Barack Obama's Tough on Local News, Soft on Smut?

Like most media outlets, Broadcasting & Cable magazine is wowed by Barack Obama. Introducing its cover story/interview with the candidate/savior, reporter John Eggerton declared Obama earned his nomination with "a profound appreciation of the media’s great possibilities." Or Obama profoundly appreciates the way the media’s always making his great ascent to power more possible. Is it possible Obama could say something critical about a media that’s been so uncritical of him?

When B&C asked him about the negative effects of media consolidation, Obama whispered softly into the ears of left-wing activists at Free Press and Common Cause and the Media Access Project:

The ill effects of consolidation today and continued consolidation are well-documented -- less diversity of opinion, less local news coverage, replication of the same stories across multiple outlets, and others. We can do better.

Few candidates have ever benefited from "less diversity of opinion" in the media as much as Obama. The nation’s political reporters resembled a nearly unanimous pack of enthusiastic Obama super-delegates. Surely this isn’t the opinion Obama’s talking about.

No, Obama is speaking in code. He means that one of the "ill effects" of consolidation is too much conservative talk radio. But B&C utterly failed to ask Obama about emergent efforts to reimpose a "Fairness Doctrine" on radio if President Obama and a Democratic Congress get to set national communications policy.

Obama explicitly stated: "I feel that media consolidation during the Bush administration has had the effect of eliminating a lot of the diversity of information sources available to persons who have to rely on more traditional information sources, such as radio and television broadcasts and newspapers."

Does Obama have any facts to back this up? What newspapers, radio and TV information sources were "eliminated" in the Bush years? Newspaper circulation has been declining since 1980, and the federal government doesn’t regulate newspapers like it does broadcasting. The rise in Bush hatred led to more liberal talk radio, like Air America, even if it’s been a commercial disaster. There’s been no "elimination" of diversity on TV, even as Obama and other Democratic presidential candidates tried to boycott Fox News.

Obama can certainly argue that national and local TV news often eschew serious coverage for ratings-goosing trivia. But after enthusiastic coverage of Obama’s long march through the primaries with Hillary Clinton, it looks like a pretty inopportune time to try and complain about it.

What’s fascinating about this interview is how Obama can furrow his brow about the loosey-goosey lack of regulation of media companies when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, but when the subject changes to regulating broadcasters for excessive sexual or violent content, Obama suddenly starts sounding like a Chicago acolyte of Milton Friedman. Suddenly, in one rare area for this ultraliberal candidate, mega-corporations and market principles can rule the day.

Obama starts with the platitude that parents are the first line of defense, and some "nonintrusive" regulation can help. But he quickly lined up with his Hollywood financial backers and stated his preference for "technological solutions to this challenge rather than extending content regulation to cable and satellite. Given modern technology and increasingly sophisticated cable and satellite boxes and services, the market should be able to rise to meet the market demand to protect kids from indecent content."

Eggerton offered no follow-up question on how gimmick "solutions" like the V-chip are supposed to work when the networks don’t place the content descriptors in their programs that would trigger the V-chip to help parents protect their children from sex, violence, or bad language.

Obama felt that Washington should not be in the business of "content censorship," as if today’s FCC quickly and arbitrarily bans programs, instead of occasional slow walk to assessing a fine five years after an offensive program airs. In the case of market failure, Obama declared, "legislative and regulatory action may be necessary -- but it must be crafted carefully and focus not on content censorship, but rather on tools for parents."

Again, Obama is speaking in code. The problem of smutty television isn’t to be blamed on the makers of smutty television. It’s the parents who’ve failed to find the proverbial technological pony in the stable full of dung.

Isn’t it funny that in the same interview Obama can lament how media consolidation’s ruined news content (less local news, too many repeats of stories), and suggests that he will try to nudge broadcasters that "we can do better," but when it comes to entertainment, the solution must be in a gizmo?

The media – and especially the media that’s about media – ought to do more to ask Obama about the specifics of cultural rot. Does he let his grade-school daughters watch videos on MTV or BET? Does he think hip-hop music glorifies violence and drugs? Would he just giggle at a Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" and move on? Does he mind orgy scenes in prime time?

But Obama just gets a pass, since he is a historic figure with a "profound appreciation of the media’s great possibilities."

Media Business
Tim Graham's picture