news. Real news. Actual news. Local, national, and international news produced by professional, oldschool journalists.
Because the news didn't draw huge ratings like entertainment shows—although tens of millions of Americans did watch it every night on TV and listened to it at the top of every hour on radio from coast to coast—and because real news was expensive to produce, with bureaus and correspondents all over the world, news was a money-loser for all of the Big Three TV networks and for most local radio and TV stations.
But it was such a sacred thing—this was, aft er all, the keystone that held together the station's license to broadcast and thus to do business—it didn't matter if it lost money. It made all the other money-making things possible.
Through much of the early 1970s, I worked in the newsroom of a radio station in Lansing, Michigan. It had been started and was then run by three local guys: an engineer, a salesman, and a radio broadcaster. They split up the responsibilities like you'd expect, and all were around the building most days and would hang out from time to time with the on-air crew—all except the sales guy. I was forbidden from talking with him because I worked in news. There could be no hint—ever, anywhere—that our radio station had violated the FCC's programming-in-the-public-interest mandate by, for example, my going easy on an advertiser in a news story or promoting another advertiser in a different story.
News had to be news, separate from profits and revenue—and if it wasn't, I'd be fired on the spot.
News, in other words, wasn't part of the "free market." It was part of our nation's intellectual commons and thus the price of the station's license.
After Reagan blew up the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, two very interesting things happened. The first was the rise of rightwing hate-speech talk radio, starting with Rush Limbaugh that very year. The second, which really stepped up fast after President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which further deregulated the broadcast industry, was that the moneylosing news divisions of the Big Three TV networks were taken under the wings of their entertainment divisions—and wrung dry. Foreign bureaus were closed. Reporters were fired. Stories that promoted the wonders of advertisers or other companies (like movie production houses) owned by the same mega-corporations that owned the networks began to appear. And investigative journalism that cast a bright light on corporate malfeasance vanished.
And because newscasts had ads, and those ads were sold based on viewership, the overall arc and
content of the news began to be dictated by what the public wanted to know rather than by what they needed to know to function in a democratic society.
The interns were aghast. "Reagan did that?!" one said, incredulous. I said yes and that Bill Clinton then helped the process along to its current sorry state by signing the Telecommunications Act, leading to the creation of the Fox "News" Channel in October 1996 and its now-legal ability to call itself a news operation while baldly promoting what it knows to be falsehoods or distortions.
Now here we are in 2010, and the news media is an abject failure when it comes to reporting the real news—news that citizens in a democracy need to know. Even Ted Koppel, no flaming liberal by any means, said in an April 2010 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that he thought the state of the news industry was "a disaster."
He went on:
“I think we are living through the final stages of what I would call the Age of Entitlement. We fight two wars without raising a single nickel to support them. We feel entitled to mortgages whether we have jobs or not. We feel entitled to make $10 million, $50 million, or $100 million even though the enterprise we headed up is a total failure. And we now feel entitled not to have the news that we need but the news that we want. We want to listen to news that comes from those who already sympathize with our particular point of view. We don't want the facts anymore.”
Koppel was also well aware of the influence of profit-making on the news organizations, which he believed was driving the degradation of news so that it appealed to our baser instincts:
“I think it's the producer [of the particular news show] who is at fault, who desperately needs the consumer…In the good old days, when you only had three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—there was competition, but the competition still permitted us to do what was in the public interest. These days all the networks have to fight with the dozens of cable outlets that are out there, the Internet that is out there, and they are all competing for the almighty dollar, and the way to get there is to head down to the lowest common denominator.”
When we talk about news that people "need," we are really talking about the intellectual and informational nutrition that is essential for the health and the well-being of our democracy. We need an educated and informed citizenry to participate in our democratic institutions and elections, and we're not going to get that if we keep dumbing down the news and giving people what they want and not what they and society need.
I'm Thom Hartmann and you just heard an excerpt of my book “Rebooting the American Dream.” Find out what happens next at ThomHartmann.com.