ABC-TV: Oscar-Worthy, But Journalistically Unsound

 

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            The last segment on every Friday's broadcast of ABC-TV's "World News," with Diane Sawyer, is a "Person of the Week."

            Usually, those persons have gone out of their way to do something good for people, or have lived a long and distinguished life, or by their example give inspiration to others.

            Recent "persons of the week" have included a very special caregiver, a wheelchair-bound teen who does wheelchair tricks, and a homeless man who returned $3,300 he had found.

            However, this past Friday, the "Persons of the Week" were two actors. There's nothing wrong with honoring actors and others in the creative arts. They bring us joy and, often, intellectual stimulation. But, the reason ABC News honored Anne Hathaway and James Franco had little to do with acting—and everything to do with advertising.

            ABC is broadcasting the Oscars, Sunday, and Hathaway and Franco are the hosts. To justify their inclusion, Sawyer led off the segment by telling us: "The torch will be passed to a new generation. The baby boomers no longer hosting the Oscars."

            But, for two and a half minutes, we learned about Hathaway and Franco, and not the story of a change in the Industry. We even learned about what each would like to know about the other.

            In television, ratings, mixed with some demographic analyses, determine the price of advertising. The range for 30 second ads for scripted prime time shows is about $50,000–$250,000. For the Super Bowl, with the largest audience, 30-second ads this year went for about $3 million. ABC, which sold all ad time for the primetime Oscars telecast, charged about $1.7 million for 30 seconds advertising. ABC pays about $65 million to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the broadcast rights. The Disney-owned company expects about $80 million revenue and is hoping for at least 43 million viewers for the telecast. And that doesn't include the advertising for the pre-Oscar "red carpet" show, or the on-air promotions for Disney-owned productions.

            By Industry standards, if the ratings tank, ABC would have an obligation to return money to advertisers, something it definitely doesn't want to do.

            So, in addition to running numerous Oscar-related commercials during ad time in the two weeks leading to the Sunday night broadcast, ABC-TV made its "Person of the Week" nothing more than another Oscar promotion to guarantee the network a strong "return on investment."

            That decision alone damages a news operation's credibility.

 

[Assisting on this column was Rosemary Brasch. Walter Brasch is a journalist/columnist, the author of 16 books, including Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture (3rd ed.). He is a retired professor of mass communications and journalismYou may contact him at walterbrasch@gmail.com]

 

 

TV Political Ads: Ditching Democracy 30 Seconds at a Time

 

by Walter Brasch

 

        There's good news this week. There's only about two weeks before the midterm elections.

          Now for the bad news. There's still about two more weeks to be garroted by TV ads.

          Back-to-back-to-back, we are choking on lies, distortions, and half-truths. This year may go into history as having the most vicious attack ads since the "dark ages" shortly after the nation was founded. Biggest difference? More than two centuries later, most of the ads scream at you from television rather than partisan newspapers.

          Between $3.5 and $4.5 billion will be spent on campaign ads this season. That's one to two billion more than was spent during the midterm elections four years ago.

          One of the reasons for the increase in spending is that the conservative wing of the Republican party has launched an all-out assault to once again take over Congress. Another reason is that they got a supreme assist in January. The Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote along party lines, decided in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission [130 S.Ct. 876] that the First Amendment applies to corporations, which now would enjoy the same protections given to citizens and associations of citizens. The decision essentially obliterated the gains made by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known as the McCain–Feingold Act) and a Supreme Court decision (McConnell v. FEC; 540 U.S. 93) a year later that ruled most of the Act constitutional.

          In a strongly-worded dissent in the Citizens United case, Justice John Paul Stevens declared the Supreme Court's decision "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. . . . [It is] a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt." Justice Stevens further argued that, "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." President Obama called the decision, "a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."

          Eight of the 10 groups that have bought the most TV advertising this election lean to the Republicans, according to an analysis of by the Wesleyan Media Project.

