The New Citizen

Summer 1995, Volume 2, Number 2

A publication of Citizens for Media Literacy, 34 Wall Street, Suite 407, Asheville, NC 28801
Copyright 1995 by Citizens for Media Literacy

Editor: Wally Bowen
Associate Editor: Anne R. Heck
Phone: (704) 255-0182
Email: cml@main.nc.us

Contents:

Photo of George Gerbner

Educators, activists organize to promote media literacy in U.S.

by George Gerbner

The Cultural Environment Movement is as simple as it is compelling.

Scotch patriot Andrew Fletcher once said that whoever tells the stories of a nation need not care who makes its laws. That was at a time when stories were still hand-crafted, home-made, community-inspired.

Today, our nation's stories are the products of a complex mass-production and marketing process.

Who tells most of the stories today? No longer home and community. No longer parents, schools, or church. In many parts of the world not even the native country.

Our children are born into homes in which the dominant story tellers are not those who have something to tell but a small group of global conglomerates that have something to sell.

Channels multiply but communication technologies converge and media merge. With every merger, staffs shrink and creative opportunities diminish. Cross-media conglomeration reduces competition and denies entry to newcomers.

Fewer sources fill more outlets more of the time with ever more standardized fare. Alternative perspectives vanish from the mainstream.

Media coalesce into a seamless, pervasive, and increasingly homogenized cultural environment that has drifted out of democratic reach. Even fund-starved public television is fighting for its life.

Other distortions of the democratic process include:

The Cultural Environment Movement was born to meet the crucial challenge of our time: to build new mechanisms of independent citizen initiative and participation in cultural decision-making.

We must organize as citizens as effectively as commercials mobilize us to act as consumers. That means:

Ads, ads everywhere! Are there any limits?

by Wally Bowen

Advertising culture conceals one of the great ironies of modern life: virtually everyone believes they are hip to the hard-sell, yet advertising's efficacy sustains a $150 billion-a-year industry dedicated to stimulating consumption.

Over the last 15 years, ad expenditures have jumped 50 percent as advertisers have intensified their efforts to get their ads before our eyes. Few areas of life are exempt.

Ads proliferate in schools and museums. Program-length "info-mercials" masquerade as news programs. Buses appear in the shape of a Dunkin Donuts box. Advertisers dream aloud of producing laser commercials in the sky.

Scholars, psychologists and religious leaders are sounding alarms that advertising is so pervasive that original, independent thought and action will disappear in a superficial soup of market-tested, mass-produced experience.

The results, they warn, include:

At special risk are schools, museums, and the news media -- institutions to which generations of citizens have looked for accurate and independent views of reality.

School-kids: The Captive Audience

Cash-strapped schools are especially vulnerable to advertisers seeking to deliver captive audiences of young people to their clients. With teachers and school administrators forced to do more with less, advertisers and their business clients have seized on the ability of schools to provide "captive audiences" in exchange for free goods and services

"School is... the ideal time to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products, test market, promote sampling and trial usage and -- above all -- to generate immediate sales," claims Lifetime Learning Systems, which helps corporate clients place promotional materials in schools.

Young people are the most prized demographic target for advertisers for several reasons:

An 18-month study by Consumers Union (summarized in May 1995 Consumer Reports) found that ads are commonplace in American schools.

"We found that thousands of corporations were targeting school children or their teachers with marketing activities ranging from teaching videos, guidebooks, and posters to contests, product giveaways, and coupons," said the report, entitled "Captive Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids at School."

Wall posters with information on dental hygiene are sponsored by a leading soft drink manufacturer. Ads for 7-Up are found on school buses in Colorado Springs. In Black Mountain, NC, students are inundated with coupons and other enticements from McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

Channel One, an advertiser-sponsored (and advertiser-friendly) current affairs program, is beamed to 11,800 schools, reaching about 38 percent of American students in grades 6-12.

