May 8 2009

Bart Laws on swine flu, Kristin Thomson on radio diversity study


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This week on CounterSpin: If you didn’t panic over the swine flu, then maybe you weren’t watching much TV, where scary charts and maps documented the spread of a worldwide pandemic. At least that’s what we were hearing last week. With the media hysteria subsiding, the question isn’t so much did the press overreact, but how much. But how do we assess the role of public health officials, who perhaps by nature are supposed to worry about these kinds of things? And is there a different conversation about global public health that we should be having? We’ll speak to Tufts University medical sociologist Bart Laws.

Also on CounterSpin today: What are the odds of turning on the radio and hearing music from an independent artist? or a local artist? or one not signed to a label? Yeah, not so good. That was supposed to change at least a little two years ago when, in the wake of payola investigations, the FCC fined the country’s 4 biggest radio stations and they agreed to work on improving the diversity of artists on the air. How’s that working out? We’ll hear from Kristin Thomson from the Future of Music Coalition, who’ve just issued a progress report; here’s a hint, though, the report’s called “Same Old Song”.


Much Ado About the Flu: Is the Media Frenzy Justified?, by Bart Laws (AlterNet, 5/4/09)

Same Old Song, by Kristin Thomson (Future of Music Coalition, 4/29/09)


All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press:

—Last April, the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon had been feeding talking points to at least 75 retired generals whose “expert analysis” the media eagerly swallowed, no questions asked. The Times later detailed the extensive—and extremely lucrative—deals one of the star pundits, General Barry McCaffrey, had with various military contractors. McCaffrey frequently spoke out in favor of programs and policies that would directly favor those contractors without any disclosure of his financial ties.

The official Pentagon pundit program has been terminated, and after the Pentagon conducted a whitewash internal investigation that declared no evidence of wrongdoing, the Obama Defense Department on May 5 issued an unusual memorandum repudiating that report and removing it from its web site. But as the government seems to distance itself from military propaganda, corporate TV outlets—who were conspicuously silent about the Pentagon pundit story—have continued to embrace it without the slightest hint of compunction.

During coverage of the Obama administration’s 100-day mark, MSNBC turned to McCaffrey for expert advice about Afghanistan strategy, asking him about attempts to undermine the Taliban by destroying the opium crops that largely fund them. McCaffrey’s response was emphatic: “I think we’ve got to take it on. But, you know, the lead agent can’t be U.S. combat troops. It’s got to be Afghans chopping down opium poppy.”

Well, as Columbia Journalism Review‘s Clint Hendler pointed out, training Afghans to eradicate poppies is exactly what military contractor DynCorp does—and Barry McCaffrey sits on the board of DynCorp. That, of course, went unmentioned on MSNBC, where, evidently, you can be sure to keep getting your regular dose of military propaganda, whether the Pentagon is producing it or not.

Washington Post columnist and torture supporter Richard Cohen used the Supreme Court case on Connecticut firefighter Frank Ricci to attack affirmative action. Cohen’s May 5 column argued, “The justification for affirmative action gets weaker and weaker. Maybe once it was possible to argue that some innocent people had to suffer in the name of progress, but a glance at the White House strongly suggests that things have changed. For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this. Maybe the Supreme Court will recognize this.”

First of all, affirmative action was never solely about racism, though the corporate media have generally made race their sole consideration when they cover the issue. But as for Cohen’s actual “point”—that race is irrelevant to most Americans and that every poll shows this—that’s just fantasy. As a matter of fact, the Washington Post itself recently asked people in a poll: “How big a problem is racism in our society today? Is it a big problem, somewhat of a problem, a small problem or not a problem at all?” Fully 74 percent said it was either somewhat of a problem or a big problem. Only 4 percent answered that racism was “not a problem.”

Cohen’s fantasy may be a nice one, but if he’s using it to determine his views on policy in the real world, he needs to wake up.

Associated Press reporter Calvin Woodward generally writes a “fact checking” piece after major speeches by Barack Obama—and these pieces generally strain to catch Obama in factual errors. For example, in a February 24 piece, Woodward and co-writer Jim Kuhnhenn took issue with Obama’s description of what his budget would achieve—because, they say, Obama didn’t point out that his budget could be voted down and could theoretically achieve nothing.

