Millennium 2000: Media in the New CenturyAired January 2, 2000 - 9:10 p.m. ET
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JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Unless you've been trapped in a cave for the past several months, you know that the turn of the calendar this year has brought with it an irresistible urge to look ahead. We decided to give in to this temptation by convening a series of millennium roundtables. The format very simple: Put together what we hope are some smart, interesting people and ask them to peer around the corner into the first years of the new century. One topic that is understandably very, very close to our home: the media.
ANNOUNCER: Jeff Greenfield's Millennium Roundtables with "Time" magazine's Walter Isaacson. The media: What were once three are now more than 50. And with the Internet growing at a phenomenal pace, what will our media be like? What companies will lead? Who will survive?
GREENFIELD: Welcome to our Millennium Roundtable. Our topic: the media in the new century. We are coming to you from Newseum/New York. That's a museum here in midtown Manhattan devoted to the news media.
Joining me, as he is for each of these roundtable discussions, is Walter Isaacson, managing editor of "Time" magazine.
WALTER ISAACSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Thank you, Jeff.
Joining us to discuss the media in the new millennium are Gerry Levine, the CEO and chairman of Time Warner. He's been leading the company in an exploration of the values that make a corporation important these days.
Next is Kurt Andersen, the founder of "Spy" magazine, editor of "New York" magazine. He was a writer at "Time," a writer at "The New Yorker," and his great new book, "Turn of the Century," explores a couple who gets immersed in the modern new media era.
Ken Auletta, another great book writer, a writer for "The New Yorker," has the amazing ability to get behind the scenes with some of the most important media moguls of our time.
And Bob McChesney is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois, and I think his concerns about the media are best summarized in the title of his new book, "Rich Media for Democracy."
GREENFIELD: So let's get right to it.
Kurt Andersen, you have several feet, as far as I can tell, in media old and new from the novel to the Internet. Whenever we talk about new media, there's a kind of assumption that whatever has existed is just going to be wiped out. As you look down the road a few decades, do you see old and new media existing in kind of a happy, cooperative method, or are we going to see the death of what we now consider some traditional media?
KURT ANDERSEN, AUTHOR, "TURN OF THE CENTURY": We're going to see some deaths. I see -- I guess I see a coexistence just as -- as television didn't destroy radio, but it certainly eclipsed it in many ways. So I think there will be a coexistent, but between now and some future peaceful coexistence moment, there will be a lot of limbs that die on the media tree. Yeah.
ISAACSON: Gerry, do you think that with a whole lot of new outlets, a whole lot of new channels on cable, a whole new digital realm, we're going to see a democratization where more and more people get access to the media? Are we going to see an increase in quality?
GERALD LEVIN, CHAIRMAN, TIME WARNER: Oh, I -- well, let's start with access. I mean, I'll use a word that is a tough word. Disintermediation. I mean, essentially, I think the difference between now, the future, and the past is that we've never had the opportunity to reach on a network basis anybody anywhere anytime where I can myself as an individual publish and reach this global audience -- it's a stunning concept -- with no centralized control, and the disintermediation simply means that, in the past because of the more limited nature of the distribution, you always needed some inner position, someone in between you and the material, who, therefore, had gatekeeping control. The elegance of the Internet is that that no longer exists.
Having said that, the issue of quality, I think, is the same age- old issue. It's a big trade-off. When you open up and have more access, you're going to have an opportunity for a lot of material that is not very desirable. But, on the other hand, there are those gems that never had an opportunity to shine before, and I think that's a tradeoff that the global society must make.
GREENFIELD: But, Bob McChesney, when you hear Gerry Levin describe this new media, you literally have a book-length argument that says, "This just ain't so." What do you make of the notion that we do at least have the capacity now -- you know, instead of every man a king, every man and woman his or her own publisher. Can you see that as spreading a more democratic notion of media?
ROBERT MCCHESNEY, COMMUNICATIONS PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS: Absolutely, and I think that's a great thing, and I think we all welcome that with the Internet. The problem is in a commercially driven Internet. If we look at the World Wide Web the last five years, we see the evidence. The existing media power's in a handful of companies that have tremendous advantages, and while everyone can start a Web site, how many people are going to be able to support themselves to put a really quality product out there?
I think the answer is not everyone can do that. The answer there: It's going to be a very small number of people, and the existing giant media firms have tremendous advantages as they go into new media over some upstart like me off the streets.
ANDERSEN: Although I would argue that the advantages that you would think the Time Warners of the world and the rest would have haven't amounted to that much in -- in that it is not the big companies that created Yahoo! or that created AOL, and -- and I think the -- the in-built advantages of mind share and market share and distribution and all that that the big companies have, in terms of the Net so far and the Web so far, haven't proven so valuable.