Meanwhile, Star Broadcasting is providing schools with extra cash in return for filling the hallways and lunchrooms with commercial-laden rock music.

"Captive Kids" even found corporate propaganda masquerading as educational curriculum:

"Our schools have become ad vehicles," said Consumers Union researcher Charlotte Baecher. "The purpose of advertising is to persuade... [and this bias] has no place in the classroom."

"The authority of schools is used to drive home ideas about products," said Rhoda Karpatkin, president of Consumers Union. Ads in schools take unfair advantage of children who believe that "if it weren't a good product, it wouldn't be advertised in a school," Karpatkin said.

Instead of opening their doors to marketing schemes, she said, schools should be teaching a "healthy skepticism" about advertising.

Free Speech or Sponsored Speech?

What happens to independent thought and speech when under-funded cultural institutions feel pressure to accept -- without challenge -- the version of reality proffered by a corporate sponsor?

Here are examples of how some major American museums surrendered their independence in exchange for corporate funding:

Here's how Jan Wilson, director of corporate support for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), appeals to corporate clients: "At a time when the average American is deluged with upwards of 16,000 advertisements a day, studies show that corporate credits on public TV stand out. Your message breaks through the clutter.

The risks of this fundraising strategy are great. It is a short, fatal step from asking, "Where is our creative vision leading us?" To asking "What can we get funded?" When an institution begins asking the second question, its artistic and creative integrity is dead.

Ad-friendly Journalism

Print and electronic news rooms have long had a love-hate relationship with their advertising departments. For about 100 years, news media have relied mainly on advertisers to pay the bills (until the late 19th century, newspapers were subscribers and political parties).

Traditionally, news rooms have jealously guarded their independence, even if it meant stepping on the toes of powerful advertisers.

But the 1980s wave of mergers and takeovers shifted the balance of power in favor of advertisers. Daily newspapers -- with historically high profit margins -- were attractive targets for media conglomerates seeking to diversify and compete in the global media market.

When a newspaper was taken over, its profits and assets were used to finance the next acquisition. Instead of investing in a higher quality newspaper, or saving money for lean years, the management siphoned off the cash.

As a result, profitable newspapers were forced to cut staff, raise the news stand price (thus reducing circulation to low-income readers not valued by advertisers), and implement news room marketing schemes to attract middle and high-income readers.

"This decade of corporate development changed the nature of… newspapers across the country as dramatically as if they had been converted to fried chicken franchises," writes James Squires, author of "Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers."

The invasion of news rooms by marketing plans, writes Squires, resulted in "a shift of emphasis toward news about celebrities and sports figures, titillating details of the personal lives of the rich and famous, and a preoccupation with reporting the latest, most trendy and most provocatively wretched of human travails."

The trend also promoted a "new style editor," says Bill Kovach, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution who resigned in 1988 due in part to commercial pressure in the news room.

"The trend for the past decade has been to promote editors who, if they are not business people, then they are business conscious," said Kovach, now curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation.

This new bottom-line consciousness means that publishers rarely have to apply direct pressure to produce "advertiser-friendly" reporting, stated a 1992 study entitled "Dictating Content: How Advertising Pressure Can Corrupt a Free Press."

Business-conscious editors set a tone that quickly trickles down to the lowliest beat reporter. "It would be a mistake to make a whole conspiracy theory out of it," said one media executive.

"You get an establishment attitude on the part of the press, because original souls don't thrive in such an atmosphere, and the people who are there don't want to displease those who hired them," said the executive, who asked not to be named.

Today, a young reporter is more likely to be assigned a story about a new shopping mall rather than investigating working conditions and pay-scales at the local factory.

Each issue of media trade journals such as Columbia Journalism Review and American Journalism Review details how commercial pressures affect news coverage. Here are some examples of "economic censorship" compiled by the Center for the Study of Commercialism:

Local media are especially sensitive to major advertisers such as realtors and car dealers. "Everyone loves it if you're chopping up the city of Philadelphia," says Philly consumer reporter Herb Denenberg, "but if you're chopping up car dealers or department stores, [most media] don't want to touch it."

