Our Democracy Requires A Corporate-Free Press

May 30, 2022 – Memorial Day – If ever there is a time to contemplate the “Mission” and condition of our Nation, it is Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the sacrifice of courageous men and women who died in service to our nation.  

When I consider what it means to be an American, I find it impossible to overstate the importance of commemorating the lives and sacrifices made by others so I might live freely under a democratic form of government.  For me, Memorial Day requires moments of reflection and solemnity.  It is not a day just for barbecuing and having fun.

This morning, I turned on my television at 7:03 AM CST to watch ABC’s Good Morning America. The story airing at that moment focused on the mass shootings at an elementary school in Texas, and all the mishaps associated with the local police’s response to that incident.  If memory serves me properly, the Texas massacre story was followed by an update on the war in Ukraine, which in turn was followed by a story about holiday travel.  Cancelled flights and sky-high gas prices were the primary focus of that report. The next story was about the upcoming platinum celebration for Queen Elizabeth later this week. To put it mildly, I was STUNNED that Disney and ABC News would even mention the British monarchy, today, of all days; and so, I turned the broadcast off.

To be fair, the executives at ABC News have done some remarkably positive things in the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. One of the programs I appreciate most on ABC is the midday news show, GMA3, which has featured many outstanding individuals, most notably, African Americans, who hold leadership positions in a variety of capacities, throughout our land. As an African American who advocates for more proportional representation in all segments of American life, I value the work Disney has done to make GMA3 an inclusive news program. The problem, however, lies in the fact that Disney is not driven by a commitment to excellence in reporting; Disney is a for-profit entity, driven by a quest to maximize profits and minimize losses.

As an entrepreneur, I have no problem with Disney’s pursuit of its primary business, which is profits through entertainment.  What I object to is the company owning the news department of its broadcast network. Disney’s ownership of news at ABC has led to the promotion of Disney’s entertainment offerings across its portfolio of news shows, from Good Morning America to Nightline.

When considering the broader issues surrounding the state of our nation and American democracy, the situation at Disney is proof that corporate ownership of news organizations is not a sustainable arrangement. In the case of Disney, it is quite evident that the company has little regard for the fact that news is not entertainment; and entertainment is rarely news. Unfortunately, the concentration of ownership of America’s networks by a handful of corporations has led to considerable conflating of the two; and this must stop.

This morning, Memorial Day 2022, Disney put its fanciful projections of monarchy above the national interest; and this unfortunate and ill-conceived prioritization is an affront that cannot go unchallenged.

What Disney forgets is that America exists precisely because the founders of our nation, along with a majority of the inhabitants of European decent, refused to submit to the authority of the British crown.

If Disney paid as much attention to history, particularly American history, as it pays to fantasy, the news department would have found a way to acknowledge at the top of its Memorial Day broadcast that American patriots died because King George III did not look kindly upon the decision of the colonialists to live as a free and independent people.

Most educated people know the English King commanded his forces to crush the American quest for independence, and at the time, those King’s forces were among the most formidable in the Western world.  What concerns me most is that we are raising a generation of Americans who are woefully ignorant of American history.  It is somewhat ironic that the news department at ABC would provide an update on the War in Ukraine and miss the opportunity to highlight parallels between how King George III responded to our forefathers, and how Putin is responding to Ukrainians who wish to live as a free and independent people. There is no more glaring example of the danger to civilization and human dignity than the misappropriation of power exhibited by Russia’s autocratic ruler. To think autocrats living in over-sized palaces surrounded by colorfully dressed guards reflect a social construct worthy of admiration and emulation is pure fantasy. We need to teach our children what dangers exist when leaders have unquestioned authority so that our children and their children can respond decisively, appropriately, and patriotically when called upon to defend our democracy, just as those fallen heroes whom we honor today did in their times of crisis.

If one pauses a moment to ask why the news department at ABC would miss such an obvious connection between our nation’s past and events that are transforming our present world, the answer becomes quite apparent when one goes behind the curtain to see who is at the controls.  Corporate ownership of network news creates barriers to information when the information does not serve the corporation’s interests.  This is true not only for ABC, but for every commercial broadcast network in our country.  But as I see it, the pursuit of corporate profits is the reason why the news department at ABC chose this morning to prioritize a story involving a British monarch over meaningful coverage of Memorial Day, its history, and its meaning.

How is our nation to thrive as a democracy when one of the most vital components of our democracy is in the choke-hold grip of corporations? Can America be the leader of the free world when its people are feed a steady diet of programming that leaves them without context or understanding of connections between the past and present?

Perhaps Disney’s untimely prioritization can serve to remind Americans of the need to examine what our democracy means and what it needs to survive in the 21st century. 

One potential solution is for Congress to restrict corporate entities from owning news departments and requiring network news to be owned and produced by non-profits.  Under such an arrangement, the non-profit could have an affiliation with a corporate entity, but each network news organization would be governed by a separate board and management team. Once upon a time, there was a clear separation between the corporate entity and its news department, but that wall of separation began to crumble in the 1980s, and is now non-existent; however, the success of the non-profit model remains.  PBS produces several news programs that offer a much fuller and more balanced level of reporting than the programs currently produced by America’s commercial networks.

Let us agree, as Americans, that free enterprise is an essential component of the social construct of America; but let us also agree that free enterprise is not above all other components. Free enterprise should complement American democracy, not impinge upon it. 

Most Americans are unaware that in 1934 Congress granted the networks access to the airwaves, which belong to the American people.  In establishing a licensing process for radio and television stations to broadcast programs, Congress had expectations of discernible benefits accruing to the American people, including free access to news and information.  Today’s mishap by Disney is but the latest indicator of how far off the mark we have come. It is high time our airwaves contribute to the ideals of our nation instead of contributing to ignorance and divisiveness resulting from corporate greed and indifference.

We need to explore ways to hold corporations accountable for how they fulfill their end of the bargain with Congress and the American people.  Remember, the airwaves belong to the American people and not to the corporations. Congress is supposed to represent the interests of the American people, and our representatives need to be mindful of how corporations are under-performing when it comes to providing balanced and accurate news.

This Memorial Day, let us take time to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, the American people.  Their sacrifice sought to preserve not only our right to live freely in a democracy, but also our say in how our national assets, including our airwaves, are used and who uses them. Such a gift requires us to honor our patriots, from those who fought for our independence to those who served in Afghanistan. This morning, Disney and the ABC News team failed in their obligation to honor them. Let us require all news organizations to observe this day appropriately.

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