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Some readers responded to the article “The Media Is the Mess” with a reasonable question: What can be done to address the disgraceful state of the U.S. news media? One reader urged us to go beyond describing the problem to outlining a solution.
We agree that there is such a need. We also believe there is a possible solution, though not an easy one. When a problem has gone largely unchecked for a quarter century, there are no easy answers.
But the United States is a country of vast resources and extraordinary talent. Ironically, much of that talent is in the communications industry. Given that reality, there’s no reason why we as a people should sit by quietly, accepting today’s demeaning news media and its distortion of the democratic process.
As we saw most dramatically in Election 2000, the stakes are extraordinarily high. Though lacking a popular mandate, the six-month-old Bush administration has pressed forward on an agenda that presents risks to the world’s environment, to arms control, to the security of senior citizens, to the country’s economic stability, and to the ideological balance of the federal courts.
But something else is at stake beyond these specific issues. Increasingly, the U.S. news media is helping to create a confused, cynical and disinformed electorate, what is sometimes called Tabloid Nation. That, in turn, is posing a more fundamental threat: to the nation’s 225-year-old experiment in self-government.
No democracy – no rational society – can long endure when the electorate is denied reliable information about the important issues before it.
A Media Flagship
There is a need today for a response commensurate with the gravity of the threat. One of the first elements of that response should be a media flagship that can rally the tens of millions of Americans who feel shut out by today’s sneering punditry and vacuous journalism.
With the hundreds of channel openings available on satellite and cable – as well as the new video potential of the Internet – this flagship logically should take the form of “a superstation for democracy.” Along with this broadcast outlet could come Internet sites, an audio format and a print magazine.
This “superstation for democracy” also could go beyond news. It could be a celebration of what’s great about America: the democratic ideals, the environment, its diverse people, its rich history, its grassroots culture. Yet to be true to the nation’s democratic ideals, that celebration must include a gritty, unflinching look at what has gone wrong as well as what’s gone right. Truth is the greatest gift to any democracy.
Unlike other TV outlets, this station’s talk shows would have a wide spectrum of opinion and would deal with topics of real public interest, not the tabloid scandal fare of today’s cable. Slots would be available for responsible activist groups on the environment, on the media, on government secrecy, on labor, on women’s issues, on globalization – with high standards of fairness and professionalism.
Besides current events, the superstation would broadcast entertainment programming and movies with a democratic theme. There also would be educational programming: historical biographies, documentaries and how-to shows on voting and participation in the political process. (Indeed, this station would cover state-by-state efforts to fix the electoral process as a day-in-day-out story.)
This mix of news, culture and entertainment would allow the station to broadcast 24 hours a day in a cost-effective way.
Drama & Journalism
Original historical features could examine little-known characters and their connection to American democracy, such as the extraordinary power triangle that existed with Haiti’s Toussaint L’Overture, Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon in 1800. Biographies could look at lesser-known Founding Fathers, such as Tom Paine, as a way to illustrate the complexity and drama of the nation’s origins.
Investigative journalism would examine the modern elements of power and how those forces are shaping the future of American democracy. A serious effort would be made to explain how the nation came to the impasse in the Florida election, with a dysfunctional national press corps, a partisan judiciary and political operatives who cared far less for the process than for the power.
There is also no reason why a broadcast outlet like this – offering honest information with an edge – cannot be commercially viable.
Fifty million Americans saw their votes negated last November. Millions of others were disturbed by those events, even if they ended up on the winning side. Large numbers of Americans find little of interest on the hundreds of stations available on cable and satellite systems. A combination of smart advertisers seeking intelligent viewers and contributions from viewers could pay the bills.
So what needs to be done to make this concept a reality?
The first step is to convince people with resources who care about American democracy to do more than kick in money for candidates and causes. These talented, successful individuals must be persuaded that information is the key battleground for democracy and that little good can come if the American news media continues drifting in the direction it has gone since the mid-1970s.
There are scores of people with the resources and the business acumen to provide the financial backbone for this kind of superstation. They need to be approached by those who know them and urged to join in this effort.
Various strategies also could be pursued to keep the costs of starting this project within reasonable bounds. At Web sites like Consortiumnews.com, we have shown that groundbreaking investigative stories can be done for relatively modest sums, if the work is approached with care and professionalism.
Once adequate resources are available, work on building "a superstation for democracy" could begin. There are plenty of honest journalists and creative people to staff a project that would let them do the work that they have spent their lives training to do.
While this task may seem daunting, one must not underestimate the danger of doing nothing. Without a powerful rebuke from the American people, U.S. journalism will grow increasingly corrupt and that corruption will eat at the foundations of American democracy.
Authoritarian political leaders, contemptuous of an informed electorate, will gain greater power. That, in turn, could endanger not only the future of the United States as we have known it, but the survival of the planet.
Robert Parry, Editor