Sunday, February 19, 2006

1 Book, 10 Minutes (Danny Schechter, The Death of Media)

"Where are the book discussions!" screamed the e-mails. "It's been too long!"

We agree. We also know that the easiest one we had recently was when a number of people took Christmas off. We were lucky to have Ruth participating that edition (thank you, Ruth). Why was it the easiest? It was a smaller number of people.

One week, Dona closed the book discussion without realizing Elaine hadn't spoken and the e-mails poured in. Dona hadn't intended to stop the discussion before Elaine spoke, hadn't even realized it. But since then, Dona's usually half-listening and trying to keep a tally of who's spoken and who hasn't. And has someone not spoken enough? If so, were they given a chance to speak or not? So that's a difficulty.

Here's another one, fourteen people discussing five books does not make for "5 books, 5 Minutes." When the feature was started it was supposed to be a way for this site to weigh in on books. Folding Star then did the website A Winding Road and you could go there for indepth reviews. We were trying to give you a sense of the book and demonstrate how it wasn't: open the book, read it, put it away.

We think we managed that most of the time but there have been times when the book discussion has taken an hour or more. As the best and fastest note takers, it's one more feature we do where Ava and C.I. end up doing the bulk of the work while the rest of us shoot off our mouths and have fun. Dona's attempts to keep it limited to a reasonable time only result in everyone talking faster when she calls five minutes.

She was very curious about how the book discussion would go without her watching the clock and without her keeping track of who has spoken and who needs another shot of time. It went easy. But that's because it was a reduced number of participants. This week, we're focusing on one book. That's not what we want to do. We'd like to provide a mix of books. In one of our favorite book discussions, five books chosen for different reasons ended up being a launching pad due to similar subthemes. Even when that doesn't happen, we think the variety covers a number of interests.

There's a book that we intended to include in a book discussion but while we try to figure out how to make "5 Books, 5 Minutes" manageable, we keep postponing this discussion. We think the book's too important to continue postponing so we'll do "1 Book, 10 Minutes" which we've done before and know never lasts only ten minutes.

Participating in this discussion are:

The Third Estate Sunday Review's Dona, Jess, Ty, Ava and Jim;
Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude;
Betty of Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man;
C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review;
Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills);
Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix;
Mike of Mikey Likes It!;
Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz;
and Wally of The Daily Jot.

Jim: Our book for this discussion is Danny Schechter's The Death of Media. Subtitled And The Fight To Save Democracy. Danny Schechter is the News Dissector at and has a long history in journalism both in the mainstream and in the alternative. He's been dissecting the news for decades so if his name is new to you, you really are missing out if you're not visiting his News Dissector site. Set us up, Mike.

Mike: Okay, but first, Danny Schechter was in Rebecca and my neck of the woods this weekend. But there were no details at his site. If the event was open to the public, we would have gone. So that's my beef. This book is paperback and 167 pages. You can obtain it at BuzzFlash or via MediaChannel.

Dona: Or check your local library as well as independent bookstores.

Mike: Right. So it's the 21st Century and what does that mean for communication, what does it mean for media? What does it mean for citizens? Those are some of the issues Schechter's raising in his book.

Betty: I'll jump in here because this is one of three books C.I. gave me for Christmas, we pulled each other's name here so no one had to feel like they had to go broke buying for everyone.

Dona: We also had a price limit but C.I. didn't stick to it.

Betty: True. But with good books, I won't complain. Size wise, this is a small book. My kids kept asking me to read this one to them because they thought it was a children's book. Is it a paperback? I don't know. It's almost a square. But it's a small size book and, don't let the size fool you, there are big ideas in it. I read Ruth's Public Radio Report and it reminded me of the discussion on PBS in the book. What Ruth's advocated isn't what he advocates but I wondered if she'd read the book?

C.I.: She has.

Betty: Well Schechter is noting the problems with PBS, the original mandate under which it was created which stated the intent for it to provide a "forum for debate and controversy." That was how it was to serve the public. In the end, while noting the difficulties documentary filmmakers have in getting anything remotely like that on PBS, the impression that I took away is that we have to focus on supporting the public media, which isn't just PBS, and on creating more of it.