This is a kind of media self-censorship inconceivable to the framers of the First Amendment, whose aim was to protect the media from government censorship. But this protection means little when media censor themselves, a practice critics call "economic censorship."

Active Citizen to Passive Consumer

Advertising has profoundly changed our civic culture, reducing the Jeffersonian ideal of an active, engaged citizenry to a passive "consumer democracy."

In a consumer democracy, citizens are so teased and goaded into the relentless pursuit of goods and services that they have little time for civic affairs and community problem-solving.

Similarly, an advertiser-driven popular culture emphasizes stories of individual conflict and gratification, and rarely tells stories of citizens joining together to challenge the status quo.

By incessantly focusing attention on the self, advertising culture discourages awareness of the world outside the self. This passivity is further reinforced by a bureaucratic culture that discourages citizen activism. This "go along to get along" mentality paints citizen activists as troublesome nay-sayers incapable of being team players.

What Can Citizens Do?

"It starts with families," argue the authors of "Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for the Consumer Society." Parents must decide whether to raise their children as citizens or consumers, say Michael Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur.

"If parents do not communicate competing world views, their children may well adopt the values of the marketplace. Jacobson and Mazur advise parents to critique ads with their children and discuss how ad-sponsored programs send subtle messages about self-gratification and a high-consumption lifestyle.

But citizen resistance to the culture of advertising must reach into the community. Here are some steps concerned citizens can take:

Encourage organizations like Businesses for Social Responsibility to set standards for non-exploitive support of public institutions.


Citizen Resources

Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society by Michael F. Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur. Boulder. Westview Press, 1995.

The Sponsored Life: Ads. TV and American Culture by Leslie Savan, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Media Advocacy and Public Health: Power for Prevention by Lawrence Wallack et al. Newbury Park, Ca.: Sage Publications, 1993.

Boxed In; The Culture of TV by Mark Crispin Miller. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Adbusters Quarterly. The Media Foundation, 1243 West 7th Avenue, Vancouver, B.C, V6H 1B7 Canada. 800-663-1243.

Advice. The Center for the Study of Commercialism, 1875 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC 20009.


Media literacy must face 'corporate sponsorship'

What does the future hold for media literacy? Len Masterman thinks he knows.

Masterman is arguably Great Britain's most influential scholar and practitioner of media literacy. During 1994 visit to Canada, he spoke at length on media literacy's future. Masterman has recently been studying the twin phenomena of corporate sponsorship and public relations, forms of marketing and public opinion management more subtle and covert than advertising.

Unlike incessant in-your-face advertising, corporate sponsorship -- such as Philip Morris supporting Virginia Slims women's tennis or Champion International supporting Olympic kayaking -- is not seen as a problem by the general public, says Masterman.

That makes it difficult for media educators to identify the phenomenon as a subject for critical inquiry.

"Most people, certainly most kids, think of sponsorship as a form of charity, as an act of corporate generosity.... Sponsorship is seen as a lifeline to survival for all kinds of activities, in the arts, in sport, even in academic research... which could not sustain themselves in terms of the number of customers they would attract," he says.

But in the long-run, corporate sponsorship is "disastrous" for a democracy, he says. "Sponsorship is the worst possible mechanism for distributing resources in any culture or society. It gives the most to those who need it least.... because sponsors want to be associated with already proven success."

With funding following success, says Masterman, unproved artists or ideas, obscure or poor institutions, are starved for support while prestigious individuals and organizations -- who need help the least -- get the most attention and support.

"If you're a golfer looking for sponsorship, it's better to be Nick Faldo than a youngster struggling to buy his first clubs," he says. "If you're a theater group, it's better to be the Royal Shakespeare Co. than a 'fringe' theater group. If you're an artist, be David Hockney and not someone starving in a garret."

