In Lexington, No Regular Outlet for Media Criticism

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Snake Swallows Tail: Film at 11

 


BY KARLA ROBINSON

When Entertainment Tonight premiered in 1981, some industry insiders believed that there wouldn’t be enough entertainment-related news for the program to fill five shows a week. Of course, ET didn’t invent the genre of entertainment journalism; trade papers like Variety, Billboard, and The Hollywood Reporter have been around for decades. What was revolutionary about ET was its intended audience-regular, everyday people who didn’t work in “the business.”

Today, coverage of the media-journalism-entertainment complex is a staple on American television, in our newspapers, and on our magazine stands. Entertainment Tonight has been joined by Showbiz Today on CNN, an entire cable network (E! Entertainment Television), magazines like Entertainment Weekly – and on the media front, American Journalism Review, Brill’s Content, and Columbia Journalism Review, along with media-related columns in countless other magazines and newspapers.

Audiences eat it up.

What’s frequently lacking, though, despite the apparent glut of outlets is a critical perspective on the media, especially at the local level.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently assessed the state of media criticism in the United States.

They singled out alternative papers for special attention, because -even though media policing media might be a case of the snake swallowing its tail – alt papers are still one of the few press outlets that consistently commit space to critiquing national and local media.

Here in Lexington, for example, there is no regular outlet for media criticism. What’s found in the Herald-Leader, for example, is limited to a short weekly column in the Friday paper, focusing primarily on prime-time network television programs.

In most markets, local television news programs make no time for criticism of themselves, their TV competitors, or the print journalism in the market. Local papers see television news as a direct competitor, and are generally loath to give local news programs any coverage at all. Furthermore, the internet is becoming a more important source of news and information, even at the local level, and few critics treat the web as an additional journalistic outlet worthy of criticism and coverage.

With In Media Res, Ace re-enters the fray [this column picks up where Media Watch left off].

The column will critique local media performance-on television, in print, on radio, and on the web. The goal here is not to produce shrill diatribes castigating local media outlets for their mistakes. (Not that it doesn’t offer some appeal: the hyperbole surrounding the University of Kentucky’s recent SEC and NCAA basketball tournament games could be fodder for months of columns. C’mon, comparing the NCAA tournament loss to a homicide, as a Herald-Leader columnist did on March 19th? That goes beyond the pale, even as a joke.)

Rather, Ace looks to add to the dialogue. While media criticism doesn’t have an extensive track record of improving the journalistic practice of the entitities being critiqued, it can perform admirably in a watchdog role. For example, the alternative paper New Times Los Angeles (a prominent link in a prominent “alternative chain,” which might or might not be an oxymoron) broke the story of the profit-sharing conflict of interest between the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center. The ensuing scandal caused the LA Times to seriously reflect upon its editorial policies and the [lack of] separation between “church” (editorial) and “state” (advertising and marketing) at the paper.

This column will also serve as a point of entry for discourse about the big, scary, mega-multi-merger, strategic alliance environment of the new media-journalism-entertainment complex. Due to regulatory and technological changes, what used to be discrete media (broadcast television versus cable television, or telephone service versus personal computers, for example) are now united under one corporate umbrella.

The megamerger trend gained prominence ten years ago when Time Inc and Warner Communications Inc. merged, in a deal worth over $14 billion, creating the world’s largest media conglomerate at the time. Since 1990: the New York Times bought Affiliated Publications in 1993 for $1.1 billion, the largest buyout ever; in 1994, Viacom bought Paramount for $10 billion and Blockbuster for $8 billion; Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC in 96 for $19 billion; and coming full circle, AOL recently agreed to buy Time Warner for a record $135 billion.

Alternative papers have not escaped the trend. Once known as David to the mainstream media Goliaths, alternative chains are now springing up around the country, with New Times occupying a dominant position … until the recent formation of Village Voice Media, Inc. (in a deal estimated at $150-$160 million according to the New York Times). That acquisition included the Stern papers, along with the Nashville Scene and ACE Magazine. The jury’s still out on what effects, if any, this acquisition will have on the editorial content of this paper, but this deal will bear continued scrutiny.

This accelerating concentration in the media has had sweeping effects on journalistic practice, programs, and corporate bottom lines.

When two media giants merge, the celebrated value of such a transaction is the “synergy” that will prevail between the new partners. But synergy means different things to different camps. The happily merged couple convinces regulators that it will make the new megafirm more efficient, enabling it to plow revenues into better service to the local community.

But the wages of mergers do not universally result in outstanding local news and public affairs programming.

In Lexington radio, for example, major player Jacor merged with Clear Channel last year; Clear Channel Communications now owns seven radio stations in Lexington, commanding 37.6 percent of the radio audience, according to The Arbitron Co. Randy Michaels, then-CEO of Jacor, said at the time of the merger: “The merger synergies in marketing, advertising, and production will be explosive as we combine the companies.” Of course, the press release made no mention of how the local communities would be better served by the merger.

So, how has Lexington benefited? In the nearly 10 months since the merger was consummated, it’s difficult to say. Clear Channel’s net revenues doubled from 1998 to 1999. Locally, the stations have consolidated their studios to one facility on Nicholasville Road, a significant cost savings in both facilities and staff. But the presence of local talent on the airwaves is shrinking.

Scanning the dial in Lexington, we find Don Imus (out of New York), and Dan Patrick (Bristol, Connecticut), on Sportsradio 1300am; Rush Limbaugh (New York) on WLAP 630am; Bob & Tom (Indianapolis) and Cousin Deke (Cincinnati) on WKQQ; and Tom Joyner (Dallas) on 107.9 The Beat-local radio isn’t really local anymore.

Syndicated radio isn’t new, of course. Rush has been on the air across America for nearly 12 years now. What’s happening is that more stations are picking up more syndicated shows for more of their broadcast day- crowding out local talent, news, music, and talk.

Many of these changes have taken place virtually over night; the media landscape looks very different from what it did just five years ago.

Part of the purpose of this column will be to look in now and then on this process of consolidation in all types of media, and identify its impact on Lexington.

If anything, this column will be a regular voice in the media wilderness, bringing a critical eye to local media performance-acting as watchdog, occasional cheerleader and playground monitor. We’re a media-obsessed society, but that doesn’t mean we have to take local media at face value.



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