Ty: Which is in complete contrast to what Ruth argues in her most recent report.

Jim: C.I.?

C.I.: Oh, I'm speaking for Ruth now? We've all read it, but I speak for Ruth? Okay. Well, I've not taken a position and will not unless the community gets behind one position, which I think they're about to. But Ruth's argument is that the left expands so much time fighting to "save" PBS and NPR and for what? As she sees it, we're the foot soldiers defending it and after the battle, PBS gives money to one more right winger to create another right wing program or a children's one on "virtures" and what's the point? That becomes the political point of view because there's no left wing programming. You get the same never-offend-anyone generic programs with public affairs programming that tilts right.

Betty: If I can jump in again, I want to say I'm with Ruth. I'm sick of it. I'm tired of calling my reps and writing them to save PBS. I'll focus on PBS because NPR is useless to me and never spoke to me. Why should I save PBS? I'm a working mother, a single mother. What is PBS going to do for me? Forget programming, public TV is about to stop being public. You'll need cable or satellite as the digital transfer occurs. I don't watch TV. My kids do. They watch Sesame Street and other PBS children's show. Is that worth paying for? I've got educational DVDs and children's films and they're happy to watch those over and over. As a parent, when the switch comes, our TV sets will become monitors for DVDs. My kids already have a time limit on how long they can watch TV. When the digital change comes, bye-bye TV channels. They can use their set time limit to watch their DVDs. Their grandparents buy them more than they can ever watch. I'm sorry but the idea that "public television" will be available only if you pay for it . . . I've got important bills to pay, paying for something useless isn't important to me. And other than children's programming, not all of it worth watching and a lot of it badly animated, what's there to watch? Informericals? What's her name always hawking her books, tapes and everything but her skin care line.

Ava: Suze Ormis.

Betty: Yeah, how many times do they rerun that informercial a year? Roadside Antiques or whatever it's called --

Rebecca: Antique Roadshow.

Betty: Right. That's serving the public how? There's no debate and controversy in the bulk of its programming. Investment tips on how many shows a week? I've got my own investment tip: invest in paying my bills and not wasting money pledging to a network not interested in serving the public. And, let me add, that Sesame Street doesn't cut it. That's one show. When I grew up, we had shows, not one, with a variety of races. PBS seems so scared these days that if the characters aren't White, they're animals. The issue of representation was one of the reasons PBS excited me as a child. There was no Black person in the Scooby gang, no Black Superfriend, go down the list. But on PBS, I could see all races. Not these days. PBS: making the world safe for animated bears and bunnies.

Jim: So you disagree with Schechter?

Betty: Only on PBS. I agree completely that we need to build new public spaces. And I'm all for supporting Pacifica, for instance. But I'm not giving anything to National Corporate Radio or it's television sister.

Ava: Just to touch on portrayals, I watched Maya & Miguel and honestly found it insulting with regards to the character of the grandmother and her "old ways." I have no idea who created the show or writes it but I found it insensitive in its portrayals. It's got the same sort of cheap ethnic jokes Freddie does.

Ty: Freddie, ABC sitcom starring Freddie Prinze, Jr.

Cedric: Betty's not slamming the book. She enjoyed it. But this is an issue, the lack of people of color on children's shows. Giving us a family of bears and bunnies isn't breakthrough television. And outside of Sesame Street . . . I wonder who PBS thinks watches their children's programming? PBS, and this is what Betty was getting at, I think, is, if nothing else, the place where children without cable can find programming after school, in the mornings. You can tick off the names to a dozen popular cartoons but most of the kids I went to school with wouldn't know them. You say Reading Rainbow and they did know it. Because their parents couldn't afford cable. So to go from a time when you or your kid could see people like themselves on PBS to one animal cartoon after another is the same kind of setback African-Americans notice at the big networks that continue to find a way to create yet another show revolving around a White lead. My parents were like Betty is now. If money was spent, it was spent on us kids. They'd do without something they wanted to make sure we had shoes on our feet and could have fun in an affordable way. But there wasn't money for cable so they, and lots of parents, were glad to have PBS to fall back on. The digital switch isn't something that parents struggling to make it are going to see as a Brave New World.