This method of allocating resources creates "obscene" disparities, says Masterman.

"Sportsmen, who are already multi-millionaires can make hundreds of thousands of dollars with a single putt, or by winning a tennis match, whilst, in the UK for example, children's playing fields are being sold off at an unprecedented rate, and decent sporting facilities at a community level are difficult to find, particularly where they are most needed."

But the problem runs deeper. If corporate money follows success, it also flees controversy. That makes sponsorship "a profoundly conservative influence wherever it appears," Masterman says.

"[Sponsors] don't want to be associated with work that may upset or alienate people. They generally support what is safe, known, and popular rather than what is risky and experimental."

That's advantageous for sponsors, he says, "but it's absolute death to the arts or the media, whose lifeblood is new ideas, new forms and new writing which challenge and push beyond established styles and tastes."

More specifically, sponsorship threatens the integrity of those who work in education, the media, and the arts. As these fields grow more dependent on corporate sponsors, so does the likelihood that journalists, educators, and artists will shape their priorities and agendas to meet the needs and expectations of the sponsor, says Masterman.

"All too many professionals, to their shame, are complicit in this process," he says. "They give up thinking for themselves and, instead, think up projects which they hope will be attractive to sponsors."

Unfortunately, corporate sponsorship has a powerful ally that blocks critical scrutiny. It's the commonly accepted notion that free speech and independent thought are best served by market mechanisms.

"The voice of the market is very soothing and reassuring on this issue," says Masterman. "It says, 'Don't worry. Democratic values are actually guaranteed by the market. In fact, the 're virtually synonymous with it.'"

The growing influence of corporate sponsorship has serious implications for a society that values free speech and independent thinking, he says. "In the long run, our universities and our societies are in trouble if they allow their agendas to be set for them by the boardrooms of the major corporations."

Piercing this ideological "armor" won't be easy, warns Masterman. Media educators can begin by broadening the critique of commercialism and democracy to include corporate sponsorship and the PR industry.

"The analysis of marketing will have to go way beyond our conventional ways of critiquing advertising, and getting arguments and issues clear seems to me to be central to any meaningful media studies agenda for the future," Masterman says.

This report is based on a lengthy interview with Len Masterman in "Mediacy," the newsletter of Canada's Association for Media Literacy,40 McArthur, Weston, Ontario, M9P 3M7.


North Carolina polluters use 'sponsorship' tactics

by Wally Bowen

Corporate sponsorship may seem like corporate generosity, but the practice is too often a confidence game to divert public attention from questionable business practices.

Here's how two North Carolina companies use their generosity to buy favorable media coverage and divert critical scrutiny.

In spring 1994, as Tour DuPont bicyclers raced through North Carolina, the DuPont Co. -- already notorious as one of the state's largest polluters -- raced a controversial electricity rate reduction through the NC Utilities Commission.

As Carolina Power & Light's largest customer, DuPont threatened to pull out of the CP&L grid and build its own generating plants if the commission did not grant an immediate 15 percent rate cut.

"DuPont and CP&L worked it so there wasn't any time to study the plan or hold public hearings," said Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"Clearly, they [commission staff] should have had more time to mull the plan over, but DuPont was holding a gun to their heads."

DuPont got its rate cut, which saves the company about $60 million a year, costs that no doubt will be passed on to CP&L's other customers.

Not coincidentally, the few negative headlines that appeared before the rate cut was announced were "whitewashed" a few days later as extensive coverage of the Tour DuPont blanketed North Carolina.

Compressing the time for media scrutiny of the rate-cut took advantage of the public's relatively short attention span. And media coverage of the bicycle race as a sports story ensured that no connections would be made between DuPont's "corporate generosity" and its corporate piracy.

A similar use of media camouflage is evidenced by Champion International paper company's sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic Canoe and Kayak team.

Champion's paper mill on the Pigeon River near Asheville has for decades been a source of toxic chemicals associated with increased risk for cancer and birth defects among citizens living downstream.

