“We had to recognize that one of the big problems of the world, the Media, was right in front of us and barely acknowledged as a problem. Its legendary “gate-keepers” were there to dumb down the content, commercialize all messaging and keep our kind of progressive content off the air.”
The Adventures of a Progressive Media Company in Trying Times
Ten years ago, during a hot summer like this one, I was writing my first book, The More You Watch the Less You Know (Seven Stories). I considered it a “media-ography,” distilling my experiences and analysis of media trends on a wide canvas with a focus on my complaints about the business and experiences as a media marker and critic.
Over this past decade, I have seen no reason to revise the title, which I found that just about everyone I told about the book resonated with. The reaction of listeners to right wing and left wing radio was more similar than I imagined. They agreed with the broad strokes of the critique, often for different reasons. I had the feeling that the book might have done better had I just left all the pages blank and let people fill in their own reasons for their own disenchantment with our media.
While I was writing, media bashing was just becoming more and more popular. I wrote about all the phenomenon that have since come to define the era – media concentration, the rise and decline of CNN and network news, and the birth of Fox News. (I was at their opening party!)
I was then, and still am, in a somewhat unique position – as a former network producer turned independent media maven who could, to borrow a line from my late poet-mom, “tell it like it is because I was there when it was.” I brought an insider’s experience media criticism, a role usually played by academics and outsiders.
If my book was at all distinctive at the time, it was because I told stories out of school – many of them quite humorous – stories about what it was like for someone who came out of the student and civil rights movements to join and spend years toiling in “Big Media” – in radio, local TV, cable news, TV network magazine journalism and as an independent filmmaker.
I have been making media – and media critiques – for a long time. Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff even joked about it in his introduction to When News Lies, my 2006 book on the media coverage of the Iraq War. He noted, “Danny doing his job as long as he has been doing it, has become something like the 2000-year-old-media critic – he’s one of the few guys who can be counted on to consistently know the real score.”
If you ignore the hyperbole and hype, and if there is a kernel of truth in that (I would like to think so), then perhaps there is some value in talking about how and why I do what I do. It’s one thing to judge the product of independent media with so many readers and viewers these days only seeking out arguments they agree with, then there is also value in understanding the process and the challenges of creating media that goes against the grain…
Early in 2006, I was in Doha in the Gulf at an Al Jazeera media forum. An Arab professor was digesting a study that I assumed would add more ammunition to those who find western media wanting, but instead he expressed a profound sadness that western media consumers were often so uninformed. He took pride, he said, in noting that Arab media does a better job of offering more diverse sources of information. He was very sincere – and probably right.
That’s why we need to understand media as a system – not just a story. I would like to think that my experience in many media incarnations can help contribute to that discovery and the need to do something about it.
I would like to think my insights were unique but of course I always knew I was never alone in the way I felt. My ego seems big at times – but not that big! A massive library can now be built just to store all the books; tomes, articles, reports and documents criticizing the role our media plays that came out before and after my own. Other network defectors or “refugees”, as I called myself, have now turned a minority stance into a widely shared mainstream conviction. Surveys show as much as 70 percent of the public is dissatisfied with our media system. They want something different. And so do I. And something very different is emerging…
But what, and who is going to produce it, and how? And if it is produced, who’s going to air it? That question haunts me as much now as it did then. Our frustration with the failures of mainstream media may now be widely shared but our independent media, as a political movement or production engine is not yet the kind of powerful force it should be, and so our independent media presence is still marginalized, under resourced and not competitive with the MSM (mainstream media we deride). Even as production costs come down thanks to new technologies, distribution capacity is still limited even in the age of the Internet and broadband digital networks. That may be changing although major corporations still control access to many of the “pipes” of dissemination.
The book chronicled my media adventures, hopes and disappointments, and the story of building Globalvision as an independent progressive Media company that had to survive in an unfriendly market place. We were undercapitalized and resourced from the get go. We set out to make films, videos and do work that married money and meaning. We cared more about Mandela than Monica. We were internationalists while many in the progressive community looked inward and became immersed in domestic politics. While some were focusing on Texas, we were also interested in Tajikistan.
We set ourselves up as a company, not a cause. We had good years and bad. The More You Watch details our early work on human rights and South Africa. This essay brings part of the story, mostly my part, up to date at least through the summer of ’06.
Let me pick up where the book left off ten years ago – following up on the call it made for a Media Channel to watch all the other channels, a network through which media savvy groups could come together and showcase their concerns. When that fantasy “balloon” went up, it was conceived as a potential TV channel on the cable dial, an outlet for films, programs and criticism, themed around the role our media plays. The idea was to provide a platform for an ongoing critique and counter-narrative to the news as it was being reported.
Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to be able to deconstruct, comment upon and analyze media in real time, not, as so many academics do, years later after it had become forgotten or part of an unread historical record? We wanted to intervene in the ongoing media debate, deepen it and organize around it.
It was in that period that my partner Rory and I looked out of our Globalvision offices in Times Square and saw the transformation of our neighborhood into a mecca for media and a physical epicenter of media concentration with all the big networks and ancillary businesses clustered in a ten block area, or at least represented with signage, studios and other symbols of the power of their “brand”.
As if to symbolize the interdependence of finance power and media power, the NASDAQ exchange and an investment bank positioned themselves at each corner of the square. In the middle, a Toys R’ Us shopping mall opened across the street from the new MTV store, with a bevy of other brand-name outlets that market their wares through advertising, much of it on TV. The legendary “crossroads of the world”, the aptly named “Great White Way”, for all its ostentatious lighting, now has a new mission as the epicenter of media empires.
