Media, Capitalism and Politics:

An Exchange Between Nicholas Johnson and Peter Coyote

April 30, 1998

Note: The following excerpt from the evening presentation by Peter Coyote contains only the opening remarks of WSUI’s Julie Englander and the Q and A exchange between Nicholas Johnson and Peter Coyote.  Peter Coyote’s remarks are copyright, 1998, by Peter Coyote, and are also available through his Web page as "Media, Capitalism and Politics."  For more about this multi-faceted, creative individual check out the "Official Peter Coyote Web Site." -- N.J.

Julie Englander: Live from Prairie Lights with actor, activist and author Peter Coyote was first broadcast April 30, 1998.  It was broadcast at Buchanan Auditorium at the Papajohn Business Administration Building on the University of Iowa Campus.  Peter Coyote read from his book, Sleeping Where I Fall, published by Counterpoint Books.   I’m Julie Englander and we’re pleased that you’re tuned in to AM 910, WSUI, Iowa City-Cedar Rapids, and AM 640, WOI, Ames-Des Moines.  . . ..
* * *
Nicholas Johnson: Last evening this very auditorium was used to celebrate entrepreneurship and capitalism [a reference to the April 29, 1998, "John R. Hughes lecture Series in Entrepreneurship," a multi-lecture, mini-conference sponsored by the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, University of Iowa, and Hills Bank and Trust Company].  This evening we are using it to take another view of the subject.  I speak to you as a defrocked former FCC Commissioner who was concerned, during those years that you were writing about, as to the impact of the media on all of this.  I am wondering how you feel about that today.  I don’t disagree with your view about Reagan and Bush, but don’t you think the media has some role to play?  It affects whether we perceive ourselves as, to use Ralph Nader’s phrase, "public citizens," or as merely "consumers."  What do you see from your perspective that we can do about the media if you share the judgment that it’s a part of the problem?

Peter Coyote: Yes, I do share your judgment, and just from your question I think I extend a lot of sympathy to you.  Because I can imagine what your life in politics must have been like. I also served in the political process under Jerry Brown.

I think we are in very kind of critical pass. There are roughly 5500 media outlets in the United States, meaning magazines, newspapers, radio stations and television stations.  And upwards of 90% of them are owned by 23 corporations. This represents a homogenous view.  And so the way in which the nation talks to itself is a homogenized point of view.  It is a dialogue that has shrunk from the center to the right.  And it has been so diminished that the right wing now looks at the center as the left wing.  The idea of objectivity -- that pretends that the center is what you get when you factor out biases from the left and biases from the right – is itself a kind of disguised prejudice.  To be truly objective newscasters should say, "this is what the left thinks about these issues," "this is what the right thinks," and "this is what the center thinks."  The American public should have the breadth of possibilities available to them but they never get it.

I was on the radio the other day with Charles Webb, the man who broke the story about the CIA’s allowance of tons of cocaine to be sold in the United States to pay for weapons to the Contras – expenditures that the voters turned down.  And he was fired from his job at the newspaper.  When his story was being reported -- and there were no unattributed sources, all of his story was reported in hard documented sources -- it was played on page 14 and 15 of the New York Times. But when the editor of the San Jose Mercury folded to CIA and government pressure, that was reported on page one in the Washington Post and New York Times.  And I asked him, "What do you think the future of reporters like yourself is?  How do you think that information which is contrary to government positions or the best interests of multinational capital will find outlets in such a homogenized press?"  He said, "It’s very, very, very grim."

So I think one of the bright lights is the Internet, because it hasn’t yet been controlled.  And the reason that Gary Webb’s story created such a furor was because it went out over the Internet at the same time it went out in the San Jose Mercury News. And it seems to me that the consolidation of media is just another of a number of problems like merger mania which are confronting us.

The core of it all, the single issue which kind of obsesses me right now, is actual campaign finance reform. Because until the politicians work for the American people, and not for the lobbyists of multinational corporations, nothing will change. And the laws that are on the books will not be enforced, the laws against monopoly which have bankrupted the American farmers.  Twenty-three million farmers have been bankrupted.  And the small towns that existed on them -- and the positive role models that the preachers, the Cub Scout leaders, the Little League parents -- and those towns have been kind of invaded by antigovernment agitators.

There is a huge anti-government movement growing up in the Midwest which is ominous and frightening.  And those people could have been protected by antimonopoly laws that are on the books that were not enforced by the legislators.

So to me, until the government pays for free and fair elections, and until TV and radio and American media which uses our public air time, offers free time and unstructured debate to all candidates who accept government money so the American public can see and hear them in unhomogenized and unsanitized environments, until the American citizen gets the same tax deductions to disseminate information that corporations get, none of our ideas and none of our institutions are going to be protected from this consolidation.

I am urging people to take a really strong look at campaign finance reform so our politicians work for us once again.