Saturday, May 14, 2005

Commercials Between Commercials

Contributed by Norm Weathers

Fondly, I remember the days when the only commercial at the movies was the ad with the animated popcorn, enticing my appetite for exploded kernels. Now, in order to keep my ticket price below my monthly income, I suffer through extended versions of tired commercials that mock my inability to ignore them just to pretend the savings come back to me. Not only does this saddle me with the great fortune of even more time spent inside a darkened room with strangers, but it leaves the burning question: Shouldn’t my ticket come with a disclaimer that my eight bucks is simply a partial payment for the entertainment? Apparently I’m not the first one to say so, as one movie theater chain, Loews Cineplex Entertainment, is recognizing that listed film starting times may need to more accurately reflect reality. I wish my evening news would take the hint.

Lately it seems that more and more stories on news outlets such as ABC are offering up what functionally serves as an advertisement for a for-profit company, wrapped decoratively in a story about some wild transaction or event planned entirely for the purposes of generating that very story. What was once reserved for “spotlight-of-the-week” pieces has begun to sneak out of goofy features programming straight into the top-story “hard news” section. For example--- numerous news outlets such as MSNBC, WNBC, AP NEWS, and CNN have reported the story of crafty publicity stunts that the online Golden Palace Casino has successfully engineered by purchasing unusual items from Ebay, such as: a grilled cheese sandwich said to resemble the Virgin Mary; Britney Spears’ alleged pregnancy test; and advertising on the flesh of willing human billboards. The casino is a Canadian gambling site with a business address in Antigua, and consequently cannot do direct advertising in the U.S. By purchasing these auction items, they have gained national exposure worth many millions of advertising dollars in a location they can’t buy it. All for the price of a grilled cheese sandwich (notwithstanding its celebrity likeness).
Ironically, most of the news reports acknowledged in those stories that, by reporting on the story, they too were falling victim to this publicity strategy. When did reporting on how you’re getting duped by a publicity strategy—in which a corporation uses the reporting of a publicity strategy as the strategy itself--- become a legitimate news story? Isn’t this a self-feeding circular non-productive calorie waster?

So when do I get to sit through the evening news, tub of popcorn at the ready, without having to endure the advertising booby-trap the media gobbled up as a legit hard news story? What time does the REAL news begin? Maybe there will come a day that the media outlets take Loews Theatre’s lead and inform us that news actually begins at 6:12, after the fake news is done. At least that gives me some time to browse through Ebay for a salami sandwich that looks like Dan Rather! (Golden Palace—call me!)

Friday, May 13, 2005

Canadian Publication Ban

There's mayhem in Canada!

Canada's political system is about to suffer a blistering meltdown under the heat of a political scandal that's making Washington politics look like an ice cream social.

If you're not following the drama, you're not alone. Accounts of the hearings of three key witnesses have been subject to a publication ban, described as a "broadcast to the public" ban, which specifically includes "posting to the Internet," as ruled by Justice John H. Gomery, the appointed Commissioner of the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship and Advertising Activities. Yes, Canada allows freedom the press, but in past cases, out of respect for the families of violent crime victims, publication has been supressed at the order of the presiding judge.

In this case, Gomery justifies the ban as follows:

This matter is a classic case where a balance must be found between two constitutionally protected rights, the right of the public to be informed of matters affecting them, guaranteed by section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms4, and the right of every person accused of a crime to have a fair trial, guaranteed by section 11(d) of the Charter. It should be noted that Canadian citizens have an interest in the protection of both of these rights, since the freedom of the press is an essential value in a democracy, and the guarantee that every person is presumed innocent and cannot be found guilty of a criminal offence without undergoing a fair trial is for the protection of us all.

Crazy, eh? Well, it's crazy to Americans. It seems Canadians tend to support the ban (read comments here) in the interest of a fair trial. What's interesting is that the information is still getting out, via blogs in the US. Most specifically, a blog based in Minnesota, called Captain's Quarters Blog, which effectively makes the ban useless, but renders the unauthorized work of bloggers as the primary source of news gathering. It is expected that Canadian bloggers who violate the ban will be prosecuted, though it will be an intersting discussion when it comes to linking to other information. An example that has been raised: will webhosts and bloggers be liable for all content of each website that they link to? Can they say where to find the info? If not, how many degrees from the illegal source material can they link? Could one person be liable for another's indiscretions if a site they have already linked to chooses to post illegal content without their knowledge?

