Media probe


A spirited crowd of students, faculty, and occasional hecklers crammed into the Oriental Institute’s Breasted Hall last Thursday evening for a panel discussion on media responsibility. The Chicago Society organized the event, and Humanities dean Danielle Allen—who’d consulted the Federalist Papers beforehand and uncovered arguments favoring both a strong media and occasional government secrecy—served as moderator.

Fault lines opened quickly, if mostly cordially. On one side stood Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel—who boasted about her magazine’s reputation for “steadfastness in speaking truth to power and its inability for turn a profit”—and John Nichols, the Nation’s Washington correspondent, who earned frequent cheers from the audience. Both decried the consolidation of media ownership, publishers’ increasing focus on the bottom line, and the softening—or narrowing—of hard news coverage. “Right now there is an assault on truth,” declared vanden Heuvel, pointing to the Bush Administration’s tight lips and relativist philosophies, a rollback on Freedom of Information Act requests, and reporters’ diminishing access to political heavy hitters. Calling local ownership of news outlets “one of democracy’s last hopes,” Nichols reminded the audience of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2003 proposal to loosen the rules for media conglomerates. Close to three million citizens wrote letters protesting the move. Even when satellite newspapers’ op-ed pages diverge from a parent company’s political leanings, Nichols said, “it’s with the full understanding of who owns the paper. What you get is a range of disagreements that are within the safest zones.”

Chicago Tribune Publisher and CEO David Hiller and Deputy Managing Editor James Warren, meanwhile, took a less stormy view. Defending the idea of a robustly independent and diverse Fourth Estate, Warren said, “The notion of a homogeneous force is dubious, if not laughable.” He conceded that arrogance, passivity, and bad marketing had “pissed away” much of the public’s goodwill and respect, despite good stories like the Tribune’s death-penalty series. Although newspaper owners worry more these days about profit, journalism’s ideals remain intact, he said. “And the more money we make, the more independent we can be.” Hiller agreed, cautioning vanden Heuvel and others: “If you go out of business, if the lights go out, guess what? You’re not doing any news.”

During the audience Q and A, one questioner asked about the Daily Show’s popularity. Nichols proclaimed it a “strong warning signal” for editors. “When the media lose the public’s trust, they turn to parody,” he said. “We’re much closer to that in America today than our leaders and media people want to admit.” Hiller and Warren, though, insisted the Daily Show proves the country’s wealth of freedom, creativity, and diversity of opinion. “It’s a well-written, funny satire,” Hiller said. “It’s a barometer of the health of the media content and landscape that people have the freedom and financial wherewithal to do this show.”


Photo: The Nation's John Nichols and Katrina vanden Heuvel (left) listen as the Tribune's David Hiller speaks, sitting beside colleague James Warren.

Photo by Juliana Pino for the Maroon.

January 23, 2006