Watching this transformation in front of own eyes led to another insight: our aspirations for producing independent media about the problems of the world would be forever limited unless we could somehow tackle that “beast”.
We had to recognize that one of the big problems of the world, the Media, was right in front of us and barely acknowledged as a problem. Its legendary “gate-keepers” were there to dumb down the content, commercialize all messaging and keep our kind of progressive content off the air. It wasn’t exactly a conspiracy but similar templates, ways or working and market logics operated to sanitize news and suppress more critical fare. Most of the time, programming was not rejected explicitly on political or content grounds. It was always rather “good work, but it’s not for us.” We began to call that knee jerk response: “NFU”.
We were media people with some knowledge and insight into the way the industry works – and doesn’t work in terms of deepening our democracy. This was our issue if there ever was one.
We were just a handful of people, but we hadn’t shied away from tackling big problems. For three years, we produced weekly programs exposing apartheid in South Africa and the fight against it. Our South Africa Now series won awards and helped support the fight for democracy in that “beloved country.” Our follow-up series Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television with Charlayne Hunter Gault did the same for under covered human rights abuses worldwide. Many of our films also broke ground in raising issues that others shied away from.
Tackling the media, in the way we wanted to do it, was no small task. How do you even get a handle on a problem, which is so well financed and so deeply accepted, in our culture? What’s the “way-in” and how can you have any impact at all.
First we had to abandon the idea of a TV channel. It was far too expensive to even contemplate. Most channel start-ups back in the l990′s were in the $50-75 MILLION dollar range. And even if you somehow come up with high-quality alternative programming, who would air it? Not the media monopolies controlling the cable systems. If there’s one thing that media companies hate more than on target criticism, it’s having those criticisms turn up on their own airwaves.
Next, we had to find a model for what we could do. If we couldn’t get on-air, we could, we thought do it on-line. As an internationally oriented company, Globalvision always had an eye on what was happening overseas.
It was then we found the fledging One World network in England, which first launched in l995. Its organizer Peter Armstrong, a former TV producer like ourselves, realized that content from NGO organizations concerned with the issues of the South could be aggregated and brought together on one website, a “supersite” or portal that could bring a world of concerned people and organizations together in the same virtual space to offer news and information about shared hopes and problems.
The Omidyar Network would later describe it this way:
One World encourages people to discover their power – power to speak, connect, and make a difference – by providing access to information, and enabling connections between hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of people around the world.
The people drive the One World network and organizations it supports – people write the news, provide the video clips and the radio stories. Through this network, individuals have access to information previously unavailable to them – information that can broaden their world view and enable them to make better decisions.
I went to London, actually to Peter and his family’s farmhouse in the rolling fields outside Oxford, to see for myself. I was impressed. A new world of media was emerging in the English countryside.
A Media Channel could be built along those lines. Peter was supportive and welcomed us to become a One World Affiliate. A colleague went to Oxford in 1999 to build a prototype that we would later use for funding what became our not for profit network.
We now had a way to realize our big idea. One World’s technology was a bit clunky, but it worked. Some funders saw the potential. One gave us computers and even sent over a crack team of Chinese technicians to wire it up and help us get online.
The core of the idea was to build partnerships with like-minded organizations worldwide so that readers would find a wide range of diverse views. As we struggled with the technical challenges – that would later support more than 1300 affiliates – not always smoothly, we hammered out a mission statement and plan of action:
MediaChannel.org is a nonprofit, public interest web-based network dedicated to raising awareness and promoting citizen action around global media issues. We seek to do more than encourage structural reforms and regulations; we seek more responsibility, accountability and transparency within media organizations and seek to defend media freedom while encouraging better journalism to serve the public interest.
Media channel aspires to become a robust, internationally respected on-line media platform for an informed non-partisan and post-partisan discourse about the critical link between media and democracy, featuring solution-oriented media analysis, education, research, criticism, debate and activism.
We report on the media but also inspire citizen engagement by participating in industry conferences, speaking out on radio and television, producing books and encouraging films, while campaigning to challenge and change media practices.
What We Will Do
Media Channel is concerned with the political, cultural and social impacts of our media system, large and small. Media Channel exists to provide comprehensive news, information and diverse perspectives to inspire collaboration, action and engagement through citizen journalism and reform. Making sense of the steady stream of info-tainment requires background, context and interpretation. It demands outreach and inspiration.
Media Channel is unique in offering news, reports and analysis from our editors and an international network of contributors, media-issues organizations and publications, as well as original features from contributors and staff. Our highly visible and diverse team speaks widely at universities and events worldwide, organizes well-attended public events and appears on radio and TV.
Our slogan: “While the media watch the world. We watch the media.”
The Next Step
Once we had a prototype, we began to reach out to organizations and individuals we thought might join us. Since we saw media as a global force, we needed to involve colleagues overseas. We were not just interested in recruiting from the progressive community. As media makers, we wanted other media professionals to join us. If we were to be taken seriously as more than advocates on the fringes, we wanted to engage with as many media people and institutions as possible. From our own experience we knew that change had to take place on the inside often with pressure from the outside.
As I began to reach out for people who might be interested in helping us, I spoke with Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s, a brilliant thinker and writer. Lewis told me about an Italian publisher who was very outspoken on the issue but also very busy and hard to reach during his infrequent visits to America.
His name was Leonardo Mondadori, the scion of the famous publishing company that had been taken over by the Berlusconi media interests. Some in Leonardo’s family had connived with Berlusconi while Leonardo resisted the takeover. In the end, the company was acquired but Leonardo remained in charge at least nominally. This experience had raised his consciousness about the dangers of media consolidation as a global problem and he vowed to fight it.