Interstingly enough, the effectiveness of the ban dramatically impacts the course of action that the staggering Liberal Party chooses, given the structure of their political system, and the options available to them prior to public disclosure of the hearings. I'd love to get into the scandal with you, but it runs far deeper than we can get into here, so check out windsofchange.net for a summary and analysis, and the renegade US blog, Captain's Quarters, if you are interested.

Hey, where's the US media on this scandal, anyway?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Live shooting in Los Angeles

The LA Times published a report today about two live television broadcasts that showed the fatal shooting at the conclusion of a dramatic 50-minute police pursuit yesterday.

I agree with KTLA TV Channel 5 News Director Jeff Wald's assesment that "There's no reason on God's earth why you need to show an actual shooting," but I don't believe for a second that he feels that way. They aired it, and if they were so troubled by what they showed their viewers, I doubt they would have aired a tape of it on a later broadcast.

Their policy is to use a wide shot if violence appears imminent. An interesting concept, but not quite the same as cutting away. The policy is a joke, you're still watching somebody get shot to death. Speaking of jokes, imagine if there was a live comedy broadcast in which the station airing the program instructed their crew to lower the volume if the comic gave an indication that he was about to curse. Good idea, huh? That way you could still get the joke, but the dirty part would be harder to hear. I mean, probably. Think that would fly?

Not that we should blame the station, I mean it could not have been apparent to even the news team's seasoned eyes that this was going to end badly, right? After all: live breaking news! A reasonable point, however the assessment of another local news director, Robert Long of KNBC-TV Channel 4, could be interpretted to suggest otherwise, when he said it was "apparent to the seasoned eye that it was going to end badly."

Now considering that Janet Jackson's nipple cost CBS over half a million dollars and sent the FCC on a decency rampage, how will they deal with broadcasting footage of a person being killed? Seems to me CBS should get a refund. Except for one thing, that other station that aired the shooting actually was a CBS affiliate.

Televised violent death or wardrobe malfunction? Stay tuned, we'll see which one provokes more outrage.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

GE: Generally Everything (and NBC)

Those of you who watched the Boston bust that went up on newsbreakers.org today read a few specific products that GE provides beyond their media empire, which includes engines for the military's top aircrafts, and nearly anything else useful that you can think of. Their impressive media empire controls 11 different US television networks (most notably NBC), nine cable networks to 27 countries, all things Universal and many other significant enterprises. Oddly, the entire media division comprised less than 8.5% of the company’s 2004 revenue.

How does that affect your news coverage? Well, in the first Gulf War, it had us marvelling at the technology the military employed. Supreme gadetry trumped humanity as reporters eagerly awaited shock and... naw, I'm thinking of a different war. Sorry for that.

Ever seen a feature on airport security? Have you generally been under the impression that it would be wiser to upgrade screening technology, or to refine the system? Yeah technology, like that Entry Scan³ (a.k.a. "Puffer Machine") thing that is used at many security entry points. It blows air on you to detect chemicals before you pass through a metal detector. Maybe you'd seen these on TV already? Ironically, they've been a rather nice windfall of income for GE in our troubled, post September 11, 2001 world.

I wanted to show in this post the dozens and dozens of relevant GE products that outperform the corporation's media interests, but I'm quite confident that it will bore the crap out of you. Let me instead encourage you to go direct to the source and see what else the media conglomerate sells. It shouldn't take long to identify some juicy conflicts of interest in their coverage, which coincidentally is created with the potential and intent to influence your beliefs, compassion, and even your values.

The point here is that GE, NBC's parent company, profits from the War on Terror. In fact, they profit from wars all over the world. You see where that gets sticky. Now Viacom is reportedly in search of a new home for CBS. Totally hypothetical situation here, but if Big Tobacco seizes control of that network, might you care? Could it affect content of their health-related stories?

