All Kobe, all the time

Why don't environmental stories get covered? Because the giant media conglomerates -- with the help of the Bush administration -- have abandoned any notion of civic responsibility.

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Published August 24, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

For the last couple of years I've traveled around the country on an informal speaking tour, sounding the alarm about George W. Bush's record on the environment. I've spoken to hundreds of audiences, including conservative women's groups; public school teachers; civic, religious and business groups; trade associations; farm organizations; rural coalitions; and colleges. As I talk about the plundering of our shared heritage, I urge these Americans to help protect the air and water, landscapes and wildlife, that enrich our nation and inform our character and values.

The universally positive response to my speeches confirms national polls that consistently show strong support for environmental protection across party lines.

But I invariably hear the same refrain from audiences: "Why haven't I heard any of this before? Why aren't the environmentalists getting the word out?" The fact is, there is no lack of effort on our part to inform the public, but we often hit a stone wall: the media. They are simply unwilling to cover environmental issues.

To some extent this has always been true. In 1963, President Kennedy and Sen. Gaylord Nelson made a cross-country tour to alert Americans to the environmental crisis. In speech after speech Kennedy warned that air and water pollution, species extinction and pesticide poisoning were threats to our nation's future. But as he later complained to Nelson, the press asked only about national defense or power politics and never mentioned the environment in its stories. In fact, it was Nelson's experience on that trip that inspired him to organize the first Earth Day eight years later.

Now the crisis that President Kennedy predicted is upon us. Ocean fisheries have dropped to 10 percent of their 1950s levels, the earth is warming, the ice caps and glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. Asthma rates in this country are doubling every five years. Industrial polluters have made most of the country's fish too poisonous to eat. The world is now experiencing extinctions of species at a rate that rivals the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Nearly 3 billion people lack sufficient fresh water for basic needs, and over 1 billion are threatened with starvation from desertification. Hundreds of millions of desperate people have been displaced by environmental disasters; the presence of these refugees puts added pressure on the local ecology, often leading to wars and further environmental degradation. All this at a time when our president is engaged in the radical destruction of 30 years of environmental law. These things are certainly newsworthy.

Yet it's hard to find much mention of this in the press. The Tyndall Report, which analyzes television content, surveyed environmental stories on TV news for 2002. Of the 15,000 minutes of network news that aired that year, only 4 percent was devoted to the environment, and many of those minutes were consumed by human-interest stories -- whales trapped in sea ice or a tiger that escaped from the zoo.

Why is the media barely covering such a vital public policy issue? Why isn't it informing the public and providing Americans the news they need in order to be effective citizens?

From the birth of the broadcasting industry, the airwaves -- from which most Americans obtain their news -- were regarded and regulated as a public trust, a communal resource like the air and water. The Federal Radio Act of 1927 required that broadcasters, as a condition of their licenses, operate in the "public interest" by covering important policy issues and providing equal time to both sides of public questions. Those requirements evolved into the powerful Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that the broadcast media has a duty to maintain an informed public. Among other things, broadcasters had to air children's and community-based programming, and the rules were weighted to encourage diversity of ownership and local control. The Fairness Doctrine governed television and radio for most of the 20th century.

In the 1960s the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the courts applied the Fairness Doctrine to require cigarette manufacturers to include the surgeon general's warnings in their TV and radio advertisements, and polluters to notify the public when advertising a polluting product. Advertisers of gas-guzzling automobiles, for example, had to provide rebuttal time for public interest advocates to debate the impact of wasteful fuel consumption on our environment and public health. According to media commentator Bill Moyers, "The clear intent was to prevent a monopoly of commercial values from overwhelming democratic values -- to assure that the official view of reality -- corporate or government -- was not the only view of reality that reached the people." The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Fairness Doctrine in the Red Lion case in 1969, confirming that it is "the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."

Then, in 1988, Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine as a favor to the big studio heads that had supported his election. The occasion was a case involving a Syracuse, N.Y., television station that had broadcast nine paid editorials advocating the construction of a nuclear power plant. When the station refused to air opposing viewpoints, an anti-nuke group complained. The three Reagan appointees who ran the FCC sided with the TV station, applying the same laissez-faire philosophy to the airwaves as the Reagan team did to the other parts of the common. They reasoned that the recent proliferation of cable TV allays the "Supreme Court's apparent concern that listeners and viewers have access to diverse sources of information." Broadcasters would henceforth be under no obligation to air views that opposed their own.