By providing financial support for the U.S. Olympic Canoe and Kayak Team, Champion is purchasing the positive association of whitewater sports.

Champion is running a TV commercial featuring an Olympic kayaker on the Pigeon River. The ad portrays Champion as a "leader" in water quality protection. With lush shots of sun-drenched mountain whitewater, the ad will run through the 1996 Olympics.

Janet Hoyle of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League called Champion's leadership claim "outrageous." When the company was forced to upgrade its water protection technology in the 1980s, said Hoyle, "they chose to go with a technology that's on the way out."

But spokespersons for the U.S. Olympic Canoe and Kayak Team had a different opinion of Champion's environmental record.

Olympic kayaker Cathy Hearn told CML that based on information Champion provided team members, the company appeared to be "making a good effort" to protect the environment.

But Hearn added, "This really isn't my area of expertise. My focus is elsewhere."

Craig Bonhert, USCKT communications director, told CML that "there was initial resistance from our athletes" to Champion being the team's primary sponsor. But Bonhert added that "Champion took great pains to inform them" of the company's environmental record.


Newsletter covers public relations industry tactics

by John Stauber

PR Watch is dedicated to the populist ideal of reclaiming democratic debate and decision-making from the corporate flacks, hacks, lobbyists and influence peddlers who are a kind of occupation army in our democracy.

"The use and abuse of journalists by public relations flacks and lobbyists has long been a fact of life in Washington," notes Alicia Mundy, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review.

"In the past couple of years, though, media manipulation has been taken to a new level. How have the spin-meisters come to play such an important part in our political life, and why do the media go along with them?"

Today there are about 170,000 public relations employees in the United States. There are about 40,000 more "flacks" than news reporters, and the gap is growing.

At the same time, the news media itself is big business, concentrating more and more editorial control in fewer and fewer corporate hands.

The American people know that government now serves wealthy "special interests" and that manipulation, rather than communication, has become the primary means of exchange between the powers-that-be and the public at large.

The public relations industry's wealth and clout make it fundamentally anti-democratic. When the corporate status quo is threatened by "the rest of us" (seeking better working conditions, national health care, fair prices for farmers, safe food, air, water, and social justice), the public relations flacks, lobbyists and trade associations mobilize to crush or co-opt the outnumbered, outgunned reformers.

The ascendancy of the public relations industry and the collapse of American participatory democracy are the same phenomenon.

Journalists need to recognize and report on the public relations industry in all its forms. Citizens need to know the extent of its tactics and the goals of its clients.

Editors and reporters need to counterbalance the clout of the spinmeisters with a conscious effort to advance the public interest.

We the people need to take back control of our own minds.

PR Watch is published quarterly by the Center for Media and Democracy, 3318 Gregory St., Madison, WI 53711. Phone: 608-233-3346

CML offers workshop for citizen activists

Citizens working for social change are often out-maneuvered by corporate and government bureaucracies with large PR budgets and staffs.

Citizens for Media Literacy is offering workshops to help citizen organizations level the PR playing field by developing sophisticated media relations strategies.

The workshop topics include writing an effective press release, handling media interviews, day-to-day press relations, and quick-response strategies.

The workshop also examines the phenomenon of "framing," the underlying assumptions that help determine how the media cover a story. "By understanding how reporters and editors work -- and the assumptions they make -- citizens can have more influence on how their viewpoints get communicated to the public," said Wally Bowen, executive director of Citizens for Media Literacy.

Bowen worked both as a reporter and media relations specialist before founding CML in 1991. For more information call CML at 704-255-0182.


CML blows whistle on bogus sports story

[The following letter from Citizens for Media Literacy appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times and Charlotte Observer.]

Rarely has an advertisement masqueraded as a news story so brazenly as did the May 18 Associated Press coverage of Dale Earnhardt painting his race car silver in "honor" of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company's 25 years of using the sport to promote its addictive and deadly products.