I dropped the names of Lapham and an Italian supporter of ours, Marialina Marcucci, who ran our Rights & Wrongs series on the Superchannel she once owned in Europe. He agreed to see me in his penthouse apartment at the posh hotel on New York’s East Side. He was friendly, charming and interested and checked me out quickly by calling Marialina on her cell phone in Italy to see if she really knew me. He put her on the phone. After a few Ciaos and some personal back and forth, he was was ready to hear my pitch.
He loved the prototype and “got” the idea and its value at once. He offered to help, and eventually did with advice, active support and money. Here was another lesson in the power of positive contradictions. A wealthy Italian in the top ranks of that country’s media elite wanted to change the media as much as we did, and he had the means to help us do it.
With Leonardo’s help and a few foundation grants, we launched Media Channel on February 1, 2000. The date had a special significance for me because it was the anniversary of the first student anti-segregation sit-in at the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro North Carolina. That dramatic action sparked the civil rights movement of the 60s and inspired me to join in.
We were at the beginning of a new century and we had a new project. Our launch event drew prominent journalists and an endorsement from Walter Cronkite who couldn’t make it but sent a message on video. We were thrilled when the newscaster called the “most trusted man in America” agreed to bless our insurgent effort to try to reform an industry which was, as he noted, urgently in need of change.
He sent a message to our launch event. So there we were, activists and advocates turning to a big screen for the man who had represented the best, and often the limits of network news, for so many years. He said:
“Good evening, I’m Walter Cronkite. I really wanted to be with you in person tonight for Globalvision New Media’s launch of the new Internet site the Media Channel, but unfortunately I was called out of the country. Yet the issues that led to the creation of this unique global resource, and the crisis that’s facing all of us who work in and care about journalism and the media, are so profound that I simply felt compelled to tape this message so that you would know that I am with you in spirit at least.
As you know, I’ve been increasingly and publicly critical of the direction that journalism has taken of late, and of the impact on democratic discourse and principles. Like you, I’m deeply concerned about the merger mania that has swept our industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news, and making the bottom line sometimes seem like the only line. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be.
At the same time, I’m impressed that so many other serious and concerned people around the world are also becoming interested in holding media companies accountable and upholding the highest standards of journalism.
The Media Channel will undoubtedly be worth watching and taking part in. I am intrigued by its potential, and its global reach…”
That was a heady endorsement. Media channel was up and running. Some funding was in place as we began our work amidst many internal debates about what we should do and how we should do it.
Ever the journalist, I wanted us to be timely and comment on media news as it happened. I decided to write what was then a new format – a weblog. (Today, five years later there are an estimated 50 MILLION blogs on the web. Mine wasn’t the first – but I was, as they say, an “early adopter” once again.
I called it the News Dissector after the on-air title I used as a radio newscaster back in the 1970s on WBCN. I wanted to offer a counter-narrative to the news as well as a critique of it.
2000 was the year of the Florida Fiasco. Like so many others I was shocked that the candidate with the most votes lost the election. There was something big going on that the media was mostly missing. I started writing about it and later did a book with Roland Schatz called Mediaocracy – Hail to the Thief arguing that media misreporting was partly responsible for what happened.
I later made a film about the fiasco in Florida with a former GOP partisan, Faye Anderson, for Globalvision called Counting on Democracy. The late Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee narrated it. Making it took me to Florida in search of the story of 180,000 missing votes. I wrote about the experience:
July 20, 2001
On The Beach in Miami: Searching For Chads in July
I have a problem. I just can’t move on. And not because I am partisan either.
It is Wednesday night and this must be South Beach, Miami, F.L.A. My colleague Faye Anderson points across the street at the beach reminding me that that was where Al Gore and Joe Lieberman staged their Presidential campaign “victory rally” last November 6th. It was there, on the eve of the election, where they made their last stand in the sand. It became their last hurrah at the water’s edge. An unseen wave would drown their campaign.
No one there imagined what would happen next, as the vote tallies seesawed, and the vote recount crashed and burned after the Supremes stepped in. For many, it’s still not over. We will see who remembers next November, and in all the Novembers to come.
It was across the street in the pricey restaurants and art deco hotels where it all ended up, as unrest reverted to discontent and Miami quickly eased back into its role as a tourist Mecca and shopping center for Latin America. At night, every night, the strip is packed with scantily clad women wearing clothes that seem sprayed on, and millions of male gawkers marching in lock step in a nightly parade up and down Ocean Drive.
In the muggy humidity of mid-July, the 2000 Presidential election seems a long way away, a long time ago.
Over an overpriced coffee at the News Cafe, the place the designer Versace went for his caffeine on the morning of his untimely demise, I watched the morning sun begin to turn another Florida day into an oven. I noted that Al Gore was back in the Miami Herald. An AP story reports that he is opening a new office in Nashville, “exploring his options,” and finally getting around to thanking his supporters who have gone unappreciated for seven months now as he and Tipper struggled to “get over it.” His hard core home town faithful have already begun shouting “Gore in ’04″, although I didn’t find much enthusiasm here for the candidate the Republicans baited as “Looserman.” After sifting through the debris and details of what actually happened in Florida during the election and its aftermath, it seems clear that he is as responsible for his loss as his more determined adversaries. Although there is more to it – of course. Much more! More to investigate and more to report.
Yesterday, I met two of the media recounters still focused on trying to figure out what happened at the polls the last time around. At the Palm Beach Post, reporters Joel Engelhart and Scott McCabe showed me their award-winning ballot by ballot analysis of why Gore would have won had the Butterfly Ballot not confused so many voters. Their detailed re-examination of the actual votes showed how screwed up the balloting was, and how as many as 6,600 voters wanted Gore but ended up with the votes tossed into the garbage can along with 174,000 others. (Did you have any idea how many votes were discounted rather than counted because the people were never adequately educated about how to vote?)