Reagan's FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, scoffed at critics' concerns that the loss of the nation's most popular open forum diminished our democracy. "Television," he said, "is just another appliance -- it's a toaster with pictures." A horrified Congress reacted with legislation codifying the Fairness Doctrine, but President Reagan vetoed the bills. The FCC's pro-industry, anti-regulatory philosophy effectively ended the right of access to broadcast television by any but the moneyed interests.

As an unregulated part of the commons, TV and radio are today subject to the same dynamic that is polluting our other public trust assets, with behemoths consolidating control of and contaminating the airwaves.

One-sided and often dishonest broadcasting has replaced the evenhanded reporting mandated by the Fairness Doctrine. The right-wing radio conglomerate Clear Channel, which in 1995 operated 40 radio stations, today owns over 1,200 stations and controls 11 percent of the market. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is the largest media conglomerate on the planet, one of seven media giants that own or control virtually all of the United States' 2,000 TV stations, 11,000 radio stations, and 11,000 newspapers and magazines. And, predictably, these media corporations have the White House's support. Despite congressional mandates for diversity of ownership and local control, the number of corporations that control our media is shrinking dramatically.

This consolidation reduces diversity, gives consumers limited and homogenized choices, and erodes local control. Radio stations play the same music, giving little opportunity for new or alternative artists. North Dakota farmers can't get local emergency broadcasts or crop reports, and New York City residents no longer have a country radio station. Corporate consolidation has reduced news broadcast quality and has dramatically diminished the inquisitiveness of our national press.

To meet the challenges of the future, the United States needs an open marketplace of ideas. As fewer companies own more and more properties, that marketplace is withering. TV stations are no longer controlled by people primarily engaged in their communities, and news bureaus are no longer run by newspeople. Driven solely by the profit motive, many of these companies have liquidated their investigative journalism units, documentary teams and foreign bureaus to shave expenses. Americans must now tune in to the BBC to get quality foreign news. Local news coverage is also shrinking, as owners cut corners by consolidating newsrooms. Coverage at the Louisiana Statehouse in Baton Rouge is typical: In 1970 there were five investigative reporters assigned to the Capitol beat. Today there are none. Not a single reporter from a national news outlet is currently assigned to cover the U.S. Department of Interior.

I recently asked Fox News president Roger Ailes why the networks don't cover environmental stories. Roger is an old friend with whom I spent a summer camping in Africa almost 30 years ago. He is jovial, animated and genuinely funny, and we loathe each other's politics. After considering the question for a moment, he said, "It's because environmental stories are not fast-breaking!" News, it seems, has to be entertaining because that's what sells.

The networks are contaminating the airwaves with high-profile murders and celebrity gossip, leaving ever-diminishing time for real news. They've dumbed down the news to its lowest common denominator. It's all Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant all the time. Notorious crimes and sex scandals have little real relevance to our lives, our country, our democracy. At best, they are entertainment; at worst, pornography. The Monica Lewinsky story got such play in part because it was an excuse to deal pornography packaged as news. That stuff may sell papers, but it leaves little room for the asthma stories, for news that really affects our lives.

But Roger Ailes' response omitted another factor: Environmental stories often challenge a network's ideology or corporate self-interest. Many major media outlets are controlled by companies that have a vested interest in keeping environmental disasters under wraps: NBC is owned by General Electric, the world's biggest polluter, with a world record 86 Superfund sites. Until three years ago, CBS was owned by Westinghouse, which has 39 Superfund sites. Westinghouse is also the world's largest owner of nuclear power plants and the third-largest manufacturer of nuclear weapons.

In 2003, the North American winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the "Nobel Prize for grassroots work," were former Fox TV reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson. The two investigative reporters claim that they lost their jobs at Tampa's Fox-owned WTVT when they refused to doctor a news report that had displeased Monsanto. The reporters had visited regional dairies and discovered that Monsanto's controversial bovine growth hormone (BGH) was being injected into cows by virtually every dairyman in the region. The chemical was present in virtually all the state's milk supply, despite commitments by Florida's supermarkets not to sell milk tainted by the hormone. In various studies BGH has been linked to cancer and is banned by many countries, including Canada, New Zealand and the entire European community. Akre and Wilson's report said that Monsanto had been accused of fraud in connection with information it had provided to the EPA concerning dioxin, published deceitful statements about food safety, and funded favorable studies about the product from tame scientists. The newscast also reported on allegations that Monsanto had attempted to bribe public officials in Canada.