ISAACSON: And speaking from personal experience, it's not as easy to leverage the power of a big corporation, and -- I'll look at what my daughter is looking at on line. You know, she's looking at things like, you know, AOL, and she's getting her news off of Yahoo! I was wondering, Ken, if you felt with all these different things we're going to lose the value of the common ground that used to be the mark of mainstream media at least and everybody's going to get their news from a different source.
KEN AULETTA, AUTHOR, "THREE BLIND MICE": Well, you do -- I mean, we've lost that. We had that with television. We had that once before with radio. You've lost that -- that common hearth or -- or common source of information. That's a given.
I think we have to look at the world as a great paradox, what's happening in the world of communications. On the one hand, you've got a growing concentration of -- of media companies getting larger and larger and more and more global, inevitably with all the questions that raises, some of them provocative and worrisome.
On the other hand, you've got this democratic instrument, this technology, that basically challenges large companies like Gerry Levin's and creates these new brand names overnight, Amazon, AOL, Yahoo!, as Kurt said, and, inevitably, you've got these two models that are vying with each other.
On the one hand, people can self-publish a book because of this new technology in the Internet. On the other hand, Disney and Time Warner and News Corp. get bigger.
GREENFIELD: Which leads...
LEVIN: Wait. Let's just come back to this -- this notion of we no longer have a kind of a shared experience that we had in the old days of the old media. I just want to challenge that a little bit because I think we have precisely the opposite now. There is such instant availability. Not everybody may be watching or listening or reading it at the same time, but, in fact, with 24-hour news services, with -- every tragedy that has occurred has been shared by the world in a most immediate sense almost instantaneously, and it's been supplemented not only by pictures coming through conventional television or cable but by on-the-spot reports coming from individuals who were there delivering their report on the Internet.
AULETTA: But they're not necessarily getting it from the same source, so it's not the shared same experience of watching -- 76 percent of the American people watching "Roots" when it was aired as a miniseries in the ABC in the '70s, A. B, the other thing that is happening inevitably here is that I don't think you're going to have the global village that Marsha McClune (ph) wrote about and you just spoke about. I think we're going to have hundreds of local villages, and you'll bifurcate your audience because technology allows that to happen.
MCCHESNEY: Hundreds of shopping centers more than villages, I think, would be the way I would see it because so much of the way that these niches are being established online, as in cable television as sort of the model, is based on sort of the target demographics that are desirable to advertisers. Radio is the classic case where, you know, the whole niche in each radio genre is based on the target you want. So you find the programming that will reach it. So it's sort of breaking down -- you share your world with the people who buy the same products as you or are interested in the same advertisers.
GREENFIELD: Well, this is a point I wanted to explore because you -- you're -- one of the things you -- I think -- I take it you're arguing is that, in this new world we're in, it -- it has the effect of kind of depoliticizing, that it's so commercially based that people -- people are responding more as consumers than as political people.
And yet the other way to argue this is, no, you're providing so many outlets for people of different tastes, whatever they are -- political, cultural, artistic, musical, sports, sex, whatever -- that, in effect, it is more democratic, it's just less central.
MCCHESNEY: Yeah. I wouldn't argue these technologies depoliticize. I would argue that a commercially driven media system encourages depoliticization but doesn't cause it. But I think these new technologies -- you're right. There's tons of stuff out there. I'm on the Internet all the time. There's a whole range, a whole plethora of stuff.
The real issue is whether I can extrapolate from my personal experience and say this is going to be the experience of everyone on the Internet or will the experience of people on the Internet as broadband becomes widespread be that there are going to be a go first screen and that there are going to be a handful of dominant players that you're going to primarily go through, and we don't know the answer to that, but I think right now that's -- that's a key question.
LEVIN: But, again, one of the great things about the technology is that there is no first screen. All you need to do is to set your favorite destination, and that's where you'll go every time. I think what's happening here is -- is really extraordinary because there is no commercial system on the Internet.
Now you'll say, well, it has to happen at some point. That's because there's no central driving force that has a profit motive, and it's one of the most amazing things, and I -- I don't think we have yet grasped the significance of it because here is now an infinitely expandable system that goes around the world immediately.
And yet it's not one of -- it's not a government that's pressing the button. It's not one of our large corporations and, in fact, the way money is being made is actually very encouraging because it's being made on communications, and this new world called community. That is like-minded people having conversations. Now some of them may be extreme, but, on the other hand, that's a transmission or communications function which can be paid for, and -- and the content originates with people.
So it's communications. It's community. I think the Internet, whether we like some of the content or not, is very much like the library at Alexandria. For the first time, we have a library of worldwide dimensions that is not limited to just a few people who either set up or who have access to it. I -- you know, I just think it's extraordinary.
