For the media, the best thing about 2004 may be 2005. That's looking on the far side of a year in which news and entertainment suffered twin concussions. One was self-inflicted self-inflicted...
For the media, the best thing about 2004 may be 2005.
That’s looking on the far side of a year in which news and entertainment suffered twin concussions.
One was self-inflicted. Just when it seemed public regard for journalists couldn’t go lower, along came a new rash of ethics violations capped by the stunning possibility that TV’s most venerable newsmagazine relied on phony documents to point the finger at a president.
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The second blow fell as a result of ongoing culture wars and a politically driven FCC. Although common wisdom says the Super Bowl-inspired brouhaha will blow over with the election decided, a more ominous tale about ownership still lurks beneath the surface debate of indecency versus free speech.
To be sure, television offered some high points in 2004. After all, somebody won Emmys for razzle-dazzle and Peabody Awards for news coverage.
But prizes are ephemeral. Today, we’ve tried to stick with the stories that stuck:
“Memogate” and “60 Minutes II”
When it became clear Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes II” piece about George Bush’s special treatment in the National Guard relied on unverifiable documents, CBS hired outsiders to launch an investigation of its news division. The investigation report is due soon.
Meanwhile, Rather announced he would retire next March. Heads are expected to roll, including that of Washington native Mary Mapes, who produced the segment and also hooked up the supplier of the dubious papers with John Kerry backers.
“Memogate” had resounding consequences. It gave a tool to pundits who long have claimed Rather was out to get Bush. It lent credence to liberal-media conspiracy theorists. And it thwarted the credibility of legitimate stories criticizing the president.
Abu Ghraib and “60 Minutes II”
Many images from the war broke ground this year. But the photo that disturbed Americans on a profound level was the product of a soldier’s camera — a picture of an Iraqi POW in black hood and smock, standing on a chair with wires taped to his hands.
It came during a “60 Minutes II” broadcast that revealed a group of American soldiers had abused detainees at a prison called Abu Ghraib.
The story shook our national self-righteousness and cast the starkest shadows of doubt on the war’s conduct — suspension of basic rights, insufficient manpower, a military caught in the middle. This segment, too, was produced by Mary Mapes.
The Dean “scream”
When it first aired, Howard Dean’s attempt to rouse Iowa followers seemed like manic desperation. But as Broadcasting & Cable later reported, the rest of the room was just as loud: sound levels were manipulated so Dean’s speech could stand out to viewers.
The clip ran more than 100 times on network and cable news in the 24-hour cycle following the caucus. By week’s end, Dean had become a mocked loser on late-night television, the subject of Internet jokes and a damaged candidate with alleged anger issues.
Many Dean supporters felt that Democrat-leaning news people made their man look bad on purpose to boost Kerry’s chances. The Dean people got revenge of sorts when the same irresponsible media flogged the Swift boat “controversy” to death.
Good night, Vietnam
Kerry invited scrutiny of his Vietnam heroics by making the Democratic National Convention a pseudo-military event. Bush tried to downplay his shaky stint in the Texas Air National Guard.
Even so, with a record national deficit, soaring health costs and a very real present-day war in Iraq, it was astounding how much quibbling airtime was devoted to what two candidates had done 30-odd years ago.
The anti-Kerry Swift boat ads; Sinclair Broadcasting’s anti-Kerry documentary that was eventually withdrawn; the pointless belaboring of Bush’s privileged treatment. Never was so much expended by so many on so little that mattered to voters.
The FCC muddle
What do whipped cream and a whipsawed agency have in common?
In October 2004, the FCC fined Fox affiliates a record $1.2 million for an episode of the short-lived reality series “Married By America” that involved partygoers licking whipped cream from strippers “in a sexually suggestive manner” (Fox notes this wasn’t on camera) and for showing an underwear-clad man being pretend-spanked.
The agency also levied a stiff penalty on CBS-owner Viacom for the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, which Viacom has appealed. Other networks have weighed in by noting FCC guidelines are imprecise and threaten the airwaves with blanket censorship.
So the lines are drawn. The FCC hates dirty stuff and broadcasters are fighting back.
The FCC muddle, Part II
The FCC isn’t imprecise. It’s something far messier — a politically expedient machine trying to serve several masters. And broadcasters aren’t much better.
On the one hand, the Bush-appointed commissioners who control the FCC have been eager to please conservative voting blocs like the powerful Parents Television Council.
On the other hand, the White House and Congress don’t exactly want to rile the media conglomerates that hand out campaign dough and spin so much of what we see on TV.
The conglomerates don’t want a confrontation, either. They want a rewriting of ownership rules that will let them expand the number of TV stations owned by any one company and allow cross-ownership of a station and newspaper in the same market.
In fact, the FCC tried to make this happen. But in one of the best stories of 2004, an unlikely alliance of liberal and conservative groups fought back, forcing the issue before a federal court, which then blocked the new rules.
For now, it’s back to the drawing board for ownership rules and a tactical standoff on the issue of indecency. Viewers? What about viewers?
Maybe it was one too many unconvincing “Bachelor” romances.
Maybe it was too much grainy videotape.
Maybe we just got sick of seeing people just like us.
At any rate, fall 2004 saw the resurgence of scripted series on network TV. For the first time in several years, the freshman hits all were make-believe: “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “CSI: New York.”
Certainly, reality shows made the Top 10, including “Survivor: Vanuatu” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Still, there are signs the craze is waning. It may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end. But we can hope.
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org