According to the reporters, WTVT carefully reviewed the team's four-part investigation for factual accuracy and heavily advertised the series on radio. It planned to release the story during television sweeps week beginning Feb. 24, 1997. The day before the airing, however, the station yanked the shows after Monsanto hired a powerful law firm to complain to Roger Ailes. Wilson and Akre testified that the local station manager again reviewed the reports, found no errors, and scheduled them to run the following week. The station also offered Monsanto an opportunity to appear on the show and respond. Monsanto declined the offer and fired off another threatening letter to Ailes. Wilson and Akre claim that the station manager, David Boylan, ordered the reporters to edit the show in a way that was deceptive but favorable to Monsanto. "For every fact we intended to broadcast, we had documentation six weeks from Sunday," Wilson told me. "The station's lawyer told us time and again, 'You don't get it. It doesn't matter what the facts are. We don't want to be spending money to defend a lawsuit.'" According to Wilson, the station was also worried about losing advertisers and had received calls from a grocery-chain and dairy-industry interests.

According to their subsequent lawsuit, Boylan threatened to fire Wilson and Akre "within 48 hours" if they declined to cooperate in the deception. He subsequently softened this position, they testified, offering to lay off both reporters with full salaries for their contract period, provided they agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement. For nine months they worked on 83 different drafts of the story -- none of which satisfied Fox or Monsanto. Akre testified that the station had tried to force her to say that the BGH milk was safe and no different from non-BGH milk, despite abundant studies that showed otherwise. "We told them to go ahead and kill the story," Wilson says, "just don't make us lie." Boylan eventually fired the reporters in December 1997, and they sued Fox. In August 2000, following a five-month trial, a Florida jury awarded Akre $425,000 under Florida's private-sector whistleblower's statute, which prohibits retaliation against employees who threaten to disclose employer conduct that is "in violation of a law, rule or regulation." The jury found that Akre had been fired "because she threatened to disclose to the Federal Communications Commission under oath in writing the broadcast of a false, distorted, or slanted news report that she reasonably believed would violate the prohibition against intentional fabrications or distortions of the news on television."

But the story does not have an ending that is happy for Akre and Wilson, or for American democracy. On Feb. 14, 2003, the Florida District Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict. The bizarre decision adopted Fox's argument that the FCC's 50-year-old News Distortion Rule, which prohibits the broadcast of false reports, does not qualify as a "law, rule or regulation," as required by the whistleblower's statute, since it had been created over the years in decisions by FCC judges and never promulgated in a rule-making process.

Five major networks filed amicus curiae briefs supporting Fox's argument. This decision effectively declared it legal for networks to lie in news reports to please their advertisers. Judge Patricia Kelly, the Jeb Bush-appointed district judge who wrote the opinion, next remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Akre and Wilson should reimburse Fox for $1.7 million in legal fees. The argument is taking place this month. "What reporter is going to challenge a network that orders him to cover up for polluters or companies that abuse workers or engage in health and safety violations if the station can retaliate by suing the reporter to oblivion the way the courts are letting them do to us?" asks Wilson.

It should come as no surprise that a virtual media blackout greeted Akre and Wilson's reception of the Goldman Prize; their story has been largely ignored by the mainstream press. "The news today is far more about the business of journalism than the journalism business," Akre complained to me. Wilson observed that "if you own a newspaper or a printing press, you can lie to your heart's content. But if you are using the public airwaves, you have an obligation to be fair, accurate and truthful, even in circumstances where it's going to piss off your advertisers, embarrass your friends, or hurt your bottom line -- otherwise you're violating the public trust and stealing something vital from the public."

Not long ago, people scoffed at the suggestion that a network's corporate owner would censor news out of self-interest. That can't happen in America, right? But times have changed. Everybody saw how CBS genuflected to the right wing and the Republican National Committee to pull a docudrama that was critical of Ronald Reagan. (CBS's hypervigilance, of course, did not apply to Janet Jackson's naked breast.) The Reagan show was tasteless and historically inaccurate, but that's never stopped CBS from airing similar shows about other prominent political figures. Despite having the highest-rated show on his network, Phil Donahue got sacked by MSNBC because of his liberal philosophy. MSNBC replaced him with a right-wing bigot, Michael Savage.

