Letters for the week of August 4-10, 2004

Don't be dissing Rush, pal. Big Media fears freedom, failed on Iraq, and goes too easy on Bush — and we're apathetic.

“Head Trip,” Film, 7/14

Metallica would be pissed

You state in your review that Hetfield makes the “squillions of dollars” comment, but I’m pretty sure it was actually Newsted who says it.

Rahul Kamath, Albany

“Just Like Hendrix?” Music, 7/7

Music unites; marketing divides

I am a 33-year-old professional musician, and as a teenager I listened to a lot of Rush and Hendrix. I also listened to as many other examples of well-played and -composed music of every genre I could access. Most good musicians and people who enjoy culture check out a lot of different music. Marketers are the people who endlessly subdivide and categorize.
Jamal Millner, Charlottesville, Virginia

Bringing the funk since 1980

I just wanted Mr. Lindsay to know that Rush is not funkless. In fact, Geddy Lee’s style on bass has gotten extremely funky and the band has songs that have an actual groove. Try “Red Lenses” from 1984’s Grace Under Pressure or “Scars” from the 1990 album Presto. If that does not work, I suggest “Territories” from 1986’s Power Windows.

I have been getting a kick out of writers’ misinformed opinions of Rush for twenty years now. Most of the criticisms leveled at the band are hilariously outdated, to say the least. Rush has not been doing their ’70s-style pomp-rock for years even though dumb writers still say they do. Once and for all, it’s time for the press to wake up — Rush has been a quality pop band since 1980. If only the unfair press would actually listen before they spoke. Thank you for your time.
P.S. Note the title of the new EP — “Feedback.”
Matthew Shannon, Saratoga Springs, New York

“Rethinking the Media Monopoly,” Feature, 7/7

And now, a brief respite from our reporting on morticians and sex therapy

Will Harper’s story on media monopolies got one thing right. We are not completely helpless against the five or six companies that control most of what we see, hear, and read. We have the Internet to do things like release the pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners, which would have been done by mainstream media during the Vietnam war. The big media are terrified of this freedom, which is why they are making so many clumsy and unsuccessful attempts to suppress other voices.

CBS tries to suppress the MoveOn.org Super Bowl ad, and generates publicity for it. Disney tries to suppress Fahrenheit 9/11, and helps to make it the biggest-selling documentary of all time. And now, as a pathetic footnote to these blunders, we have one of our two cloned McUnderground papers trying to convince us that media monopolies do not reduce diversity. (I hope I sent this to the right paper. I’ve never been able to tell them apart.) It was even more pathetically transparent to include in the same issue Chris Thompson’s scattershot attack (“they all suck”) on the liberal books that print the truth ignored by the journalistic media.

Did the front office in Arizona request this whitewash job from Harper, or did his survival instinct make him realize that he could pay his rent this month if he gave you what you wanted? Sometimes the difference between rape and prostitution is not that significant when the need for money is great enough.

I suppose I should point out some of the many non sequiturs in this article that attempt to masquerade as arguments. The fact that we have more channels and newspapers to choose from doesn’t give freedom of expression when they’re all saying the same thing and are controlled by the same companies. Calling torture by its true name on a comedy show, and refusing to do so on a news show, trivializes the accusation. The fact that all other aspects of American commerce are controlled by a few big companies doesn’t justify the media monopolies. It makes the problem worse. And a couple of papers that became slightly more liberal once they were taken over by media conglomerates doesn’t erase the homogenization that happens everywhere else. But we don’t need to read statistics to see what has happened. We remember what the SF Weekly and the East Bay Express were like before they had the life cloned out of them. And no DJ claiming that there’s now more variety on the radio can stop us from hearing the blandness of modern commercial radio.

If you guys want to survive in this capitalistic society, you’d better take a good look at what people are buying now. Those liberal best-sellers, and the huge success of Fahrenheit 9/11, show that there is a tremendous hunger for the investigative reporting that you now only include in token amounts between your tabloid screeds on sex therapy and morticians. If you don’t want to be eaten alive by Knight-Ridder in a bankruptcy sale, you had better start delivering what the underground public wants. Calling a dead conservative president a fascist is not enough to give you street credibility in Berkeley when you won’t do any serious investigation of a live one.

Teed Rockwell, Berkeley

Conflicts of interest

Has shrinking ownership of mass media outlets really limited our choices? No. It seems the right to freedom of expression is still largely intact, and people are still free to publish or say what they want — and we are all free to dig deep to find it. However, does this mean this expression will be heard? Unlikely at best. The media that most Americans glean their information from is the media that is most readily available, as most Americans are too busy working their asses off and living busy lives to muck about for independent news outlets. Thus they go for the stuff that saturates the market, the stuff that is mass-produced, cheap, and familiar. This is the media which helps formulate public opinion, and it is the media with the most $$ behind it.

