The above montage of clips from the satirical movie ‘The Distinguished Gentleman‘, in which Freshman Congressman (and con man) Thomas Jefferson Johnson (Eddie Murphy) is schooled in the ways of Washington by legendary lobbyist Terry Corrigan (Kevin McCarthy), is as true today as it was back when that movie was made more than twenty years ago, so says Marty Kaplan. The following excerpts from the transcript of Bill Moyer’s latest report – Big Money, Big Media, Big Trouble – tells the sorry and sordid tale of our political economy/society. This Moyer’s interview with Kaplan, a true insider to our political and media complex, is quite extraordinary. He affirms what the general populace is unable to comprehend… that we live in a society in which the news media and government institutions are entirely owned by the corporate oligarchs. The government regulators are owned by the very companies they are charged with over-seeing by way of Wall Street’s army of lobbyists and the revolving door that exists between government and private sector positions. Actual news to inform the public on the state of affairs and issues affecting them is virtually nonexistent on the media airwaves.
…what’s really driving it, if you think of this as a symptom and not a cause, I think what’s really driving it is the absolute demonization of any kind of idea of public interest as embodied by government. And at the same time, a kind of corporate triumphalism, in which the corporations, the oligarchs, the plutocrats, running this country want to hold onto absolute power absolutely. And it’s an irritant to them to have the accountability that news once used to play.
…the notion of spectator democracy has, I think, extended to include the need to divert the country from the master narrative, which is the influence and importance and imperviousness to accountability of large corporations and the increasing impotence of the public through its agency, the government, to do anything about it. So the more diversion and the more entertainment, the less news, the less you focus on that story, the better off it is.
And the self-serving triviality of corporate-run ‘news’ media has become a self-reinforcing mechanism whereby stats are being kept of what is the most popular story which then gets kicked up to the top and influences what that corporate news channel reports on in the future. It’s all driven by ratings and profit rather than educating and informing people on facts and real issues. So Neil Postman was right… We are being entertained to death, literally. This nihilism plays right into the hands of those controlling the levers of power who would not benefit from a well-informed, well-eduated public. The vast majority of public discourse has been reduced to an echo chamber of the crap (divisive ‘wedge issues’, celebrity gossip, sensationalist stories, corporate propaganda, consumerist materialism, valorization of the predatory skills of the modern competitive capitalist, etc.) that fills the corporate-controlled airwaves.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote The Distinguished Gentleman 20 years ago. Could you write it today?
MARTY KAPLAN: Oh God, it still is the same. All you have to do is add a couple of zeros to the amount of money. And the same laws still apply. It is fabulous and miserable at the same time.
BILL MOYERS: Was Washington then, and is it now, the biggest con game going?
MARTY KAPLAN: It is the biggest con game going. And the stakes are enormous. And the effort to regulate them is hopeless, because the very people who are in charge of regulating them are the same people who are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the lobbies that run them.
BILL MOYERS: I have it on very good authority that a prominent Washington senator recently told a group of lobbyists in Washington, a room full of lobbyists, that they are the lifeblood of the city. And I thought, “Kaplan has to do a vampire movie now.” Right?
MARTY KAPLAN: Exactly. The connection between the legislators and the lobbyists is so intimate that it’s not even embarrassing for a senator to say that in front of a room. The culture is so hermetically sealed from the rest of the country that it doesn’t occur to them that there is something deeply outrageous and offensive and corrosive of democracy to admit that the money side of politics and the elected side of politics belong to each other.
BILL MOYERS: You wrestle with this, you and your colleagues at the Norman Lear Center, and all the time, on how, on what the system is doing to us. So let me ask you, “How did this happen in America? How did our political system become the problem instead of the answer?”
MARTY KAPLAN: Part of it is the nexus of media, money, and special interest politics. The citizens have given the airwaves to the station. We own the electromagnetic spectrum and for free we give out licenses to television stations. Those stations, in turn, use that spectrum to get enormous amounts of money from special interests and from members of Congress in order to send these ads back to us to influence us. So we lose it in both ways. The other day, the president of CBS, Les Moonves, was reported by “Bloomberg” to have said “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re … good for CBS.” I mean, there it is. This is a windfall every election season, which seems not to even stop ever, for the broadcast industry. So not only are they raking it in, they’re also creating a toxic environment for civic discourse. People don’t hear about issues. They hear these negative charges, which only turn them off more. The more negative stuff you hear, the less interested you are in going out to vote. And so they’re being turned off, the stations are raking it in, and the people who are chortling all the way to Washington and the bank are the ones who get to keep their hands on the levers of power. So one of the big reasons that things are at the pass they are is that the founders never could have anticipated that a small group of people, a financial enterprise and the technology could create this environment in which facts, truth, accountability, that stuff just isn’t entertaining. So because it’s not entertaining, because the stations think it’s ratings poison, they don’t cover it on the news.
