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Robert J. Thompson scrutinizes the media and their messages

Mixed-up media 

Robert J. Thompson scrutinizes the media and their messages

You may not recognize his name, but chances are you've seen Robert J. Thompson on television and read his comments in newspapers. One day last week I saw him discuss the Presidential debate on CNN and, a few hours later, read his insights on Howard Stern in the New York Times.

Thompson is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University and a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. You might say he's in the right place at the right time.

From cable television to satellite radio to the Internet, the media's scope and influence have grown exponentially. And Thompson, who has written or edited five books, including Television's Second Golden Age; Prime Time, Prime Movers; and Television Studies, is the go-to guy for opinions on the media and popular culture.

In a recent conversation with Thompson, we discussed the rise of cable news shows, the latest FCC obscenity crack-down, and the conglomerates that control the airwaves. We began by asking him if there is such as thing as the "liberal media."

Thompson: It depends on who you ask. Fox News has gone to number one in the cable news sweepstakes by claiming just that, putting themselves up as David against the liberal-media Goliath. I think we have to put all of this in perspective when we think about who owns these things --- Viacom, Disney, and Rupert Murdoch himself --- huge corporations that you hardly think of as the vanguard of revolution.

The big mainstream networks --- the media elite, as the conspiracy people call them --- really have one basic goal that they're going after and it's not a conspiracy of ideology, it's a conspiracy of the marketplace. They're trying to maximize audiences by not offending any enormous constituency of people. For the most part I think the networks are going right down this very centrist approach to news.

City: Have conservatives, through repetition of the "liberal media" mantra, effectively shifted the playing field to the right? For instance, in response to the success of Fox News, MSNBC hired a conservative, Joe Scarborough, to host a show.

Thompson: Right, but they also tried to go on the other side by hiring Phil Donahue; it just didn't work very well. They had a good idea but they hired the wrong guy to do it. No one has been able to do this yet, but if you look at the closeness of the 2000 election and you look at how close this one appears to be, there's certainly a market for the equivalent of the Fox News Channel in the other direction. It's the same thing we've seen in talk radio, where there have been hugely successful people on the right. That may be beginning to change with Talk America [a liberal network featuring Al Franken and others].

For the most part it hasn't been as successful. Part of that has to do with the nature of the two sides as they manifest themselves now. One of the main things conservatives talk about is a return to basic, common sense family values --- forget all this relativist thinking; there's right and wrong and we know what it is --- a return to pre-1960s notions. That kind of thing plays very well on radio shows and Bill O'Reilly because it sets up very clear, dramatic conflicts.

Phil Donahue was much more about "well that's true, but we also have to look at this." It was all about the nuances and the complexity of an argument. Those people are seen as wishy-washy and flip-flopping. O'Reilly was a lot more fun to watch than Donahue.

City: Fox News may promote that message, but Fox's entertainment arm is one of the raunchiest.

Thompson: That's the delicious irony. On one side Fox is part of the family values thing, on the other side they were the ones who brought us Temptation Island and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?.

City: There have been great changes in news since the advent of cable. Bill O'Reilly seems like a good illustration of someone who wouldn't have been acceptable on the air 20 years ago. For instance, he's obsessed with Al Franken calling him a liar.He seems like a basket case, yet he's the most popular figure in cable news.

Thompson: You're right, it would not have been acceptable before cable. O'Reilly could probably have gotten the 4 million people he gets on cable now in 1978, but before cable nobody could stay on the air with an audience that small.

City: But those cable shows have a tremendous impact. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent about $400,000 for their first ad against John Kerry, but they got tens of millions of dollars in free broadcasting on cable news. They got their issues, however false they were, on the table.

Thompson: That's absolutely right. Many people have figured out how to use the news cycle as an adjunct to their budget. Two movies, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, could have completely pulled their advertising budgets and it wouldn't have mattered because they were being promoted for free by the news cycle. Even though it's a small audience watching these cable channels, they are influential.

City: Recently, when Dan Rather was fooled by some counterfeit memos about George W. Bush's questionable military service, that story, which was substantially true, was immediately forgotten. The story became Rathergate. Why can't the media keep its eye on the ball?

Thompson: That was an absolute and complete breakdown of everything that should happen in a serious journalistic environment. Part of it was CBS saw a scoop. They were blinded to all of the due diligence they should have done. If you look at Rather's background, there was the idea that he could break a big story and show he's still the heir to [Walter] Cronkite and [Edward R.] Murrow and CBS is still a force to be reckoned with.

Was there also an element that he liked about that story, that he could position the president in an uncomfortable place? I've got to think there was some of that there, given his history with the Bush family. Reporters are going to have feelings. I think the way you shield yourself from that is to make sure whatever you report is right.

City: On the other hand, when a nasty story about John Kerry's fingernails by Fox correspondent Carl Cameron and an item giving credence to a satirical organization called "Communists for Kerry" were posted on the Fox website, no one seemed too upset. 