Their inquiry also showed how 10,000-11,000 so-called undervotes also favored Gore. Those were folks who didn’t make their choice clear enough. The recent New York Times belated investigation of the overeas ballot fiasco showed how a few hundred votes went to Bush because political shenanigans made the difference. Judge Charles Burton of Palm Beach, who we all saw overseeing a recount that the Florida Secretary of State’s Office rejected as too late, told me point blank: “The whole process was politicized.”
Yet Gore himself, who conceded so wimpishly, has barely raised the larger issue of voters’ rights that are still not fully secure here or in so many others states, as an MIT-Cal Tech Study suggested by estimating that as many as six million votes went uncounted nationwide last year. We learned that the definitive media recount would be out in September.
(That recount was not released until March of the next year, too late to have any impact. It was also confused and confusing with many contradictory interpretations. The New York Times reporter who ran it told me bluntly that it found Gore had won the most votes. When I asked why his paper did not report that clearly, he shrugged.)
Going to Florida put us face to face with the newsmakers we had seen on TV. Here’s my report from West Palm Beach:
WEST PALM BEACH, FLORI-DUH…It was deja vu all over again, wandering into West Palm Beach and entering buildings I remember so well from the saturation TV coverage. It felt like I had been here before.
Six months ago, this town was in the eye of a political hurricane, the center of an electoral storm that continues to hang over our country. That story remains an indictment of our voting system and the media coverage that failed to project the crisis that was unfolding, in part because it is part of it. (See our MediaChannel book, Mediaocracy, for more detail. You can download it from: www.electronpress.com.)
Six months later, Florida is back to “normal,” but the memory and stench has not gone away. Earlier today, I wandered into the offices of the Election Commission. And there she was, Teresa Lepore in person, the famous for 36 days supervisor who presided over the butterfly ballot farce that was one of the factors that cost Al Gore the Presidency. (Al Gore was most assuredly another one of them.)
I was here making an investigative film, Counting on Democracy, that Globalvision is producing with journalist Fay Anderson. We thought we would try to have a look at the “sample” ballot that her office had distributed before the election because we had heard it had little resemblance to the real ballot that confused as many as 6,600, according to the Palm Beach Post newspaper. (I meet them tomorrow.)
“Sorry”, we were told but they don’t have any more copies of the sample. All gone! Documents in this “Sunshine” state have a way of going even further south despite one of the best sunshine laws in the country. Local newspapers reported today that the State’s Democrats are calling for an investigation of some data base records that now seem to have gone missing from Secretary of State Katherine Harris’s office. We would have asked the elusive Ms Harris about this, but, despite calls, letters and emails, there was no response to our request for an interview.
Some reporters have been more successful with smaller queries. For example, one recent report revealed that Presidential First Brother Jeb Bush used state telephones to talk to his brother and various campaign workers during the events in November, a clear no-no under laws designed to keep partisan politics off the state payroll. When the disclosure surfaced, Jeb was unavailable for comment but his staff revealed that he later personally reimbursed Floridians for the price of the calls. His check came to $5.11.
So, at times, investigative reporting can have an impact. That is less likely for a bigger story like the recent New York Times investigation of the absentee ballot issue, which also went missing in most media accounts (save Jake Tapper in SALON) until now. The Times story took what was considered an ancillary problem and showed how the Republicans out-organized the Democrats on that front to bolster GW Bush’s vote total while politicizing the military along the way, perhaps illegally.
Good for the Times – except all of these disclosures and media recounts tend to be isolated from each other so it is hard to see any larger patterns. (The Washington Post just announced that the main media recount – not the USA Today one, not the Miami Herald one – will not be out for months) Also they have all concluded that Bush would have won. But as far as I know, no recount has counted the folks who couldn’t vote, were purged or overvoted. So all these conclusions have to be taken with many grains of salt.
Perhaps the most disturbing study not undertaken by any journalist was just completed at MIT, concluding that as many as 6 million votes went uncounted in the 2000 elections. Six million! Another study by a House committee – predictably dismissed as “partisan” by the let’s move on and get over it club – showed that low income communities nation wide have more problems voting than more affluent neighborhoods. (I am confident that radio’s RUSH is not too worried about this. He just celebrated winning the largest contract in radio history – $250 million!)
Some of these problems are deeply institutionalized. There is a sign outside Ms Lepore’s well-photographed office. It says simply that voting in Florida closes at 7 PM. Rules like this are there to exclude low income, working voters.
As one local Democratic Party official admitted to us today, “voting in Florida has been fucked up for a long time.”
Soon, as the NY Times put it, the axis of news turned from the question of “Who Won?” replaced by “Who cares?” The reason: a far bigger news event that rocked our world. It would turn the year that Arthur Clarke’s book and Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi prophecy 2001 memorialized into a different kind of turning point year.
I wrote about it while it was happening in Globalvision’s offices in Times Square. I was listening to the radio and reading eyewitness accounts on the web:
The First Blog, September 11, 2001
“America under Attack”: Guilty or Not, Here We Come
Walking home through empty streets, as New York shut down early on the day of the World Trade Towers apocalypse, one was struck at how dazed and stunned people seemed. There was an eerie silence punctuated by ambulances and police cars racing from place to place. Cops guarded post offices, police stations and the bus terminal, as if the terrorists would be back. The mayor gave press conferences from “a secret location” as if the Osama bin Laden brigade had targeted him, clearly a conceit wrapped up as a security consideration.