The corporate bias infects nearly every major news outlet. Michael Eisner has said that he doesn't want ABC News to report critically on Disney, its parent company. In May 2004, Eisner canceled distribution of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- a screed against George W. Bush. According to Moore's agent, Ari Emmanuel, Eisner feared that Gov. Jeb Bush would rescind tax breaks now granted to the company's Florida theme parks. What about behemoths like GE, which has subsidiaries with financial stakes in myriad public policy debates from war to pollution?

I have considerable personal experience with corporate censorship. Charles Grodin often reminds me that I got him fired from the best job he ever had -- as a nightly talk-show host on MSNBC. On Nov. 11, 1996, Grodin had me on his show to plug my book "Riverkeepers." Unlike the more seasoned MSNBC and NBC hosts, he allowed me to talk at length about the record of the network's parent company, GE. I talked about GE's massive pollution of the Hudson River, about the fact that GE owns more Superfund sites than any other company, and that, thanks to GE pollution, hundreds of fishermen were now jobless, while then-CEO Jack Welch took home an $85 million salary plus bonuses.

A few months later his bosses canceled the show so suddenly that Grodin didn't even get to say goodbye. In a postmortem column, New York Newsday journalist Marvin Kitman mourned the surprise sacking of Grodin, which he attributed to my interview. Kitman commented that my appearance "was the longest attack on a General Electric-owned network on GE for polluting the Hudson" and lamented that Grodin "was one of the things that was good about TV, a genuine original, the closest thing we had to an Oscar Levant in this age of mellow-mouth talk-show hosts." According to Grodin, Ralph Nader called Jack Welch to protest the sacking, but Welch never returned the call.

I regularly run afoul of corporate censors and bean counters who decide television content. In November 2003, when environmentalists around the country were engaged in fighting the Cheney energy bill, the NRDC was anxiously trying to get me airtime because no one was talking about the bill on TV. Fox TV host Bill O'Reilly agreed to schedule me, but only with the explicit proviso that I wouldn't say critical things about George W. Bush. I would first have to do a pre-interview to make sure I was capable of talking about the environment without bad-mouthing the president. Later, Fox decided that even this was too chancy; they would just tape the show, rather than risk me going off the reservation on live TV. The same week, Tom Brokaw, a committed environmentalist and fly fisherman, scheduled me for a segment on "NBC Nightly News" -- but the producers bumped me for yet another Michael Jackson story.

I was most disappointed by Aaron Brown of CNN. When Ted Turner owned the network, CNN was a bastion of environmental reporting in the wasteland of network news shows. Turner employed an environmental specialist, Barbara Pyle, as a full-time advocate for environmental programming. But CNN then became an AOL Time Warner property, and on the day I was scheduled to appear, one of Brown's producers called to cancel the interview. Brown, she said, was aware of my criticism of the president's environmental record and was canceling my appearance because he didn't want any "Bush bashing" on his show. Brown, too, substituted the interview with me for a segment on Michael Jackson's sex scandal.

I was at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the next morning to give a speech. As I waited for the elevator, I read the Journalist's Creed from the plaque in the foyer:

"I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another's instructions or another's dividends; that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service."

Sleazy scoundrels like Steven Griles and Jeffrey Holmstead or medicine-show fakirs like John Graham make the endlessly broadcast Clinton-Whitewater scandal look like a Sunday-school romp, yet they are invisible in the press. "The networks are owned by big corporations and they're mainly Republican," DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe recently complained to me. "It's a heavy lift getting them to cover corporate control issues or to criticize a Republican president."

