Friday, February 27, 2004

A Few Thoughts on Media Access & Democracy

The conversations and coverage are at fever pitch just now, in this election year, and I see a single (though quite complicated) thread running through much of it: how do democracy and access to the media megaphone relate to one another?

The Super Bowl halftime fiasco, coming in the middle of a presidential race, had the effect of forcing the issue of the tide of crap culture washing over us. If you can't escape it even in the one remaining program that much of the nation still shares in these days of fragmented TV, where can you? Howard Dean dismissed the resulting uproar as a silly sideshow taking up oxygen from more important issues, as did many intellectuals and thinking folk, and I understand their point and even partly agree. But I also think they utterly failed to understand how this single outrage served as a useful last-straw focal point for tens of millions of Americans who are tired of all the crap shoveled at them from every direction in this culture and don't want to put up with it any longer. Clinton, with his high-frequency political antenna and educated gut, would have understood that immediately. Dean didn't, which was just one more reason why his campaign ran out of gas with average people otherwise inclined to like his message.

In any event, the Super Bowl incident has now given rise to radio giant Clear Channel's decision to install a no-tolerance policy for shock jocks (among the main offending polluters of the crap culture) carried on its stations. That's got Jeff Jarvis, a nationally influential blogger and Stern fan about whom I've written before, in high snit. He went off yesterday about how it means "the death of broadcast." And the reactions have been overwhelming--that entry drew 219 comments (and counting) from his readers. As a freedom of expression purist, he's upset about the opening this provides for the usual suspects to go after anything they don't like, and I can partly sympathize. But in the end, I'm even more eager for the country to begin to have a real dialogue about how we can intelligently deal with verbal and visual pollution just as we've dealt with dirt in our air and water. And Howard Stern and his open sewer of a show is as guilty of fouling up our culture as any giant, pre-Clean Air Act chemical company ever was.

But don't be fooled into thinking that the FCC's Michael Powell is on the side of the angels here. He's merely using this issue to try to win back some small shred of his reputation, lost by being a shill for giant conglomerates that want to further merge, giving us fewer voices. Time columnist Joe Klein, in this recent column, talks about "television's ability to lobotomize democracy," an apt phrase. It has already done that, and sometimes I despair over how there seems almost no way to reverse that toxic grip the medium has over everything, the way it seems to infect everything it touches.

But then something comes along to renew my spirits and remind me that we can indeed take our country back, one step at a time, one angry and organized citizen connecting with other similarly angered citizens. My friend Mike Quinn did that for me not long ago. While enjoying my coffee and Times at Talkies cafe one Saturday morning, warming myself before the roaring fire, I bumped into Mike and his wife, who had been shopping at the West Side Market. It wasn't long before the talk turned to local TV. Mike and his wife, newly empty nesters with the last of their children away at college, have relocated to the Shaker Square area, and love it for its convenience and cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Which is why Mike became especially incensed over some typically reductionist, cartoonish Fox-8 coverage of a routine robbery there. The idiot "reporter" used the Rapid station as a backdrop, suggesting that these kinds of crimes are made easier with the use of a new-style getaway car--a Rapid train. "Police say this guy could be from anywhere. That's because the train drops people off and picks people up right near the apartment complex (where the robbery occurred)." Mike's anger was almost volcanic--for a moment, I was concerned he might bust a blood vessel or two. He seemed to treat that as almost a blood libel on urbanism and anyone who chose to live in a non-suburban setting (and Shaker Square devotees are understandably touchy these days about its mounting difficulties). He later showed me a copy of an angry email he sent to the station and the PD, its cadences thundering like passages from the Old Testament, demanding an answer, and threatening to file complaints with the FCC and anyone else he could think of. It helped that video production is his business; he knows how to skillfully deconstruct the message. "He had NO EVIDENCE that the Rapid had ANY INVOLVEMENT in the crime. What does he think anyway? That someone is going to take the Rapid to Shaker Square, commit a crime, and then wait for the next car out? That kind of reporting is totally irresponsible, to put the idea in people's minds that the Rapid Transit has anything to do with making Shaker Square more unsafe than other neighborhoods. Has the jackass ever heard of buses? They can bring outsiders into virtually ANY neighborhood--except probably the one he lives in!"

For a moment, I was reminded of the iconic moment in the prophetic 1976 movie Network, where the Howard Beale character thunders to the heavens (and cameras), "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" At his best, Howard Dean had some of that quality too (as does Bill Moyers and Charles Lewis), a focused anger about all of the petty and not-so-petty outrages that have combined to leave the average American feeling as though he or she no longer has any say in the affairs of their country. And while his campaign may have gone away, his widely shared anger hasn't and won't. Mike's beef with local TV--increasingly an open sewer whose formulaic pretty-warehouse-fire-signifying-nothing/I-Team-gotcha-"investigation"/tightly-focused-shot-of-poor-inner-city-black coverage got me to thinking about a possible new grassroots line of attack on this cancer that subtly saps a community's spirit. We don't have to stand for it. It's time to get in people's faces...


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