Britney coverage is in the public interest and Iran isn't; are we as dumb as they think we are?

Well, here’s a fine howdy-do first thing this morning: an absolutely breathtaking bit of misdirection and pro-monopolist hackery masquerading as a good-faith critique of Bill Moyers.

Moyers’ point seems to be that the opposite of more consolidation is the existence of more stations like this one in Chicago.This is absolutely false and Mr. Moyers should know it.

The opposite of more consolidation is, in fact, more ownership by smaller owners who have exactly the same profit motivation as the larger owners. More of the same, in other words. With a different company name on the letterhead.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Radio companies don’t own the airwaves, we Americans do. And those stations are licensed to serve “in the public interest.” But what could be more in the public interest than content which is interesting to the public? And in Chicago there are 32 examples of this ranked higher than the poster child Moyers chose.

The author is Mark Ramsey, president of Mercury Radio Research, and once you sift through a lot of self-serving rhetoric designed to make him seem more fair-minded on the subject than I suspect he really is, there are a couple of core assertions that we’re expected to accept as wisdom:

First, small, independent media ownership is exactly the same as large conglomerate ownership.

Second, what the public is interested in is what’s in the public interest.

Let’s start with that last one, as it looks like a hypothesis in need of testing. We’ll begin with a look at what the public is interested in at the moment, as measured by Yahoo’s top 20 searches.

  • Comet
  • NFL
  • Martina Hingis
  • How To Save On Electricity Bill
  • Britney Spears
  • Thanksgiving Recipes
  • Eva Mendes
  • WWE
  • Hi-5
  • We Own The Night
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Pork
  • Dancing With The Stars
  • Jessica Alba
  • Limewire
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Frank Lucas
  • American Gangster
  • Naruto
  • Kim Kardashian

Not sure what the comet thing is all about. I know there’s a comet visible in the skies right now, so maybe that’s the most important issue in America at the moment. We have the NFL, which is certainly important. Tennis player retiring after a positive drug test. Pro wrestling. Some actresses, including one who’s apparently suing to stop the sale and distribution of a sex tape. Oprah – duh. Dancing with the Stars, of course.

On the whole, pretty heady stuff, and a fair measure of what’s in the public’s best interest, wouldn’t you say?

Not on the list of things Americans are interested in: the environment. The rise of dominionist mercenary forces. The results and implications of yesterday’s elections across the US. The suspension of the constitution in Pakistan. Bush’s apparent desire to start another unwinnable war and the potential economic ramifications for working Americans. Impeachment moves against the vice president. The most deadly suicide attack in Afghanistan’s history.

To summarize: Britney Spears, in the public interest. Suspension of democracy in one of our nuclear-armed allies in the “war on terror,” not in the public interest. Democratic gains in two Southern states – not in the public interest. Celebs and sex tapes – public interest! Iraq – not in the public interest. Oprah – always in the public interest.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had this particular counter-intuitive definition of public interest lobbed at us.

The idea that there’s more to life than private ownership and profit began unraveling in earnest when Reagan took office and appointed Mark Fowler to head the FCC. In a truly landmark moment, Fowler and Senior Legal Advisor Daniel Brenner co-authored a 1982 paper that “updated” our concept of public interest, stating that the public interest is “what the public is interested in.” And no, I’m not making that up.

It was a bought-and-paid-for corporate lie when Fowler and Brenner said it, and our fascination with Lindsey and Paris has hardly made it less so. After all, it was the implementation of the lie as policy that ushered us to the point we are today and makes the skewering of Ramsey’s statements so absurdly simple. (And it isn’t as though none of this was predicted.)

Now back to that first point, and let me restate Ramsey’s remarks just so we’ll be clear.

Moyers’ point seems to be that the opposite of more consolidation is the existence of more stations like this one in Chicago.This is absolutely false and Mr. Moyers should know it.

The opposite of more consolidation is, in fact, more ownership by smaller owners who have exactly the same profit motivation as the larger owners.

Subtle and clever, that. I can’t tell if I’m reading an intentional bit of misdirection or if he actually believes his own fork-tonguery.

For starters, the opposite of more consolidation is more private ownership. By definition. Mark, that’s what the terms mean. And it isn’t as though we don’t have any way of knowing for sure. There was a time before consolidation and we know from experience that there was a significantly greater diversity of programming than there is now. So essentially he’s attempting to re-write the history books when in fact the record shows, unambiguously, that he’s wrong.

