Big Media, Big Money,
The Public's Airwaves ?

excerpted from the book

Through the Media Looking Glass

Decoding Bias and Blather in the News

by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Common Courage Press, 1995, paper


Big Media, Big Money

Decoding the Rich Pundits: Who Do They Mean By "We"?
February 16, 1994

Journalists are supposed to expose secrets, not keep them. But when it comes to the salaries of national TV anchors and pundits, those secrets are well-guarded.

TV networks are mum on the subject-while news anchors claim to be in touch with average Americans, and pundits speak for "the middle class" and the necessity of "sacrifices."

Such pretensions might be hard to swallow if the public comprehended the enormous earnings of the talking heads. Some TV anchors get paid more in a few months than most of us earn in 40 years of work.

This month [February 1994] a bidding war broke out for Diane Sawyer. The New Yorker magazine says that Sawyer rejected ABC's salary offer of $4 million per year to keep her at that network, holding out for more than $8 million.

CBS offered her over $4 million annually to jump networks, and recruited its boardmember Henry Kissinger-a pal from when Sawyer worked for the Nixon White House-to help persuade her. NBC and Fox TV each made offers.

But when the smoke cleared, Sawyer had agreed to stay put at ABC-for a reported $7 million per year.

Multimillion-dollar raises in superstar salaries are part of a network trend of journalistic decline, staff layoffs and news bureau closings. That same money could pay for dozens of reporters, producers and researchers.

And what about the economic biases of the TV news stars? In theory, super-rich anchors and pundits might still be able to relate to poor or working-class Americans. In practice, they seem clueless about how most Americans live.

Sawyer, for example, has crusaded against "welfare cheats" who "gouge the taxpayers." One of Sawyer's cheaters was "Mary," a single mother with a four-year-old child who secretly worked two low-pay, part-time jobs to supplement her monthly welfare check of $600. Thanks to Mary's "fraud"- working off the books-her income totaled $16,700. "You know people say," Sawyer lectured her, "you shouldn't have children if you can't support them."

Or take the case of Patrick Buchanan, the TV pundit who ran for president as an "America First" populist-although campaign filings showed that the Mercedes-driving candidate made well over $800,000 in 1991.

Who is the "we" Buchanan spoke for recently when he proclaimed that "we have just begun to pay the biggest tax hike in history"? (Actually, other tax hikes have been bigger.)

If, by "we," Buchanan is referring to himself and others in the top 1 percent income bracket, he's not far from the truth. Families making more than $200,000 are paying 80 percent of the tax hike in the current budget.

If, on the other hand, Buchanan deploys "we" to refer to the broad American public, he's engaging in demagoguery. More than 98 percent of the public is not getting any income tax increase; working families earning less than $30,000 got their taxes cut.

It's not just Sawyer and Buchanan who are detached from the economic realities of average Americans. So are most TV anchors and pundits. And because of the elite bias of mass media discourse, basic economic facts are obscured.

Tax hikes on the wealthy are popular among the public, but not the pundits. In a 1992 speech, David Brinkley (estimated $1 million yearly income) attacked Bill Clinton's proposal to raise taxes on the rich as a "sick, stupid joke." Since there are so few wealthy, claimed Brinkley, such taxes "will soak the middle class." Rush Limbaugh (estimated $15 million) constantly makes the same charge. Ted Koppel (estimated $5 million) asserted on Nightline that high taxes on the wealthy in the 1970s "created a tremendous economic problem.... It didn't work."

FACT: Wealthy Americans are among the lowest taxed in the industrial world. From 1978 to 1992, tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of the population-average yearly income $567,000- added more than a trillion dollars to the national debt. In 1992 alone, these tax breaks cost the public $140 billion.

Cokie Roberts (estimated $700,000), George Will ($1.5 million) and other pundits encourage cuts in Social Security.

FACT: Social Security is the main sustenance of most elderly Americans; it's all that keeps a third of them out of poverty.

Pundits scapegoat labor unions and high wages for a lack of U.S. "competitiveness."

FACT: Real hourly wages have dropped 16 percent during the last 20 years. In 1973, U.S. manufacturing jobs were the highest compensated in the world; now a dozen countries have passed us.

Robert Novak (estimated $1 million) denounces proposals for universal health coverage as "socialized medicine," while Limbaugh denies there's a health care crisis in our country.

No crisis? Maybe Limbaugh is so rich he figures-in a pinch-he can simply buy himself a little hospital.