BILL MOYERS: They don’t cover the news.
MARTY KAPLAN: They don’t cover politics and government in the sense of issues. They’re happy, occasionally to cover horse race and scandal and personality and crime and that aspect of politics. But if you look at a typical half hour of news, local news, because local news is one of the most important sources of news for Americans about campaigns. A lot—
BILL MOYERS: You and your colleagues have done a lot of research on local news.
MARTY KAPLAN: Yes, we’ve been studying it now since 1998. And each year it gets more depressing and it’s hard to believe. We, not long ago, did a study of the Los Angeles media market. We looked at every station airing news and every news broadcast they aired round the clock. And we put together a composite half hour of news. And if you ask, “How much in that half hour was about transportation, education law enforcement, ordinances, tax policy?” everything involving locals, from city to county. The answer is, in a half hour, 22 seconds.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty-two seconds devoted to what one would think are the serious issues of democracy, right?
MARTY KAPLAN: Yes. Whereas, in fact, there are three minutes about crime, and two and a half minutes about the ugliest dog contest, and two minutes about entertainment. There’s plenty of room for stuff that the stations believe will keep people from changing the dial.
BILL MOYERS: What is the irony to me is that these very same stations that are giving 22 seconds out of a half hour to serious news, are raking— and not covering politics, are raking in money from the ads that the politicians and their contributors are spending on those same papers.
MARTY KAPLAN: Yes, they’re earning hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars from the ads that they are being paid to run. And not even risking running a minute of news, which might actually check on the accuracy of an ad. Truth watches, they’re almost invisible now.
BILL MOYERS: So they will tell you, however, that they’re in the entertainment business. That they’re in the business to amuse the public, to entertain the public. And if they do these serious stories about the schools or about the highways or about this or that, the public tunes out. That the clicks begin to register as—
MARTY KAPLAN: It’s one of the great lies about broadcasting now. There are consultants who go all around the country and they tell the general managers and the news directors, “It is only at your peril that you cover this stuff.” But one of the things that we do is, the Lear Center gives out the Walter Cronkite award for excellence in television political journalism every two years. And we get amazing entries from all over the country of stations large and small of reporters under these horrendous odds doing brilliant pieces and series of pieces, which prove that you can not only do these pieces on a limited budget, but you can still be the market leader.
MARTY KAPLAN: Well, what’s really driving it, if you think of this as a symptom and not a cause, I think what’s really driving it is the absolute demonization of any kind of idea of public interest as embodied by government. And at the same time, a kind of corporate triumphalism, in which the corporations, the oligarchs, the plutocrats, running this country want to hold onto absolute power absolutely. And it’s an irritant to them to have the accountability that news once used to play.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that? News challenges their assumptions, challenges their power?
MARTY KAPLAN: It used to be that the news programs that aired, believe it or not, had news on them. They had investigative stories.
But then somewhere in the 1980s, when 60 Minutes started making a profit, CBS put the news division inside the entertainment division. And then everyone followed suit. So ever since then, news has been a branch of entertainment and, infotainment, at best.
But there was a time in which the press, the print press, news on television and radio were speaking truth to power, people paid attention, and it made a difference. The— I don’t think the Watergate trials would have happened, the Senate hearings, had there not been the kind of commitment from the news to cover the news rather than cutting away to Aruba and a kidnapping.
BILL MOYERS: What is the basic consequence of taking the news out of the journalism box and putting it over into the entertainment box?
MARTY KAPLAN: People are left on their own to fend for themselves. And the problem is that there’s not that much information out there, if you’re an ordinary citizen, that comes to you. You can ferret it out. But it oughtn’t be like that in a democracy. Education and journalism were supposed to, according to our founders, inform our public and to make democracy work.
You can’t do it unless we’re smart. And so the consequence is that we’re not smart. And you can see it in one study after another. Some Americans think that climate change is a hoax cooked up by scientists, that there’s no consensus about it. This kind of view could not survive in a news environment, which said, “This is true and that’s false.” Instead we have an environment in which you have special interest groups manipulating their way onto shows and playing the system, gaming the notion that he said she said is basically the way in which politics is now covered.