Thompson: This has absolutely astounded me. I knew it wouldn't get the coverage Rather got, but the silence has been deafening. I'd like to know where the "liberal media" was when this story came out, because the networks and newspapers should have been all over it. The Rather story was a bigger story. But what Carl Cameron did was make up bogus information. While I'm sure he didn't mean for it to go on the website, he shouldn't have been writing it in the newsroom and he certainly shouldn't have put it some place where there was a possibility it would get up as legitimate news. The "Communists for Kerry" thing got barely a peep. It could be the fact that networks are so paranoid about claims of being on the left that they're afraid to make anything of it.

City: That's possible. Locally, our PBS station has refused to carry "Democracy Now!," a show hosted by a liberal, Amy Goodman. But they did recently pick up a show hosted by conservative, Tucker Carlson.

Thompson: The organizations that feel most vulnerable to the attack are being very careful that they don't do things that get them painted by that brush, and that's not a good criterion on which to make decisions.

City: Even the New York Times' Public Editor, Daniel Okrent,declared recently that the Times seemed to favor a left-tilting view. My reaction was, whatever happened to aiming for the truth wherever it lies?

Thompson: There are going to be times in history where to tell the truth you are going to have to tell a lot of stories on one political side or the other. For example, if you counted the number of headlines saying bad things about Republicans during the Watergate era, I suppose you would come to the conclusion that the media was a vast Democratic conspiracy to get the President and that would not be the proper conclusion. Similar kinds of things may be going on now when a war was entered into with a number of problems that are now confessed to and that stuff has to get reported. If, in fact, you can create an environment where you make the other side afraid of being accused of bias and their hands get tied, that's a bad thing.

City: We live in an age of corporate media domination, companies like Clear Channel Communications and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. And before they backed off due to a tremendous public outcry, it seemed obvious that Michael Powell and the FCC were happy to give unlimited control of the public airwaves to whoever had the most money.

Thompson: Until the Super Bowl, the tradition over at the FCC was to let the marketplace have free reign. Then a very interesting thing happened. And it got so confusing, you needed a scorecard to figure out which side you should take. The tendency had been toward deregulation. However, the people who want less government, the one place they don't want to give free reign to is the media, because that's the place they consider to be opposite their ideology --- too much sex and bad language. So after the Super Bowl regulation was OK, not about ownership, but content.

City: You're talking about Janet Jackson's breast; lately it's been about Howard Stern's mouth.

Thompson: The hue and cry over the Super Bowl was juvenile --- the idea that people cuddled up with their families and read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and turned on the Super Bowl... It's a sport with people bashing into each other, the commercials are highly suggestive, and there are people gambling and drinking in living rooms all over America.

When it comes to Howard Stern, we do have indecency rules, whether or not one agrees with them. When they decided to go after the most vulnerable places, morning radio, what they found was, if we've got indecency rules --- even though indecency is difficult to define --- most rational people would say that some of what Howard Stern does is indecent. He probably belongs where he's going, satellite radio.

When we got to the point where the networks were cutting scenes from NYPD Blue and ER and putting down directives that seemed to roll back language requirements to pre-All In The Family, that was disturbing. The good old marketplace came in and put a stop to that. There hasn't been a lot of change. Desperate Housewives was the number one show in America last week; almost 22 million people watched it and forgot everything that happened after the Super Bowl.

City: With satellite radio and cable television, is the media becoming so fragmented, with more and more choices, that people are just preaching to the choir and fewer of us are allowing a different point of view to creep into our consciousness?

Thompson: I think that's the biggest cultural story of the new century. We used to have a situation where everybody fed from the same cultural trough. This started with network radio in the late-1920s, it continued in a bigger way when TV came on to the scene in the late-1940s. Because everybody, for a couple of hours a week, no matter what your race or economic status was, fed from the same place, it forced you to occasionally encounter things that you didn't agree with and forced you to occasionally change your mind.

You now have an opportunity to go to a place which reports the news in ways that you find comforting and tells you what you already believe. That's a potentially dangerous thing. Some of the important stories that made the golden age of broadcast journalism what it was in the 1960s and early-1970s --- Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement --- it was important that everybody was hearing that stuff and I think a lot of people came around because they heard stuff that they might not have been comfortable with.

City: What's your take on the idea that many young people get their news from "The Daily Show"?

Thompson: A lot of them do and given what we've seen in the last few months, you could do a lot worse than The Daily Show. If they get their news only from late-night comedy, that's a bad thing, but as a supplementary source, it's good. The Daily Show occasionally does things that CNN and CBS ought to be doing, in finding clips and putting them together. If journalism is the fourth estate that keeps the powers of government in check, good political comedy is the fifth estate, keeping journalistic power in check.

City: Come to think of it, which is more ridiculous, Jon Stewart's satirical take on the news or people in the spin room after the first debate saying, "George Bush did a great job" when he was clearly creamed?

Thompson: My favorite Daily Show moment was when Ted Koppel was going to read the names of those who died in Iraq. One of their correspondents rants about how partisan, biased, and unfair this was. Jon interrupts and says, "But Steve, it's just the names and the pictures; these are facts." He says, "That's just it, Jon, the facts are biased!"

