SPEAKING BACK TO THE MEDIA

What would you say if you could “really” speak on air to the nation? Danny Schechter shows what would probably happen if you had a chance with the “democratic” system known as main stream news coverage.

What would you say if you could “really” speak on air to the nation? Danny Schechter shows what would probably happen if you had a chance with the “democratic” system known as main stream news coverage.

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the Nation, of the text of a previously unpublished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.

“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
mediaÃ… .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)

Author: Danny Schechter

News Service: ZNews

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