Because I am so, so cool, I sometimes listen to C-SPAN on my Walkman while taking Cosmo on patrol for squirrels. I’m a big fan of C-SPAN, even though I agreed when one caller recently called it “Complaint-SPAN” — because the people who phone in tend to be so snarky and cranky (hey, good names for cartoon characters: Snarky and Cranky).
This generalized dyspepsia among C-SPAN callers makes sense for a number of reasons. First of all, people who are feeling A-OK about the country and its politics are simply less likely to take time out of their day to wait on hold in order to talk to Brian Lamb. And of course, folks who feel A-OK about the country also tend to have these things called “jobs” and “families,” and so might be a bit too distracted to watch the network that intensely. Also, pretty much by definition C-SPAN callers are news and media junkies, and we always have things to be angry about.
But, by far, my favorite callers are the hardcore conspiratorialists, mostly on the Left but with growing company on the Right, who believe that the “corporate-controlled media” are censoring the real story behind [insert any of the following: the Bush family; Saudi Arabia; Watergate; the Catholic Church; JFK; the Jews; Love Canal; cars which run on water; Bill Clinton's girlfriends; Hillary Clinton's girlfriends; David Brock's boyfriends; Ross Perot's little green friends; Jesse Jackson's speech impediment; the real cure for, or cause of, AIDs; the real cause of Enron's collapse; the real source of the radio transmitters in our teeth; the sinister plan behind NAFTA, GATT, the WTO, the SEC, FEC, PBS, DDT, PCBs, WPA, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Buckminster Fuller's sphere; the true identity of the Pope; the actual location of Jimmy Hoffa, J. Edgar Hoover's dress, Gilligan's Island, and Area 51; the working model of the perpetual-motion machine; and, of course, all of the socks missing from clothes dryers since GE and the Bush family first forced these devices on the American public — or any other topic which sounds ominous but probably isn't].
What I love about these callers is that they’re so positive that multinational corporations, especially the big media companies, are so evil, so omniscient, so all-encompassing in their social control, and so nefarious in their intentions and so successful at achieving them — but, at the same time, they invariably begin their comments by saying, “Thank God for C-SPAN!” They’ll go on about how C-SPAN’s coverage and “reporting” is the only thing “keeping our democracy alive,” or how it’s the only antidote for the cancer plaguing the mainstream media, or (my favorite) how C-SPAN has “kept them sane” during these trying times — which, of course, is at best a debatable assertion.
“C-SPAN is a private, non-profit public service of the cable television industry,” their website explains. You can hear similar declarations between C-SPAN broadcasts, or from the unflappable Brian Lamb, all the time. But apparently the folks who think AT&T has lowered their sperm count, or that AOL Time Warner secretly dimpled thousands of chads in the Florida recount, missed it — even though they are sufficiently attentive to regularly catch intriguing quotes in the obituaries of people nobody’s ever heard of, or in the small print on their mouthwash (puppies!).
CTR: Conspiracy Theory Reform
What got me thinking about all this was a question from a sane C-SPAN caller during today’s Morning Journal. Michael Kinsley, until recently the editor of Slate, was the guest, and a caller asked him two questions. The first was whether or not Kinsley actually believes the press is liberal, his specific criticisms of Bernard Goldberg’s book notwithstanding. Not surprising, Kinsley dodged that question (see: Kinsley’s Muffins).
The second question involved a very long discussion of campaign-finance reform. I don’t take notes while driving — it distracts me from playing with my Game Boy (the handheld electronic toy, you sicko) — but this was the caller’s relevant point: The big-league media are in favor of campaign finance reform because it makes them more powerful.
This is a familiar argument from opponents of campaign-finance “reform.” I have raised it from time to time myself. It goes like this: If you make it difficult or illegal for interest groups (a.k.a. American citizens) to express themselves through paid ads during campaigns, you necessarily make the media more powerful. The New York Times (a big media company) can still editorialize on or report about a candidate or issue all it likes. But if the NRA or NARRAL want to make themselves heard by taking out an ad, they can’t.
In short, CFR creates for the big media what economists call a “barrier to entry” to any free agents out there. Hollywood can run one sitcom after another celebrating how much fun it is to be gay or how hassle-free it’s getting to be knocked up without a husband, but in the reformer’s perfect world, the Family Research Council can’t publicly disagree by taking out an ad or commercial. Steven Spielberg, David Kelly, or GE (the owner of NBC) can put out one- and two-hour-long “issue ads” — i.e. putrid or silly films like The Contender or Erin Brockovich, or TV shows like The West Wing or Boston Public — all it likes. But if a private group of citizens is unpopular with liberal elites in Washington or New York, and wants to take out an ad with a different point of view, that’s somehow wrong. This is why (according to this theory) liberal groups for the most part are less opposed to campaign-finance reform: The coastal media do a pretty good job of getting their message out already.
So anyway, here’s the problem with the theory that the media like campaign-finance reform because it makes them more powerful: It’s not true. Or more accurately, it’s not exactly true. I would bet that if you could read the minds of the top 1,000 media bigwigs, barely one or two would see the issue that way. Conspiracy theories about the media fall apart, because journalists are neither that smart nor that devious.
For the most part, the elite media support campaign-finance reform because it sounds like a good idea to them. Period. If that proves they’re liberal, stupid, or both, I’m perfectly willing to nod in agreement. It doesn’t prove, however, that it’s a sinister plot to increase their stranglehold on the hearts and minds of the American public.
But — and this is the important but — the reason they don’t see that bans on issue ads are bad, for example, is that their ox isn’t getting gored. Any time there’s even the slightest infringement on the press’s or Hollywood’s ability to say whatever they want, any way they want, they pound their high chairs into splinters. Imagine if the feds told the Washington Post they couldn’t editorialize about candidates for 30 to 60 days prior to an election. Hollywood First Amendment zealots like Norman Lear or Alec Baldwin would be on the front lawn of the FEC or FCC immolating themselves like Vietnamese monks if they were told one of their TV shows or movies couldn’t air around election time (of course, Alec would have trouble following the directions on the matchbook).
To the extent there’s a conspiracy, it’s an accidental one. The big media companies believe they are being honest and good in their actions. Those actions only look conspiratorial from the outside because decisions are so parochial on the inside. That is, unless you think C-SPAN is part of a fiendish plot to distract you while men in black come to your home and put video cameras in your smoke detectors.
Hey, where’d my dog go?
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