Whether conservative or centrist, whether residing inside the Beltway or in Manhattan, the millionaires of TV punditry are members of an elite, insular club.

The next time you hear one of them pontificating about what "we" must do to spur the economy or close the deficit, listen skeptically-and wrap your hands securely around your pocketbook.


15 Questions About the "Liberal Media"
June 9,1993

One of the most enduring myths about the mainstream news media is that they are "liberal." The myth flourishes to the extent that people don't ask pointed questions:

* If the news media are liberal, why have national dailies and newsweeklies regularly lauded those aspects of President Clinton's program that they view as "centrist" or "moderate," while questioning those viewed as liberal?

* If the news media are liberal, why is it that liberals are apt to be denigrated as ideologues, but status quo centrists or "moderates" are presented as free of ideological baggage?

* If the news media are liberal, why did most outlets praise Clinton's selection of David Gergen, who advocated Reagan policies, while pillorying civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier?

* If the news media are liberal, why did they applaud conservative White House appointees like Lloyd Bentsen and Les Aspin, while challenging liberals like Donna Shalala, Johnetta Cole and Roberta Achtenberg?

It also helps to look back at history and ask questions:

* If the news media are liberal, why have Clinton's meager tax hikes on the wealthy been referred to as "soaking the rich" or "class warfare," but President Reagan's giveaways to the wealthy were euphemized as "tax reform"?

* If the news media are liberal, why have national outlets been far tougher in scrutinizing Democratic presidents Carter and Clinton than Republicans Reagan and Bush?

* If the news media are liberal, why have they buried important facts, such as the shrinking of corporate income tax from 25 percent of federal expenditures in the 1960s to only about 8 percent today?

* If the news media are liberal, why have they given short shrift to reform proposals-tax-financed national health insurance, federally-supported child care, government jobs programs-that their own polls show are overwhelmingly popular with the public?

Pundits and commentators have gained increasing prominence in the media, often eclipsing the reporters:

* If the news media are liberal, why were the first two political pundits to appear on national TV every day of the week both conservatives: Patrick Buchanan and John McLaughlin? Was it their good looks?

* If the news media are liberal, why does the media spectrum typically extend from unabashed right-wingers to tepid centrists who go to great lengths-attacking progressive ideas and individuals-to prove they're not left-wing? Why do pundit debates on national TV have Wall Street Journal reporters representing "the left"?

* If the news media are liberal, why are TV pundit programs-even on "public television"-sponsored by conservative businesses like General Electric, Pepsico and Archer Daniels Midland?

* If the news media are liberal, why was Rush Limbaugh the first host in the history of American television to be allowed to use his national politics show to campaign day after day for a presidential candidate?

* If the news media are liberal, why do right-wing hosts usually dominate talk radio-even in liberal cities?

* If the news media are liberal, why are there dozens of widely syndicated columnists who champion corporate interests, but few who champion consumer or labor rights?

In analyzing the bias of any institution, it helps to look at who owns it. Which leads to a final question:

* If the news media are liberal, why are they owned and sponsored by big corporations that spend millions of dollars to lobby against liberal measures in Washington?


The Public's Airwaves ?

Fate of Broadcasting Virtually Sealed 60 Years Ago
May 4, 1994

If you turn on a radio and sample dozens of stations, you may not think much of what's on the air. The commercialism and lack of diversity are apt to seem normal. But it didn't have to be this way.

Sixty years ago, in May 1934, a hard-fought battle reached the floor of the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers debated the future of broadcasting. The result was the landmark federal Communications Act.

Today we take it for granted that the finite space on the radio dial is dominated by large corporations. Even on "public radio," where the sponsors are called "underwriters," big bucks largely determine what will be heard.

But when radio was very young, few people assumed that "the ether" should be turned over to companies pursuing private profit. As late as 1928, even the interim Federal Radio Commission acknowledged that "advertising is usually offensive to the listening public."

That commission routinely sided with CBS, NBC and other new radio giants-while cutting the hours and watts of nonprofit stations run by colleges, labor unions, religious groups and civic organizations. Those nonprofit broadcasters were some of radio's pioneers.

As the feds "reallocated" radio frequencies, the nonprofit stations steadily lost out to the "chain stations." By 1931, over 90 percent of the stations broadcasting at 5,000 watts or more were affiliated with a national commercial network.