Earnhardt's highly publicized press conference was carefully orchestrated by RJR's public relations flacks. Suspense was built via strategically placed phone calls to media from "concerned race fans" wanting to know if Earnhardt was ill or retiring.

The bogus press conference was certainly worth a news story, but Associated Press covered it for the wrong reason. Instead of exposing RJR's flack attack for what it was, AP and print and broadcast media all over the Carolinas went along with the sham.

Public health advocates have long called attention to how tobacco companies have used events like Winston Cup auto racing and Virginia Slims tennis to by-pass the TV ban on tobacco advertising.

The fact that RJR so brazenly got away with its bogus press conference -- and received the publicity it desired -- indicates how comfortable sports journalists are serving as unwitting shills for the tobacco industry.

Tobe fair, sports journalists can argue that it's not their job to cover the tobacco industry and its PR machine. Indeed, the "stealth tactics" used by the tobacco -- and alcohol -- industries to shape public opinion is a political story.

We don't normally think of sports and entertainment events as venues for political persuasion. The innocence surrounding these events is exactly why they are good vehicles for an industry that is selling death and driving up health care costs for all Americans.

Wally Bowen


The long campaign to pull the plug on public broadcasting

Photo of Wally Bowen

Wally Bowen Executive Director Citizens for Media Literacy

As the right continues its assault on public broadcasting, history shows who wins and who loses if the Public Broadcasting Service is privatized. During World War One, the government poured money and talent into perfecting a new technology called radio. Returning veterans with radio training helped spawn hundreds of small radio stations across America during the post-war years.

By 1925, there were 128 college and university radio stations and a similar number of stations run by a variety of non-profits, from farmer and labor organizations to religious and civic groups.

But a problem arose when the frequencies of the fast-growing commercial networks, led by NBC, began bumping into non-profit frequencies.

With commercial broadcasters clamoring for government regulation of the airwaves, the Federal Radio Commission was formed, which NBC and its allies packed with sympathetic attorneys and engineers.

In 1928, the FRC designated the non-profits as "propaganda" stations, while commercial broadcasters were given the more benign label of "general service" stations.

Not surprisingly, the FRC favored "general service" stations whenever frequency disputes arose. Drawn into lengthy and expensive litigation, many non-profit stations were forced to shut down. Most of those that survived ran head-on into the Depression and died.

The final nail in the coffin of nonprofit radio occurred in 1934, when the networks and their lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters, defeated a move in Congress to reserve 20 percent of the public airwaves for non-commercial stations.

A crucial argument against the 20 percent set-aside came from business elites who feared that non-profit radio would be used to organize farmers and workers.

Indeed, Chicago's WCFL -- the "Voice of Farmer-Labor" -- provided news from the perspective of working people, leading one Midwest business newsletter to issue this dire warning:

"Think of the speeches that may go forth. Wild and radical speeches listened to by hundreds of thousands. These wild men in their wild talks regardless of consequences, may reach the ear, possibly inadvertently, of your influential and trusted employee, who may be detracted from paths favorable to his employer's success."

Clearly, this first battle over "public" broadcasting battle was about economic and political power, and free speech. Both commercial and non-profit broadcasters understood that radio could be used for social control and private profit as well as for free speech and wider democratic participation.

The business elites had a simple and clear-cut strategy: They argued that the marketplace is virtually synonymous with democracy, and thus the market would fairly and impartially determine whose voices get heard.

But the history of free speech in America contradicts this simplistic belief. In a key Supreme Court decision in 1945, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority that "The First Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.... Freedom of the press from government interference under the First Amendment," added Justice Black, "does not sanction repression of that freedom from private interests."

Nevertheless, non-commercial broadcasting was silent until the 1960s, when TV's "vast wasteland" brought Congressional action.

Following a 1966 Carnegie Commission study, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. But one key element of the Carnegie study was missing: the insulation of public broadcasting from political manipulation, by providing an independent revenue stream from taxes on the sale of radios, TVs, and broadcast licenses.