GREENFIELD: But, Kurt, in your novel, "Turn of the Century," you look at this new media -- and I don't want to say that it's a jaded eye, but there's certainly a lot of skepticism. I mean, in contrast to this optimism that Gerry Levin's told us, you certainly see people grasping as hard as they possibly can to control and co-modify this, no?
ANDERSEN: Sure. And I -- I'm about 51 percent optimistic about this technology as well, but the -- a lot of the 49 percent of pessimism is interesting as well, and -- and, yes, it's this time of tremendous flux, flux, I think, like we haven't seen in this century, about what is the right business to be in, what business am I in, what business should I be in next year and, yes, like any kind of gold rush hysteria, like the industrial revolution, it creates a great circumstance for robber barons and would-be robber barons of various kinds to -- to, you know, make the -- their short-term buck or long term.
So one can be optimistic about -- about the essentially transformative and profoundly democratic nature of this technology, but that doesn't mean that along the way there aren't going to be, you know, a lot of villains and miscreants manipulating the technology for their own evil purposes.
MCCHESNEY: I -- you know, I think every new technology -- automobiles is the classic case in point -- brings along a lot of what economists call externalities, things has a result of them being developed you don't anticipate. When you're first building an automobile, suburbanization, the spread of cities outside. And I think with the Internet that's going to happen, too. A lot in digital communication. There's going to be a lot of externalities, a lot of results that come from this technology none of us can really anticipate. ISAACSON: Like what?
MCCHESNEY: Well, that's what we can't anticipate, but, I mean, it's going to affect our social life, much like television did. When we first made television, no one knew initially everyone would be spending six hours a day in front of the screen and what that would do to family life and personal life, and that's what will happen with the Internet.
Now the only thing we know for sure, though, in a commercially driven system like we have where -- whoever makes the most money is going to set the model for what's going to be done. That will plow the path. They can't care about that. They're just going to -- the commercially viable system will develop the Internet, and there might be some very negative results. We just don't know what they are. But that can't be factored in necessarily to those calculations, and that's scary to me.
GREENFIELD: And I want to ask Ken because you -- you know -- you have spent much of your life profiling the folks who are at the top of this food chain. Do they -- when you talk to them about their notions about this new media, are they talking in terms of thinking through these consequences or with just, "We've got to get a piece of this. We've got to be part of everything that's out there."
AULETTA: I think it depends on who you -- who you talk to. The -- in general, if I had to generalize, I would say that most of the -- of the mogul types that I have interviewed, people who are CEOs of companies or heads of major divisions of entertainment, information companies, are people who think long and hard about business opportunities, new sources of revenue, but don't think long and hard about, say, social consequences of what they do and tend to be shallow in that regard.
LEVIN: Well, let me take exception...
GREENFIELD: I thought you might want to jump in...
AULETTA: I didn't -- I was careful not to generalize, though.
LEVIN: Let's approach it from two ways. First of all, I think it is quite possible to, in a sense, agree with Bob that there will be consolidation, that a lot of the new media companies will consolidate, and then what will be most interesting are transactions between new media and old media companies.
I mean, let's recognize that AOL is twice the size as Time Warner and Yahoo! is larger than Disney. So the market valuations are saying something, and the market is supposed to be perfect. Sometimes it's -- it runs amok, but let's stipulate that for a second.
So then where are we? It's my view even philosophically, so you can take this as being a danger or an opportunity, that global media, if you define media, in all its formats and not just digital but traditional story telling, will be and is fast becoming the predominant business of the 21st century, and we're in a new economic age, and what may happen, assuming that's true, is it's more important than government. It's more important than educational institutions and non-profits.
So what's going to be necessary is that we're going to need to have these corporations redefined as instruments of public service because they have the resources, they have the reach, they have the skill base, and maybe there's a new generation coming up that wants to achieve meaning in that context and have an impact, and that may be a more efficient way to deal with society's problems than bureaucratic governments.
It's going to be forced anyhow because when you have a system that is instantly available everywhere in the world immediately, then the old-fashioned regulatory system has to give way.
ISAACSON: Well, wait, if you're talking about a corporation dealing with values, how do you as a CEO then turn to Wall Street and say that's related to value creation and stockholder value?
LEVIN: You know, it -- it -- it's very hard to do the cause and effect, but if you believe -- well, first of all, if you're running -- and I love the term mogul because, you know, it's an old -- it dates back to the 12th or 13th century.
GREENFIELD: His magazine put it on the...
GREENFIELD: His magazine too. His magazine. Common old editor type, you know. I'm sorry.