          And that brings us to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, second in spending only to the Republican Governors Association. The Chamber of Commerce, along with the National Rifle Association, was one of the most vigorous supporters of the Citizens United legal case to extend First Amendment protections to corporations. At one time, the Chamber was non-partisan. During the past decade, it has become an advocacy group for conservative candidates and ideology. For this election, it has promised to spend about $75 million in campaign ads. Because the Chamber, a non-profit agency, doesn't need to report its contribution and spending to the Federal Elections Commission, the nation is left wondering if it's true, as the President charges, that significant donations are from foreign companies and governments. Those contributions are illegal under U.S. law. The Chamber claims it does receive foreign money but doesn't use it for political advertising—but refuses to disclose specifics. Even if the Chamber doesn't use foreign money for political ads, the revenue it receives from foreign money frees up its budget to increase spending for a right-wing agenda. Four years ago, almost every organization disclosed where their funds came from. This year, according to FEC data, only about one-third of the organizations have done so.

          Republicans have put a "face" on their attack ads, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who appears in more anti-Democrat campaign ads than any Democrat running for office, is seen as everything evil. Perhaps it's because she is a powerful woman who represents San Francisco, a district that is racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse. Pelosi, and most Democrats in hotly contested races, are portrayed as Pelosi puppets who voted for the stimulus bill and health care reform, both seen erroneously by the ultra-conservative wing as socialist or Marxist programs. Most objective analysts say that the stimulus bill, even with its flaws, kept the nation out of sinking into a Depression, and that health reform, derisively known as Obamacare, has significantly improved the nation's health care while keeping costs down. However, President Obama doesn't appear in too many attack ads. For the Party on the White to emphasize the "evils" of President Obama could result in a backlash.

          In response, the Democrats have charged Republicans as being the "Party of NO," with no social conscience and no political agenda, a party that blocks any reform or progress solely for political reasons. What the Democrats didn't do is more important than what they did do. The Democrats have been unable to effectively use campaign advertising to portray the Republicans as the party in power when the nation entered into an unjustified $1 trillion war in Iraq, created the greatest deficit in American history, refused to stop Wall Street and bank greed, allowed the mortgage crisis to develop and undermine American security, brought about double-digit unemployment, and shoved the nation into one of its greatest recessions.

          But, here's another reality. TV ads, like newspaper editorials, seldom change anyone's preconceived opinions. Liberals continue to support liberals. Conservatives continue to support conservatives. The "independent" middle, sometimes known as a "soft vote" because both parties try to grab it, is largely a myth. The "soft middle" may not be influenced by any campaign ad—and they may not even vote.

 

          So, what is the purpose of TV ads and the significant increase in funding? Simply, it's to hold and reinforce the base. Conservatives have done much better to rally their base than have liberals this year. If the conservatives retake either or both houses of Congress, it will not be because the Obama administration failed. It will be because the conservatives spent significantly more on a full-range media campaign that included a dominant TV presence, rallied their base, controlled the news media, which controlled the agenda, and effectively blocked an ineffective Democratic response that failed to counter lies, distortions, and half-truths.

 

[Walter Brasch's latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can, a witty and probing look at the media and American culture. It is available from Amazon.com and other stores.]

 

 

 

It's Snow News

by Walter Brasch

 Up to two feet of snow hit the Mid-Atlantic and New England states last week, the second storm within two weeks. Wind gusts of up to 50 miles an hour and temperatures in the 20s created severe wind chill and extreme hazardous driving conditions. Pennsylvania ordered all commercial trucks off many of its major highways and Interstates. Schools and colleges throughout the Northeast cancelled classes, many for two days.

 We were warned that this would be a severe storm, because days before we received minute-by-minute predictions from TV weather persons. The snow will be two feet deep. Or maybe only 3 to 5 inches. No, wait, that was last hour's prediction. It's now going to be 5-9 inches. Or, maybe 10 inches. No, wait. That's wrong, it'll be 15 to 20 inches. It'll bury buildings and wreak a path of destruction unlike anything seen in the past four thousand years! It might also be only a half-foot. We'll be revising our prediction to some other number as soon as our assignment editor throws a dart at the Snow Inch Board.