Second, and even more insidiously, he asks us to accept that all people with profit motives are exactly alike. Jim Bob, who owns a small station with six listeners, and Rupert Murdoch are the same. And the effects of their ownership are the same because both have the same profit motive.

Buying this? Well, let’s test it a little. You have a desire to profit from your work, I assume. So that means you’re exactly the same as the folks who ran Enron. They had a profit motive, too.

Absurd. Just because people have profit motives doesn’t mean they have the same goals. Not everybody wants to own the world, and not everybody who’d like to have more than they do is willing to rape and pillage to get there. Not all business people are driven by the same ethical and moral codes. Not all of them measure success the same way. So even if I buy that somehow the owners of that small station in Chicago and the uber-media lords at Clear Channel have the “same profit motivation,” it hardly means that a world of independent ownership and a world of megalopoly ownership produce the same impact on their communities.

I used to work in radio, and I loved radio. I wish I could work in it now, but it’s an industry that has been annihilated by the folks Ramsey is being pimped by. Few things in America’s last 20 years have exerted a more corrosive impact on the health and vitality of our public sphere than the anti-artist, anti-culture whoredom of the radio ratings business. If you want to know why there’s not as much great music as there used to be, or why it’s damned near impossible to access the really good stuff through your radio, start here.

So hearing the president of a radio research firm lipping off at Bill Moyers, of all people, is about more than I can take. Don’t get caught up in the faux-obeisance. Focus on the underlying ideology that he’s pandering and note the effect it’s already had on the world you live in.

Mark, as long as it’s possible for us to find good music and radio programming, your work isn’t done. So keep your nose to the grindstone and your mouth off the likes of Bill Moyers. Stick to the process of selling our entire culture into the coffers of the Murdochs of the world.

Because that’s really the only public interest you care about – the interest your clients can earn from raiding the public’s pocketbook.

21 comments on “Britney coverage is in the public interest and Iran isn't; are we as dumb as they think we are?

  1. Slammy wrote: “Just because people have profit motives doesn’t mean they have the same goals. Not everybody wants to own the world, and not everybody who’d like to have more than they do is willing to rape and pillage to get there.”

    Beautifully put, Sam. I just watched this episode of Moyer’s Journal and he certainly wasn’t being disingenuous when he asked the question about serving the public interest vis a vis serving corporate megalomaniacal interests.

    Ramsey is a Judas goat for the creepy types who run massive corporations whose only aim is “more…more…more….for me…me…me….” They see humanity as chattel – to be controlled in any way they see fit.

  2. Short answer: Fuck this guy.

    Long answer: The reason why the public’s interest is so shallow and vapid is because that’s all they’re given. When someone feeds you nothing but slop for years, of course it’s going to make you sick. Give them something healthier, and they will respond.

    The media whores and their corporatist masters want a public that’s dumb, uninformed, inarticulate, and complacent. It is absolutely in their interest to consolidate media and deny local radio, newspapers, television stations, and Internet providers the chance to disseminate information that challenges the common wisdom and forces people to think. Jim is absolutely right–these people don’t view us as human, but as pigs, slaves, docile house pets, designed for nothing more than to breed, buy, and die.

    Their efforts to deny us avenues to think for ourselves must be challenged at every turn. Go tell it on the mountain, Sam–the world needs to hear it.

  3. This just in….

    Generalissimo Francisco Franco. . . . still dead.

    You know, with skills like that, Monsieur Ramsey should be working at McKinsey & Co, Morgan Sachs, Goldman Stanley, you know–the supposed crème de la crème. But he’s doing pretty good as a dopey fuckwit.

  4. I think this is how guys like Monsieur Ramsey get where they are today.

    From Mimi in NY’s blog . . . .
    Dear Potential Employer
    Despite having an exceptional degree which may lead many to presume that I am, in fact, quite intelligent, I have managed to spend the last six years doing absolutely sod all with my privileged education. However, I feel that my experiences as a drug-taking chalet cook, a sailing chef, a waitress, a shop assistant at Marks & Spencer’s, a telesales representative, the person looking after your kids on the long summer vacation, a barista, a check-out girl at Tesco’s, a sandwich maker, a bakery assistant, a bar tender, a punt chauffeur on the River Cam, an unemployed, hungry writer and finally, the piece de resistance – A Stripper, do demonstrate a certain flexibility on my part, if not a willingness to completely embrace new experiences and skills.