Betty: And I did love the book. Not just saying that because it's a gift. In the notes I made, I've got page 86 down because Schechter raises the issues of the two societies that may develop, the information-rich society and the information-poor society.

Kat: Which is scary and another scary thing was on page sixty where he writes about how CNN started a show called World Report which was supposed to provide a window into foreign countries and cultures but instead led to foreign broadcasters attempting to ape the American big media. That was scary to me in and of itself; however, I thought about how we've now got the "free Iraq" media project going on.

Elaine: Right because Iraqis know nothing about a printed press or broadcast media, apparently. That's what our attitude says, "Here we come to save you and bring you the new world." Excuse me, but they have a press. And maybe the best thing to do isn't for us to attempt to "educate" a culture we know so damn little about as to how they should go about reporting.

Kat: Exactly! And look what Paul Bremer did over there and now we're going to 'liberate' their press.

C.I.: Back up on that. Big media in this country hasn't been interested in that story. Unless you read someone like Dahr Jamail or Naomi Klein or Robert Fisk, you wouldn't know about it. So to go back and explain it, or unless you utilize Democracy Now! and that will probably be the best place for Dallas to find a link, Moqtada al-Sadr's newspaper was shut down for mocking Paul Bremer. Now, we're going to teach press freedom? Now?

Jess: The thing that stood out to me, and I know he's been doing this for years, Danny Schechter, not Paul Bremer, was how succinctly he was able to explain things. Such as the problems with the current big media model which, he notes, "is a sales platform." Like Betty said, this is a small size book but it has a powerful punch.

Wally: That was going to be my point. C.I. wrote about Danny Schechter pulled you into the Abramoff story this week and how that's not really happening in the big media, I guess that's the word we're using this morning. And it's true because most of the time, my grandfather and I are trying to make out what the Abramoff reporting is about. I walked away from Schechter's story with a clear understanding of what I had just read. And after that, I picked the book back up because he'd made a point about telling stories and how people enjoy their entertainment programs and how it's because it has a "well crafted narrative" which can result "in a better job of treating social issues." The other thing I thought of while I was reading it was how WMD --

Mike: His documentary?

Wally: Yeah, WMD, his movie, how that was something you could follow as well. He really knows how to tell a story. It's like a conversation he's having with you and you can follow along.

Jim: Talk about Abramoff because I agree he wrote a great piece on Abramoff.

Wally: Well, is it a story? When big media covers it, it's this dull thing. C.I. said something about zeroes.

C.I.: The more zeroes you add to the figure, the more the money amount increases, the less close you are to readers' reality.

Wally: Right. It just starts seeming too huge to grasp and then they start putting all these people into the coverage and you're going, or I'm going, "Wait, you didn't tell me who that person was." If it's a Congress person, they have that in front of their name but a lot of time, I'm reading a couple of paragraphs down before I'm finding out who the person is that we're talking about. It's just scattered. The basic story, as I get it and I think most people do, is that Abramoff, a Republican lobbyists, gave vast amounts of money or had it channeled to Republicans in office. But sometimes it seems like the reporters are more covering the dollar amount than what went on. I'm glad you noted Media Matters, this is to C.I., in that thing because they have done a good job of keeping it basic. But there was a long article I came across recently and I thought, "Okay, this is going to be the article that puts it all in perspective" and it didn't. The first paragraph was unreadable. I read it twice and then said, "Screw it, jump into the article." But the whole article was that way. The reporter knows how to coin a fancy phrase, but he didn't know how to explain the basics to me.

