By the time Phil Donahue's nightly hour-long MSNBC program was canceled at the end of February 2003, on the eve of war, it was pretty much roll-credits time for progressive voices on the cable channels. Left and antiwar viewpoints still come from some shows' guests, but not the hosts—unless the hosts are funny. At a panel discussion of media ownership Saturday, April 2, at the Paramount Theatre, the talk-show pioneer said: "You can't get your own TV show in this country if you oppose the war. Not if you're serious."
The panelists were quite serious, and Donahue was even occasionally funny. But at times each of them was also their own runaway train, on their own track, headed—where? Participating in the first of Foolproof's American Voices lecture series were Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen; best-selling author and Democracy Now! producer and host Amy Goodman; media professor and author Robert McChesney; and Donahue. Their considerable topic: "All the News That's Fit to Own: Who Controls the Media and Why We Should Care."
In introducing them, moderator and media consultant Nancy Maynard said, "Our panelists are mad as hell, but they don't know what to do about it." This was a daunting way to begin the conversation. If these esteemed thinkers and journalism professionals don't know how to begin to regain a fair and balanced media, who does?
The answer was not to come by evening's end. Instead, the panelists railed about such varied problems as the seemingly imminent death of locally owned media and what Goodman referred to as the Pentagon's deployment of the American media ("more powerful than any bomb or missile").
We were at least made aware of which questions ought to be asked. Still, a lot of the talk was just that. Taking questions from the audience, Maynard and the panelists discussed the administration's ban on photographing coffins at Dover Air Force Base. (Donahue wondered why photo editors—with the exception of the ones at Blethen's paper, which ran such photos—accept the ban, especially considering the importance of tragic images during the Vietnam War, such as the Pulitzer Prize– winning photograph of children running from a napalm attack.) And they considered round-the-clock reporting on stories like the Terri Schiavo death watch. (Goodman said coverage of the vigil held by protesters ought to be a model for how all protests are covered.)
Then Blethen and McChesney offered up the night's only real action item. Citing the surge of citizen activism in 2002 and 2003 in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission's proposed deregulation of media ownership, when 2.3 million Americans told their government that they didn't want their airwaves further monopolized, McChesney said that we can, indeed, effect change— or hold it off. Blethen said we must tell our representatives that we want all remaining FCC regulations to be kept in place. I am confident that most in attendance had already sent a fair share of e-mails and signed petitions, but after all the talk, an actual homework assignment was welcome.
In wrapping up the program, Maynard recalled an old journalism edict that, today, might be good advice for news consumers, too: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!"