Review by Brian Tanguay
In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman sounded a warning about media ownership and the danger to the public when it’s fed a steady diet of salacious, trivial, and factually dubious information. Postman wasn’t the first to warn that mass media was a double-edged blade. In the late 1950’s, Edward R. Murrow, one of the most famous journalists of his time, urged Americans to recognize that television was being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us from disturbing or unpleasant information. If Murrow were alive today to see the condition of the American press what would he make of it? We are well into a “post-truth” era where objective facts and information have little impact on public opinion. News and information that doesn’t conform to a person’s personal and political beliefs is regarded as suspect, fake news; government officials at the highest level peddle “alternative” facts; and an American president garners applause from his supporters when he refers to the press as “enemies of the people.”
Brian J. Karem has spent his professional life in print and television journalism. He’s reported on everything from local policing to the War on Drugs, immigration and border policy, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, the Gulf War and the White House, including the Trump years. Stints with Playboy and America’s Most Wanted. A reporter’s reporter, Karem learned his craft in the era of Helen Thomas, Dan Rather, and Sam Donaldson, when the mission of a free press was more commonly understood. Good reporters challenged the government, asked officials and politicians difficult questions, and avoided sacrificing journalistic rigor on the altar of access. Karem has witnessed the transformation of the news business from the inside, and his recent book, Free The Press, is both a history lesson and a prescription for healing what ails the press.
In a free society tension between politicians, business leaders, government officials, and the press is not only inherent, it’s necessary. Those in positions of power and the press should have a respectful but adversarial relationship, and when the powerful obscure, hide or distort the truth we need journalists to hold them accountable. And because every politician and political party attempts to use the press to spread their position on vital public issues, we need journalists to help us sort fact from opinion, spin and outright falsehoods from truth. Alternately courting and castigating the press has been a staple of politicians of every ideological persuasion, but until relatively recently some equilibrium seemed to exist between those in power and the press. Perhaps this has something to do with the decline of print journalism. Throughout the book Karem laments the loss of local print reporting, beat reporting, day-to-day nitty-gritty: city hall, police, courts, and schools. Richard Nixon’s fall was no doubt helped along by the televised Watergate hearings, but it was print journalists who broke the Watergate story and then connected the strands that led to the Oval Office. Back in the 1970’s newspapers still wielded influence at the local and national level. Karem ties the change in equilibrium to the Nixon administration, in no small part because Nixon bore a grudge against the press dating back to his years as vice president. As Karem writes, “Nixon needed someone to help him deal with the press because he hated and feared reporters in a manner that bordered paranoia.” That person was Roger Ailes, who would go on, with the help of Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch, to launch Fox News.
Karem follows the trail that leads from the annulment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 (a Reagan administration objective), through the relaxation of ownership rules (also a Reagan policy initiative), to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 signed by Bill Clinton. Understanding this history matters because if the Fairness Doctrine still existed Fox News may not have become what it is today. Likewise, if media ownership rules hadn’t been relaxed to allow corporate entities to dominate entire market areas in radio, television and print, we might still have viable community newspapers, independent local radio stations, and better local television. If the Telecom Act of 1996 hadn’t provided an express lane for a dizzying number of corporate acquisitions, mergers, and integrations, media ownership might today be dispersed among more than a half dozen behemoth companies. But connecting these deliberate policy choices matters for another important reason and that is because they help debunk the myth of liberal bias in the mainstream media. Karem argues that the bias has nothing to do with political orientation and everything to do with profit. Ratings, clicks, and advertising revenue are what matter to corporate owners. Giving consumers what they want to see rather than what they need to see might pad the corporate bottom line, but abandoning journalism for entertainment doesn’t make for an informed citizenry. Karem saw this first-hand when newsrooms began shedding reporters, editors and copy editors, photographers and technicians, and curtailing coverage of local and state government and foreign affairs. Sadly, he also watched as venerable newspapers that had served communities for a century or more were sold, merged, or stopped their presses for good.
Neil Postman predicted that corporate ownership of the media would stymie reporting, particularly of the corporation itself. Karem puts it this way: “If you work for a large corporation covering the news, does anyone think the board of directors would want or allow inquisitive reporters poking their noses into the corporate business?” In Karem’s view, journalism and capitalism are incompatible because there is simply no effective way to quantify and fix a price tag to investigative journalism.
Karem is clear-eyed enough to recognize that there has never been anything like a golden age of journalism in the United States. Journalists are people with biases, flaws, prejudice and often their own agendas or axes to grind; they are fallible, they make mistakes, they get it wrong. The New York Times didn’t cover itself in glory in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003. But there’s a reason the first amendment to the Constitution enshrined the freedom of the press: because it’s an essential element of republican self-government. Citizens need to know what their government — local, state and federal — is doing in their name, why, and for whose benefit or detriment. Transparency keeps government at every level honest and who but professional journalists can provide that transparency? This is particularly true at the local and state level.
What becomes clear in Free The Press is that many of the maladies straining our democracy are the same ones that have weakened the press. Restoring the health of our democracy requires a restoration of our press. They go hand in hand, as they always have.