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Media Monopoly Versus A Free Press

By Tench Phillips, Veer – May 2015

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
– A. J. Liebling

We’ve come to take for granted the mergers by media companies in this country over the years. It’s supposed to foster greater efficiency and higher Wall Street prices, right? But this consolidation of media power into the hands of only a few large corporations has allowed for unprecedented commercial and state control of the public dialogue and of the flow of information. In fact political philosopher Naom Chomsky asserts “Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.”

Consolidation has also allowed for large, distant companies to control much of the information that comes into our communities. Here in Hampton Roads, most of the home television and radio stations are owned by large broadcast conglomerates with multiple stations in numerous other cities. There is little allegiance to our community from these companies other than as another market to be exploited for company profits. Our area’s citizens are perceived as consumers whose statistics can be compiled and offered up to advertisers for the marketing of their commercial messages. A comprehensive listing of our area’s radio and TV stations showing detailed information about ownership can be found at

Other area media monopolies include the cable and telecommunications companies providing pipelines to our homes and businesses. With so little competition and choice, Cox and Verizon have been able to charge premium prices for internet service and cable channels.

Local newspapers have maintained monopoly presences here for years. The Daily Press operates on the Peninsula and is owned by the Chicago-based multi-media company, Tribune Media. In contrast, The Virginian Pilot is still managed by the locally owned media company Landmark Communications. But this could change at any time since the owners readily acknowledge that they have tried unsuccessfully for years to divest their holdings and find a media conglomerate to buy the paper for the right price.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early part of the last century, the government strictly regulated the public airwaves and limited the number of news sources that a company could own. The role of a local independent press was considered by the founders to be vital for the democratic process. They believed that the press served as a guarantee for the free flow of trusted information and as a watchdog for the abuses of government and corporate power.

But the potential for ever greater corporate profits began to erode the principal of media “localism”. The deregulation championed under Ronald Reagan’s administration accelerated under Clinton. It was sealed with The Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed for multiple media outlets to be owned by the same company. Over the last few decades anti-monopoly legislation has systematically been dismantled in this country within all industrial and financial sectors. But the media is not just another industry and the role of a free and independent press is imperative for a democratic society.

A feeding frenzy of big media consolidation has continued unabated even though the politicized FCC has offered some resistance. Today there are just six behemoths that own and control 90% of what we read, what we watch, and what we listen to. These giant content providers also own much of the cable infrastructure. They include Comcast and Warner Brothers (whose recent cable mega-merger was finally abandoned after mounting opposition), along with Murdock’s News Corp, Disney, Viacom, and CBS. These companies own the television networks, publishing houses, and most of the cable stations. They also own the six major Hollywood studios – Paramount, Sony Pictures, Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, and 20th Century Fox. With such corporate control, there’s little wonder that there are so many sequels and so little narrative diversity to be found in movie theaters today.

These companies decide which news events will receive coverage and which ones will be ignored. Try to find independent progressive voices who are allowed to challenge the corporate narrative presented on any of those news shows. The corporate media is the tail that wags the dog. It’s a top-down, hierarchal view of the world delivered from an ideological corporate perch. Only occasionally is big media forced to cover issues in the interests of the country’s poor and minority communities. As when the coverage of recent violence in urban ghettoes of Ferguson and Baltimore has exposed decades of economic inequality and racism by the police.

Reportage on U.S. foreign policy is even worse. The bias of American empire is the media lens through which international events are perceived and interpreted. Whether it’s coverage of the fighting in the Ukraine, the war on ISIS, the numerous civil wars fueled by American interventionism which are raging throughout the Middle East, the coverage of democratic movements in South America, or negotiations of trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Pact – egregious examples of media spin and disinformation occur daily in the corporate press as well as NPR and public media.

That’s why the recent ruling by the FCC in favor of “Net Neutrality” was so important. It means that regardless of corporate control of other media platforms, we can – for the time being – depend on a free and open internet. Even though many of the most popular websites are owned by the large media and web companies, we are offered countless sources for obtaining independent and citizen news reporting. The best example being the subscriber based, non-profit Democracy Now! which is tuned into daily on various platforms by 20 million viewers and listeners in the U.S. and other countries. It’s striking just how different the show is from mainstream news. The reporting on domestic and world events comes from activists and independent journalists who aren’t embedded in the military, the state dept, conservative think tanks, or corporate culture.

