Movie Review – Broadcast Blues
Take a road trip on any stretch of highway across the United States and flip on the AM dial. The airwaves are rife with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham and any other of a number of conservative talk show hosts. Try finding anyone left of center, and well, you’re mostly out of luck. Only 10% of all radio talkers are liberal or progressive, mostly concentrated on the blue coasts. When one in five Americans say their primary source of news is talk radio, the lopsided media landscape in favor of right-wing talk is nothing short of alarming.
In the new Public Interest Pictures documentary, Broadcast Blues, Emmy-award winning filmmaker Sue Wilson analyzes how television and radio became less diverse in the last 30 years and how corporate deregulation of the media is threatening American democracy. Wilson also exposes the consequences of a media environment where one company can own 1,200 radio stations nationwide, and where some large cities have virtually no competition from alternative voices on the dial.
Wilson serves as Broadcast Blues’ narrator, and her light-hearted delivery, along with a snappy soundtrack, makes her serious subject matter easy to digest. The film takes a straightforward look into the history of radio and television – from the founding of the Federal Communications Commission and the Fairness Doctrine, to Reagan and Clinton-era deregulation, and the rise of the 24-hour cable news cycle and “infotainment.” The consolidation of the radio and television market into fewer owners, Wilson contends, has led to a distortion of the news where rumor and innuendo is sometimes presented as fact, and ratings, not the public interest, dictate what gets on the air.
Misinformation can lead to dangerous public policy, as when the parade of TV talking heads failed to challenge the Bush administration’s trumped up charge that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, a ploy to sell the Iraq War. . Other times, a lack of information can be deadly as when a Clear Channel-owned radio station in a North Dakota town failed to transmit emergency information during a chemical spill in 2002. And when large swaths of the public don’t have access to a wide range of information that help them separate truth from flim-flam, political shenanigans can run rampant and elections can quite literally be rigged in favor of the powerful.
Although political blogs and news publications on the Internet have taken over much of the investigative reporting that were once the bread and butter of the broadcast outlets, the broadcast media still influences much of America’s political discourse. And not necessarily in a good way. Since it’s cheaper to put on a talking head spewing an opinion than it is to hire a reporter to dig through documents in search of the truth, the news itself has devolved into a collection of “he said- she said” faux objectivity. Political discourse has coarsened to the point of irrelevancy. At a time when Americans are being clobbered by the worst recession in 70 years and skyrocketing healthcare costs, and when the planet is being threatened by climate change, it’s now more important than ever for citizens to be informed about what their government is doing. Instead, we get deluged with coverage about Michael Jackson’s death and endless pontificating from questionable sources about whether President Obama was born in the United States.
Broadcast Blues is an important film that should be seen by every citizen concerned about the quality of the news they are getting, or the lack thereof. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says in the film – if poverty, the environment or the economy is your first important issue, then media reform should be your second. The first issues won’t be solved if the media doesn’t properly address them.