Abridged version appeared in The Nation, June 8, 1998
(research assistance: Steve Rendall)
The Stories Television Doesn't Tell
We’re at a point in history, says George Gerbner, when most of our culture’s stories are told not by parents, schools, churches or community members with “something to tell” -- but by global media conglomerates with “something to sell.”
A whole lot of selling’s going on. But what stories is American television not telling -- or not telling fully?
Ask Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, a reporting team at Fox-owned WTVT in Tampa. In February 1997, their series on health concerns about bovine growth hormone in milk was yanked at the 11th hour, when BGH-manufacturer Monsanto complained to Fox News chief (and former GOP operative) Roger Ailes. Over the next ten months, Wilson and Akre say they revised the script dozens of times, but couldn’t get it through Fox management. In a suit filed last month, the reporters allege they were fired after refusing instructions from station officials to put pro-industry inaccuracies on the air -- and after the Fox station manager said: “We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We’ll decide what the news is.” The series never aired.
Or ask Todd Putnam, who edited National Boycott News in the early 1990s. That’s when NBC’s “Today” decided to do a segment on boycotts -- and sent a producer to ask Putnam, “What’s the biggest boycott going on right now?” After Putnam informed her that America’s premier boycott was the one targeting NBC-owner General Electric over its production of nuclear weapons, the producer responded: “We can’t do that one. Well, we could do that one, but we won’t.” Weeks later, she told Putnam that "Today" was looking for a boycott that was “small,” “local” and “sexy.” Still later, a more senior producer remarked that he feared for his job if GE were mentioned.
Ultimately, “Today” did run a boycott segment…of sorts -- that included a live interview with Putnam. But GE was never brought up, nor was there room to display a GE light bulb on the set alongside other boycotted products such as tuna, sneakers and Spam. Not until Putnam left the studio after the interview and headed toward the elevator did he come across an NBC employee eager to discuss GE. It wasn't a journalist. It was a janitor, who exclaimed: "So how is the INFACT boycott of GE going?"
Here is a review of stories that could not be told on TV and the players involved:
Nowadays maybe you have to be a janitor to talk freely about the news at NBC. But you don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to know that some stories are better left untold in corporate-dominated television. Indeed, what’s striking about the boycott fiasco and others like it is that TV producers were either daring or clueless enough to venture into off-limits territory in the first place.
It’s more common to simply avoid whole areas -- as have journalists at CBS and NBC when it comes to the nuclear industry dominated by their respective bosses, Westinghouse and GE. Sometimes willful ignorance help; while admitting that "nuclear power is one of many things in the world I don't know anything about," former NBC News President Michael Gartner (now a voice of the "left" at USA Today) claims it's the public -- not GE -- that has no "great interest" in seeing news about nukes.
There was a time, during the newspaper wars of decades ago, when journalists actually went out of their way to expose the owners of competing dailies. But network TV today operates under a gentleman's agreement. So don't expect ABC to blow a loud whistle on Westinghouse or GE. At top ABC news show “20/20,” for example, producers have complained that their boss, Victor Neufeld, has a history of squelching stories about nuclear hazards. Neufeld spoke at a nuclear lobby gathering and his wife has been a high-paid publicist for the industry.
(While hard news stories about environmental threats could not be told, Neufeld favorite John Stossel -- an ABC correspondent who brags "it's my job to explain the beauties of the free market" -- serves up laissez fairy tales on the Disney network, hour-long specials on the virtues of greed and the vices of consumer protection laws.)
Nor is PBS beyond the reach of corporate influence. Throughout 1995, PBS's “NewsHour” virtually ignored the price-fixing scandal involving Archer Daniels Midland, the agribusiness giant that underwrites the show to the tune of $6 million yearly.
And dissident documentaries are regularly sliced, diced or censored by PBS. The Oscar-nominated “Building Bombs,” on lethal activities at the Savannah River nuclear facility, was allowed onto PBS in 1993 only after years of wrangling -- and ten minutes of the movie was cut out. The editing made room for a short on the art of shrub-pruning.
