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Media is the mess-age

My entire, mostly monolithic career was spent as a commercial broadcast professional. Knowing at an early age broadcast would be my chosen field, I took requisite communications studies preparatory to entering the business.

One of the earliest lessons offered students with this chosen major involved writing — putting words on paper. And as that relates to pieces such as this column, prospective authors were admonished to “write what you know.”

With that in mind, this column is about mass media and the communications industry.

My early “coms” studies repeatedly referenced famed Canadian author and media theorist, Marshal McLuhan, who coined the phrase, “the medium is the message” and “global village.” Both terms were attributed to the same mid-’60s body of work where he also prophesied the “world-wide web,” 30 years before its creation.

Several years after the author seemingly peered through a crystal ball, he wrote a follow-up seminal book, “The Medium is the Massage.” My professor repeated McLuhan’s play on words ad nauseum, yet now, McLuhan’s massage theme has come full circle. Today’s media focuses on the massage to the exclusion of message. Facts be damned. The ends justify the means.

Early on, media’s dominant reason for living was to provide news and information. That quickly evolved into it being a check on government and those in power. With that heady responsibility came their charge as the so-called “Fourth Estate.” Three branches of government with one separate body to check all three. And for the longest time, that’s exactly what media did — they kept government and the politicians within its branches honest.

When I first began making a living in media, dishonest politicians and out-of-control institutions feared the scrutiny that could result from the prying eyes of a dogged reporter. Many of you will remember watching CBS’s “60 Minutes” and the sheer terror wrought by a visit from Mike Wallace, Morley Safer or any number of old-time journalists associated with that Emmy-winning juggernaut.

I remember as if it was yesterday, a CBS camera crew turning their attention on the object of their story and seeing that person’s color drain from their face. Or perhaps a cocksure politician granting an interview only to have one of Wallace’s trademarked “Gotcha!” questions being sprung, seemingly out of thin air, only to watch the interviewee begin to sweat and squirm.

Sadly for America, there are no modern day equivalents.

Fellow media professionals and I would often lament the destruction of the business that we fairly attributed to a landmark change in Federal Communications Commission ownership rules many years ago. When I began in the business, media owners had to abide by the “ones” rule: one AM radio station, one FM, one TV and one newspaper. No exceptions.

Eventually rule changes would allow an opening of ownership floodgates with companies like Clear Channel owning roughly 500 radio stations nationally. In some medium-sized markets, they owned every station in town. In the absence of competition, the quality of on-air product was the first to suffer.

Then soon thereafter, community programming. Big operators used terms like “economies of scale” to use only a handful of DJs in one of their biggest markets to “voicetrack” for hundreds of similarly programmed stations. Voice tracking is the process whereby an on-air talent can prerecord generic “That was, this is” announcements that would be plugged into the small-to-medium market stations via computerized automation systems, thereby eliminating the need for entire local on-air staffs. Radio stations — and their listeners — suffered dramatically.

The ownership changes were just the beginning of media’s downfall from its glorious golden age. What was to eventually come was far more sinister, giant global communications conglomerates gobbled up much of the industry. “Broadcasters” were replaced by tech giants whose intentions no longer involved simple economies of scale.

No, this tectonic shift was toward societal influence. Tech billionaires invested in mass communication with the intention of changing the way its consumers think, feel, reason and live.

A near-perfect case in point: Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’ purchase and ownership of The Washington Post. Virtually every editorial position, every news story, every political ideal is crafted to be 100 percent in alignment with the owner’s intentions.

You may ask, if he owns the paper, shouldn’t he be able to guide every word in every edition? I guess that depends on what you think a “newspaper” is supposed to be and represent.

Call me old-fashioned, I think a newspaper should bend over backwards to be objectively neutral — to tell it like it is. To feature the writings of reporters and editorialists that honestly reflect what they see, hear and can deduce. But that is not today’s WaPo nor is it today’s New York Times or many other legacy outlets.

They focus on the massage, versus the message.

Perhaps there is one tech billionaire that will truly shake media to its core. I, for one, hope and pray the result of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter will totally upend the industry and lead to vast changes — for the better — to what we are “allowed” to see and hear. Musk is promising to force his new company to adhere to our Constitution’s First Amendment protections and its plenary goals: the freedom not only to speak, but to hear truth.

Who knows? Maybe in Elon’s “Twitterverse” people like me can promote the idea of returning to the “ones” rule. It just may make for better listening and viewing for us all.

The opinions expressed above belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of the Boulder City Review. They have been edited solely for grammar, spelling and style, and have not been checked for accuracy of the viewpoints.

Ron Russ is a Los Angeles transplant, living in and loving Boulder City since 2020. His career in commercial broadcasting spanned more than four decades including a brief stint as the announcer for Fox’s short-lived “The Chevy Chase Show.” In another lifetime Ron performed stand-up comedy in Los Angeles. He can be reached at russbcr@outlook.com.

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