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Saturday, 31 March 2007
The wages of public broadcasting
Topic: media criticism

With this year’s fundraising auction on the horizon, WXXI’s relentless not-for-profiteers are out fishing for donations. But if you’re an artist thinking about throwing a pot or painting their way – or if you’re just anybody who might write a check – consider the following.

After some emails about salaries at the station landed in my inbox, I went straight to and checked last year’s IRS 990 form. The latter indicates that in 2005, WXXI CEO Norm Silverstein walked away with roughly $345,000 – including about $237,800 in straight salary, more than $50,000 as a "one-time payment of deferred compensation, and more than $47,000 in benefits. (If I remember right, when I covered this business six or seven years ago, Silverstein was getting "only" about $160,000 in salary.)

According to the 990 for 2005, Chief Operating Officer Susan Rogers got about $139,400 in salary plus $33,900 worth of benefits. Even lowly Jeanne Fisher, who often totes the begging-bowl during the station's endless membership drives, got well over $80,000 total. And the guy who hosts WXXI’s "Second Opinion" show, an New York City-based independent contractor named Dr. Peter Salgo, got $72,000 for his occasional services. (On the other hand, considering we're talking here about a mainstream MD, maybe the station is getting a deal.)

I could list a dozen donation-killer problems with WXXI programming – like Bob Smith's regular stroking of rightwing guests from the Israeli Consulate, to the exclusion of sane voices from Israel/Palestine; or the station’s persistent disinformation campaign aimed at Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!; or practically anything done by the supremely irritating Curt Smith. But the station’s outrageous compensation packages for its top dogs are enough reason to keep your hands in your lap when the auction begins. Your money would be much better spent on DN!, Pacifica, Indymedia, Free Speech TV, and other actually independent media.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:09 EDT
Updated: Saturday, 31 March 2007 13:20 EDT
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Monday, 24 April 2006
Signs of the anti-Times
Topic: media criticism
Over the last few weeks, a local story with strong national implications has been playing out in the surprisingly small world of New York City media.

The once radical Village Voice, now an institution with the predictable baggage of one, dropped the axe on a pair of America’s best veteran journalists, Sydney Schanberg and James Ridgeway.

Schanberg, famed for his reportage from Cambodia during the genocide of the 1970s, was essentially pushed to the extreme; he resigned in protest over changes wrought by the VV’s new owner, the New Times corporation, a Phoenix-based “alternative” media chain that’s metastasizing throughout the country. Ridgeway lasted a bit longer at his post. But the dogged investigative journalist, who spent more than 30 years at the Voice and practically defined its news coverage, was fired by the new head honcho, the otherwise negligible Michael Lacey.

Recently Doug Ireland (check out this wonderful journalist at commented: “That these two superb journalists -- Schanberg and Ridgeway -- have now vanished from the Voice is a symbol of what is happening to that paper, and of what will most likely happen to all the other alternative weekly papers in the Voice chain…” And Ireland ought to know. He did a superb job writing the Voice’s “Press Clips” column, one of the pillars of alternative journalism in its golden age.

Some of you will recall other summary executions at the Voice. The great Alexander Cockburn, now co-editor of CounterPunch (go to vanished from the Voice’s pages before Ireland came on board. And in 2004, Voice management, as if sharpening the blade for future atrocities, fired iconic gay journalist Richard Goldstein along with Sylvia Plachy and four others. (Longtimer Cynthia Cotts, another “Press Clips” writer, resigned in protest, as well.)

The Voice has steadily gone downhill in the past few years – which is what happens inexorably to those who take the low road.

But what’s going on in New York, Phoenix, and other big “markets” should concern us all. As the troglodytes press on with the devolution, the alternative weekly newspapers as we’ve known them have been selling out. Consequently, the energy that once powered the alt weeklies now belongs to various online independent media – everything from indymedia and lefty blogs to alt hybrids like the Columbus Free Press, which offers a true alternative to the demi-alt Columbus Alive. It’s in such venues, online and in print, that you’ll find the really interesting writers and activists – the likes of Cockburn, Harvey Wasserman, Norman Finkelstein, Ali Abunimah, Michael Albert, Lydia Sargent, Vandana Shiva… the list goes on.

If you’re looking for the main reasons the “alternatives” are cutting off their nose to spite their increasingly featureless face, consider these: (1) they’re essentially cash cows for their owners, whatever the page-one posturings; (2) they’ve bought into a new readership-building philosophy and format that emphasize lifestyle (read: selling lots of crap), trendiness (ditto) and misdirected rebelliousness and de-emphasize or expunge critical analysis and commentary, particularly that of the genuine left. This is not to say that the alt weeklies are devoid of good writers; I know a few of them myself, with the accent on “few.”