LEVIN: As a CEO, we have 70,000 people. I can't possibly inculcate something or be responsible for or be there every day. So what's the surrogate for that? The surrogate is to have a set of principles, a set of values, not only for daily use, but if you think in institutional terms, it's going forward, but it serves another purpose. It's that, you know, people, in addition to making money, want to have self-realization, and -- and it would be nice if it was coextensive (ph) what they do during the day.
If you can do that and pull that off, I would argue that a satisfied troop that is really committed and doing socially important things not as a separate activity will perform even better. If that's correct, then it should work its way into the performance that Wall Street is looking at. It sounds idealistic, but when you talk to Wall Street, eventually, it's all about execution and people...
GREENFIELD: But the...
LEVIN: ... and we're -- we're living in an age today where young people are gravitating immediately to the Internet because it represents some form of freedom and realization for themselves, not just making the IPO money, and I'm saying I think corporations -- as those new media companies mature or combine with old media companies, they're going to have to keep that. Even the dress code has changed. You know, we happen to be wearing suits, but that's not true anymore, and that will change -- that's a powerful symbol about, you know, free expression, and I'm just saying that system as opposed to the high bound educational system and the restrictive governmental system that -- and, you know, we have it in our charter to kind of operate in the public interest. It was in Luce's will.
So I think the corporation is going to have to be redefined in the 21st century, and it's in part because of...
GREENFIELD: But what about...
ANDERSEN: So the question is -- I mean, not to get too abstract -- and I agree with you that the -- sort of the giant corporate -- corporations are kind of eclipsing the nation's state as the most salient entity.
LEVIN: And maybe that's a good thing...
ANDERSEN: Well -- and maybe...
LEVIN: ... because anti-government hasn't succeeded in the past.
ANDERSEN: Well -- but, at a certain point, not all companies are going to be socially irresponsible, and maybe...
LEVIN: ... as benign as Time Warner is.
ANDERSEN: ... the system will force it. Well, indeed, and I think there may be a revolutionary paradigmatic shift at some point to take explicit public control.
GREENFIELD: I want to -- I want to let you guys in, and then I want to get back to media before we completely leave the orbital...
MCCHESNEY: But I just want to say that I'm tickled to know I'm not the radical on this panel. Mr. Levin has taken that over for me. You know, I wish I could be as optimistic that the system could self- reform into what well-intentioned people envision. Unfortunately, I think there's so much pressure, as I think Walter's question indicated, to pursue profit, to maximize revue.
Take, for example, the case of children's media in the country right now and now going on line. Each of the four largest U.S. media companies has a 24-hour cable channel with commercial advertising. Disney's does in-house advertising. The other three have commercial advertising to kids.
We have numerous reports from the American Pediatric Association that extensive exposure to commercials to kids is a bad thing. So I suspect most media executives wouldn't let their own kids watch a lot of commercial television. They'd put a limit on it. It would be a great thing if sane, rational, public interested companies sort of eliminated ads on its kids programs, but if they did that, I think if they went to wall Street, they would face some very serious questioning and hostility.
GREENFIELD: With the possibility now with this new media to reach 24 hours a day in all kinds of different outlets, you know, and in some sense, reaching kids on their own with no intermediation, including parents, do you have a sense that, as these companies calculate where they're going, they're also calculating the broader social consequences of what they're doing?
AULETTA: But they're not. Absolutely not. See, I -- I mean, I think -- I think Gerry Levin is an exception on this. I think he thinks long and hard about this stuff, and I -- I would say this if he weren't here. But I also think like -- if he is a radical, I think we've got to ask as journalists some tough questions of the radical on this panel, and if -- if you're going to -- if corporations -- global companies are going to replace government and be more important, then what is -- and have a social responsibility, how do you codify it? Or can't you codify it? Then if you don't, what do you about Rupert Murdoch who doesn't have the same value system that you have?
LEVIN: But when your pursuit is to report on the world, tell stories, make music, it -- it's the most creative undertaking that anybody could pursue. It has its own values because what you're doing is -- either you're reflecting or you're disseminating some point of view that's very important, and that's what these -- that's what all these businesses are about, and I -- it's just clear to me over time that truly creative people who want to do important things are going to gravitate to the institutions that hold this view.
GREENFIELD: Speaking of commercialism, we're going to take a break now. We're going to come back and continue this discussion about the media in the new millennium in a moment.
First, this word about Newseum/New York, our host.
ANNOUNCER: We'll be right back with Jeff Greenfield's Millennium Roundtables.
This program is being broadcast from Newseum/New York, The Freedom Forum's photojournalism gallery in New York City. Newseum/New York is a satellite gallery for the main Newseum, the Interactive Museum of News, located in Arlington, Virginia, and just minutes from the heart of Washington, D.C.