That was one of the most trenchant statements I've heard in a long time, and it gets back to what you said before; sometimes the truth appears to be biased because it goes against one party or the other.

City: It also might be tricky to tell young people there are more trustworthy news sources when pundits like Paul Begala and James Carville sign on as advisors to the Kerry Campaign while maintaining their roles on CNN's "Crossfire."

Thompson: The bottom line is we can't expect this problem to be solved on the other side of the camera. We need an educated populace. One thing I give Fox credit for is stirring up a debate about media credibility. They have raised the consciousness of a lot of people who used to watch Walter Cronkite every night and when he said, "That's the way it is," they believed it. In some cases it's had a negative effect, but Fox has made the average viewer a little more savvy about that kind of thing.

I've been saying for 25 years that we ought to put media literacy into our schools. We teach people how to read, write, and do math, basic skills they need to do battle with the world. After several centuries that curriculum may need some additions. How to gather and interpret journalism is a really important skill we ought to start teaching kids very early.

City: So they don't they take what they see at face value...

Thompson: Right. Every kid ought to know who owns the Fox News Channel, who owns ABC, who Dan Rather's boss is. Everybody ought to know who the basic players are and how the corporate structure works. They ought to know what you just said about Begala.

City: Speaking of education, you mentioned the tendency of liberals to make nuanced statements. We get complicated explanations from Kerry about why he voted one way before voting another way, which actually make sense if you take the trouble to listen. But conservatives stick with simplistic mantras like: "Flip-flop." Are we so dumbed-down that simplistic statements carry the day?

Thompson: That's part of it. In the last several years conservatives have been better at rhetoric. They've been able to get a message out and hammer it home. Democrats haven't figured out how to do it. We're in a part of our history where it's easier for conservatives to do. The 1960s and 1970s were about diversity and that kind of thing and now there's a backlash, a return to "family values." Abstinence, period. No swearing in broadcasting, period. That stuff is really easy to package in clearly repeatable statements that appeal to a lot of people. It's much harder on the other side to create an easily repeatable statement when you're going through "If this, then that" and the rest of it.

City: On the day of Sept. 11, 2001 the media showed people jumping from the towers. For a few weeks afterwards, it was common to see footage of the second plane crashing into the tower. These images seem to have been largely banished by mutual agreement. Should they have been?

Thompson: When it first happened it was so outside our realm of experience and I think some people thought it was sick and perverse that it was played over and over. But I think one needed to see it over and over to get it into one's psyche. I also believe it was OK to show the people jumping from the buildings because you showed the buildings going down with a colossal loss of life in the abstract. They're buildings; you don't see the people.

But then we somehow wanted to clean up the event by not showing the real human beings in the building having to react. I hope little kids didn't see it --- it was horrible --- but it was certainly part of the story. We see it in the anniversary commemorations and certainly I don't think we should erase these images from collective memory. I think the collective decision not to show them on political commercials is probably an issue of taste.

City: But we've also cleaned up the images we see of war.

Thompson: Carnage is one of the things that war manufactures, no matter how good of a war it is. And if wars are being fought on our behalf as citizens, journalists are responsible to show us what that means. To try to clean up a war by not showing the one thing that is most distinct about it, which is that it kills people, I've never fallen on that side.

If I were a news editor, I'd include that, but what happens if I get a beheading tape? Would I include that? I think I wouldn't. Essentially these are industrial videos being sent to us by people who want them to be shown. And just like I'm not going to show an industrial video that GM sends me on my news broadcast, I'm not going to show the other one either.

City: I recently watched the short documentary in which Amy Goodman shows what CNN International broadcast in terms of war casualties, as opposed to the sanitized version shown on CNN here. The world is getting a far different view of us than we are getting of ourselves. It makes for a more jingoistic society, and we can't imagine why people hate us. It becomes a gigantic global issue.

Thompson: And it's only going to become more and more important. It may be that satellite television comes a little bit to the rescue here because more people are able to see more of this stuff. I can get a few Canadian stations and even that little difference is a very enlightening experience. I think it would be good if people include in their diversified portfolio of information coverage of this stuff from other nations, knowing full well that they have their own ethnocentric, jingoistic point of view.

City: You're prescribing a diversified media diet while people are happy to just gorge on Fox candy.

Thompson: Yeah, in many ways we're talking ancient philosophy here. But there's a certain optimism I've felt lately. Everybody complains about the blurring of entertainment and politics. I have no problem with that. I think a healthy republic would find politics entertaining. We should be going to movies and watching TV shows about politics. We ought to find our political process every bit as interesting as cops and forensic investigations, genres that have dominated television.

I'd love to see not one West Wing but five of those shows like you've got five Law & Orders. I like the fact that more comedies are spending time on political stuff, the fact that a documentary about the war can be something where people buy popcorn and bring a date. I'd like to see six documentaries from all sides of the political spectrum. People are engaging in politics and it's penetrating our entertainment, penetrating our lifestyle, and that's a good thing. We've all got a lot at stake in this.

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