Continued vigilance is needed. Congress is now considering a bill to invalidate the FCC ruling on net neutrality. More media mergers are being planned; AT&T and Direct TV have now petitioned the FCC in an effort to consolidate. Legislation to continue the surveillance of American phone calls and emails by the NSA is once again before Congress in an attempt to reauthorize The Patriot Act. The Obama administration is pressing Congress to fast-track the approval of the Trans Pacific Pact trade agreement that undermines decades of environmental and labor legislation as well as net neutrality. These issues remain obscure and misunderstood by most Americans due to the lack of clear coverage given to them by big media.

There are some important media watchdogs that expose the biases and disinformation perpetrated by the establishment press. A web search will connect you with Free Press, FAIR, Global Trade Watch, AdBusters, Democracy Now! and Media Matters.

The ongoing Naro documentary series “New Non-Fiction Film” on Wednesday nights offers alternative programming that covers important issues explored by independent filmmakers and journalists. Many of the informed voices not invited to speak on all those broadcast news programs will receive an airing in the upcoming short documentary ‘Shadows of Liberty’ to be shown on Wed, May 20 as part of The Media Reform Action Tour as a free public showing arranged by the film producers.

Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema

SHADOWS OF LIBERTY Canadian filmmaker Jean-Philippe Tremblay takes an intrepid journey through the darker corridors of the American media landscape, where global conglomerates call the shots. Renowned independent journalists, activists and academics give insider accounts of a broken media system. Featuring Danny Glover, Julian Assange, Dan Rather, Amy Goodman, Daniel Ellsberg, Norman Solomon, Jeff Cohen, Robert McChesney, John Nichols, Chris Hedges, and many more. Free and open to the public. (60 mins) Wed, May 20 at 5:30pm

GETT: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem In the modern state of Israel there is neither civil marriage nor civil divorce – and a court of judges composed of only orthodox rabbis can legitimate a marriage or its dissolution. Furthermore a divorce or ‘gett' is only possible with full consent from the husband, who in the end has more power than the judges. In this acclaimed Israeli film Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) has been applying for divorce for three years but her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) will not agree. It’s a procedure in which tragedy vies with absurdity, and everything is brought out for judgment, apart from the initial request. In Hebrew and French with subtitles.  Showing Wed, May 20 at 7:15pm
THE SEARCH FOR FREEDOM Although filmmaker Jon Long’s new movie is a celebration of the world of action sport, it is much more than a sports movie. It is a compelling story about human spirit and self-expression told by those who created a cultural phenomenon. Featuring top pioneers across all the major action and outdoor sports like Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater, Gerry Lopez, Nyjah Houston, Danny Way, Jeremy Jones, Shane McConkey, Robbie Maddison, Robby Naish, Kai Lenny, Quiksilver founder Bob McKnight, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, surf filmmaking legend Bruce Brown (Endless Summer), and mountain biking pioneer Gary Fisher. Showing Wed, June 10

SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION Meet Seymour Bernstein: a virtuoso pianist, veteran New Yorker, and true original who gave up a successful concert career to teach music. In this wonderfully warm, witty, and intimate tribute from his friend, Ethan Hawke, Seymour shares unforgettable stories from his remarkable life and eye-opening words of wisdom, as well as insightful reflections on art, creativity, and the search for fulfillment. Date to be announced.

LAMBERT AND STAMP Way back in the early sixties, aspiring young filmmakers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert were searching for the right subject for a film about disaffected youth and the music culture. They finally found in a rock band called the High Numbers a rebelliousness that was just what they were looking for. Eventually abandoning their plans to make the film, they began to mentor and manage the group, which evolved into the iconic band known as The Who. The result was rock 'n' roll history. Date to be announced.

SALAD DAYS: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90) examines the early punk scene in the Nation’s Capital. It was a decade when seminal bands like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man, Fugazi, and others released their own records and booked their own shows—without major record label constraints or mainstream media scrutiny. Date to be announced.

"War is Over! (If You Want It)" - John Lennon
By Tench Phillips, co-owner Naro Cinema

The first modern draft lottery was held in December 1969. I remember well; my birthdate was drawn early on in the lottery and I was dealt a low draft number. At the time I had a college deferment but I knew that I’d be graduating soon enough and would be inducted to fight the communist menace in Vietnam. I needed to educate myself as to what was actually going on overseas other than the reports I watched on Walter Cronkite and The Evening News. 

I was living in Atlanta and attending a rather conservative engineering school. The student body was not politically active and the Army and Navy ROTC programs were popular. The lottery results had split my college buddies into those of us who were now looking at having to go fight overseas and the fortunate ones with high draft numbers who were not to be called up. I was advised by friends and family to enlist in the ROTC so at least to be able to enter the service as an officer.