The “big five” you discuss in the article have vested interests in industries such as oil and armaments (i.e., the prime beneficiaries of such highly trumpeted events as the Iraq war), and, in a more sensibly regulated media environment, they could be brought to court for conflict of interest. Speaking of which, it is a good thing that you disclosed early on that the Express is owned by a chain, though I’m still not sure whether it exempts you from your own conflict of interest with regard to this article. Enjoy your paycheck from New Times.

P.S. With regard to the “chaining” of stores. … The problem with giants such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Borders, and Barnes and Noble is not that they are “killing local flavor” but that they are hell-bent on destroying unions in their industry in the name of maximized profits, and damn the human cost. As media outlets continue to consolidate with other huge companies who have conflicting interests, the truth may become a casualty in America in the same way a living wage has.

John Mink, Oakland

A healthy media would have foiled George Bush

Will Harper’s claims about Bagdikian’s thesis are scholastic and mostly beside the point. If we had a healthy, functioning media, Bush would have probably never been able to come to power — or, having come to power, been so hounded by a properly skeptical media that he would have been impeached by now. (The slow turn against Bush currently in the corporate media is simply the need to get on the bandwagon given this administration’s obvious cynicism and corruption.)

Further, the needs of going to war in Iraq would have been shown to be a fraud in real time. (And Judith Miller of The New York Times would have been summarily fired, if she would have been hired in the first place.) All Harper has to do is look at the results of US media: The simple fact that 60 percent of people in this country still think that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and al-Qaeda is really all one needs to know. Given the fact that a vast majority of people in this country still get their news, if they get any news at all, from local TV, we shouldn’t be surprised.

I’m really not sure why Harper focuses on Bagdikian without engaging Robert McChesney’s trenchant analysis of media, or Chomsky or the major themes explored by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Its pretty clear that Americans know very little about the main issues of the day, that most of the media is self-preeningly captive, and that this serves the needs of those extraordinarily powerful and wealthy individual and corporate interests that run this country. That there are exceptions simply proves the rule. The independent media, whether in cyberspace or not, hardly matters, particularly when articulating a point of view that does not accord with the demands of wealth and power.

Using Matt Drudge as an example of the power of a “little voice” actually shows how these voices are differentially privileged in the US. Let’s compare Drudge to Greg Palast. Palast, an established London-based journalist, is relatively unknown in the US, although he has convincingly shown, amongst other things, that the 2000 Florida vote was clearly a win for Gore. Drudge was picked up because his message was used by the reactionary elites in this country to cripple a centrist sitting US president. Palast is not getting traction for precisely the same reason: His information is not in service to these same reactionary elites. Harper needs to refocus and step back. Outcome matters here, not theoretical arguments of process. Media concentration might not be as germane, but the US is clearly in thrall to a media process that results in appalling ignorance and political apathy.

Robert Lipton, Berkeley

Echoes of Rush

In criticizing Ben Bagdikian’s The New Media Monopoly, Will Harper makes a pretty good case that we have more choices than ever, but misses on the most important one: Which sources influence public opinion the most? Each of us may have a computer, but if we have our home pages set on MSN or Yahoo, what “news” are we most likely to internalize as accurate?

In his haste to dismiss the venerable media giant’s conclusion that the predictions have come true, he does not adequately consider whether they have. Perhaps, as a country, we’ve internalized mainstream media to the point where few see alternative press as anything more than an occasional curiosity. While thousands may pick up the Houston Press and glance at it, dare you assume ANYONE reads it cover to cover? I know some Houston Chronicle readers who do so.

Indeed, media control is not absolute, but it is overwhelmingly influential. I don’t think daily newspapers carry near the public opinion clout they once did, but I fear that the highly corporatized televised news — and more recently comedians — are grabbing a larger share of the political audience than is healthy for a democratic society.

As for Clear Channel, the hatred spewed by its talk show hosts is widely internalized by angry white males to the point where echoes of Rush permeate nearly every casual political discussion. (For a treatise on this, consider your fellow alternative paper the Austin Chronicle‘s Louis Black, who describes the consistent content of hate mail as a Rush Limbaugh offshoot: AustinChronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2004-07-02/cols_pagetwo.html .) Perhaps rightly, Harper chides Bagdikian for not developing this point more deeply, but he does not provide a clue as to whether The New Media Monopoly does an adequate job in those two pages.

My view on why the country is becoming more conservative has less to do with press influence than with the fact that we baby boomers are aging. As our cohort forms national policy, we reach back to the influences that shaped our political thought rather than try to absorb new, progressive direction.

A quick dismissal of Bagdikian’s premise that the country is leaning right may be premature. Progressive liberal expatriate Greg Palast believes that his inability to get good investigative stories published stateside results from the mainstream media’s penchant for avoiding “loony-left” conspiracies. Certainly most of the mainstream press is not fulfilling its “raise hell” obligation, but has it since the ’60s? By teaching us not to question our authorities, not to challenge political assumptions, we’ve become more conservative in the sense that we are too content with the status quo. That docility leaves us easy prey to right-wing firebreathers who dragged us into a war no rational person could have foreseen or wanted.

Bagdikian’s previous claims may have culminated in the very shift we now witness.

Donald Johnson, Houston, Texas

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