But Woodward broke new ground in absurdity with his April 30 piece “fact-checking” Obama’s latest press conference. In the piece, headlined “Fact Check: Obama Disowns Deficit He Helped Shape,” Woodward took issue with Obama’s statement: “Number one, we inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit…. That wasn’t me.” Woodward’s criticism: “It actually was him—and the other Democrats controlling Congress the previous two years—who shaped a budget so out of balance…. Congress controls the purse strings, not the president, and it was under Democratic control for Obama’s last two years as Illinois senator.”

We’re all for accountability, but wow. If an Illinois senator bears more responsibility for the federal budget than the president, than why is Woodward wasting his time covering what Obama has to say about the budget? Shouldn’t he be interviewing Roland Burris?

—Some listeners notified us about a curious headline they saw when logging on to their AOL accounts on April 30: “Big Tax Hikes Coming Soon – Middle Class Is About to Feel the Pain -Big Taxes Headed Your Way.” Well, as the language on the first page of the feature told readers, “don’t think for a minute that only the wealthy will feel the pain,” what followed was a slide show courtesy of Kiplinger’s magazine, remarkable for really only one thing—the fact that it documents no looming middle class tax hikes. The first page tells readers that the top marginal tax rate will go up. The next page speaks of higher rates for capital gains income, only for high earners. Then you find that estate tax rates might go up on amounts in the neighborhood of 3 to 5 million dollars. And then we learn that there are several business tax breaks that might disappear. So where exactly did the headline about middle class pain come from? It’s a mystery.

—And finally—whatever you might think of the job he’s doing, it’s hard to argue that Barack Obama isn’t enjoying high approval ratings. Of course, there are those who will tell you different. Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly announced that, contrary to all other information, public opinion is actually evenly divided on Obama—34 to 32. As O’Reilly put it, Obama “may be a popular guy, but the country remains divided on the job deal.” But it isn’t just Fox. On the CNN media criticism show Reliable Sources, guest Amy Holmes told viewers that the right-wing Washington Times had just revealed that “Obama is the fourth least popular of the past five presidents. You wouldn’t know that from the press coverage.” Well no, you wouldn’t. But in this case that’s because it’s not true. At the 100-day mark, Obama’s Gallup job approval rating was 65 percent. Of the last 7 presidents, only Ronald Reagan scored higher at this point in his term. Yet program host Howard Kurtz seemed to go along with Holmes’ pretty obviously implausible claim. For its part, the Washington Times has now corrected that editorial, noting that they were mixing up polls about different things—ratings on approval versus ratings of good or excellent. It’s a troubling mistake—but at least the paper owned up to it. Let’s hope CNN will do the same—especially on a program dedicated to criticizing the media.


CounterSpin: Well, maybe you weren’t actually supposed to panic about swine flu; but that was rather difficult if you owned a television set, where flu hysteria seemed to spread across the dial faster than the actual flu itself. Amidst all the frenzy there were occasional reminders not to panic, which were hard to reconcile with the announcement that there’s a stage 4 worldwide pandemic at hand—whatever that means. But days after the breathless reporting and the b-roll footage of people wearing facemasks, swine flu certainly seems less threatening than we thought. On the one hand, this might make you feel like we were all taken for a ride, frightened by something that we shouldn’t have been so scared about at all. But what else should we consider about the way the media handled swine flu? And do public health emergencies require a different or certain degree of panic? Joining us now to talk about all this is Bart Laws, he’s a medical sociologist at the Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He wrote a piece for Alternet called “Much Ado About the Flu: Is the Media Frenzy Justified?” Welcome to CounterSpin, Bart Laws.

Bart Laws: Hi, glad to be with you.

CS: Well at this point, from what we seem to know about swine flu, if you ask “Did the media spread fear and panic?,” the answer would seem to be yes. The way I read your piece, you seemed to make a distinction between the responsibilities of public health officials and the responsibilities of the media. How are they different, and how do you think they performed their different jobs?