But all things considered – excuse the Freudian slip, but today’s alt weeklies demand comparison with NPR news shows and similar fluff - is it any wonder more and more serious people are recycling these rags unread?

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:16 EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006 07:49 EDT
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Sunday, 15 January 2006
Buffaloed by local boy - again
Topic: media criticism
Hometown loyalty can be treacherous. Look what it’s done to many Buffalonians, who go on and on about NBC newsman Tim Russert, the biggest mediocrity to come out of the Queen City since Grover Cleveland.

There he was this past Sunday morning – Russert, not Cleveland, unfortunately – enlightening a colleague on the narrow policy options facing the US and allies in their moves to stem Iran’s nuclear program.

According to TR – Russert, not Teddy Roosevelt, who rushed to William McKinley’s Buffalo deathbed in 1901 to grab that era’s oddly familiar imperial torch – we can do one (or more?) of three things. The US can pursue diplomatic action against Iran, with one and only one tolerable outcome, Iran’s capitulation. Or the US can attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as Israel did with the Iraq’s French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. Or the US can unleash Israel to attack Iran’s facilities.

End of story. No mention of alternatives like these: true diplomacy by the US, i.e. without implied threats of force; US support of multiparty negotiations toward general nuclear disarmament in the region and beyond (with unilateral removal of US nuclear-armed or -capable naval vessels from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean as a nice opening gambit); US (and hopefully multiparty) rejection of "peaceful" nuclear power, with quick moves toward safe energy technologies to be shared with Iran and other developing nations.

None of these, though, are for Russert, who in a nice-guy, teddy-bear kind of way offers rationales for the raw projection of lethal force. Oh yes, the diplomatic option comes first on his list, but it's made clear that this is pro forma. When push comes to shove, might makes right.

In other times and places, such journalistic behavior has been described as collusion with war criminals. So it will be again, if justice makes a comeback.

Russert has invaded some liberal hearts by sounding tough, including that of The Nation’s David Corn, who’s described him, with reservations, as Sunday morning’s Grand Inquisitor.

Russert does often sound persistent. For example, last December he grilled (the word is relative) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on presidential wiretaps and the “inaccurate” (his word) intelligence that led to the US invasion. He tried to pin Rice down on the naked illegality of wiretaps that Bush could easily have gotten authorized through the FISA law, a framework that allows almost total leeway. And he did cast doubt on the administration’s internal processes.

But did he challenge Rice on the legality of the invasion and occupation?

Are you kidding? He wouldn’t dare. His NBC bosses would have his head for thus alienating the dear Secretary, who would never cross the NBC threshold again.

So on and on Russert goes, every bit the noble pundit, sometimes the boy next door, sometimes sounding like an inquisitor but acting more like a courtier when the chips are down.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:07 EST
Updated: Sunday, 15 January 2006 16:39 EST
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Wednesday, 4 January 2006
Reality check bounces
Topic: media criticism
What a way to end a nice vacation – listening to host Bob Smith and his guests talk around the issues rather than deal with them.

For the January 3 WXXI blatherfest, Bob spoked with new Monroe County Legislature minority leader Carla Palumbo. The second hour went to Jay Gallagher, Gannett News Service’s man in Albany and latest manifestation of the WXXI-Gannett experiment in “civic journalism” (read: public broadcasting sells out to the corporate press).

One exchange with Palumbo set me off. The discussion had moved to Medicaid and access to health care, and Palumbo made her best Democratic effort at explicating a general principle of reform. To paraphrase: she thinks what we need is simply to get people into well-paying jobs with benefits. In other words, leave the system alone, and keep health insurance subject to the magic of the marketplace.

You’d think that at this stage, any politician worth her salt would say something like this: health care is a human right, and as such it should be guaranteed to everyone – and the guarantee must be implemented by the only practical and affordable means, a single-payer national or state insurance program.

But no, we get nothing better than a pseudo-liberal version of “get a job.” Thanks for nothing, Carla.

As for the Gallagher hour, nothing much stands out in my mind. Maybe my senses were dulled by the discussion’s unexpressed but hard-as-rebar theoretical foundation – the commonplace idea that by uncovering corruption and inefficiencies in state government (Gallagher’s journalistic bread and butter) and advancing petty political reforms (say, six rather than three men in a room?) we will turn the New York economy around.

Okay, there’s plenty in Albany worth criticizing. And certainly state leaders should make some bold moves - proportional representation, a massive public-housing initiative, support for worker and consumer cooperatives, and other planks of the social-democratic platform. But our state government has been corrupt from Day One. I mean, isn’t New York the wellspring of Tammany Hall and its small-town imitators? And hasn’t the Mob been around for a while? Going further back: wasn’t the state pieced together from what were essentially land-grabs and frauds? Yet through all the vileness, New York prospered and grew pretty consistently from – to pick some convenient mileposts - the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 to the postwar boom that started going bust-ward in the mid-1970s.