In both commercial and "public" TV, it's no mystery why some stories go untold while others get told over and over: Those who pay the piper call the tunes. There's no longer a pubic TV show on global human rights issues since "Rights and Wrongs" died for lack of funding, with a PBS executive insisting that human rights is an "insufficient organizing principle" for a TV series. Meanwhile, PBS stations offer four or five different daily or weekly business shows, thanks to the largesse of Wall Street interests.
As corporate managers stride into more powerful positions as gatekeepers over what stories are told, the lawyers march close behind. General Counsel Alan Braverman was the main force behind ABC's embarrassing 1995 cave-in and apology to Philip Morris in a suit over a news report that accurately exposed nicotine manipulation -- a surrender that paved the way for the ABC/Disney merger. Braverman, according to the Wall Street Journal, had assured Disney during merger talks that the suit could be settled.
CBS lawyers didn't prevent their "objective" news reporters from wearing jackets bearing the Nike swoosh while covering this year's Nike-sponsored Olympics -- after CBS brass had thwarted follow-ups on Roberta Baskin's expose of Nike sweatshops in Vietnam. But CBS lawyers prevented, on the eve of the Westinghouse takeover, airing of an interview on "60 Minutes" with a high-level whistle-blower from the tobacco industry.
Oprah Winfrey is this year's First Amendment hero for standing up to the censorious cattle industry. But her producers have felt a big chill...apparently from the show's attorneys. Prior to an "Oprah" taping a few months ago, two prominent consumer advocates were warned by a producer that if they intended to name any products or even any industries, they should "clear" them beforehand with the show's lawyers.
It’s well known that corporate advertisers dislike controversy -- a mere dozen complaints to “Lou Grant” sponsor Vidal Sassoon Inc. prompted that company to scold CBS over “Ed Asner using his position for political purposes.” What’s not well known is the intimate prior review that some programs grant to sponsors. At NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” advertisers review scripts, watch rehearsals and sometimes work hand-in-hand with network censors in getting skits changed or dropped.
Even more than controversy, sponsors detest criticism. General Motors threatened to pull its ads from “Saturday Night Live” until a comedy sketch about mass layoffs dropped the company’s name. GM threatened another ad pullout after seeing rehearsals of an “SNL” bit deriding the company for using live animals in crash tests. The bit was dropped.
And advertisers are increasingly muscling local TV news, according to Marquette Professor Lawrence Soley's 1997 survey of investigative reporters. Nearly 75 percent said advertisers had "tried to influence the content" of news at their stations; nearly 70 percent said sponsors had "threatened to withdraw advertising" over a news report. While outside pressure has always existed, concludes one veteran TV reporter, "there seems to be a frightening trend for the powers that be at corporate to give in."
In a few cases, advertisers themselves get censored. The same broadcast TV networks that wallow in sexual titillation are adamant in refusing to air ads for condoms -- despite public health concerns over HIV/AIDS and polls showing that 62 percent of Americans say TV networks should accept the ads.
When it comes to political (non-campaign) ads, TV executives have arbitrary power over which will air. In 1996, CNN brazenly refused an ad telling viewers that consumer advocates opposed a Telecommunications “Reform” Bill that would cost consumers “billions of dollars.” After the bill was enacted, Time Warner’s merger with Turner/CNN was approved.
In rare instances, TV outlets may actually tell the truth about why a political ad is being suppressed; in 1993, when Boston's CBS affiliate rejected Neighbor to Neighbor's commercial advocating single-payer National Health Insurance, a station executive reportedly told the grassroots group that the station couldn't afford to "take any hits" from health insurance companies, which were "major advertisers." In 1990, the station had indeed taken an advertising hit from Procter & Gamble (which had been spending $1 million annually) -- angered by an El Salvador-related ad calling for a Folgers coffee boycott.
As network TV has further conglomerated over the last 15 years, the best place to find network "news" on various issues has been entertainment programming, like "Miami Vice" on Contra cocaine trafficking, "L.A. Law" on the Panama invasion's civilian deaths or "thirtysomething" on waste incineration.