    Unfortunately, I don’t possess any prior knowledge of Quark Express and have only recently discovered how to work the spell check on MS Word, but I can text up to 20 words per minute using predictive text, and always sport a well manicured bikini area, whilst I have also developed an unerring talent for tolerating those itchy, spangly g-strings comprised mainly of plastic sequins. My people skills have been impeccably honed due to two years spent on various large sailing yachts with multiple stinking, farting men, and combined with 14 months grinding corporate cock, I feel perfectly qualified to work within the high-stress, male-dominated atmosphere of Corporate America. I have an ability to compromise, perfected from the lengthy and demanding negotiations involved in my former employment (eg “Give me a blow job”, “No, fuck off”, “Give me a hand job”, “No, fuck off”, “Give me a lapdance”, “OK”) and yet a steely determination of where my goals are and how to achieve them (“It’s 850 bucks for a private room, no fucking freebies”).

    I don’t have any formal journalistic training, nor would I be conceited enough to count my small resume of published works qualification enough to adopt the title of ‘journalist’ – yet my illuminating writing on specific topics display a remarkable and ingenious departure from the usual female schlock produced en masse by Conde Nast (see my blog posts on ‘anal sex’, ‘The Masturbator’ etc). Indeed, I feel the height of my writing achievements, displaying my strong and sophisticated style, is aptly demonstrated by such works of literary genius as this.

    I must profess that I lack both the positive attitude and willingness to make the coffee that an entry level position might require, and while neither a ‘go-getter’, nor a ‘team player’, I can’t help but suggest that perhaps your company might not have to advertise for employees quite as often if they didn’t insist on making the criteria so rigid. Having been exposed to the shocking rigours and unflagging enthusiasm of ‘go-getters’ and ‘team players’ throughout my various forays into the world of employment, I personally have found that the lazy fuckers sitting out the back having a sneaky cigarette are often the most fun at the office party, and never fail to supply the requisite xeroxed ass-shot, while they are frequently the most willing to blow the boss after too many Bacardi Breezers.

    I have a demonstrated ability to multi-task – I am a modern day spiritual guru and yoga teacher with an excellent cock-grinding technique and impressive eka pada rajakapotasana, not to mention a huge capacity for alcohol, self-loathing, insulting people I care deeply about and drunken text messaging in the early hours of the morning – all the while managing to complete several great works of fiction yet-to-be-published. In fact, as a hungry, ambitious, attractive female with absolutely no suitable skills for useful employment besides a willingness to skive as frequently as possible and look up porn on the company computer, I am utterly unaware as to any reason why anyone would not find me employable, or indeed, why you are not begging to work for me.

    I look forward to being rejected by your company as yet further affirmation that I am destined never to have a salary,

    Yours Sincerely,

    Mimi

    P.S. If I do get the job, how much vacation time do I get?

  5. I’m impressed with the depth of this post but I disagree with your argument that relaxing ownership rules causes a decline in quality.

    You argue that viewers don’t want the kind of content they are getting on TV, but then why would they also be searching for it on the Internet?

    Also, I think the Internet has ushered in a golden age of information, and sadly, at the same time, threatened TV and radio. I’ve done some work with NAB, so I’ve seen many stations stay afloat thanks only to corporate resources.

  6. I disagree with your argument that relaxing ownership rules causes a decline in quality.

    That’s not exactly what I’m saying, although I suppose I’d be content to chart quality vs consolidation and let the graphic at least illustrate the correlation. We have certainly seem dramatic declines in quality as ownership rules have loosened, and when I look back to the arrival of LMAs and how it was predicted quality was going to go to hell I think it’s a point I’d have no trouble defending in a public debate.

    You argue that viewers don’t want the kind of content they are getting on TV, but then why would they also be searching for it on the Internet?

    Umm, I argued that they don’t like TV where? Not sure what you’re saying here.

    Also, I think the Internet has ushered in a golden age of information, and sadly, at the same time, threatened TV and radio. I’ve done some work with NAB, so I’ve seen many stations stay afloat thanks only to corporate resources.

    But what is “information”? Sure, we have lots more bits and bytes flying around, but a vast majority of what has been created is more properly filed under “noise” than “signal.” As for corp resources keeping stations afloat, I guess I’d ask at what price? What is the cultural value of a place staying on the air when what it’s pumping into the airwaves is pure garbage?