 Most residents, unless they were forced to work, were smart enough to stay home. Also smart enough to stay indoors were TV news directors who sent their reporters and camera crews into the middle of snow-covered roads. Deep-voiced anchors introduced us to the infotainment promotion that has become TV news: "Now, LIVE from the middle of the Interstate, and bravely facing blizzard conditions with EXCLUSIVE coverage ONLY on Eyewitless News 99, your hometown station for LIVE EXCLUSIVE weather coverage is our LIVE reporter, Sammy Snowbound."

 Reporters and meteorologists were soon entertaining us with wooden rulers, which they pushed onto snow-covered tables and snow banks to report snow accumulation, not unlike a radio reporter doing play-by-play announcing for a high school basketball contest.

 The previous week, the local news stations and TV all-news networks identified a crippling snow as "Snowmageddon" and "Snowpocalyse." This week, with its winds, we learned about "Snowicane."

And so for two back-to-back snow-somethings, we had almost unlimited Team Coverage. The teams interviewed business owners—"So, how's the snow affecting your business?" They interviewed residents—"So, how's the snow affecting your plans?" They even interviewed public officials—"So, how's the snow affecting your budget?"

If Jesus came to the Northeast, he'd be watching all-snow all-the-time coverage, and waiting in a green room for his one minute interview. "So, Jesus, how you surviving the snow?"

 The problem of the extended coverage is that when there isn't any snow, local TV news gives us a five minute weather report on the Evening News. Excluding commercials, teasers, and mindless promotion, that's more than one-fourth of the news budget. We learn all about highs and lows, Arctic clippers, temperatures in obscure places, and the history of snowflakes. When a weather "event" occurs, TV has to ramp up its coverage, 'lest we think we can learn what we need to know in only five minutes.

Every weather person will tell you there are no two snowflakes the same. But, we can always count on the same coverage, storm after storm, from the same flakes covering the weather. While the reporters are in the middle of a blizzard showing us snow—and how brave they are—they aren't giving us significant information about how to prepare for and then survive a storm, which may cut off electricity for up to a week. Nor are the TV crews telling us what happens to the homeless, or how the storms are affecting everything from insects to black bears.

Long after the storm passes, we'll still be seeing TV weather reports of about four or five minutes—"It'll be sunny tomorrow, and here's a history of sun." It would be nice if local TV news would spend as much time as it does delivering semi-accurate weather reports to discuss significant governmental and social issues along with its diet of car crashes, fires, and the latest Pickle Festival.

 [Walter Brasch was a reporter and editor before becoming a professor of mass communications and journalism. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist and the author of 17 books, including the recently-published third edition of Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture.]

 

 

Stories We Wish We Didn't Have to Write--But WIll

The hope we and this nation had for change we could believe in, and which we still hope will not die, has been diminished by the reality of petty politics, with the "Party of No" and its raucous Teabagger mutation blocking social change for America's improvement

 

There's more...

"The People Speak": A Much-Needed Lesson in Hope and Change for a Nation's People

How to pare down a 752-page book into a 2-hour cable television event must have been a challenge for the producers of The People Speak, but those behind The People Speak succeed beautifully in presenting a tableau of Zinn's revolutionary piece of nonfiction.

Celebrity personalities come together and read lyrics, prose, and literature that, for the most part, is ignored by the American population especially the nation's leaders.

Each of the readings come from The People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a book that has sold over 2 million copies.

The special television event lays out concisely how what freedom and democracy people of this nation enjoy is enjoyed because people in history had the courage and moral fortitude to struggle, to be troublemakers and act out because they believed they should stand for a world that ought to be and not simply a world rife with injustice and inequality.

Harris Yulin reads a Columbus Sun Editorial, "The Class That Suffers," which holds an extreme amount of poignancy and relevance when you consider the current growing economic injustice in America. [Text to be posted if I can find it on the Internet.]

The reading that Rosario Dawson gives of the "Women's Declaration of Independence" and the exchange that occurs between Christina Kirk and Josh Brolin who portray a court scene between Susan B. Anthony and Judge Hunt remind us of how far women have come in this nation yet compel us to not forget that women's reproductive rights regularly become bargaining chips in legislative reform battles in this nation.