I had spent the morning following events on the web and the radio. At home, I was finally able to experience the day’s turmoil that many media outlets were saying had “changed America forever,” the way most Americans were – on TV. I watched for five hours, jumping from channel to channel, network to network. It was, of course, wall-to-wall catastrophe, with each outlet featuring its own “exclusive coverage.” Some credited to others but each with somewhat distinctive angles of the same scene – that jet plane tearing through the World Trade Center. And when we weren’t seeing that horrendous image being recycled endlessly, used as what we in the TV business used to call “wallpaper” or B-roll, other equally compelling images were on the screen: the Pentagon on fire, huge clouds of smoke coming out of the buildings, buildings collapsing, people jumping from high floors and running in the streets. It was on for hours, over and over again, awakening outrage and then, oddly numbing it by overexposure.
The reporting focused first on the facts, the chronology of planes hijacked and national symbols attacked. And then the parade of “expert” interviews began, featuring virtually the same group of former government officials and terrorism specialists on each show. Even Ronald Reagan’s favorite novelist Tom Clancy was given airtime to bang the drum for giving the military and CIA everything it says it will need to strike back. He had no doubts perhaps because for him and others, these events seemed like a case of reality catching up with fiction.
You could imagine the TV show bookers all working overtime from the same Rolodex, shuttling these pundits-for-all-seasons from studio to studio, from CNN to Jim Lehrer’s News Hour to CBS and back again. How many times have we seen these sound-alike sound bite artists like former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and generals like Norman Schwarzkopf waxing tough for the cameras? They were itching for “action”.
I heard no one saying that violence breeds violence or that a massive retaliation may only invite more of the same. The only critical edge to the coverage involved raising the question about why so many official predictions about imminent terrorist threats went unresponded to for so long. These concerns were raised, but quickly sidelined by discussions of national complacency and/or naïveté about the world. How the U.S. intelligence apparatus could have missed this was taken only as evidence that it needs more money, not a different policy. No mention was made of the cutbacks in international news coverage that keep so many Americans so out of touch with global events.
Suddenly, we had moved from the stage of facts to the realm of opinion and endless speculation about what America would do and, then, what America MUST do. The anchors were touched when members of Congress spontaneously erupted into a bipartisan rendition of “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. They paused reverentially to go live to the White House for a presidential address that turned out to be five minutes of banalities and rally-round-the-flag reassurances. Who was it that called patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels? The news anchors certainly never used that line.
Missing was any discussion of possible motives by the alleged terrorists, why would they do it and why now? What was their political agenda? There was no mention of September 11th as the anniversary of the failed Camp David accords. There was certainly no mention of the fact that State terrorism by countries, be they the U.S., Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel, often triggers and hardens counterterrorism by guerrilla forces. There was virtually no international angle offered in most of the coverage except a few snatches of file footage of Osama bin Laden fondling an AK47. Bin Laden looked like a cartoon figure, like Ali Baba in cartoons from my youth, not the insane militant terrorist that he is. It must be said that most of the journalists I saw were cautious about attributing this to him, perhaps because of early blame to Arabs of the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building, which turned out to be the work of an American.
NBC carried the only substantive report I saw on why Palestinians consider America complicit in the attacks against them. It did mention that Hamas and bin Laden denied involvement and even featured a condemnation of the violence by Arafat. That was reported by the always excellent Martin Fletcher, a Brit who is as informed about what is happening on the ground there as most of the anchors and reporters here seem not to be. I saw one other sound bite from a Middle Eastern politician, one call to arms from Ariel Sharon and one message of resolve from Tony Blair. That was it for foreign response. CNN carried eerie videophone footage of an attack on an arms depot in Kabul, Afghanistan but it turned out not to be connected. Some on-air reporter explained that it might have been part of that country’s ongoing civil war. Another replied, “Oh, are they having one?”
As the coverage wore on, George Stephanopoulos, ex-President Clinton’s former boy wonder, now an ABC commentator, popped up with Peter Jennings to explain, on the basis of his experience on the inside, that in situations like this, governments need a scapegoat and someone to demonize, and predicted they’d find one, fast! Jennings to his credit reminded viewers that in the past, our counterattacks against terrorist incidents were hardly triumphant. He and the other national anchors were far more restrained and cautious than the local stations. The flashes of responsibility that seeped though the appeals to national resolve impressed me.
Also missing was much discussion of the economic consequences, although on ABC there was the suggestion that this event might send the world economy into a recession, as if we don’t already have one. (Oil prices went up today and the exchanges were closed.) Later, on the same network, Diane Sawyer brought this aspect home by holding up financial documents that littered the streets. You got a sense of how serious this is by a constant replay of a phone number for employees of Morgan Stanley, the investment bank that was the largest tenant in the World Trade Center. If they lost top managers and key employees, as is likely, this will have an economic impact.
It was only back on PBS, in one of Jim Lehrer’s interminable beltway blather sessions, that one got an inkling of what the Bush administration may actually plan to do once the final fatality count sinks in and the sadness of the funerals and mourning begins. Then, as everyone expects, Americans will go from shock to outrage. One of Lehrer’s mostly conservative experts, Bill Kristol, editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, passed on a high-level leak: Namely that the U.S. will link bin Laden to Saddam Hussein.
Post Script: So there it was – the big secret that Iraq was the target. Kristol, a part of the neo-conservative led Project for A New American Century, let the cat out of the bag but no one picked it up and followed up, not even Jim Lehrer. He didn’t even realize what a scoop he had. Soon Kristol, in his magazine and frequent TV appearances would go from disclosing what the Administration would do to becoming a cheerleader for the policy that it was implementing, a policy he helped influence.
