Obit for Local Independent News

This is a piece I’m working on for Veer Magazine

I was glad to be invited to participate in a local gathering of poets and writers sponsored by The Muse, our local writers center, as part of a larger effort to stand in defense of freedom of the press. I found myself in good company with many of our areas finest poets including Robert Arthur, Rene Olander, Luisa Igloria and others. The focus was primarily on the murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi and on the constant assault on the mainstream media by Donald Trump.

Expecting some heated reaction, I read from an article of mine (“What’s Happening”) published in this magazine a few months ago in which I wrote about the differences between our corporate, embedded mainstream media and the actual free press we have in media watchdog sites and in non-mainstream investigative journalism. I reminded listeners that our country too has targeted journalists and threatens truth tellers. Examples include the banishing of award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh from US media, our targeting and murder of journalists in Iraq and other parts of the world, the exile of Edward Snowden and the ongoing threats to Julian Assange. The problem of the free press, I noted, went far beyond Trump. As I have described in previous articles, some posted on my blog, ”What Needs Saying” at https://almarkowitz.blogspot.com, the erosion of our mainstream media has been going on for decades, especially since the 1980s with efforts by George Bush Sr. and Roger Ailes. Obama prosecuted more journalists than any President before him. I was expecting some animosity and rejection for my reading but was surprised by how much agreement I found.

What wasn’t mentioned was the shrinking and death throes of our once local paper. It hadn’t been a great paper for some time. Though some good local investigative journalism did happen, there were issues of censorship by the owners in investigating the connections between Virginia Beach leaders and banks a few years back. Mostly, as a friend of mine humorously noted, what it offered was the best of yesterday’s news today. This was before it was sold to “TRONC” or the Tribune Publishing Company, based in Chicago. Since then, tenured local journalists have been offered “buy outs” or retired and the Pilot has been joined to the Hampton newspaper, the Daily Press with Marisa Porto, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Daily Press named executive editor of The Virginian-Pilot as well.

it had become rife with racists and partisan attack trolls using fake and even ridiculous names but still, it was a community – even of those who regularly disagreed.

All of this ended abruptly on December 24th – our Christmas present from the new owners. The commentary option was ended with the stated intent of resuming on January 2nd under more restrictive limitations. Erica Smith, who has moderated the commentary and who “oversees digital strategy” stated that the owners have decided that they will limit commentary to editorials and letters. Where commenters were previously free to post informative links on issues being discussed, these will now be limited to a list drawn up in advance by the editors as they decide what are a “legitimate sources.” The new posted rules also indicate that any comments which veer from the narrow confines of the editorial or letter being discussed may be removed. On the positive side, at least the racist and libelous trolls may be banished. But for any single press to decide what news or news sources are legitimate and what subjects can be discussed is an attack on freedom of the press and on legitimate freedom of speech.These dictates are most certainly coming down from the owners in Chicago and are not limited to the Pilot. We are seeing similar censorship and imposed limitations across the media spectrum. As I wrote in a previous piece, it isn’t just Trump that is attempting to limit and control what we see or to define what is authentic news. There are also attempts at censorship by big media because of the Russia-gate frenzy as we’re seeing on Facebook and Google in their attempts to identify and shut down what they decide constitutes “fake news.” Power, whether here or anywhere, always strives to control information to protect itself from challenges. This was easier prior to the digital age. At best governments today can impose a cast iron colander on information. Our country is unique in now being owned and run by corporate interests but with lingering constitutional rights. Unlike some oppressive countries we can have private media but it has been so undermined and state embedded that it has become the propaganda tool of power and its partisan factions in their struggles to shape and control narratives. What is most striking to me is what is omitted from the “news.” American military involvements and related power struggles, atrocities, popular uprisings and wars may be raging around the planet but turn on the news and you mostly get feel-good stories and a splash of sensational tabloid fodder mixed with partisan attacks and pentagon narratives promoting neocon agendas. What has change as of a few weeks ago was a choice to finally cover the growing climate catastrophe.

The slow and escalating demise of papers like the Pilot create a vacuum for local news. Magazines like Veer may provide some news not covered in monopolized corporate venues but they focus more on culture than on issues. This has not stopped the owners of the Pilot from making a concerted effort to kill this Veer by undermining advertising efforts. To quote Elizabeth Warren, still we persist. I, together with a few others, had considered starting a non-commercial, cooperative alternative paper or magazine focusing on issues with an emphasis on truth and on non-partisan thought provoking writing but the obstacles to creating a printed product were daunting. We may yet need to work on this but it takes money, time and energy as well as a number journalists and writers. I remain open to ideas on how we can create and sustain a local paper not subservient to advertisers, government or controlling media monopolies.

Beyond our moribund local paper, the larger issue is the corporate consolidation of the press. A year ago the FCC voted to allow a single company to own a newspaper, television and radio stations in the same town, reversing a decades-old rule aimed at preventing any individual or company from having too much power over local coverage. This lead to increasing media mergers and consolidation. Six or so companies now own our major media. The corporations that own our local commercial TV stations are TRONC affiliate, Tribune Broadcasting – WTKR (channel 3), NEXTAR Media – WAVY, (channel 10), Tegna Inc – WVEC (channel 3) and Sinclair – WTVZ (channel 33). None are local with the exception of our public TV station, WHRO (channel 15) which is hooked into a national service increasingly embedded and dependent of corporate funding. The elimination of net neutrality is a part of the attempt to control what is available to us. If they cannot constitutionally eliminate alternatives to the official press, they can block or choke them off by letting the company you get your internet access from decide what sites are available to you – just like Google or the Pilot editors deciding what is “legitimate.” Thus Americans remain the least informed people on the planet, divided over partisan nonsense and largely ignorant about global events and issues that affect us.

As much as I was glad to participate with local poets in a national effort in defense of the idea of a free press, the most profound exhortations make little difference by themselves. We get what we allow ourselves to get. If we actually want a free and independent press, if we actually want to know what is happening, we need to demand it rather than being passive consumers. We need to stand against the corruption of the FCC by major media corporations. We need to demand a press that is not embedded with the State Department and National Security State. We need to demand a return of the fairness doctrine and a break-up of media monopolies, and maybe we need to work together to recreate and support a truly independent locally owned newspaper.

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