Red Meat

June 7, 2008

This morning at the National Conference for Media Reform, the people got what they’d been waiting for. Longtime PBS journalist Bill Moyers gave a keynote on the state of American media, and he didn’t disappoint the 3,000 in attendance.

Moyers is an old-fashioned Texas populist, working the same territory as the late Molly Ivins. Although his approach is more serious and less satiric, you might be surprised at how bluntly he addressed his topic: the danger to democracy from media consolidation.

Corporate media “refuses to speak the truth while our country is being plundered,” he said. “The dominant media are embedded in the power structure of our country.”

“Without a truly free press, this 250-year-old experiment in self-governance will not make it,” Moyers warned. “As journalism goes, so goes democracy.”

In his 45-minute address, Moyers was quietly passionate as he made his case against media consolidation and the profit imperative that has led the traditional media to cut journalists and give more space to “trivia, propaganda and entertainment.” It’s a case that many media critics have been making for years, but Moyers’ professorial demeanor and intelligent delivery lends it a particular credence.

I think I’ll disagree with one aspect of his speech, though. He touched on the subject of branded content and warned of the mixture of advertisement and information. “Imagine the Camel News Caravan returning as a branded YouTube channel,” Moyers said.

The Camel News Caravan was one of the first regular, national nightly news broadcasts. Hosted by John Cameron Swayze (at right), it appeared on NBC from 1949 to 1956. The early days of television news, of course, have long been remembered by commentators as a golden era in which the networks put content before profit. The sainted Edward R. Murrow was at CBS and news divisions were prestigious loss leaders. It doesn’t seem, in hindsight, as if Camel’s sponsorship of the news led to any ill effects.

If some corporation today actually did sponsor a YouTube channel or other programming, I don’t see what harm it would do. There’s so much content competing for attention that the sponsored programming would rise or fall on its own merits. Granted, if an Archer Daniels Midland, for example, decided to sponsor a YouTube channel devoted to the wonders of genetically modified food, it would probably not contain much content from opponents. But ADM already has many avenues for getting its message out, and its opponents now arguably have more opportunities than ever to counter that message.

If net neutrality is maintained and the average person continues to have unhindered access to the Internet, then I think the playing field will be more level than it’s been since the days of Thomas Paine and the colonial pamphleteers.