Some big stations-such as WGN, owned by the Chicago Tribune-got "clear channel" licenses to broadcast at 50,000 watts. And, as corporations grabbed the airwaves, annual revenues from radio advertising soared-from peanuts in 1927 to $100 million in 1930.

"Never in our history has there been such a bold and brazen attempt to seize control of the means of communication and to dominate public opinion as is now going on in the field of radio broadcasting," said the director of a station operated by the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Also battling the radio trusts was a small order of Catholic priests, the Paulist Fathers, based in New York. Their station, WLWL, often provided working-class listeners with discussions of social issues. Federal authorities squeezed WLWL's broadcast hours, contending it was a "special interest" station.

That infuriated the Rev. John B. Harney, who fired back that WLWL was "not a special interest, unless you want to say that those who are working for public welfare are pursuing special interests and that the gentlemen who are working for their own pockets are not."

Resentment toward audio hucksters was widespread. Blaring commercials were new-and jarring. In 1932, Business Week magazine declared: "Radio broadcasting is threatened with a revolt of listeners.... Newspaper radio editors report more and more letters of protest against irritating sales ballyhoo."

Two years later, renowned educator John Dewey warned: "The radio is the most powerful instrument of social education the world has ever seen. It can be used to distort facts and to mislead the public mind." He continued: "Whether it is to be employed for this end or for the social public interest is one of the most crucial problems of the present."

Activists built a radio reform movement, with petitions and newsletters and lobbying drives, to resist the broadcast monopolies. But most print media were unsympathetic.

The scant coverage that the press devoted to the radio reform battle was usually slanted in favor of the broadcasting companies. By the early 1930s, many newspapers had gained major holdings in profitable radio stations.

And quiet deals were cut in high government places. One factor: Many politicians, from President Franklin Roosevelt on down, were dependent on radio networks to carry their speeches.

Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen got it right in their "Washington Merry Go-Round" column on Nov. 30, 1933: "A secret move is on foot to perpetuate the present monopoly which the big broadcasting companies have on the choice wavelengths." Aided by the Roosevelt administration and allies on Capitol Hill, corporate broadcasters were able to usher in the Federal Communications Commission-still in existence today-established by the Communications Act of 1934.

Just before the Act's passage, the New York Times ran the headline "New Communications Bill is Aimed at Curbing Monopoly in Radio." The truth was just the opposite.

The Act stands as a monument to corporate power in U.S. broadcasting-and as a tombstone for democratic use of the airwaves.

In a last-ditch effort to head off radio monopolization, a grassroots campaign sparked by church and labor activists lobbied to set aside 25 percent of radio frequencies for nonprofit broadcasters. The measure was known as the Wagner-Hatfield amendment.

Commercial broadcasters fought back fiercely, and successfully. The Wagner-Hatfield amendment lost, 42-23, in the Senate. This defeat of public-interest forces in 1934 set the stage for private-interest control of American television later on.

All of this hidden history is excavated by scholar Robert W. McChesney in his meticulous new book, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy.

The radio reform movement was thwarted by the great extent of corporate media control that already existed. As McChesney notes, "The network-dominated, advertising-supported basis of U.S. broadcasting was anything but the product of an informed public debate."

After 1934, he points out, "Congress would never again consider fundamental structural questions in its communications deliberations. The legitimacy of network-dominated, advertising-supported broadcasting was now off-limits as a topic of congressional scrutiny."

Today's Congress remains uninterested in questioning corporate control of the airwaves that are supposed to belong to us all.

If you've ever wondered why national pundit programs do such an abysmal job of examining corporate influence on politics, one factor is that many pundits themselves are on the gravy train. Another factor is that large companies sponsor the broadcasts.

... a four-month study in 1991 conducted by FAIR (the media watch group we're associated with) showed no more diversity among NPR's experts than on the commercial networks. Of 27 commentators featured at least twice on Morning Edition or All Things Considered, for example, only one was not white and only four were female.

The real threat to society is that - instead of authentic debate on our country's pressing problems - we're bombarded by a narrow range of pundits representing private interests that aren't even identified.

The yearly income of the poorest 20 percent of Americans is $5,226, while the average income in Germany, France, Britain and Italy is $19,708.

In 1980, some 20,900 low-income public housing units were under construction; in 1988 [under Ronald Reagan] there were 9,700, a decline of 54 percent. In that period, the new construction budget was slashed from $3.7 billion to $573 million.

Through the Media Looking Glass

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