President Lyndon Johnson supported the independent revenue stream idea, but the issue was tabled in order to get legislation passed quickly. Johnson believed Congress could amend the legislation the following year, but this was never done.

By the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon and fellow conservatives were disgruntled over PBS documentaries such as "The Banks and the Poor," a critical look at how banks' lending policies helped keep urban poor impoverished. To avoid charges of censorship, Nixon accused public broadcasting of becoming too "centralized."

On June 30, 1972, Nixon vetoed Congress' funding of public broadcasting, which was then forced to turn to major corporations -- mainly the oil companies -- for support.

The current attack on PBS is just the latest twist in the noose in a 75-year effort to strangle the free speech potential of public broadcasting.

Those who would kill public broadcasting today are direct descendants of the business elites who saw public media as a threat to their dominance of America's information order.

Now with a new information order being mapped out by media barons like Rupert Murdoch and John Malone, the Republican Congress presents another historic opportunity to snuff out public-sector media and its free speech potential.

Protectors of free speech understand it's the nature of the commercial marketplace to silence unpopular voices and dissenting points of view.

The cheerleading media coverage of the Persian Gulf war is one of the more obvious and recent examples of this reality.

Advocates for public broadcasting must find a credible voice to tell the story of public broadcasting's 75-year struggle for survival. Big Bird and Barney can't do it alone.

[This article originally appeared Feb. 19, 1995 on the opinion page of the Raleigh News and Observer]


How corporations influence PBS, NPR

Corporate dollars buy more than advertising on public TV and radio. They also influence program content.

Corporations supply 30 percent of PBS's national programming budget. Viewer and taxpayer dollars are used to defray day-to-day operational costs. Corporate money is often earmarked for specific projects.

"That makes big business the most influential agenda-setter in public television programming," says media critic Pat Aufderheide.

Public radio is also indebted to corporate America, which provided an average of 32 percent of its budget between 1988 and 1992. To protest sponsors' influence on public radio, the late Richard Salant resigned from NPR's board of directors in 1990. Salant wanted NPR to stop accepting grants that were earmarked for coverage of particular issues or regions.

"My concern," he said, "is that when you accept funds for specific purposes in news, that permits the funder to participate in news judgments, which I think should be strictly made by the news organization."

Salant's protest went unheeded. In 1994, NPR's new president, Delano Lewis, encouraged businesses to support programs related to their industry.

For instance, Lewis envisioned a car company sponsoring the spunky "Car Talk" show. He admitted there might be conflicts of interest, but said "We'll have to work out each situation."

When corporate sponsors set the programming agenda, they often steer clear of challenging subject matter.

In 1991, for example, Ford Motor Company backed out of sponsoring an Audubon Society documentary called "The New Range Wars." The film charged that cattle ranchers overgraze fragile grasslands and threaten endangered species -- all with a healthy public subsidy.

A Ford spokesman explained the company's withdrawal by saying, "We felt the program was just too controversial."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the critically acclaimed but controversial documentary series "P.O.V." (for point of view) failed to attract corporate donors. Executive producer Mare Weiss recalls, "We knocked on a hundred corporate doors and they said, 'We'll pass, thank you.'"

Some corporate underwriters have a vested interest in the material covered on public TV, a situation that invites blackmail. When PBS's "Front-line" aired a documentary critical of General Motors, the company threatened to withdraw its support of public TV.

GM issued this statement: "We will be re-evaluating our corporate involvement and financial underwriting of Public Broadcasting Service shows, if programs such as 'Frontline' reflect a value shift on the part of PBS."

PBS also declined to air "Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment," which won an Oscar for best short documentary in 1992.

The reason? Supposedly, PBS does not air films in which the producer is also the subject. "Deadly Deception" was partly funded by INFACT, the group that coordinates the GE boycott, INFACT was featured in the film.

