This week, Dick and I spent time downtown at the Los Angeles City Hall where hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of protesters have been “Occupying LA”. The protesters, who set up tents on the grounds around City Hall, are there 24-7 protesting the gridlock we see in Washington, the lack of representation for the concerns of common Americans, and the unfair advantages granted to the wealthiest 1% among us.
On one of the days we were there, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West were among the crowd delivering words of encouragement, free pizzas were donated by CrooksandLiars.com, and a resolution was read that had been approved by the Los Angeles City Council supporting the efforts of this grassroots, leaderless movement. The scene was positive, exciting, and inspirational.
So here we were, in the midst of this highly charged mass of humanity, with Cornel West blasting the establishment, scores of motorists honking their approval as they drove by, and hundreds of citizen journalists everywhere taking notes for stories they would write and using their hand-held flipcams to make YouTube videos — but no mainstream media.
Not a single camera or reporter from the local news stations was within view. I couldn’t believe that I stood witnessing this phenomenal movement without a hint of evidence that traditional media was documenting or reporting.
Then, as I scanned the mass of people I noticed a familiar face in the distance on the crowd’s outer rim. She looked like a reporter from a local television news show. I walked over to the area where she and her cameraman were standing for a better look.
And, I was right. It was a veteran reporter for the local NBC affiliate “Channel 4 News”. Turns out the local news affiliates for ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX had crews reporting from downtown Los Angeles. Yes sir – they were all downtown, in full force no less, covering the Michael Jackson/Conrad Murray manslaughter trial! The case is being heard in the court house just a few feet from Los Angeles City Hall.
Now, I don’t want to minimize the importance of this or any other criminal trial. And I want to emphasize that this writing has nothing to do with the coverage of the Conrad Murray trial and everything to do with the lack of local news coverage devoted to Occupy LA – arguably one of the most important grassroots uprisings in recent times.
When I got home, I watched the CBS local news affiliate from beginning to end. I was hoping the presence of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley at the day’s events might have motivated local media to give it some on-air coverage, even if brief. But I was wrong. There was no mention of Occupy LA during the telecast.
After watching, I found myself wondering why the show occupies our airwaves. What they try to pass off as news can’t possibly fool anyone, with more than half of its air time being devoted to sports and weather. And this is Los Angeles – a city that rarely has any weather worth reporting.
It’s hard to fathom but according to a recent poll of average Americans, there continues to be a large percentage of people who rely on local television news to stay informed. According to Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center and professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, over 65% of Americans get their political news from local TV news stations. That might explain why we, as a people, are so woefully uninformed. So uninformed, in fact, that we continue to vote in ways that run contrary to our best interests — yet the vast majority of Americans continue to rely solely on mainstream media as their source for political news.
These are the people that are frequently referred to perjoratively as “low information voters”. We often hear late night comedians and others mocking these low information voters, but rarely, if ever, do they mention the key role TV and radio broadcasters play in the dumbing down of America.
Mainstream television and radio broadcast on the public airwaves with free licenses. These airwaves belong to you and me. We justify the practice of granting these free licenses to mainstream media because they allegedly fulfill a public interest obligation. However, it’s hard to reconcile them fulfilling their public interest obligation with what they air, night after night, in media outlets across this country.
In a New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled, “The Price of Free Airwaves“, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wrote about the lack of public interest information on the airwaves. Calling the use of the public airwaves a privilege, not a right, Copps wrote that the public airwaves are worth more than half a trillion dollars. He said that we allow TV and radio broadcasters to use them for free and all that we require is that they serve the public interest by devoting at least some airtime for worthy programs that inform voters, support local arts and culture and educate our children.
I, for one, can’t see the public interest requirement being satisfied in broadcasting that Conrad Murray was simultaneously texting several beautiful young women while he was supposed to be monitoring Michael Jackson after administering propofal or that members of the Los Angeles Fire Department were caught taking pictures of scantily clad women while on duty. These are a couple of the stories that dominated the local newscasts on one of the many nights the stations could have been airing coverage of Occupy LA.
Consuming a steady diet of this kind of mind-numbing pablum is having a devastating impact on our populace and ultimately putting democracy at risk. Although the FCC is tasked with the responsibility of holding broadcaster’s feet to the fire when it comes to serving the public good, Copps admitted that something more needs to be done. Offering one example of the lack of local political coverage, he said, “consider that only about 8 percent of local TV newscasts in the month before the last presidential election contained any coverage whatsoever of local races, including those for the House of Representatives”.
With mainstream media feeding us a steady stream of useless information, true informative programming — the kind that people are desperate to get, the kind that helps them to make informed ballot box decisions — is harder to find. Michael Copps noted one major deficiency but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Case in point – how do you know who to elect in judicial elections or where to stand on the propositions in any given election cycle? The kind of reporting that would help you to make those kinds of informed decisions has become a relic of the past. You almost have to be an FBI agent to find out anything about the candidates on your ballots.
The protesters occupying Los Angeles and a hundred other cities in the nation call themselves “The 99%”. They are fed up with a system that they believe has been rigged to serve the interests of the wealthiest 1% of the country. They are demanding reform across a broad spectrum of political and governmental arenas. The use of the public airwaves is just one example that is ripe for reform and is the type of concern they are challenging the power structure to address.
Americans are over-entertained and under-informed partly because the use of our public airwaves has been co-opted by a handful of corporations.
Knowing that access to the public airwaves is granted to mainstream media specifically to enable them to deliver information that is for the public good made it all the more irksome whenever I tried as a voter, to get information on candidates’ positions and failed. It also troubled me that the talking heads all looked pretty much the same – white and male – both on the right and the left.
I figured I wasn’t alone in my frustration so, working hand-in-hand with my husband, I founded the LA Progressive. Since launching the LA Progressive in 2008, we’ve received 5,000,000 pageviews. But we need to do better. We are barely scratching the surface. Fortunately for us, the new media gives you, the reader, the power to be a distributor of news simply by clicking “share” or “like” on the Facebook icon below this article and in the upper right side of this page.
With mainstream media falling down on the job and the FCC allowing them to use our public airwaves for free without demanding that they fulfill their end of the bargain, we have to fight back with whatever we’ve got.
Recently, I discovered that Hip Hop mogul, Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam, is supporting the efforts of The 99%. Russell and I grew up in the same neighborhood and went to school together. Our old neighborhood in Queens has been hard hit by this economic downturn. Unemployment there is off the charts. Foreclosures abound. Yet the people who live there rely on mainstream news to inform them about what is going on in the world. Should we be surprised that these same communities exhibit the highest degree of voter apathy. Many of them simply don’t show up because they know so little about the candidates or the issues.
But Hip Hop culture has also become a dominant force in their lives. So I applaud Russell and any other celebrity who steps up to support the much needed reform The 99% is demanding. The mainstream may not put Cornel West on the air but they seem to love Hip Hop celebrities.
If you’ve got celebrity, use it. If you’ve got a computer, use social media. If all you have is a telephone, call your people. The 99% Occupy movement is giving this country an opportunity to make some long needed adjustments. Every one of us must get involved before it’s too late.
Big kudos to everyone supporting the movement. In spite of the lack of coverage on the public airwaves we, the people, will be heard — history has been, will be and is being made with or without mainstream media.