  7. Martin:

    Short answer: no, thank you.

    Slightly longer answer: I’ve seen your “richer intellectual fare creates more discriminating information consumers” hypothesis demonstrated time and again in the classroom. “Low-performing” (hate that label) students consistently rise to the challenge of expanding their reading horizons under the following conditions:

    1. When they are convinced that the effort is worth their time and energy;
    2. When they are given the support needed to tackle a challenging piece of literature;
    3. When the piece in question is not “dumbed down” in a misguided effort to make it accessible.

    I believe the same could be said of the larger public audience you describe; availability of thoughtful and varied information is not everything, but it is fundamental.

  8. Ann,

    The “fuck this guy” line is a bit of an in-joke with the S&R crew on my part. Believe me, it never crossed my mind either. ;)

    The human mind is built to learn and grow. The more information you give to it and engage it with, the more it wants. Challenge people and they will rise to the occasion. We’re creating a society of passive, uncritical, unintellectual, hyper-judgmental zombies, and the choking off of access to independent lines of information is a key aspect of that.

  9. Well, you know it is a good post.

    I will say one thing about the ubiquitous Britney Spears. She is no doubt spurring thousands and thousands of women to seek other role models and to be anything other than a sexual plaything for the masses and food for the hungry crocodiles.

    Celebrity worship was a very real thing and in days of old the celebrity reputation was protected by the managers/studios/groomers. The golden era is now over. We now have down and dirty…and the game being exposed as it really is.

    Less people these days look up…

  10. What we forget in our concern over the public’s lack of interest in, well, their own interest, is how hard life is for many of us. The last thing most people want to do when they have spare time is read about current events. They feel like they’re entitled to their entertainment time — gossip, TV, movies, video games.

    Also, it’s kind of a holdover from school. People equate world affairs with a boring school subject like current events and civics and, now that they’re out of school, they want no part of it.

    They save their spare brain time for the complex world of managing their money (if they have some).

  11. It’s the “worth my time and energy” conundrum; expend even more today in order to make things better down the line… tough to do when you’re struggling to pay bills, buy groceries, keep a job, raise kids.

  12. And the current crop of 30-somethings aren’t necessarily literate, either. You have to be willing to read to get some stuff. We have a couple of generations of people who can read but won’t read anything more challenging than Harry Potter and Us magazine.

  13. Dr. Slammy –

    But what is “information”? Sure, we have lots more bits and bytes flying around, but a vast majority of what has been created is more properly filed under “noise” than “signal.”

    Do you really think we have a deficit of information? On TV, I can watch anything from the NFL Network to “The War” on PBS to “The Redskins Report” to home cooking with Martha Stewart. Even though there might be a handful of owners in TV, we have SO many options.

    As for corp resources keeping stations afloat, I guess I’d ask at what price? What is the cultural value of a place staying on the air when what it’s pumping into the airwaves is pure garbage?

    Are you against competition? The TV or radio station that caters to the viewers is going to survive. If you have a niche station that you like but no one else does, sure, it’s quaint, but it’s not profitable.

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  15. Bluefish:

    Do you really think we have a deficit of information?

    No, just the opposite. We have insane amounts of information. What we have a deficit of is knowledge and wisdom – higher order constructs that are of social and intellectual value. Infomration, as I say, is useless. Info = raw bits, and a bit that is “false” is as much information as a bit that is “true.” Both signal and noise are information.

    On TV, I can watch anything from the NFL Network to “The War” on PBS to “The Redskins Report” to home cooking with Martha Stewart. Even though there might be a handful of owners in TV, we have SO many options.

    And the fact that your own construction parallels “The War” with Martha Stewart is instructive.

    Are you against competition?

    This is a fake question. It’s raw ideology masquerading as a real concern.

    The TV or radio station that caters to the viewers is going to survive.

    And this hinges on an unproven assumption. It only works if I accept that the system we have now – rabid deregulation emerging from a ridiculous belief that the public interest is the same thing as what the public is interested in – is natural, desirable, or somehow is the only alternative.

    If you have a niche station that you like but no one else does, sure, it’s quaint, but it’s not profitable.

    So what? This statement is only meaningful if I accept that profit is the only possible social value.

    Sorry, but assumptions are going to get interrogated here.

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