Mike: I'm going to back Wally up on that. My coverage is mainly coming from, we're talking about writing here because I think we all could follow Amy Goodman's coverage and C.I. made the point that when things get too complicated, Amy always says, "Okay, explain that" or something similar becuase she seems to get where the audience will get lost, but my main print coverage is coming from the Boston Globe. And this isn't an issue that's as pressing to me as the war. But people on campus who know my site always think I can boil something down in two minutes for them. And they're following the Boston Globe and our other local media too. They're lost on this story. They get that Native Americans had money to give, that Abramoff directed it to Republicans in Congress and that a kind of pay-for-play-let's-all-scratch-each-other's-back thing was going on. But I mean they're sick of, or "frustrated," that's probably a better word. They're frustrated with it. They feel the reporters are acting like insiders talking to other insiders and that the story's getting lost. I did print up Danny Schechter's article and pass it around to a few people on campus. And they could follow that. He knows how to tell a story.

Jess: I know the article Wally's talking about because he called me and asked if I'd read it. I hadn't but told him to let me read it and I would explain it. I called him back and asked, "You really got past that first paragraph?" That was the worst first paragrph. It was flashy and showy and I'm sure people covering it were high fiving and shouting, "You rock, dude!" but in terms of reaching the reader, it didn't. Mike's comment about the how it's insiders talking to insiders really does sum up the bulk of the print coverage.

Ty: And when Schechter's covering it, in the article, he's going back to early Abramoff and his involvement in supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa, I think he can pull you in because he's done print, radio, TV. He knows, like Goodman, when you're going to lose someone if you speed through a section or if you start acting like a policy wank. We've got a professor who is always telling the class, "You aren't the story, the story is the story. No one cares how famous the people you quote are or how close you got to someone powerful. Save that for your diary and tell the story."

Jim: I love that guy. He's my favorite prof.

Ty: But when I got back to the apartment that night, Ava was over and she goes to Jess, "Show it to Ty" and it's that article. I don't know its unreadable and I'm sitting down, starting to read it and thinking, "This must be some article if they want me to read it right away" and I'm sitting there reading and thinking, "Someone needs to tell this guy he is not the story." I felt like it wasted space and that an editor should have pulled the guy into the office and said, "What are you trying to say here? You're not Hunter S. Thompson and if you're trying to be him, bad news, because you're coming off like Thomas Friedman."

Dona: Everyone's spoken. I believe Elaine and Ava have spoken the least. Jim acts as moderator so he doesn't count. If anyone wants to speak, they need to do it now because, otherwise, I'm about to do the wrap up.

C.I.: I know Danny Schechter, as everyone here knows and the community does as well, but in case anyone visits and says, "That should have been disclosed," it has been. It's a great book, in my opinion.

Dona: Okay, here's the takeaway for The Death of Media. As consolidation has grown stronger and stronger, viewpoints that can be heard have grown narrower and narrower. The internet is not the "Good Times Are Coming" -- stealing from a point C.I. made last year -- because there are foes . . . to freedom, people who want to control where you can go and add fees for any number of things. That's what we're facing. Old media is dying and new media could be worthless as well unless you get off your butts and start participating. Be the town crier among your group of friends pushing this issue and making sure the people you know are aware of it. To get a grasp on what needs to be done, and Danny Schechter doesn't just tell you what's wrong, he tells you how a more diverse media is available, read The Death of Media. We all strongly recommend it. And last word to Rebecca because I've got you down as having said just one sentence.

Rebecca: I was enjoying the discussion. I think your takeaway covered it. But it's an important point so let me repeat it. Get off your butts and fight for the media you want or accept that the net will be just like what you avoid on TV. What gets covered and how it gets covered, Ruth quoted Janine Jackson on this last week, impacts our lives. This isn't just something on your TV screen that you can tune out. As bad as things are today, and they're pretty bad, think of how awful it would be if we were in all these wars without the internet? The internet's worthless if it apes big media -- like, in the example from the book Kat cited, where foreign correspondents attempted to play like the big dogs/gas bags. It's also worthless if you can't get the content you need. If you're feeling "The Good Times Are Coming" and thinking we're on the verge of a media revolution, you better grasp that on the corporate side, they're figuring out how to steer what's coming. This is a fight and read the book to arm yourself.
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