Recall that the President said he would “punish” states harboring terrorists. No one really spent much time discussing what that meant. Now Rupert’s emissary was predicting that the game plan might be to ask for a declaration of war against Iraq to “finish the job.” (The next morning, the demagogic face of Murdochworld summed up its feelings with this headline on a New York Post column by Steve Dunleavy calling for bombing Kabul and legalizing assassinations. It said: “SIMPLY KILL THESE BASTARDS!”) There was no discussion of any evidence implicating Iraq, or explanation of the economics of the oil situation there, which U.S. companies currently tap in abundance. You can bet that as this terrible tragedy is formally cranked up into an ongoing national crisis, there will be even more calls for war. Failing economies often need to rely on a good one to get back on track.
So, is another Gulf War in the offing? Will Son of Bush “finish” his father’s failed Desert Storm? That is a real possibility, suggesting also that more media manipulation is on the way. The coverage on Tuesday night was tilting in the direction of whipping up the outrage with no alternatives to war even discussed.
This possible “Let’s Get Iraq” scenario wasn’t discussed in any depth, perhaps because there is no footage to show yet. But you heard it here first: the road to revenge may just take us back to Baghdad, guilty or not. Will international terrorism be wiped out then? Will we then get the faceless “them”? It was a bit frightening to hear many of the on-air wise men speak of the next steps as a long difficult struggle that will take national resolve and may lead to restrictions on the freedoms we have long-prized. This line of thinking could well lead to an antiterrorist campaign targeting domestic protesters as well. Historians will recall that the mysterious fire in Germany’s Reichstag set the stage for the rationalizations used in the Nazi terror.
Will God then bless America only when the cruise missiles start flying? I thought only the bad guys spoke in terms of holy war.
P.S.: I must admit that I share much of the popular emotional outrage at the carnage. If we could have afforded it, we might have had an office there. In fact, I used to work out of CNN’s bureau when it was based at the World Trade Center and have been in and out of those towers over the years. It is terrifying and traumatizing to realize that it is gone, like one giant bloody amputation from the body of the city. This was not just an attack on symbols but real people, not just at world capitalism but on urban culture. I am, I realize, in a kind of shock, working on automatic pilot. It is at least something to do.
We are Family
Ten days after the towers came down, a group of musicians in New York led by Nile Rodgers decided to respond with a remake of his hit “We Are Family” as a way of calling for tolerance, global understanding and an end to hate crimes. Tom Silverman called to tell me that Spike Lee was making the music video and asked if I would document the event and make a film about it like I had with Sun City. No one was sure who would turn up or how it would turn out.
Of course I agreed.
Soon our Globalvision family was organizing a major shoot and making plans for what turned into a feature length documentary later shown at Sundance and on TV. At a time of fear and depression, working on this project not only gave me a chance to “flip the script” of war and retaliation that the Administration was promoting but find a way to help and find some hope and purposeful work.
We leapt at a chance to get involved even as we didn’t know what to expect. I feared it might turn into another feel-good celebrity ego session. After all, here in one room, were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle, Dionne Warwick and a whole list of greats. I was wrong. The singing and sense of solidarity one felt was transcendent; it renewed me spiritually in much the same way it did many of the participants, who spoke of how a collective effort like this was a chance to be at once positive and celebrate America’s values of multicultural expression. The money they hoped to raise was to benefit organizations promoting tolerance and defending our freedoms. Not enough attention was being paid to this, especially in the media.
The hope was that having so many high-profile people would give these issues more momentum. The stars get attention; hence we would be able to help the culture heal. Yet it never quite works out that way because our cynical media has a love-hate relationship with the celebrity world. All too often, media outlets that devote acres of print to detailing their most trivial pursuits turn into attack dogs when some aspire to take a stand or transcend the acting or singing roles they are confined in.
The New York Times reported on March 10 that magazines that once manufactured celebrities now just want to use them for their own purposes. But when celebrities have their own ideas – or any ideas at all – they often get put down as if they know nothing about the issues. Bono told me recently that his motives were called into question when he started campaigning for debt relief. It was only after he met with the Pope that he began to be treated as someone who knew what he was talking about.
Much of the press prefer celebrities as one-dimensional court jesters and entertainers, not as people with concerns and citizens who want to play a role in our cultural and political life. This is especially true of people who do not have the imprimatur of a current hit record or a big media brand behind them with bucks to buy ads in their publications. Don’t ever think that quid pro quos don’t exist between the entertainment industry and the media outlets they own and control. At the same time, not all celebrities do check their egos or agendas at the door.
And so it might have been predicted that something would go awry. And it did on the very first day, when comedienne Joan Rivers, who had agreed to take part, reversed herself and went on the radio and to the press with exaggerated charges that she had been duped because the list of original beneficiaries the organizers initially hoped to support had been diversified. Known for a big mouth and punchy one-liners, Rivers attacked the project, and in doing so freaked out the people who had worked so hard to organize it. As a result of her aggressive and visible stance, other stars dropped out, wanting to avoid getting tarnished. Her verbal assault turned a gesture of compassion into the kind of controversy the tabloids love – a food fight among celebs. Fortunately, the show went on, but Rivers reaped as much publicity as the project did. She understood how to orchestrate media attention her way. When pressed by one of the organizers, Bryan Bantry, to reconsider, she reportedly told him, with his aide listening in on the conference call, “Fuck world peace.” Later Nile Rodgers would say, “If we had world peace, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.”
Dealing with outsized egos like this is one of the drawbacks of relying on big names who can often be mercurial, self-promoting, insincere and so used to being coddled and sucked up to that they can’t function without “their people” present. Their personalities also tend to draw more attention than the causes they promote. I raise this only because this tempest in a teapot was nevertheless part of the story that I documented. There was no time to include the episode in a shortened version of the film that played at the Sundance Film Festival, but as a journalist I thought it had to be part of the feature-length film. I was more interested in how the people running the project handled a defection in their ranks than in the actual content of the inanities she supposedly uttered.