This argument might have more weight if the PBS lineup did not include other shows that highlight their sponsors' products.

For example, Unisys Corp. funded a PBS documentary called the "The Machine That Changed the World," a video paean to computers that profiles the evolution and achievements of Unisys.

[Reprinted from Marketing Madness: A Survival Guide for a Consumer Society by Michael Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur.]


Living in a second-hand world

by Bill McKibben

One of the most important television events of recent years was the passing of "Cheers" into eternal rerun.

The most popular show of the Reagan-Bush years combined all the paradoxes of the TV age.

On the one hand, it played to the deep, ever-growing yearning for "a place where everybody knows your name."

On the other hand, it encouraged us to experience that world entirely secondhand.

The substitution of secondhand experience for actual living may at first seem to be without environmental consequence, since it takes less energy to run a picture tube than it would to get you to a bar.

At second look, however, I think that the replacement of your own reality with some-one else's mass-produced version is at the heart of our Western environmental cataclysm, a cataclysm driven most of all by our endless materialism.

We need greater resource efficiency, we need population to be brought under control, but in the West the demon we must exorcise is the one that says: "Hey, I would like the Thighmaster - Buick - 4,000 - square - foot - house - master - of - the - pan - pipes - Bigfoot - pizza."

What is materialism? It is, beyond the point of basic sufficiency and comfort, nothing more than the search for fulfillment in all the wrong places.

Americans in the mid-1980s spent more hours shopping than their counterparts in the then-Soviet Union, bread lines notwithstanding.

The very fact that it is an endless search, that no possession satisfies more than momentarily, proves that it is not about the needs in our lives but the needs in our souls.

But there is more here than merely looking in the wrong places. It is not as if by accident we have wandered into the mails.

The TV, and the consumer society it anchors, constantly teach us not to look to the simple, the easy, the obvious sources of pleasure.

They by their nature deceive us about what we like -- passive, not active; bought, not made -- until we no longer respond to our instincts.

Most of the people who think much about the effects of TV on our culture eventually throw up their hands -- they may toss out their own set, but they see no way that our culture will ever be freed of its addiction, especially now that 500-channel cable looms.

The future appears to be high-definition, digital and bleak: a civilization lolling on the couch while the world outside heats up, simplifies, deteriorates.

If there is room for hope, then it lies in the one strange fact about our consumer society. For all its power, for all its domination of our lives, it has not succeeded in making us very happy.

There is a vague but substantial longing in many of us -- there is that voice that appears halfway through a night of prime time, maybe about the second commercial break on "Golden Girls," the voice that says, "I really could be doing something more interesting than this. More fun. More real."

So why do we watch -- why do we submerge ourselves in a material culture that brings us little pleasure and less fulfillment? Because, probably, it's the first risk-free environment humans have yet conjured.

We can use it to control our emotions like we can use the thermostat on the wall to control the climate in our houses -- any time we want to balance our mood we know how to do it, which shows to watch.

How might this nearly perfect feedback loop be broken? Not by telling people it's bad for the environment, that they've enmeshed themselves in a matrix that inevitably leads to over-consumption and more carbon dioxide and general horror.

Generally speaking, people are less responsive to general horror than to General Motors.

The only way to subvert people any more is to have more fun than they do. To walk in the woods, to brew beer, to volunteer in a homeless shelter, to act in a play, to do anything real that escapes the stifling, cynical world of TV and the mall.

The world feels threatened by such folk -- by people doing what the rest of the population dimly knows somewhere deep down they would like to do too.

Perhaps the pessimists are right, and the TV age has lasted too long, trapped too many generations. Perhaps the attraction of the real can't overcome the fear of risk.

But there is still the consolation that at least you can learn to live differently. The world may not be saved, but your life will.

[Bill McKibben is author of "The Age of Missing Information." His talk by that title is available on audio tape from Citizens for Media Literacy.]

Copyright 1997 by Citizens for Media Literacy, All Rights Reserved