Don Imus and what's ailing the media

Looking back at the exchange of ideas that started with this story and now continues with this one, I'd like to further engage in the discussion of the Don Imus saga, specifically as it relates to the free-speech issues so important in today's society. To that end, I'd also like to dive into the issues Matt, a journalism graduate school friend, brought up in his latest comments.
Let's start here:
But, even if the language bothers you, he DOES have a right to say it. Doesn't he? If the FCC approves of something on the public airwaves and it does not violate the Constitution, can it not be said? If you say it cannot, then who dictates what's morally reprehensible speech and what isn't? You? Al Sharpton?

And when someone who has the right to use public airwaves to make those statements - protected, Constitutionally allowed statements - it becomes a problem when they can be coerced out of saying them because of pressure applied to corporations and advertisers.

To answer Matt's first question, of course Imus has the right to say what he said. He's always had that right. And he always will. He had it before he got fired; he has it now. He remains both protected and allowed by the Constitution to speak his mind. But what's missing here is that Imus, while he shares the same First Amendment rights we all enjoy, doesn't have a Constitutionally protected right to host a prominent radio program simulcast by a prominent cable news network. None of us do. Such opportunities are privileges, afforded the chosen few by the even more select group of media owners and decision-makers.

Now, that thought is something far more important as a jumping-off point into a good, old-fashioned free-speech dialogue than the Imus matter alone. To me, that people took advantage of their rights to help convince networks and advertisers to abandon Imus is much less a threat to democracy than the fact that control over what we read, see and hear through the media is in fewer and fewer hands. Without a doubt, ownership consolidation - and the threats corporate control pose - trump the actions of myriad motivated Americans. To say nothing of the absence of the Fairness Doctrine in today's media landscape. But first things first.

"If you coerce higher-ups to make the 'offender' leave, you set a precedent for corporate censorship - far scarier than government censorship in my eyes," Matt writes. Ignoring government censorship, which is a grave threat to free speech but not what we're addressing, it's vital to note that corporate censorship is not a one-way street. The precedent here isn't ours. It isn't something that trickles up from the grassroots. It's theirs. Those in control of the media we consume, the corporations beholden far more to their interests (financial, philosophical) than ours (objectivity, truth), dictate what we read, see and hear. Sometimes overtly, often not. Consider the climate in this country prior to the invasion of Iraq. Specifically, the gung-ho nature of cable news coverage of the run-up to war.

Dissenting, anti-war positions, when they weren't altogether absent, were marginalized in favor of aggressive, pro-administration cheerleading. On MSNBC, the most prominent anti-war voice was Phil Donahue. Brought to the network to do the job that Keith Olbermann has helped accomplish, Donahue - when the march to war began - found himself at odds with network officials and their corporate bosses. He was told to soften his show topics. He was told to book more hawks than doves. What he brought to the network, however, ran counter to the overwhelming trend. An internal NBC study expressed such concerns: If his show were to persist after the war began, it would be "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

Donahue would never have that chance. His show was cancelled in February of 2003 to make way for an expansion of a program titled "Countdown: Iraq" and for right-wingers like Michael Savage, Dick Armey and Joe Scarborough. At the time of its cancellation, Donahue's show, which was less than a year old, drew more viewers than any other show on the network, including "Hardball". The sycophantic views of that show's host, Chris Matthews, were apparent for anyone watching the network on May 1 of that same year, when the president, speaking before a banner that read "Mission Accomplished", said, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

Matthews, who called the president a "high-flying jet star" and likened him to Ronald Reagan, said things like, "He looks for real. What is it about the commander in chief role, the hat that he does wear, that makes him - I mean, he seems like - he didn't fight in a war, but he looks like he does." Mission accomplished, indeed: One host, Donahue, pushed out for his views in favor of others brought on board for theirs. A textbook case of corporate censorship, if you ask me. Looking back at that internal NBC study, it's funny how times have changed. In 2003, Donahue was fired for taking an anti-war stance. Four years later, Olbermann, whose views more or less echo Donahue's, is one of the network's brightest lights. Why the difference in outcome? Here's one answer. Further, though, why, given today's political realities and the long-term trend in support for progressive positions, has Olbermann's program remained the lone progressive-friendly outlet on cable news?

One answer is the tendency of high-profile pundits and their employers to trade objectivity for access. In this Beltway-centric, conservative-friendly culture, anything to the left of Joe Lieberman is regarded as fringe radicalism. Even those widely regarded as being correct on important issues - like Iraq - are considered less "serious" than their incorrect counterparts. Another answer, the death of the Fairness Doctrine, is more structural, but not entirely divorced from the other. Couple the idea that network owners tend to the conservative with the idea that they no longer need offer alternative views to those put forth by their often pro-corporate, pro-conservative hosts and the picture is clear. Now, couple these ideas with the idea that control of mainstream media is in fewer and fewer hands - non-billionaires need not apply - and the picture is clearer yet: It's going to be a long, lonely road for progressives.

With this in mind, why would the government need censor the media when the media does a fine enough job doing it for them? Matt and I are in agreement that government censorship of the media is a scary proposition. Setting arbitrary standards to limit communication is an equally frightening concept and something that cannot be taken lightly. That said, Imus is no victim here. His rights aren't being trampled. As I said earlier, Imus has the right to say what he said. He's always had that right. And he always will. The only difference between now and then, however, is that he's been fired. Not because of free speech, but because his continued presence would have hurt the bottom line of his employers, whose peers, it should be noted, employ people who say far more offensive things than Imus. And those employers, though they may agree with what their employees say, love one thing more than ideology: Money. And the money good ratings help generate. This is why Olbermann, who impresses in the key demographic, prospers, but it's also why his bosses remain too timid to hire another like him.

And that, regardless of your ideology, poses a far greater threat to free speech than "Hey hey, ho ho, Don Imus has got to go!"

Tags: Censorship, Don Imus, Fairness Doctrine, First Amendment, free speech, media conglomeration, people-powered politics, U.S. Constitution (all tags)

Comments

2 Comments

I LOVE Donahue...

I love Phil Donahue but I am confused by your claim that his show was the "highest rated" on MSNBC.  It was the worst rated by far.  He was averaging less than 100,000 viewers a night.  His rating were horrible, why claim otherwise?

by MaryGallan 2007-04-18 08:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Don Imus and what's ailing the media
Check that NY Tmes story ...
by Joseph Hughes 2007-04-18 09:11AM | 0 recs

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