The counter-culture scene was just then coming into full swing in the South. The Atlanta alternative weekly The Great Speckled Bird contained progressive news along with event listings for music concerts and art happenings around the city. My urban campus was near Piedmont Park and the free concerts on Sunday afternoons were sometimes headlined by The Allman Brothers Band. The popular music of the day that I heard on our college station WREK radio was informing me in a way that seemed more important and vital than my classes at Georgia Tech. My mates and I were just being introduced to cannabis and we were spending our study time getting high, listening to great new music, and expanding our minds in our own way.

My afternoons spent in the park brought me into contact with veterans who were returning from active duty in ‘Nam. Most of these hardened young men were trying to integrate into a rapidly evolving youth culture. When asked about their experiences, their stories were not about courage and valor. They spoke of war atrocities and the mass murder of innocent people. Many seemed psychologically damaged and addicted to hard drugs and alcohol. I slowly realized that I had been lied to by my own government and by my elders; and I knew that I would not participate in the insanity of a needless and unjust war. So I resolved to stay in school for as long as I could. Sometime later I was able to find a sympathetic draft board volunteer who advised me about an arcane but legal way to receive a reclassified lower draft status that kept me out of the service.

The draft lottery had the apparently unforeseen consequence of helping to generate a mass resistance movement of “draft dodgers” who were healthy, young, and well educated. The anti-war movement grew larger and more organized each year. Some conscientious objectors chose prison over enlisting. Others chose to move to Canada – somewhere around 125,000 young men who abandoned the war and their country. The FBI and federal law enforcement grew ever more draconian in their surveillance and apprehension of these young “subversives and agitators”.

Although Nixon campaigned in 1972 on winding down the war, he instead expanded U.S. bombing missions into Laos and Cambodia. Only his personal legal problems coming from the Watergate break-in and his subsequent  impeachment and resignation slowed down the military war machine. But the nail in the coffin that ended this grinding war was the leaking by Daniel Ellsberg of The Pentagon Papers (depicted in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America) and their publication by The New York Times. The mainstream media had turned against the ruling elite. The public was finally fed up with their leaders and their transgressions, and in 1975 the decision was made under President Gerald Ford to pull the plug.

This untold story about the strategic blunders committed by the military at the end of the war and the botched evacuation of Americans and their Vietnamese allies from Saigon is the subject of Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, Last Days in Vietnam. The youngest daughter of Robert Kennedy has directed or produced over 30 films including Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Americans should take heed from these historical lessons so that we don’t let our government continue to start wars that they can never seem to finish.

Upcoming Film Events at The Naro Cinema

GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA  No twentieth-century figure has had a more profound effect on the worlds of literature, film, politics, historical debate and the culture wars than Gore Vidal. Gore was one of the most brilliant and fearless critics of our time. He used the media to wage blistering attacks on hypocrisy and establishment politics. His overview of the state of the Republic and the health of U.S. democracy were his last words and testimony. (90 mins)
Showing Wed, Sept 24 with Angelo Mesisco speaking.

EXPEDITION TO THE END OF THE WORLD On a three-mast ocean schooner packed with artists, scientists and ambitions worthy of Noah or Columbus, an international crew sets sail for the end of the world – the rapidly melting massifs of North-East Greenland. An epic journey where the brave men and women on board encounter polar bear nightmares, Stone Age playgrounds and entirely new species. But in their encounter with new, unknown parts of the world, the crew of scientists and artists also confront the existential questions of life. (90 mins)
Showing Wed, Oct 1 with speaker Victoria Hill, Research Professor specializing in the Arctic with ODU Ocean, Earth, & Atmospheric Sciences.

THE PLEASURES OF BEING OUT OF STEP Nat Hentoff is one of the enduring critical voices of the last 65 years, a writer who championed jazz as an art form. His long-running Village Voice column covering culture and politics influenced and inspired many younger journalists who wrote for the alternative press. The film includes interviews with Hentoff as well as rare footage of the legendary Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan, and Lenny Bruce. (86 mins)
Showing Wed, Oct 8 with Tom Robotham and Maurice Berube speaking.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM  Award-winning independent filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s new film chronicles a story few of us have heard before. During the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army closes in on Saigon as South Vietnamese resistance crumbles. The prospect of an official evacuation of the remaining Americans and their South Vietnamese allies becomes hopelessly delayed by Congressional gridlock and a delusional U.S. Ambassador. With the clock ticking and the city under fire, a number of Americans take matters into their own hands, engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations in a desperate effort to save as many South Vietnamese lives as possible. (98 mins)
Showing Wed, Oct 15 with David Swanson who will return to speak at the Naro from his home in Charlottesville. He is a nationally renowned journalist, teacher, peace activist, and author of War Is A Lie, When The World Outlawed War, and War No More: The Case For Abolition.

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