Would America stand for it?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Your Local Newspaper

When a couple of NEWSBREAKERS explained to a local newspaper professional that we wanted to get people to care about the news again, he reeled with sympathy and said "Man, so do we."

A recent City Newspaper article by Krestia DeGeorge, titled "Dollars and Sense," explores the frustrations of local newspaper writers, painting a grim situation at one daily paper, and addresses the outlook for the newspaper industry at large.

If you're a math nerd, you'll appreciate the below findings on the attitudes of professionals who work in print and TV. State of the News Media 2005 is a good resource if you just want copius amounts quantifiable info, like this:

"Declining readership is cited by 15% of print journalists at both national and local news organizations, but no more than 2% of broadcast journalists view loss of audience as the most important concern. Instead, broadcast journalists view limits on resources - and the pressure to make profits and get bigger ratings - as the biggest financial problems… Print journalists are far more likely than those in broadcast to see credibility as the biggest problem facing journalism today. Four-in-ten (39%) journalists working at national newspapers, magazines and wire services say credibility is the biggest problem, compared with just 15% at national TV and radio outlets. And this gap exists at the local level as well, with local print journalists nearly three-times as likely as local broadcast journalists (33% vs. 12%) to cite credibility as their greatest concern."

(more at
State of the News Media 2005)

I hate to spoil the surprise if you're going dig into that link, but if you wanted to know what the biggest concern TV journalists have, it's "quality of coverage." State of the News Media gives the full report)

Sounds like it might be time for a little mixer between the print and TV people, eh?

Affirmative. NEWSBREAKERS agree.

(Stay tuned...)

Sunday, May 08, 2005

PBS pressured to move right

Recent pressures to push PBS content more to the right seem to fly in the face of "balance" and the White House's involvement in setting up a new office of the ombudsman threatens PBS's objectivity. In their efforts to better support a conservative agenda, The Corporation for Public Broadcast (CPB) fails to recognize that establishing balance is not achieved by creating counter-biases. It's an objective to represent both sides of an issue fairly and accurately.

Check out these links for more details on this story: New York Times*, Washington Post, current.org

CPB, which provides about 10 percent of PBS's annual budget, is taking steps to create balanced reporting on PBS stations by increasing conservative representation through a transformation of existing programming and restructuring of the corporation's executive members. CPB Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is working to beef up Republican representation among CPB brass, recommending the appointment of Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee who is now an assistant secretary of state, as successor for president Kathleen A. Cox, whose contract was not renewed. According to corporate officials, Tomlinson also hired the director of the White House Office of Global Communications as a senior staff member in late March, on the recommendation of administration officials, as reported in the New York Times.

Former CPB president Robert Coonrod, who stepped down in July 2004, said in the New York Times piece that Tomlinson is "trying to help the people in public broadcasting understand why some people in the conservative movement think PBS is hostile to them and... imbue public broadcasting with the notion of balance because he thinks that long term it's a winner in getting Congressional support." Yeah, "Congress," but we know who he means. Maybe it's just me, but it seems some of the perceived hostility toward these dissenting Congressfolk may stem from things like Newt Gingrich's plan 10 years ago to zero out the nearly 30 million dollars PBS receives in funding from what the Washington Post calls a "Republican-dominated" CPB, and sentiments like these examples found in The Arizona Conservative, freerepublic.com and the efforts of guys like David Horowitz that suggest the elimination of PBS altogether.

The corporation insisted for the first time this year, that its contributions will be linked to what it calls "objectivity and balance," though to achieve this it has added "The Journal Editorial Report," which features the members of the conservative editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

The Post's article points out that "The corporation's own research indicates broad public satisfaction with the quality of news programming on PBS and NPR." Maybe it's not the public we are trying to satisfy.

*-If you read the Times piece, check out this timeswatch.com link as well, which makes some interesting points in how the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are applied in the paper, as the terms apply to this story. While not specific to this article, it seems more telling that the criticism holds up: that "conservative" is being used to describe what are maintained as right-leaning interests, while none of the left-leaning parties or programs referenced are labeled as "liberal."