Last week provided some opportunity to look inside the minds of those who shape American media content, although if a warning about taking that look had been issued in the patois of horror movie ad copy it would have read, “Don’t go in the basement…”
Portions of the PBS series Frontline last week involved the wrestling match going on internally at the Los Angeles Times. Even a casual reader of the Times will have observed by now that the paper is, literally, shrinking. That reflects staff reductions and less space devoted to journalism. Reducing the amount of content in the Times is something we appear to tolerate better than we do gas price hikes or the Lakers losing six out of seven at Staples.
The Frontline episode’s focus on the Times included scary observations from a director of research for the firm that is fourth-largest stockholder in Tribune, the corporation that owns the Times. He said that the Times’ editors are on the wrong track trying to be a national newspaper with international coverage, and that what “people in L.A. care about” is content related to style, Hollywood entertainment and local sports. Oh, yeah, he also mentioned local government.
Jump now to CBS chief Leslie Moonves in a conference call with stock analysts last week. Moonves touted CBS’ “proven ability to generate cash” and pointed out that the company would raise its dividend for the fourth time since its split from Viacom Inc. in 2006. In painting a rosy picture of upcoming content, Moonves said: “Clearly the political race is heating up a lot faster than anybody thought it would. The fireworks that are out there bode well for us.”
It’s not a coincidence that the Moonves comments came on the heels of the Obama/Clinton sparks that have flown the last few weeks. Does the head honcho of a TV network view embarrassing Democratic histrionics, powered by media in the first place, as a source of fresh new lumber with which to build profit? If so, I have a note for the Dems: Don’t shave your heads and jump rehab just yet.
No amount of wishing or column writing can make the Democrats stay on task and present voters with ideas instead of theater. But there is a mandate for decorum and mature adult behavior, and it comes from the dead and wounded of Iraq. I’m not certain that clear thinking and solid proposals issuing from intelligent televised debate was what Moonves had in mind. But, Les, wouldn’t that type of “fireworks” profit us all?
In much the same way that Americans have adopted box office numbers as a gauge of the worth of movies, so have we also developed a sense of media theater that seems to simultaneously disgust and fascinate us. Which is bigger: Our revulsion in reaction to Anna Nicole “coverage,” or our appetite for more of it? In a similar way, we know that our next president must be more than the winner of a popularity contest, yet we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about Obama as a kind of George Clooney of candidates.
That the general public has taken on a reductive sense of what to demand from those who want power is not a headline. But the strong suspicion that those in the higher echelons of information delivery believe we should get a news diet rich in horse manure is something worth contemplating. There’s nothing new in any anger about this except that our country is, at present, heavily invested in death and chaos. It would feel better to know that corporate media was on the side of finding new leadership to staunch the bleeding instead of hosing us with pipe-clogging tripe.
Since it’s not a given that a Democratic president will rise up from the ruins of Bush-Cheney, it ultimately falls to the Democrats to actually lead in their pursuit of leadership. If the effort to choose the Democratic front-runner plays to the media’s appetite for “fireworks” over substance and solutions, then we won’t have learned anything since Colin Powell held up his drawings at the U.N.