Grassroots study finds 'C2N' slipping
By Ted Cox - TV/Radio
Posted Thursday, August 05, 2004
People talk about a slippery slope, but sometimes it takes a quantitative measurement to discover just how far something has slipped.
That's the case with "Chicago Tonight: Elites, Affluence and Advertising," a scathing report on WTTW Channel 11's signature 7 p.m. news show recently put out by the local grassroots group Chicago Media Action.
In some ways the report is unfair, in that it holds public TV to an antiquated standard. Yet it argues forcibly for the need for such a standard, and it pulls no punches about how a corporate mentality at the local PBS affiliate has corrupted the journalism on "C2N."
Written by James Owens and researched by Dr. Stephen Macek of Naperville's North Central College, it shows how far public TV in general and "C2N" in particular have slipped down the slope of commercialism. It also shows how successful conservatives have been in muzzling an independent voice in the media.
It's available at the chicagomediaaction.org Web site, where CMA reports that more than 2,000 people have already downloaded it. But, to modify my usual motto, I've read it so you don't have to.
The study points out PBS was created by the government in 1967 as "a forum for controversy and debate ... that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities." After all, those with the least ability to buy tend to be the least served by commercial TV.
Those Great Society ideals, however, have long been forgotten, especially after 20 years of systematic strangulation by conservatives in Congress.
The free marketplace - of ideas as well as commodities - is a wonderful place, but it doesn't necessarily produce the best journalism or the most enlightened electorate.
Just look at last week's convention coverage. The public would no doubt benefit from gavel-to-gavel coverage on the major networks, coverage that would seem to be dictated by the networks' obligation to serve the "public interest," but they insist they can no longer afford it. So we get sketchy, uneven TV coverage of a major political event.
There ought to be at least one outlet free to operate on its own terms, free of the inevitable biases of commercial TV. That was the idea behind PBS. Yet conservatives discovered that a TV network free of the need to make its own way in the marketplace frequently took stands opposed to commercial and corporate interests. So, beginning with the Reagan administration, PBS funding was slashed.
The CMA's study is strongest in acknowledging University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney's point that "the funding system is the primary culprit" for what ails public TV.
"Lack of sufficient public funding," Owens writes, "makes PBS dependent on corporate funding: Because PBS is dependent upon corporate funding, programming must appeal to the audiences required by corporate advertisers and underwriters."
The study is most damning in pointing out just how bad that dependence has gotten, and the consequences where a supposedly independent-minded issues program like "C2N" is concerned.
Looking in detail at 20 "C2N" episodes from late last year and early this year, the study finds that "in terms of who is allowed to speak, guests are overwhelmingly white, male and affiliated with major corporations."
Over the 20 programs, 79 percent of all guests were white, 12.4 percent black, 2.6 percent Latino and 1.4 percent Asian - all disproportionate to the general population.
Where commercial TV programs tend to be aimed at an audience likely to buy the products advertised on those shows, "C2N" tends to be aimed at the corporate honchos who might sponsor the show, who of course tend to be white, male and well-to-do. Thus, as Chicago Reporter editor Laura Washington has pointed out, even "Chicago's commercial stations have a far better track record" of letting minorities speak on the air.
Over the 20 "C2N" episodes, not a single minority guest was asked to address a business story.
Even worse, corporate sponsors tend to turn up as "expert" guests, especially where the Chicago Tribune is concerned.
The study suggests it's no accident that, on the rare occasion "C2N" took up the issue of proposed Federal Communications Commission media-ownership changes - changes that would greatly benefit the Tribune Co. - the only expert interviewed on the subject just happened to be a Trib reporter.
The study is less convincing in pointing out how the majority of stories on "C2N" aren't news at all, but sports or entertainment. No matter how much anyone misses John Callaway, you can't blame Channel 11 for bringing in Bob Sirott and looking to widen the audience with a broader approach. Ratings are indeed up.
The study is strongest when it's most sympathetic. "A public broadcasting system funded by corporate largesse and advertising clearly does not and will not serve the interests of the public," Owens writes. "The solution for PBS must include sufficient funding that is also independent of governmental or corporate restriction."
I'm all for the study's idea that commercial TV should provide such funding. If the major broadcast networks aren't going to be governed by a "public service" interest, they should pay to use the public airwaves.
Until then, however, public TV and "C2N" can't be expected to change, although one of the study's recommendations would seem easy to address: Put on fewer members of the media elite and more members of the general public. In short, give public television back to the public.
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