ANNOUNCER: From New York City, Jeff Greenfield's millennium round tables with "Time" magazine's Walter Isaacson continues,
GREENFIELD: Welcome back to our millennium round table discussion of the shape of the media in the 21st century. With me, my co-host, Walter Isaacson -- Walter. ISAACSON: Kurt, one of the big themes in your new book, "Turn of the Century," is about the blurring we now have between news and entertainment. First of all, why is that?
ANDERSEN: Well, I think, at the largest level, it is because all media and entertainment now are driven by profit as they have not been, I think, in this century -- that is to say, news.
It was 20 years ago the case that news had kind of exemption from the, you know, maximized profit margins rules that the rest of the economy had. That exemption, for better and fro worse, in my view, has been eroded and erased over the last 20 years so what ever gets the most audience, any way you can get it, wins. And therefore entertainment values, you know, wash over news.
ISAACSON: Bob, you -- go ahead.
MCCHESNEY: I'm not sure it's entirely demand driven that we have this sort of trivia. I think part of it's supply driven because it's a lot less expensive to cover the O.J. trial or to cover JonBenet Ramsey than it is to have skilled journalists go out and break a really tough story, which takes a lot of time and might not pan out -- you never know for sure.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but CNN did extremely well during the O.J. trial with the camera in the courtroom. It was very good for business. And, you know, I think to some extent, it's supply driven. And after time, I mean, after a year of watching the O.J. trial, I wanted to know if Kato Kaelin could get a job. I mean, you create demand for it after a while.
GREENFIELD: In the long run, if we're not doing real news, will that hurt us? Will it ultimately eradicate -- erode the value of what CNN's about?
LEVIN: Yes, I don't accept the notion that, you know, all news has been made into an entertainment commodity. I think there are a lot of news magazine shows on the air today because it is more efficient economic programming than entertainment programming. But there is -- must be a tremendous demand for that lifestyle information.
No, from my perspective, real news, hard news, breaking news is essential. And I don't say that in an idealistic sense, I think there is a real appetite for it. And the challenge for a business person is just to figure out what's the formula to make money out of that enterprise combined with other things.
For example, entertainment not mooshed together with news, but entertainment can be used to make money, to subsidize the exercise of news. I mean, I would have to say to you that we have more -- if I look at hard news availability today and go back 35 years with the golden era of television, there's more hard news available today. What we don't have -- but I think this has always been true, and we have to struggle because there doesn't appear to be demand -- is we don't have international news. And there has been a tremendous cutback by the broadcasting system. I mean, we're -- we try not to do that, but there certainly isn't a demand. That's why I think the existence of the Internet may help correct that.
GREENFIELD: I want to pick up on something with that because I think it's a challenge that critics like yourself do have to confront -- this basic point: If I turn on the television set today -- and this applies to almost anybody -- you have -- as opposed to 25 or 30 years ago, you have the Jim Lehrer NewsHour, CNN and two other all- news networks, you have Discovery Channel, you have the History Channel, you have the Learning Channel. Every night of the week, there are more documentaries of what I'd regard as quality that you could possibly watch. You need more than 24 hours a day.
If the choice is out there, doesn't that undermine the argument that there is less and less availability of quality stuff because of what you would call over-commercialization?
MCCHESNEY: Well, I wouldn't call that, necessarily, quality stuff. And I don't want to go show by show or channel by channel, but take the news channels you mentioned: During the WTO, hearings in Seattle, meetings in Seattle that took place in November, I turned on the Fox news channel one night because I knew there were demonstrations going on and riots, and there was a coverage of the JonBenet trial. It was a long discussion of that.
And I think what we see on our cable news channels, for the most part, is a market-driven news channel in which, increasingly, business news and news are getting commingled. So, news of value to upper middle class consumers and investors is being named the general news for the whole population. And I think the bottom 50, 60, 70 percent of our population is written out of that model.
LEVIN: You know, you could actually take the opposing view because the images of the demonstrations at the WTO have now been carried around the world and will probably have disproportionate impact not only in our own country but around the world. You know, you could come at it from just the opposite way.
LEVIN: I'm not necessarily an advocate for Fox news, but that's just product differentiation. You know, they've decided at nighttime to do not hard news, to differentiate themselves because...
GREENFIELD: Because there's other hard news and there's other documentaries. But the fundamental question is...
MCCHESNEY: The class critique, though -- I mean if my class critique is right, then for the bottom 70 percent of the population, the news is less compelling -- if you're an upper middle class consumer, because the stories are about investors; it's business.
GREENFIELD: No, no, no, no. The history of New York -- the 10- hour history of New York is not an investor story.
MCCHESNEY: I was talking about the commercial news channels. GREENFIELD: I'm talking about the whole panoply of what's available.
MCCHESNEY: But there is some good things.