On March 4, we showed the film for the first time. The story of Rivers’ refusal to take part, the epithets she used, and Nile Rodgers’ response was included. (Rodgers was more disappointed than angry and said she was “entitled to own her own feelings.”) After the event, Fox’s Roger Friedman ran into Rivers at Elaine’s, an East Side watering hole patronized by celebrities. He would later write a positive review of the film, but also reported that Rivers was furious to hear that she is in the film and vehemently denied having ever said “Fuck world peace”, even though two publicists on the project heard her. Those are not words you forget. Anyway, Friedman asked her what she did remember saying. She now says she said, “Fuck the Muslims” and “Fuck the terrorists.” In reporting on this Friedman used “expletive” rather than “fuck.” We later confirmed with him that his account was accurate, but then, just to make sure, called Rivers to see what she would say.
Instead of responding to our questions, Ms. Rivers called in the attack dogs by contacting her lawyer, who sent Nile Rodgers a letter threatening legal action, claiming the depiction was false, “disparaging, defamatory, and put Ms. Rivers in a bad light.” Here she is, a public figure who used her access to the media and celebrity to disparage and undermine “We Are Family,” now demanding an apology and using a big law firm with offices in eight cities to bully, intimidate and try to get us to self-censor the film. We decided to apologize by noting what she now claims she did say, the bit about Muslims, but would not buckle to what struck us as a demand to censor our views. “We Are Family,” by the way, is a call for tolerance and speaks out against the hate crimes that irresponsible hotheads who say “Fuck the Muslims” intentionally or unintentionally inspire.
Her threats provoked a debate in our own ranks because we believe that even though the claims she made were baseless and would be thrown out of court, according to the president of the American Civil Liberties Union whom I consulted, she is rich enough and possibly annoyed enough to sue. That’s my opinion anyway. A lawsuit would also force us to spend money we don’t have defending ourselves. This is the scary part. We were then faced with the question of how much risk we could afford to absorb to stand up for our rights and artistic vision. At the same time, we know that the more this issue becomes about what Joan Rivers did or did not say, we will end up unintentionally promoting her status and help her pander to the lowest common denominator, which has often been her stock and trade. She may be a funny woman, but the joke would be on us.
Many of my colleagues felt the hassle was not worth it and that her stance, which distracted public support once, threatened to do so again. The sad truth is we could not get E&O (errors and omissions) insurance to defend the film if we were sued. When an insurer suspects that there is problem, they decline to get involved. So we were left with the choice of putting our company at risk by doing what we felt was fair and accurate. The result, to my shame and displeasure as a documentarian, was that we cut her out altogether. The pragmatists won the day. But at least I have this outlet to tell the story that the film will not because of these pressures. She may be able to use her show biz clout against the film, but as far as I know, a columnist still has a right to express an opinion and dissect a controversy. Not everyone has this type of an outlet so incidents like this, which happen every day, are rarely brought to light.
This issue turned out to be not that central to anyone but Rivers and me as the journalist. More upsetting were some of the reviews. We couldn’t afford to hold press screenings so we sent out cassettes, which I am told never get the same attention from critics because they are not watching the film with an audience or necessarily in a quiet space. Since the movie is about music and a message, it tends to fall in the cracks between film buffs oriented toward dramas or traditional docs, and music critics who don’t focus on the quality of the film or its message. More important, here in New York, we have had an overload of September 11 coverage and this film falls outside the usual treatment the issue receives, which focuses more on what happened than what it means for our culture.
Many entertainers had raised money for the established causes, but this project goes beyond that. It captures the effect of the attacks but in a far more personal way, and calls for tolerance, not a theme widely echoed in the media. I know it is always bad form to respond to reviewers, but as a media writer, I am very conscious of how stories get misrepresented. Now that it has happened to me, I can’t just let the chips fall where they may and shut up without talking back. The truth is that, whatever one’s taste or sensibility, accuracy is at least a standard everyone would agree on. What surprised me was that three critics didn’t seem to know what the film was about and ventilated instead about their negative feelings toward the motives of the artists. The New York Times sent a music critic who pans them more than the movie. The Daily News falsely pictured it as a film about Spike Lee’s movie, which it clearly is not. The Village Voice praised it with a faint damn.
And Murdoch’s Post, which amplified Joan Rivers’ original denunciation of “We Are Family” because it made good copy back in September in its ongoing culture war against all progressive ideas, compared the artists – I love this – to the Manson Family. I guess that is what happens when you deviate from the script on how we all were supposed to understand what happened on September 11 and how to feel about it. Now that “patriotic correctness” is in, the solidarity of “We are Family” is apparently off message.
Curiously, Fox reviewer Roger Friedman, working for the one outlet I would have expected to be hostile (and that’s my stereotype at work) was supportive. “The film… is wonderful. It is a must-see experience for everyone interested in the effects of 9/11. Go see it, and if it’s not playing in your town soon, ask your local small movie house to get it.” Go figure!
At the same time, the real goal of “We Are Family” was to promote the ideas we were singing about – and we did by getting the doc seen. Niles and his running mate Nancy Hunt went on to launch the We Are Family Foundation which has backed innovative videos and educational programs.
We did get a ten-minute ovation at the Sundance Film Festival. (It was there I also ran into Film Director John Waters who confirmed to me that the civil rights “dance-in” I helped organize when I was in the civil rights movement in Baltimore – a story told in The More You Watch – was the inspiration for his film Hairspray.)
