Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Million To One

Until just before six o'clock last night, Chris and I were batting a thousand. And then this email landed in my inbox:

    Dear Mr. Wagner:

    I am over my head in deadlines for projects that must be finished on time -- including preparations for a new weekly broadcast, a big documentary to air in April, and a four-part series that we are producing at this very moment -- and I honestly can't work in an interview as you suggest. Furthermore, those questions you want me to answer require a great deal more thought than I can muster these days.

    Bill Moyers

The return address was that of Mr. Moyers' assistant, which I like to think accounts for the terse language. Or it may be that Mr. Moyers is absolutely beside himself with our vacuous, accelerated culture, as evidenced in his fiery keynote speech at last week's Media Reform Conference in Memphis, Tennessee.

    Two basic pillars of American society - shared economic prosperity and a public sector capable of serving the common good - are crumbling. The third basic pillar of American democracy - an independent press- is under sustained attack, and the channels of information are choked.

    A few huge corporations now dominate the media landscape in America. Almost all the networks carried by most cable systems are owned by one of the major media conglomerates. Two thirds of today's newspaper markets are monopolies. As ownership gets more and more concentrated, fewer and fewer independent sources of information have survived in the marketplace. And those few significant alternatives that do survive, such as PBS and NPR, are under growing financial and political pressure to reduce critical news content and shift their focus in a "mainstream" direction, which means being more attentive to the establishment than to the bleak realities of powerlessness that shape the lives of ordinary people.

    What does today's media system mean for the notion of the "informed public" cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears outside of her own personal communications is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the company's share price. More insidiously, this small group of elites determines what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth news coverage of anything, let alone of the problems people face day-to-day, is as scarce as sex, violence, and voyeurism are pervasive. Successful business model or not, by democratic standards, this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form - which Barry Diller happily describes as oligopoly- media growth has one clear consequence: there is more information and easier access to it, but it's more narrow in content and perspective, so that what we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top.

Mr. Moyers is, of course, slamming the hammer down on the nail: the market is squelching the message -- so long as the message deviates from "Everything is fine. Please keep shopping." And while his (temporary) rejection is disheartening, it is understandable. The man is 72-years-old, and more overcommitted than I can begin to imagine.

Still, I will not relent. I cannot relent. Instead, I will reply to Mr. Moyers with a spirit of soulful intent. I will empathize with his schedule. I will diminish the scope of our ask, and downplay its urgency. I will tell him that, at the conclusion of our interview, Linda Ellerbee said, "You need to talk to Bill Moyers."

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