LEVIN: But it is true, if you're a documentarian and it's 35 years ago, you had a very tiny aperture for your vision to reach any kind of public. That's just not true today.
AULETTA: I don't think there's any question that we have more choices -- Gerry's right -- but I also think that we don't always have better choices. And I think if you look at local news, local news is not better though there's more of it today than there was. I mean, arguably...
LEVIN: Well, look at the local news -- 24-hour local news cable channels.
AULETTA: You have that with a less than one rating, very few people watching it. And I'm not saying it's not good.
LEVIN: You need to do a commutative reach.
AULETTA: No, you need to as the head of your company, I don't need to do a cumulative reach. It's a small audience.
The truth of the matter is, local news generally is not very good, and that's what most people are watching. Network news, I would argue, this -- the half hour newscast, is not as good as it was 10 years ago even though, in some ways, it may be better. But, increasingly, it has local news values, including a lot of weather news as part of it.
And so I think that the news on television that the public is exposed to, arguably, is not better even though they have more choices, and some of them are better choices. I mean, but the heart of it is not better.
ISAACSON: But isn't hard to argue that giving people more and more choices, to have more and more choices, we have more and more public access, more and more Internet channels, more and more local news channels, more and more community things building up on the Web, that's got to be better and got to allow more people more access to more information. Isn't your critique starting to whither away with this new digital way?
ANDERSEN: Well, what it is, it's depressing to discover that we as a people have such bad taste, that there is, in fact, not demand for, you know, the economist on the air and hours and hours of international news. Suddenly this democratized, you know, 31-flavors system of media shows that what really has a niche, what really has -- what there's really demand for, and we're forced to look at that squarely rather than have Huntley-Brinkley, "New York Times" make us believe that we are a higher class of people.
LEVIN: But I can't believe that we're saying when we had a 15- minute newscast from John Cameron Swazey (ph) that someone, you know -- there was higher regard for news at that time.
ANDERSEN: No, it's better now.
LEVIN: There are more opportunities for talented journalists to reach an audience today than there've ever been in our history.
ANDERSEN: Absolutely, and for P.T. Barnums, and we have to accept that.
LEVIN: But that's the tradeoff.
ANDERSEN: I agree. I don't disagree.
LEVIN: It's a wonderful tradeoff.
ANDERSEN: I agree.
GREENFIELD: It's a wonderful tradeoff, says Gerald Levin, and the argument that I hear Kurt making, and it's one that I have sympathy with, is if you put out a panoply offering, some of which are sensational, some of which are, by some tastes, not. And the great majority of people, unbidden by the big brother, I want to watch WWF Smackdown, or whatever it is, not the five-hour history of New York, is that somehow a product of corporate conglomeration, of commercialization, or is it a product that some people -- most people don't want to watch on television?
MCCHESNEY: No, I think there's a broader explanation that's got to be necessary for why some people are not interested in politics or news. I mean, I don't think there's a simplistic explanation. It's certainly not the media's responsibility entirely. It might aggravate it or extenuate it, or it might combat it.
In my view, I mean, it's not the coincidence that deep politicization, lack of interest of news is fairly closely correlated to your economic background, your class position, that the way you vote is directly related to what your income is. And if -- the poorer you are the less interested you are in politics because I think the more in our society doesn't do with media, politics seems irrelevant to you whether Bill Bradley wins or Al Gore wins. If you're poor, it doesn't matter. The higher you get up the chain, the more you can see the nuances because you're in a position where that will affect your economic and social well-being.
AULETTA: I think there's no question that -- what John Dewey once said is basically what Kurt just said, which is the public can be the great beast. And that's true, but I think a journalist has to start, in my judgment, with a basic attitude, just as you have to have a basic attitude about the Internet: You're an optimist or pessimist, that it's going to do good and democratize or not.
And with journalism, you have to start with an attitude that we have to give the public what, generally, and not all the time because we're also in the entertainment business: We've got to get people to read our magazine, read our stories; that's a given. But you have to give them their spinach sometimes; you have to be willing to say, this we believe is important for you to know to function as a citizen in a democracy. And even though -- at the risk of boring you, dear reader or dear viewer, we're going to give it to you.
ISAACSON: But I think that you don't have to be as condescending, not that you personally are, to the American viewer or reader because I think a lot of people know they should eat spinach, a lot of people eat spinach, and you make it sound bad that it's being fed spinach, but people want good stuff and I'm not sure I agree that when you put out this whole buffet here, everybody's choosing, you know, wrestling Smackdown.
AULETTA: What about the foreign news that, as Gerry pointed out, we don't do a lot of?