They don’t call it the Empire State for nothing, with all the term implies about New York as an outstanding example of how moral flexibility breeds worldly success.

So what theoretical framework would I like to hear? For one thing, I’d like to hear some corporations indicted in the media. It’s clear that corporate abandonment, more than any other factor, precipitated New York’s fall from the top. So how come the Smiths and Gallaghers don’t go after Bethlehem Steel, GM, Ford, various auto-industry suppliers, Union Carbide, Dupont, Kodak, a whole raft of smaller metals and chemical companies, shipping firms and railroads? Are the media personalities afraid of what the CEOs and flunkies will say?

Here’s number two on my media wish-list: I’d like to hear a full, candid discussion of how racism New York-style has devastated our urban areas – and thus made a healthy economy practically impossible. (By the way, I don’t see anything healthy in the production of rich people, of whom New York seems to be increasing its share.) Is it impolite to suggest that the forces of apartheid in Rochester-Monroe County have been more than marginal or incidental to the area’s economic decline?

All I’m asking for is a real dialogue on real issues. But again I have to pinch myself. Reality is exactly what the pols and pundits want to avoid.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:52 EST
Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006 08:34 EST
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Sunday, 11 December 2005
Cruel and not at all unusual
Topic: media criticism
Has The Onion taken over the Democrat and Chronicle?

We wish. But really: Can you imagine anything sillier than what the D&C editorial writers ran with this Sunday?

“Bush can improve on his candor about the war in Iraq,” the editors deadpan. They allow Bush was “arrogant” six months ago in his manner of self-defense. But now, they say, he’s “doing what he should have done” before, including “acknowledging weaknesses in America's approach since 2003.”

I’m not sure the presidential rhetoric has changed in any meaningful way. To me Bush sounds as arrogant and mendacious as ever, though after a recent political confrontation with war critic Rep. John Murtha, a Vietnam vet who doesn’t merely play tough on TV, the president’s testosterone levels seem lower.

But in any case, it’s absurd to talk of “weaknesses” when the problem is international lawlessness.
Everything Bush and his henchmen – plus quite a few members of the so-called opposition party – have done in Iraq falls within some category of war crime. An illegal war of aggression doesn’t get better with age. It just mutates into an illegal occupation, and eventually – when the killings, oppressions and humiliations become so routine that they don’t even make the back pages in the imperial press – it degrades into a mature colonial relationship.

The D&C editors are clueless about this, of course. But there’s more. Not satisfied with their own silliness, they go on to endorse torture.

By the back door, of course. Like our national leaders, the opinion leaders do their dirty work with plausible deniability.

First, the editors urge Bush to declare “there will be no mistreatment of prisoners or detainees, and [that] he will hold the military and CIA to a standard of behavior that reflects the moral values of this country while weighing the military circumstances at hand.” But in the next breath, they express their fear that, if Bush isn’t “direct and sure” on these points, “Congress could very well pass laws proscribing torture.” That, they say, could make our “intelligence effort” suffer.

What? If American military forces and agencies honestly reject the use of torture, how can the outlawing of torture affect their operations? I guess the editors really are proposing a clandestine relationship between words and actions: Bush speaks firmly against torture, and the operatives keep doing whatever they want.

Wink, wink, nod, nod. And the abuses keep piling up, along with the bodies.

If the D&C wants to urge a more honest approach to torture (and avoid tortured thinking), it might better look at the strange case of the US v. the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Passed by the General Assembly in 1966, the Covenant says “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…” (article 7).

The US signed the Covenant early on; the Senate ratified it in 1992. But this came with a lot of fine print attached: various weasel-worded qualifications to the text, including one meant to preserve the death penalty, and another to allow continued prosecution of some young offenders as adults.

Reading the fine print, you understand the US objective was to look good while allowing itself, not a bunch of global upstarts, to decide when and where to use strong-arm tactics.

Still, America's name on the Covenant must mean something.

Or it would mean something, if editorial writers spent their time arguing directly and surely against torture – under any circumstances, without qualification. They also might take a page from UN Human Rights commissioner Louise Arbour, who recently made a public appeal for nations, implicitly including the US, to sign and ratify the "Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment."

And while they’re at it, the high-minded scribblers also could demand the US get the hell out of Iraq.

At the very least, that course of action would make the D&C editorial’s headline – “Honesty as policy” – less Orwellian and Onionesque.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 17:57 EST
Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005 11:06 EST
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