It’s all about combat. If every political issue is the combat between two polarized sides, then you get great television because people are throwing food at each other. And you have an audience that hasn’t a clue, at the end of the story, which is why you’ll hear, “Well, we’ll have to leave it there.” Well, thank you very much. Leave it there.
BILL MOYERS: You have talked and written about “the straightjacket of objectivity.” Right? What is that?
MARTY KAPLAN: Well, the problem with telling the truth is that in this postmodern world, there’s not supposed to be something as truth anymore. So all you can do if you are a journalist is to say, “Some people say.” Maybe you can report a poll. Maybe you can quote somebody. But objectivity is only this phony notion of balance, rather than fact-checking.
There are some gallant and valiant efforts, like PolitiFact and Flackcheck.org that are trying to hold ads and news reports accountable. But by and large, that’s not what you’re getting. Instead the real straightjacket is entertainment. That’s what all these sources are being forced to be. Walter Lippmann in the 1920s had a concept called “spectator democracy” in which he said that the public was a herd that needed steering by the elites. Now he thought that people just didn’t have the capacity to understand all these complicated issues and had to delegate it to experts of various kinds.
But since then, the notion of spectator democracy has, I think, extended to include the need to divert the country from the master narrative, which is the influence and importance and imperviousness to accountability of large corporations and the increasing impotence of the public through its agency, the government, to do anything about it. So the more diversion and the more entertainment, the less news, the less you focus on that story, the better off it is.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the people who run this political media business, the people who fund it, want to divert the public’s attention from their economic power? Is that what you’re saying?
MARTY KAPLAN: Yes.
Let us fight about you know, whether this circus or that circus is better than each other, but please don’t focus on the big change which has happened in this country, which is the absolute triumph of these large, unaccountable corporations.
This is about as dismal and effective a conspiracy, out in plain sight, as there possibly could be. So I don’t say that this is going to be solved or taken care of. What I do say is the first step toward it is at least acknowledging how toxic the situation has become.
BILL MOYERS: What you’re saying is that the political square is now a commercial enterprise, owned and operated for the benefit of the brand, CNN, Fox, all of those, right?
MARTY KAPLAN: That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: How did it happen? How did we sell what belonged to everyone?
MARTY KAPLAN: By believing that what is, is what always has been and what should be. The notion that what goes on is actually made by people, changes through time, represents the deployment of political power. That notion has gone away. We think it’s always been this way. People now watching these CNN and Fox. They think this is how it works. They don’t have a sense of history. The amnesia, which has been cultivated by journalism, by entertainment in this country, helps prevent people from saying, “Wait a minute, that’s the wrong path to be on.”
BILL MOYERS: Amnesia, forgetfulness? You say that they’re cultivating forgetfulness?
MARTY KAPLAN: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: You made a very important speech not long ago at a media conference in Barcelona. And you tried and did draw the distinction between— you said the battle of the future is between big data and big democracy. In layman’s language, what is that?
MARTY KAPLAN: Big data, the age of big data that we’re supposed to be in, refers to the way in which, as we go on the internet, as we do all these media activities, watching television, which are at the center of our lives, we’re leaving a trail behind. We’re giving bits of ourselves up. And that set of bits is being collected and mined relentlessly.
So every time we buy a product or send an e-mail or vote how many stars to a restaurant, all this stuff creates a profile that companies buy and sell to each other. And that stuff is being used currently not only to market to us, to target ads toward us, but it’s also being used to profile us. There’s something called “web lining.” Which is similar to what used to be called “red lining.” The— that phenomenon, which is now illegal, in which people who were discriminated against because of the neighborhoods they live in. Right now—
BILL MOYERS: Banks drew a red line around impoverished neighborhoods that they would not then serve.
MARTY KAPLAN: Exactly. And so today imagine if you were to permit a private detective to follow you as you went to your drug store and bought a medication to help you with depression or as you made a phone call to a bankruptcy lawyer, because you needed one. Imagine if that kind of information could be put together and used against you to decide that you’re a bad credit risk or that maybe your insurance company should turn you down, because you suffer from this problem.
That kind of information, that kind of digital profiling is something which is emerging as a huge industry. And unless there are controls on it and constraints, as they have to some degree in Europe but not nearly enough even there, we are about to kiss goodbye our ownership of our privacy and also even the ownership financially of our information. We are the people who make Facebook and Twitter worth the billions of dollars that they’re worth, because we are giving up our information to them, which they are then selling and raising capital around.
BILL MOYERS: But in a libertarian era, what are the restraints and constraints against that? Where are they going to come from?