LEVIN: But this is a 300-year-old problem about the nation of our American society: This is -- you know, it is an isolationist society. But, you know, maybe, you know, if I keep pushing on this and then a subtle understanding that what's happening out there, that's really what's going on with the WTO. It's very profound, and it's not just the global financial system, but it's really beginning -- just beginning to understand that my everyday life is impacted. That's why I think, you know, this is slowly going to change.
And, you know, one of the other things to kind of, maybe, worry about is that because, you know, we just have American cultural imperialism, you know, in this post-Cold War era, there's no countervailing force, that's a significant problem.
GREENFIELD: And please talk about that because that happens to be what I was about to say we really have an obligation to talk about. If in this new media, this new world that we're in you have one place which has almost all the money and production values, not in some Orwellian way but just they make it more interesting, they make it more fun, they make it more compelling, to what extent should we worry if the United States comes to be the overwhelmingly dominate producer worldwide of entertainment and information? Is this something that's on the table for you?
ANDERSEN: This has happened. Cultures dominate and have imperium, or imperia, if that's the word, and this is ours in terms of pop culture. Because that's true today, I don't think it's any guarantee at all that it will be true 50 or 100 years hence. I think, again, this technology gives you every reason to believe that what looks like a permanent condition can be upended over night. Look at the music industry: Yes, there are five big companies that control it, but they're all running incredibly scared by the specter of digital downloads on the Internet and so on.
So, yes, today it is an American imperial Earth in terms of pop culture, and even though every time, say, the French object to that, I become patriotic in my defense of American pop culture; one understands the Bolognese father or the Argentinian mother who worries about his or her local culture being shrunken more and more by the products of Warner Brothers and Universal. And it's not going to stop anytime soon. LEVIN: Well, you know, some people used to posit the view that chauvinistic way that there is something intrinsic in the American psyche to be able to turn out this culture or these stories that -- and has worldwide applicability and no other society can do that. I reject that notion. The second premise was that because of our economic system -- not just recently, but for some time, we can finance big projects that no other country can.
I think what may happen in the future, and it's already happening in the music business in a different way, when you look at how much music comes from America, how much comes from Japan, how much comes from England, how much comes from Europe, the percentages are -- have shifted radically, not having a lot to do with technology, but just when it's easier -- because music is much easier to make, doesn't cost a lot of money, a lot easier to distribute -- that's what happens.
ISAACSON: I do think what you're starting to see around the world -- and we saw it in China, you can see it in Europe -- is a digital underground of real artists, entertainers, musicians, filmmakers, TV makers using the digital tools, being able to work on a local level, being able to have their own distribution system. And, once again, I think this digital revolution is going to help solve the problems we worried about in the 20th century.
MCCHESNEY: May I be the pain, old grump again?
GREENFIELD: Why not?
ISAACSON: That's why we turn it to you, Bob.
MCCHESNEY: Well, I think underground that's happening, but over- ground what's happening is that we're seeing the spread in the last 10 years of, you know -- a rapid transformation of the global media system, and Americans don't see it that much because we live here and we're immersed in it already.
My wife's Norwegian, I've had a chance to go there for 15 years. They've gone from one television channel five hours a day of no ads to multi-channel television, have of it's in English, tons of ads, and most of the Time-Warner family channels. And it's a completely different cultural environment in all the countries of the world now.
And I think what's also happening, though, is the other counter- trend that Mr. Levin was talking about, which is there's a lot of localism rising up now. And what's interesting to see is how the dominant firms are getting involved in that. They're sponsoring local music companies or they're making deals with movie producers across Europe and Asia to produce films locally in the local language. So it's becoming a global network. It's very interesting.
ISAACSON: As a grump, you're not doing very well because that doesn't sound like the worst of all worlds to me.
MCCHESNEY: Well, you want to grumpy part now? Well, I think, you know...
LEVIN: Maybe companies are enabling...
LEVIN: That's what it sounds like.
MCCHESNEY: The concern I would have, and what I see in Norway, aside from the film and music, but just look at the spread of commercial television now.
LEVIN: American television does not sell well outside the United States anymore. American television programs...
GREENFIELD: Well, perhaps you mean the shows.
MCCHESNEY: OK, well, I'm thinking of also the genre channels, the MTVs the ESPNs, which do quite well outside of the United States with different formats for other countries.
AULETTA: As do movies.
LEVIN: Movies still predominate because of the cost of making movies, but that's going to change.
MCCHESNEY: But I think it's part and parcel to broader changes in the global economy. There's been sort of a breakdown -- a concern about the breakdown of public service values and a commercial ethos taking over everything and a degradation of traditional, political sense. I think it's a tremendous concern in Norway.
GREENFIELD: The other argument -- the other way to put that -- and I don't know whether you're going to be the one we should turn this over -- is you can argue that it's a...
MCCHESNEY: You want me to be a grump?
