Heading for Trouble, TV Let Things Slide

Fox's "Arrested Development," part of a rebound in scripted series.

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N12

Advocates and opinionators are always warning of "slippery slopes." It's a cliche but one that has a nice alliterative allure. It's too early to say how many slopes we started, or continued, slipping down in 2004, but it was definitely a slopeful year.

In the superficial world of network competition, there was some good news. So-called reality shows continued to sprout like weeds in the garden; CBS's "The Will," premiering Jan. 8, will have potential heirs competing to win a ranch in Kansas once the family patriarch dies. But on the bright side, scripted series made something of a comeback, and so did ABC by introducing two of the best new scripted shows of the year: "Desperate Housewives," darkly farcical tragic kitsch, and "Lost," a metaphor disguised as a Saturday-afternoon serial. Fox's perverse comedy "Arrested Development" was a critical success, which on Fox means it might be canceled at any moment.

The Fox News Channel, meanwhile, must be doing something right as well as something right-wing. The size of its nightly prime time audience was up an awesome 70 percent in November vs. the same month a year earlier. It was, of course, the month of the presidential election, but also of Yasser Arafat's death and tabloid headlines from the lurid murder trial of Scott Peterson. All the networks curtailed convention coverage even more than in 2000, leaving one to wonder whether maybe the conventions will be shrunk to quickie five-minute summaries in 2008.

But there were larger and more portentous slopes to worry about. Still haunted by the long twin shadows of 9/11, Americans showed increased willingness to tolerate limits placed on First Amendment freedoms, especially if they appeared even remotely related to national security. Freedom of speech and of the press seemed less absolute, more malleable; less sacred, more negotiable.

The sudden, unexpected and ridiculous baring of a nipple by pop star Janet Jackson during halftime of the Super Bowl nearly a year ago seemed not only to distract attention from the Iraq war but also to have rampant reverberation. The FCC, spewing sanctimony, used the incident as an excuse to go hunting for goblins in Television Land (Radio Land too) and slap them with bizarre and seemingly unconstitutional fines. The fact that this was an election year politicized nearly everything, and yet when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, it's not likely that the trend will suddenly stop or reverse itself. Until a court ruling says otherwise, the FCC will continue on its witch hunt.

It became clearer than ever in 2004 that political conservatives have in their wily way managed to get a secure grip on the electronic media, and some of their actions were blatant attempts to advance a political agenda. Among the prime offenders was the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which early in the year forbade the ABC affiliates it owns to air a special edition of the ABC News production "Nightline" on the grounds, ironically, that it was political propaganda cleverly disguised as journalism and public service.

On the broadcast, anchor Ted Koppel simply read the names of the men and women who had died, up to that point, in America's Iraq military operation while their pictures, two at a time, appeared on the screen. It was powerful Event Television, but Sinclair executives apparently felt it might weaken American resolve if people were reminded that wars have casualties.

Later in the year, prior to the reelection of George W. Bush, Sinclair was at it again. This time it wasn't banning broadcasts but promoting one -- an alleged documentary that, it became apparent, was really a free ad for Bush. Protests persuaded Sinclair to relent somewhat; instead of the "documentary" airing in a solid block, it was cut up in pieces and aired as a series of reports on Sinclair stations.

Such shenanigans made a mockery of all that fuss about the "liberal" media and their supposedly insidious influence. Conservatives used television -- and radio, where right-wingers cranked up the volume -- to popularize various specious notions, among them that anybody who criticized the American presence in Iraq was besmirching the honor of American troops stationed and fighting there -- an uphill fight on a slippery slope indeed.

Even bashing Bush might be interpreted as endangering the troops -- hogwash that nonetheless got plenty of circulation. Tireless press critics during war or peacetime, the conservatives were handed a valuable new weapon when CBS News fumbled a report detailing the president's shoddy record as a member of the National Guard back in Texas. The report was attacked virtually the moment it aired on "60 Minutes"; documents used to bolster the allegations were condemned by conservative critics as phony and forged, though no forging has yet been proved.

CBS News announced formation of an independent panel to produce a report on the report (when it's unveiled, conservatives are sure to circulate their own report on the report on the report) and, sadly, "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather moved up the planned date of his retirement from the anchor chair. "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw's departure occurred a short time later -- with barely a peep of controversy.

It was a good year for bad news, a bad year for good news, and a bad year for the news business. But as the year wound down, the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and all their talkative conservative supporters got a surprise of their own. The troops themselves were heard from, and their complaint was not a lack of support from the media but rather from their own leaders. A young soldier stood up at a Rumsfeld appearance in Iraq to complain about the crucial lack of armor for Humvees and other vehicles that are repeatedly targeted by Iraqi insurgents and fanatics.

The story got big play on television, partly because the embarrassing moment was caught on videotape. Could there come a day when media power is concentrated in so few hands that a story could effectively be suppressed? Fortunately, Americans are still protected somewhat by diversity in ownership of the news media, so that even if something were banned from one group of stations, it could still be seen elsewhere. But that's another of the slippery slopes that get more slopey, if not more slippery, all the time. The Bush administration looks favorably on media consolidation, having generously increased the number of stations that one conglomerate can own. Thus the flow of information is controlled by fewer and fewer corporate empires -- run by emperors who tend to be politically like-minded.

Near year's end, billionaire conservative Rupert Murdoch was promoting cooperation between his Fox empire and the sprawling Clear Channel station group. The media conglomerates omnivorously devour one another and seem to become one great mass -- a ruling elite that can be thought of as a virtual second government. With the White House and Congress controlled by the same political forces that own the media, the possibilities for disseminating damaging or potentially unpopular truth get fewer, and the opportunities for spreading disinformation disguised as news grow.

The bigger a conglomerate, the more bottom-liney it becomes. This has always been decried, and rightly, as icy fallout from merger mania. But maybe obsession with profits is preferable to using the power of the media for furthering political goals. For the moment, there is the proverbial no relief in sight. We're in the valley of the slopes, with all signs pointing downward and seemingly no way out.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company