Saturday, November 05, 2005

OPINION: Initial Densmore thoughts on "Good Night, and Good Luck"

There's a point where Murrow is talking to Bill Paley, who says to Murrow words
to the effect: "You self-censor yourself, don't you?" And Murrow doesn't
answer, because he knows it is true. But Paley backed Murrow.

In 1954, Murrow could go talk to "the man" -- Bill Paley -- and judgements
would be made by that one man which would allow the network to take on
power -- McCarthy. You see Paley's ambivalence, his own fight within
himself to check his business desire not to offend, with his -- unstated
-- willingness to defend Murrow and democracy against demoagogery. But
this is a personal decision by a man operating in an era where he
essentially controlled CBS by himself.

Paley could make a risky decision which might cost him, personally,
millions of dollars, out of moral compunction. There is virtually no
person in our media world today who can do that -- with the possible
exception of Rupert Murdoch, unfortunately, and he is being now gradually
reigned in by investors.

That, for me, is the key message of Good Night, and Good Luck. It is that we
have lost something vital to a free press -- the diversity of ownership. It has
been replaced by a structure in which the only justifiable decision for the
manager is "what will improve the bottom line" and minimize risk.

The other change is that in 1954, the networks had already become an
oligopy. And this was a good thing, in a sense, because it meant a person
with liberal views could survive. The advertisers couldn't do without CBS.
Now, the television market is so competitive that if you don't have
mainstream views, mass-market advertisers will walk. And so that means
other voices are relegated to depend only upon marginal, niche or
politically supportive advertisers, sponsors and donors.

I have reached the conclusion that we really were -- in one sense -- in a
"golden age" of media from about 1955 through about 1980 -- an era where
there was so much advertising driven by our post-war consumer economy that
if you owned a MSM TV, radio or newspaper outlet you could say almost
anything you wanted, spend almost anything you wanted on reporting, and
still be financially OK. Simple supply and demand -- tons of advertising,
limited outlets (by government regulatory policies and market forces).

Now things are different.

More advertiser choices:

-- More radio stations (FM)
-- More print (weeklies, magazines)
-- Much more TV (cable)
-- Internet / web

More concentrated advertisers

-- Big boxes do inserts, not display ads
-- National buys, market leverage
-- Far fewer local retail (mom and pop)

Poaching billions of advertising by non-journalism businesses:

-- Craig's List
-- Google and Yahoo

All of this has made media an industry which stil returns great profits, but is
nonetheless more competitive. And so journalism at the margins, which
challenges authority, is viewed as a threat to profits.

And that was Ed Fouhy's point in the essay he wrote and permitted us to
distribute in class -- independent journalism at the mainstream level is
probably an extinct species.

So . . . what's next? Good Night doesn't address that at all, but we have to
and that's what I hope the June MGP conference will tackle. We'll need help
conceptualizing how to approach that.

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