GREENFIELD: Yes -- no, a judge in this case.
You can make the argument this is a breakdown in traditional public service values and it's supplanting by a kind of, in some way or other, undesirable commercialism, or you could say that that public service which was imposed on these countries by the limits of broadcasting, has been replaced by a market place in which the public is voting with their eyeballs.
MCCHESNEY: But they don't get to vote. I don't see -- I mean, that's not a fair vote. The elections dominated -- there are only a few votes on the ballot right now.
LEVIN: The best system is one that has some government-sponsored programming, because by definition that it's non-commercial, part of the system is advertiser supported, and part of the system is paid for directly by the consumer. If you have that going as opposed to having one or the other as the sole distribution source, you've got the best system. AULETTA: But the grump worry, which I share, is who is going to assure that the public is protected? And the public always know what it wants. For instance, when they talk about let's do my Yahoo!, you know, we're going to create a newspaper of just what I'm interested, and that's what I want to get. But what happens if something happens -- an airplane crash, a crisis in Kosovo -- that you hadn't anticipated? You're not getting it.
Part of the notion...
LEVIN: And who do you feel comfortable with articulating and protecting the public interest? Just tell me where in our society we should look.
AULETTA: Well, I want to look in separate places, not one place. I wouldn't just look in government's place, which is your concern, and I wouldn't do that; I would share that. But I want to see opposition; I want to see conflict; I want to see checks and balances, OK? And I want to be sure that that marketplace is not just made up of commercial values, that someone is saying: I want to do education for kids and it's not going to be the kind of educational programming that I think the networks cheat on now on Saturday morning, which is what you spoke about. And that's what I want to see.
Now, where does that come from? I don't know, but it doesn't come from just saying, well, let us trust the CEOs of these companies to do what you're trying to do, which is redefine value.
LEVIN: Again, I -- well, first of all, there is more children's programming available today than at any time in the history of our nation. Secondly, I'd try to define where you had -- government had -- if you think government is protecting the public interest, there's that control. If you think that, you know, corporations may do some good things in -- there are some good advertisers who want to have good programming, so you have an advertising system; and then to let the consumer choose and pay for. So, I'm just saying that kind of system should produce the best alternatives as opposed to looking to one area or another.
GREENFIELD: It seems to me that one likelihood in the coming years is going to be the ability through the net to charge really low prices per person for programming, I mean, where the poorest persons -- you're talking about a few cents when this thing becomes viable.
Under those circumstance -- and we'll start with Kurt and whoever else wants to -- is that -- does that show the promise of greatly expanding the kind of choices consumers will have of breaking what Bob would describe as the over-commercialization model or the government- financing model,
ANDERSEN: It's sort of as the communist ideal of a perfect communism was to Marx, so is that the sort of -- the free market perfected? Yes, indeed. And once that everybody can vote with their pennies and their dollars on exactly what information and entertainment is going to come into their homes, then markets can be created. We will then be Balkanized culturally in a way that has not necessarily anything to do with geography anymore. But those of us who want all-gerbil television all the time will be able to have it at last.
AULETTA: But you're still going to come back to the haves and have-nots. You're still going to have a lot of have-nots, even if it's a few pennies...
LEVIN: The digital divide.
AULETTA: ... that can't -- you're going to have the digital divide, people who cannot afford a pay-per-view world.
ISAACSON: Well, being the optimist on the panel -- I mean, being on the optimist side of this panel, how can you be sure of that? It seems you're going to have cheaper, more easily distributed choices for more people.
AULETTA: Grumps worry about that. That's what I'm worried about.
MCCHESNEY: Here's another...
LEVIN: We have a library system...
ISAACSON: More people may have more access to more information, including people in every school system, than the richest schools had 10 years ago.
LEVIN: We've always figured out how to get things to people who couldn't afford it. And you know, libraries, you can go in and get a free book and opposed to buying it in the old days when we sent books out through the mail. And so there is a comparable system. I think the interesting question is: Who's going to kind of enforce that system, make sure it happens? And there I would agree that you probably need some kind of public-private cooperation. The government needs to push a little bit and the private sector needs to be responsive.
But we see that happening. We're wiring up a lot of schools, there are a lot of computers starting to appear in urban districts, and it's coming through this push. If it's made a priority of the society, it will happen.
GREENFIELD: Conspiracy theorists among you will note that I have let the CEO of this parent company have the last word. Those of you who work in journalism know that this is the constraints of time.
But I would like to thank everyone here on this panel for joining us: Kurt Andersen, Gerry Levin, Ken Auletta, Bob McChesney, my co-host Walter Isaacson, who will be around for several of these.
We now go back to the CNN Center and more of CNN's coverage of Millennium 2000. Thank you.
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