A Time of War
The events of 911 would lead inexorably to wars and the subordination of the media to promoting them. I became obsessed with the issues this raised and turned out two books. The first, Media Wars (Rowman, Littlefield), focused on news at a time of terror, and the second, Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception (Prometheus Books), written while the invasion of Iraq was underway, documented my concerns with the media coverage. Embedded was the first book out on the war but perhaps because the media is always sensitive to calling attention to its own flaws was largely ignored. (Later, major news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post would publish mea culpa admitting that they had been seduced by the war and misreported many key facts involving WMDs and other issues.)
The coverage led me to the view that many media outlets were co-conspirators in the war and were themselves guilty of war crimes. I made a documentary with my critique called WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) that did get exposure, theatrical screenings and TV broadcasts worldwide.
I wrote a book following up on the issues and discussing the politics of my own documentary filmmaking. When News Lies: Media Complicity and the Iraq War (SelectBooks) also included the script of the film and the DVD.
In many ways, these last years have meant non-stop media making and media critiquing. My daily blog is usually about 3000 words, a virtual daily newspaper filled with links and comments from readers. I do it every day because that’s the best way to build an audience, a lesson I learned on the radio.
In the interim I have been cris-crossing the world to festivals and media conferences from China to South Africa to Indonesia to Kazakhstan to Doha to Dubai to Paris to London and Copenhagen. It’s sometimes hard to assess whether and if all of this activity, some of it measured and some frenetic, has an impact.
I would like to think it makes some contribution to the search for truth and a better world.
Like many Indy media makers, we often feel under funded and marginalized. Keeping the company going has been an uphill battle for all of us. We lost the lease to our Times Square offices and had to downsize into small digs in the Garment District. My late grandfather and dad, both garment workers, struggled and fought to get out of the neighborhood that I was now fighting to get into.
Over the years, PBS became in our view less relevant and many of the foundations that supported us had changed their priorities. Even as it became clear that our media was harming our democracy, funders cut back on their support for cutting-edge media projects in a climate of self-censorship and risk adverse executives.
When we started Globalvision, we thought it would be easier once we built our reputation and a track record. But instead, with more media consolidation and repressive policies by government, it had become harder to survive. Who knows what the future will bring?
I have considered myself part of this media biz in one-way or another since my high school days. I have been a reporter, editor, author, radio newscaster, TV reporter and producer, and website editor. I make films and write blogs. I have tried to do it all which is probably not such a good idea, but that’s who I am. Getting on the air and seeing my work in print on many websites reminds me that at least I am trying. I am still an activist and advocate as well.
In Mid 2005, I turned away from the war issue and back to a consideration of the prospects of changing the media. Melville House Publishers invited me to write my own manifesto, which I did, called The Death of the Media and the Fight for Democracy. It is a small format book with lots of big ideas and suggestions for how to build a media and democracy movement. It was my Eighth Book in the last 8 years.
In 2004, I was fortunate to find an investor who wanted to back another film, and this year I have just finished In Debt We Trust: America before the Bubble Bursts. It’s not out yet, as I write but the initial response has been good. I chose the issue because it documents a problem that goes beyond partisan, age, racial and economic divides.
So here I go again, trying to get work I think is important distributed and seen. Our small company has the means of production but not yet of distribution.
The media fight goes on.
It is not for me, of course, to assess a life’s still unfolding work. Depending on the day, I am either optimistic or pessimistic as I catalogue the further decline of media and the latest political disaster, war or set back. These are dark times for progressives throughout America, and not just in the media. It’s hard to be bullish in the age of Bush but I have seen wars end, presidents resign, the fall of apartheid and pendulums swing. I still have a sense of possibility, of belief in the triumph of justice, common sense and the “American Way”, despite the odds and the irrationality of “da” system.
Call me an idealist, and if you don’t like what I fight for, don’t call me at all.
I continue doing what I do because I don’t know what else to do – and always I feel I have to do something. I know I am getting on, losing morale, hair, energy, and patience. I know I can be my own worst enemy with this need to keep track of my own trajectory. The drive to remember all the details of my own adventures easily becomes an obsession. It is as much a vice as a virtue. Everyone I know thinks I am too much of a prisoner of the past, surrounded as I am by memorabilia, photos, books, music and dusty boxes of yellowing clippings. Look at photos of my offices over the years, whether at home or at WBCN or ABC News or Globalvision and they all look cluttered like museums. Museums of pre-revolutonary culture.
Throw it out and you will find freedom seems to be their advice. The past is past. It’s over. Get with the program. There’s no going back. Take it easy. Relax. Recognize what you can’t change. Make emotional compromises. The only constant is change.
Maybe they are right, and despite some “senior moments,” an inner voice keeps telling me, “But I am changing.” We all are. Mine is still a life in progress, marginalized one moment, on the offensive the next. I know that history happens and that the great Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci was right when he called for “pessimism of the intelligence and optimism of the will.”
Read all this and you come away with the sense that I may be trapped in perpetual motion, in the words of the late Maurice Bishop of Grenada, “forward ever, backward never.” At least I am reflective about it, and my own harshest critic, even if I don’t know how to change, in the same way that I don’t always seem to know how to lose weight, sustain relationships or get healthy.
And now, here I go again, off and running with a new issue, still doing it as a media “insurgent” – from the 1960s to 60. I am not the only one who is still at it. When Tina Turner, who I did a profile of for ABC’s 20/20 was asked, “When are you going to slow down?” she responded.
“I don’t know. I am just getting started.”
©2006 Danny Schechter
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and helps run Globalvision. For info on his latest film, see indebtwetrust.com. To comment, write: Dissector@mediachannel.org.