Through the humor of "TV Nation," Michael Moore succeeded in getting more news onto commercial TV (Fox and NBC) than probably any individual. But there were stories he couldn't tell, according to his account in The Nation (11/19/96). "What Happened to Those S&L Crooks?" was blocked by Fox; the scandal was no longer "current." Fox refused to air a piece on high-school administrators rewarding a gay-bashing student; gay issues "turn off the sponsors." At NBC, an advertiser exodus silenced a "TV Nation" piece profiling an anti-abortion extremist endorsing murder. (By contrast, when Ted Koppel respectfully interviewed a "pro-life" murder advocate -- who went on to kill a physician four months later -- there were no reports of advertiser pullout.)
Politically-minded comics have found that, even in jest, many ideas are off-limits on TV. Randy Credico was banned from the "Tonight Show" -- apparently for life -- after his 1984 joke: Everytime I see Jean Kirkpatrick on TV, I wonder: Did Eva Braun really die in that bunker?"
Classic spiking occurred on the Letterman show soon after it moved to CBS, when network censors surgically removed Bill Hicks’ stand-up routine -- and all mentions of Hicks -- from the show; Hicks was told that his six-minute set had touched “too many hot spots.” Targets included “pro-life” activists (who he encouraged to blockade cemeteries), male homophobes (who love to see women together in porn) and religion (would Christ, on his return, really want to see all those crosses?). Four months later, Hicks died of cancer.
ABC's "Politically Incorrect" with Bill Maher has a reputation for assembling diverse guests to be irreverent and say anything. In fact, right-wing advocates often say the most, since a permanent seat is typically reserved for them. As Time reported, the show's booking staff "tries to fill four imaginary 'quadrants' with, respectively, a funny person, a famous 'face,' a conservative (Maher clamors for right-wing African American guests) and a wild card meant to offset the other three."
Most "PI" panels feature at least one humor-impaired right-wing politico like Dinesh D'Souza, Armstrong Williams or Ann Coulter -- often balanced by the left-wing likes of Luke Perry, George Hamilton or Merv Griffin. Usually missing are informed and witty southpaws, especially needed when Maher tangents into a tirade in support of the Vietnam War or military action against Cuba.
Singing truth to power is a long musical tradition -- one that has often conflicted with the codes of television. Ten years ago, when Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner and his organization deemed a "terrorist" group by the Pentagon, a day-long star-studded concert in London for Mandela (Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Sting, Clapton, Tracy Chapman, etc.) was televised in the U.S. as a 6-hour program by Fox. Unknown to viewers, the Fox telecast surgically removed political remarks by performers like Peter Gabriel and Steve Van Zandt, a song dedication by Mark Knopfler, even chants from a Eurythmics' song. "Orwellian," was Van Zandt's reaction. "We did one show and America saw a different show."
Van Zandt had earlier been squelched by PBS, which refused to air his "Sun City" documentary, featuring anti-apartheid rock and rap artists -- labeled "spoiled brats" by a PBS vice president who turned down the program.
Rage Against the Machine, the multi-platinum rap-metal group, has encountered no meddling from its record company, but was unceremoniously muzzled in 1996 on “Saturday Night Live.” Band members were escorted out of the NBC building before they could perform their second song -- after trying to hang American flags upside down on their amps before the first song (stagehands quickly removed them) and after dissing that night’s host…Steve Forbes.
Last Christmas, anarcho-rockers Chumbawumba outfoxed the censors when, performing a song on Letterman, they chanted “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” -- a rare mention of the death row inmate on national TV. Fearing a “big edit” from CBS censors, Letterman producers asked the band to do a retake (in the Ed Sullivan Theater that once saw the censoring of Elvis’s lower half). The band refused and the song aired in full.
While American television serves up a regular diet of sizzle and gruel, there’s a whole range of options not on the menu. You can turn off what’s tasteless -- but, as children’s TV advocate Peggy Charren observes, “you can’t turn on what’s not there.”