Detroit this week is wallowing in self-congratulation and nostalgia over Ford Motor Co.’s 100th birthday. Some of this is justified; if Hank the First hadn’t figured out how to build a lot of cars cheap and fast, Motown might still be Slotown.
We might, in fact, look something like Indianapolis without the speedway. Fortunately, the gods had other ideas. But while we are reflecting on Ford, reflect on this: Let’s imagine that a very junior new executive in Ford’s finance department turns out to be a head case. He cooks some of the books, lies, doesn’t do routine assignments and instead files phony reports based on nonexistent data.
When he eventually gets caught, is the president of the company likely to resign? How about the vice president for finance? Not likely.
Yet this is what happened, in a sense, at the New York Times. Shock waves surged through the wide world of talking heads when Howell Raines, the executive editor, and Gerald Boyd, the managing editor, “resigned” on June 5.
That came a month after it was learned that a young black reporter named Jayson Blair made up quotes, wrote about events when he wasn’t even in the same state, and copied material out of other newspapers, including Metro Times.
What happened was that, though the editors fought mightily to keep their jobs, too much came out — largely in the form of e-mail from unhappy staffers — about the arrogant and autocratic way in which these men ran the best newspaper in the world.
And so they were deposed. Cynics might say that happened only because the family that owns the Times was worried that continued fears about the newspaper’s credibility could hurt the stock price. There probably is some truth in that.
But the fact is that, this time, the system actually worked. The worst thing about the five-week agony of the New York Times may have been that it distracted attention from two areas where the system isn’t working at all. First, on the very day the editors resigned, our most un-American politician, Attorney General John Ashcroft, begged Congress to take away more of our rights and freedoms.
The creepy demagogue blustered that he needed his outrageous anti-terror laws expanded so that the government could hold more suspects as long as it wanted, on whatever flimsy grounds. He hollered for wider death penalties, waved what he said were “terrorist declarations of war,” and read aloud the names of Sept. 11 martyrs.
Ten years ago, I would never have dreamed that this bargain-basement Joe McCarthy, a man defeated for the U.S. Senate by a corpse, would not be taken apart by the press. But today’s media are corporate and complacent, and are evidently about to become more so.
In the week’s other great atrocity: The Federal Communications Commission voted to make it far easier for a small group of powerful corporations to virtually complete their domination of the nation’s news and entertainment media.
Thanks to FCC chief Michael Powell, son of the secretary of state, a company will now be allowed to come into a major city and buy up to three TV stations, a newspaper, eight radio stations and — oh, yes — a cable franchise.
Why is that a bad thing? Simply because by law, companies do not own the airwaves, as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps noted after voting against Powell minor’s successful attempt to turn our natural resources over to the likes of Rupert Murdoch.
Long ago, Congress and the courts indeed ruled the broadcast spectrum is as much public property as the national parks, and for the same reason. That’s a large part of why the FCC was founded, way back in the early days of radio.
The idea was to encourage competition and require those who were granted a temporary license to use the airwaves to serve the public interest. Alas, most of the public service requirements — the the Fairness Doctrine’s equal time rules — had already been done away with by a series of decisions and new laws in the ’80s and ’90s. What happened last week just pushed things a little more outrageously far. And if you think what I’m writing is the usual left-wing hysteria, among those denouncing the FCC’s decision were that noted commie, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, of Mississippi, and the National Rifle Association.
“It violates every tenet of a free democratic society to let a handful of powerful companies control our media,” said the other FCC dissenter, Jonathan Adelstein. “As big media companies get bigger, they are likely to broadcast even more homogenized programming that increasingly appeals to the lowest common denominator.”
George W. Bush and the people who think for him, however, think the new decision is wonderful. Fortunately, this can still be rolled back — if Congress is willing to take the monopoly by the tail and do something about it. They will, too, if enough of us let them know — loudly — that we do give a damn.
Want to find out how to do that? For starters, go to www.moveon.org, where you can find out how to sign petitions against this. You can also learn more about other good and useful stuff.
Don’t put it off, either, because the bad guys are betting that’s exactly what you will do. And someday, if this isn’t changed, you will personally regret it.
Footnote: Gina Rozier, a talented African-American graduate of Wayne State’s Journalism Institute for Minorities, took issue with a column where I said the Jayson Blair episode wasn’t about race. “The fact that he is black is relevant,” she protested. “From the looks of it, affirmative action got him in the door and kept him at the Times when he should have been long gone. He turned a good policy into an embarrassment. Please don’t excuse this moron of his responsibility to his people. This arrogant, selfish black man has hurt the race in a way no white man could.”Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org