MARTY KAPLAN: Well, right now, the constraints in this country are voluntary. The Obama White House not long ago issued a digital code of conduct, which included privacy. In which they asked companies and companies did step up to it to say, “We’re not going to track people if they don’t want to be tracked.” And other such efforts to get people in control.
But what we do know, the record of just the past couple of months, is that company after company was doing stuff to us that’s astonishing, that we didn’t know about. The ways in which the apps that you use on your smartphones were vacuuming up information about you, your address book and all your pictures.
Stuff that you had no idea you had consented to, which in fact usually you had not, suddenly was all owned by other people, as well. You have not given permission, but that essential part of you is now not yours. That’s the name of the game now. This is baked into the business model of data mining, which is at the heart of so much of the digital economy.
BILL MOYERS: But that’s big data. You talked about big democracy.
MARTY KAPLAN: So at the same time as our data is being mined, there is this movement to protect people using technology to give them the power to say, “I’m not going to opt into this stuff.” We’re still at the beginning of this industry. And there has to be rules of the road. And part of those rules include my attention rights. My rights to control my identity, my privacy, and my ownership of information.”
BILL MOYERS: In your speech in Barcelona, you pointed to two simultaneous covers of TIME Magazine appearing the same week. One for the editions in Europe, Asia, and South Pacific, and it was about the crisis in Europe. The other, which appeared in the American edition, featured a cover about animal friendships. You use these two covers to illustrate the difference between what you call “push journalism” and “pull journalism.” What’s the difference?
MARTY KAPLAN: Push journalism is the old days, which seem no longer to apply in the era of the internet, in which an editor, a gatekeeper, says, “Here’s the package which you need to know.” All of that is ancient history now.
Instead, now, it’s all driven by what the consumer is pulling. And if the consumer says, “I want ice cream all the time.” And whether that ice cream is Lindsay Lohan, or the latest crime story, that’s what’s delivered. And as long as it’s being pulled, that’s what is being provided. So it’s quite possible that in the U.S., the calculation was made that the crisis in Europe and the head of Italy would not be a cover that one could use. But that pet friendships would be the sort of thing that would fly off the newsstand.
BILL MOYERS: So the reader is determining what we get from the publication?
MARTY KAPLAN: On a minute by minute basis, stories that the reader’s interested in immediately go to the top of the home page. There are actually pieces of software that give editorial prominence to stuff that people by voting with their clickers have said is of interest to them. No one is there to intervene and say, “Wait a minute, that story is just too trivial to occupy more than this small spot below the fold.” Instead, the audience’s demand is what drives the placement and the importance of journalistic content.
BILL MOYERS: So George Orwell anticipated a state as big brother, hovering over us, watching us, keeping us under surveillance, taking care of our needs as long as we repaid them with utter loyalty. Aldous Huxley anticipated a Brave New World in which we were amusing ourselves to death. Who’s proving the most successful prophet? Huxley or Orwell?
MARTY KAPLAN: Well, I think Huxley is probably right, as Neil Postman said in—
BILL MOYERS: The sociologist, yes.
MARTY KAPLAN: —in Amusing Ourselves to Death. That there’s no business but show business. And we are all equally guilty, because it’s such fun to be entertained. So you don’t need big brother, because we already have big entertainment.
BILL MOYERS: And the consequences of that?
MARTY KAPLAN: That we are as in Brave New World, always in some kind of stupor. We have continual partial attention to everything and tight critical attention on nothing.
According to stats from 2010 for TV viewing by adult Americans, we’re glued to the boob tube in our waking hours. This explains why having an intelligent conversation with most Americans is an impossible task. All they can do is regurgitate what has been constantly programmed into their heads.
• The average American watches 35:34 (hours/minutes) of TV per week
• Kids aged 2-11 watch 25:48 (hours/minutes) of TV per week (Q1 2010)
• Adults over 65 watch 48:54 (hours/minutes) of TV per week (Q1 2010)
And according to the latest Nielsen study, TV viewing is on the increase, notwithstanding a tiny drop in the number of households who own a TV:
…despite all the competition from cable TV, videogames, and the Internet, the average household watched 59 hours, 28 minutes of broadcast TV per week during the 2010-2011 season, setting a new record. Lanzano drew particular attention to the competition — or lack of it — from Facebook, noting that while the average person spends about 13 minutes a day on Facebook, they spend 297 minutes watching TV. “No wonder our friends at [General Motors] are making some changes,” he said. [Last month GM announced that it will stop placing ads on Facebook, after determining that they had little impact.]