Public-interest advocates can't criticize corporations on the airwaves even when they have the money. learned this lesson when they tried unsuccessfully to air an ad criticizing President Bush's corporate coddling during the Super Bowl. In 2003, when Laurie David and Arianna Huffington's "Detroit Project" attempted to air paid advertisements touting automobile fuel efficiency, the networks, which make $15 billion annually from the auto industry, refused to carry the ads. "They wouldn't run them," Huffington told me. "And we ended basically not being able to use the money that was budgeted to buy airtime." Huffington turned to Laurie David, a former David Letterman producer whose husband, Larry David, created "Seinfeld" and the popular series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "I met with Lloyd Braun, the president of ABC," David told me, "and brought the commercial up there to see if they could run the ads. He pretty much laughed me out of the office. He said, 'We have three offices. We have an office in Los Angeles, we have an office in New York City, and our third office is in Detroit.' There was no way he was going to put something on his network that might piss off the auto industry."

When George W. Bush arrived at the White House, there was still one significant media law in place: No media company was allowed to dominate any one particular market. But Bush's FCC is looking sideways while the media giants violate this restriction. FCC regulations prohibit ownership of more than eight radio stations in a single market. A recent study of 337 cities by the Center for Public Integrity found giant corporations owning more than eight stations in 34 of them. Clear Channel is the big kahuna, with 11 of the 17 radio stations in Mansfield, Ohio. Second in size after Clear Channel is right-wing Cumulus Media, which enforced skinhead-style censorship when it blackballed the Dixie Chicks for criticizing President Bush. Cumulus owns 8 of the 15 stations in Albany, Ga. In every city surveyed, a single company owns at least one-third of the radio outlets.

The TV companies are engaged in the same shenanigans. The FCC rule that forbids ownership of more than one TV station in any market has been broken in 43 cities surveyed by the Center for Public Integrity. Recently, for example, Fox's affiliate in Wilmington, N.C., was purchased by a company that turns out to be a sister subsidiary of the company that already owns the NBC affiliate. They fired staff and combined newsrooms, so now one media company controls two of Wilmington's three stations.

When Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought Chris Craft's TV stations and Viacom merged with CBS in 2000, both companies were suddenly violating FCC rules prohibiting a single entity from owning stations reaching over 35 percent of the national audience. The FCC, now chaired by merger-maniac Michael Powell, solved the problem by handing both companies temporary waivers. Then the FCC tried to make the waivers permanent by raising the limit on market share. This new FCC rollback will unleash the largest wave of media consolidation in U.S. history. The new rules allow gigantic media conglomerates to buy television stations reaching 45 percent of the nation's viewers and to own newspaper, radio and television stations in the same city.

Chairman Powell, Secretary of State Colin Powell's son, conducted his rule-making proceedings in virtual secrecy, confining debate to a single public hearing in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 27, 2003. Not surprisingly, it received very little attention from the TV networks. The big newspaper chains -- the New York Times, Knight Ridder and Gannett -- enjoying their own unprecedented consolidations and creating their own plans to enter the television market -- all but blacked out coverage as well. In June 2003, Powell and his two Republican commissioners announced the deal as a fait accompli.

But Powell's corporate sop ignited a firestorm as conservatives, frightened by the prospect of monolithic corporate control of the nation's fundamental freedom, joined liberals in protest. Sen. John McCain pointed out that a similar media consolidation had subverted Russia's new democracy. Conservative columnist William Safire campaigned in favor of bipartisan legislation in the Senate to kill the deal. Public pressure forced Powell to reopen the process and hold open meetings in cities across the United States. A record 2.4 million people wrote letters opposing the rollbacks, recognizing what George W. Bush and Michael Powell apparently do not -- that the control of our media by a half-dozen powerful multinationals who can dictate what we hear, see and read is dangerous for our communities, our families and our democracy.

The Senate voted to stop the deal, and the House had sufficient votes to do the same. But the White House, working with Tom DeLay, the media moguls and their lobbyists, blocked the vote. Fortunately, in June the federal court of appeals in Philadelphia rejected the FCC's rollbacks, citing a lack of "reasoned analysis," and directed the agency to start over.

Nevertheless, absent a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine, our nation's broadcast media, which should be an open forum for our democracy, will continue to devolve into a marketplace exclusively for commerce. It allows these corporations to extend the reach of their empires into American homes with customized, interactive multimedia content hell-bent on transforming us into 24-hour-a-day consumers. The so-called news and entertainment content will be dictated by advertisers with personalized appeals calculated to program us to buy, buy, buy. Meanwhile, our civic life, already invisible on TV, will become an irrelevant relic to the next generation, which will know little about the issues or why they should participate in democracy.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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