The debate between progressives and corporatists over the state of the mass media goes like this—the former say fewer and fewer giant media conglomerates control more of the print and electronic outlets while the latter respond by saying there has never been more choices for listeners (radio), viewers (television) and readers (magazines, newsletters and newspapers combined).
Progressives add that half a dozen big companies, which control so many media, lead to a sameness of entertainment, news and advertisement overload. Corporatists counter by saying that there are more and more specialized media available for just about every taste in the audience.
I want to take a different approach here from my personal experience with the fourth estate and appearing before national audiences. There has been a non-stop decline in access for serious subjects of contemporary importance, especially those topics that challenge corporate power.
Starting in the mid-Sixties until the nineteen eighties, the major daytime television entertainment shows were open to people with causes and authors with books. The Mike Douglas Show had me and my associates on during programs that featured high-profile entertainers such as John Lennon and the Jacksons. So did the Merv Griffin Show and others of a lesser note.
The Phil Donahue Show opened to national debate one controversial issue after another—women’s liberation, consumer labor, environmental, gay-lesbian, anti-war, education, race and verboten diseases. Still Phil managed his share of titillating breakthroughs, including male strippers, along with the staples of fashion shows and celebrities.
No more. Replacing these shows are the sado-masochistic bizzaro shows like Jerry Springer’s show or the warm and cuddly Oprah presentations or the middle ground parade of entertainment and celebrity performances such as Montel Williams’ Show. There is virtually no chance of even getting one’s calls returned; the producers have their formulae for shows on a revolving turnstile and need no further suggestions.
Montel Williams used to have a consumer advice show once in a while on matters that shoppers really care about—whether they relate to health, child safety or widely experienced rip-offs in the marketplace. Now, someone as towering and communicative as Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen cannot even get on these shows, including Oprah’s, when he releases his spectacular new editions of Worst Pills Best Pills.
During the Eighties and early Nineties, Dr. Wolfe would take his life-saving, massive, inexpensive book onto the Donahue Show. There, in a gripping interaction with Phil and patients in the audience, he would communicate to millions how to use the information. He showed how to avoid drugs with bad side effects on select drugs with few side effects, though all were approved by the Food and Drug Administration for dozens of ailments such as high blood pressure, chronic pain, colds, allergies, diabetes, infections, osteoporosis, vitamin deficiencies, depression, heart conditions and eye disorders.
This show produced great ratings and the largest number of audience inquiries and orders in the history of the Donahue Show. Dr. Wolfe recently came out with his latest edition of Worst Pills, Best Pills. None of the daily afternoon shows would have him on, even though more people are taking more drugs than ever before and adverse side-effects are growing in lethality.
Exclusion is the experience of many other prominent authors and advocates. Food and health writer, Jean Carper, who has had numerous best sellers to her credit, in part from appearing in major television shows, scarcely appears today. Authors of great contemporary research and substance, including William Grieder, Jim Hightower and Robert Kuttner, used to introduce their books on the national morning talk shows. No more. They’re lucky to even get on the Charlie Rose Show—perhaps the only frequently serious over-the-air daily national television talk show left in the United States—population nearly 300 million! These morning network shows are heavily into entertainment, celebrities, when not reporting some important news.
Why, even humorist Art Buchwald, whose many books used to be staples of the afternoon entertainment shows, has been unable for years to sneak by the congealed silliness that swarms onto their stages. The audiences have become so hyped with the weird and sexual that the funny Buchwald is not seen as being able “to hold the audience.”
Last week, Ted Koppel signed off a quarter century of anchoring ABC’s Nightline. In his place, where for some 22 minutes an important contemporary situation or conflict was analyzed, will be a show with a lighter mix of segments. Who knows how long this experiment in reduced attention span will last?
“Dumbing down the audience” is the infelicitous phrase used by some media critics. You expect less and less of your audience and that is the audience you’ll get. This also holds true for the evening television news which blots out civic actions in the home city in favor of ample sports, lengthy weather times, street crime, light news, a health story, an animal story and up to a minute of contrived, spontaneous chitchat between the anchors.
All this junk television is transmitted, without the stations paying rent, to us for the public airwaves that we the people own.
The examples abound. The point is clear. Overweening commercialism, a docile Federal Communications Commission, an unenforced Communications Act of 1934, and an unorganized viewer-listenership are leaving diverse thinkers and doers without a national or even a local audience.
We, the most powerful, technologically-equipped nation on Earth are left with C-SPAN and the suggestion that we an always start our own blog. Folks, they’re laughing at us and taking their hilarity all the way to the bank—at our expense and that of our children’s futures.