[JOSH BROLIN as JUDGE HUNT]: The sentence of the Court is that you pay a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs of the prosecution.



[CHRISTINA KIRK as SUSAN B. ANTHONY]: May it please your honor, I will never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. All the stock in trade I possess is a debt of $10,000, incurred by publishing my paper "The Revolution" the sole object of which was to educate all women to do precisely as I have done, rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, which tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while denying them the right of representation in the government; and I will work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."

Viggo Mortensen brought an anti-war perspective of an International Workers of the World (IWW) member to life:

[VIGGO MORTENSEN as IWW MEMBER] If you were a bum without a blanket; if you had left your wife and kids when you went west for a job, and had never located them since; if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if you slept in a lousy, sour bunkhouse, and ate food just as rotten as they could give you and get by with it; if deputy sheriffs shot your cooking cans full of holes and spilled your grub on the ground; if your wages were lowered on you when the bosses thought they had you down; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in the hell do you expect a man to be patriotic? This war is a business man's war and we don't see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy.

Each element of The People Speak is a reminder of (or for some Americans, an introduction to) how government has only ever been moved to act by the actions of organized citizens. Pure sentiments or feelings or public opinion has rarely translated into any kind of meaningful change.

Out of all that is read, perhaps, the people's reading that may hold the most significance in these times is Langston Hughes' "Ballad of Roosevelt" written in November of 1934. Read the words of this poem or view Danny Glover reading them:

"Ballad of Roosevelt"

Striking and rebellion all over this country is what eventually forced Roosevelt to pass the New Deal, which so many Democrats now celebrate. Plug in Obama for Roosevelt and you will start to wonder how many households are telling their loved ones they are tired of waitin' on Obama.

You will wonder how much longer people will ask, "What's the matter?" before they get organized and act to fight injustice, claim dignity, and further emancipate humanity.

Some of the celebrity personalities who supported Obama's election lent their support to the creation of The People Speak. For example, Bruce Springsteen sang, "This Land is Your Land" during the special, a song that was sung at Obama's Inaugural Celebration earlier this year by musicians like Pete Seeger.

Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, John Legend, Bob Dylan, and others involved no doubt voiced support for Obama at some point in the last couple of years (which leads one to wonder if any of them asked the president to watch this special event Sunday night).

There's a level of discord occurring when actors and musicians read the words of heroes in the people's history of America after they have voted for a president to bring the American people change, something past presidents historically have fought to prevent from happening for the people when president.

Viewing The People Speak, one might realize the arguments and differences we have over who will be a good or bad leader, the different conceptions of what one can and cannot do as a leader in government, and the different ideas on how the people can benefit from and share in the power these leaders may enjoy in government upon being elected to office prevent us from the real organizing that has led to real action and real social movements for better laws, policies and programs in America.

One realizes the people of this country do not need the leader of this nation to be on their side to rule. The president does not need the consent of the governed to defend this nation's ruling class' interests at the expense of lower classes.

And, the president will take little note of public opinion as he works to control public unrest in times of economic strife and civic arousal.

The people have no interest in being a part of the decision-making process that leads to more brutalizing and maiming of civilians in Afghanistan, that sends tens of thousands more troops to countries in the Middle East to kill and be killed physically or psychologically, that defends the right of health insurance companies to sell a flawed product to consumers, that will bail out banks before bailing out people facing home foreclosure crises, economic rape from credit card companies, or joblessness on an obscene scale, that fights meaningful action to halt global warming and restore and protect Mother Earth in the face of corporate domination and exploitation, etc.

The People Speak shows the people have an interest in food, shelter, health, education, a job with a decent income, family, community, and all other things are things people have been duped into believing they want or need in the consumer society we live in or the empire we live under.

Hopefully, the wider audience that saw Zinn for the first time takes note and begins to confront themselves and their role in this country. It is us who hold the answers and power to our future. Whatever future we get has always been up to us, and that's how it always will be.

See video of Zinn's appearance on Bill Moyers (w/ transcript)

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