BL: Yes, well, they certainly are different. Public health officials have responsibility specifically to protect people against bad things that might happen and over the last few years a system of influenza surveillance and planning for possible infectious disease emergencies has grown up and strengthened in the United States and around the world—partly in resonse to concerns people had about the bird flu, the H5M1 bird flu you’ve probably heard so much about, partly because we can do it now. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to sequence viral genomes so now we can keep track that, “Oh yes there’s a new strain of flu or some other kind of virus” and do a better job of understanding how they move around and what they do and so on. So this apparatus was there, the people in Mexico discovered what seemed to them to be a problem and so the whole apparatus got activated and people kicked into action as they should. And certainly it would have been a very big mistake not to talk to the media, not to make some sort of public announcement about what was going on—people had seen all this unusual activity in Mexico and closing schools and businesses and then nobody’s talking to us and telling us what’s going on. That would’ve been really bad. But on the other hand, the situation was that there was concern that something bad might happen but nobody knew that. It was speculative. And in the situation of uncertainty, responsible officials have a difficult job and they have difficult choices to make and they did what they did and I’m not going to second guess them. But the way this comes across publicly, you know, is very different from the way it looks to somebody on the inside and doing this for a living. I think that there was first of all, too much attention paid—what happens is when something becomes news and there’s kind of a feeding frenzy around it then they just have to talk about it a lot, even if there aren’t any developments and there isn’t really anything new to say. So day after day you have these big front-page headlines which would say something like you know, two or three new cases of the flu are confirmed here or there, and that makes it seem to people like something worse and worse is happening, whereas it really isn’t. I mean, we knew that there would be more cases and in fact, it became clear to me at least, pretty early on, that it wasn’t looking so bad after all. These cases turned out to be mild, people were having, at least outside of Mexico and the small number of cases, perfectly ordinary flu and people got better and you know, it’s not news that there are three people in Maine who had the flu and they’re getting better. And yet it was reported as news and as the top item on the nightly news, both local and national.

CS: You pointed out that what knew about this strain of the flu, we wouldn’t have known that it was necessarily more deadly than run-of-the-mill flu which kills, I think, 36,000 people a year in the United States, depending on how you figure those numbers. We weren’t even sure that swine flu was all that more deadly than flu.

BL: Absolutely, and in fact it appears now that it wasn’t at all. One of the translation problems that happened here, I think, is virologists are trying to understand flu better so they have hypotheses that are really hypotheses. They think that a novel strain is likelly to be more dangerous because people don’t have immunity to it, they haven’t been exposed to something similar earlier in their life. So this appeared to be novel, it wasn’t in the database, so they were concerned about that. But they didn’t actually know what it is that makes a strain of flu particularly dangerous so that was speculative. And yet it was translated into a fact in the way it got reported. It’s not an area of expertise for journalists who report on these matters. They don’t have a good appreciation of the degree of uncertainly. I guess you can’t necessarily blame people for that, but I would give credit for example to the NY Times for being more restrained, as is there style in the first place. But they also moved it to the inside pages sooner than others did. The basic things that people needed to know: wash your hands regularly, stay home if you’re sick, sneeze into your sleeve—those are always true. They don’t necessarily benefit from being placed into the context of death, doom, and danger, but they’re just things you ought to do. And that’s all that people needed to know. I would say as far as communicating about this with the media, there were a couple of mistakes that I think our government might have made. I don’t think it was necessary to have a big press conference with Janet Napolitano. It was the wrong person to begin with, the Secretary of Homeland Security, that’s a really strange message, and a lot of other high officials, to declare that she is proclaiming a public health emergency. All that means is procedures have been invoked so they can move supplies around to where they’re needed, maybe take other actions if they’re needed in the future. That’s all it means. But that’s going to read to people as “Oh my gosh, public health emergency declared by the Secretary of Homeland Security,” you know, “terrible things are coming down the road.”

CS: I wanted to ask you really quickly because this is a point that you closed your piece on, that in the midst of all this—this is going to come and go—but there is this public health conversation that we could be having in the media or outside the media about much bigger issues. It goes without saying that people die from preventable diseases in much greater numbers that don’t get any kind of media attention. Where would you point people if you wanted them to pay closer attention to those issues?

BL: I think that the great story of injustice and inequity and the great civil rights story of our time is health equity. The immense disproportions that occur in lifespan and health and quality of life depending on people’s social status, their education, their income, race and ethnicity. The life expectancy for black men versus white men at birth in the United States: A black male can expect to live a little more than 65 years in the United States and a white male more than 70 years, so six or seven years. That’s a whole lot of people dying just because of discrimination, differential access to the basics of life. People are dying because of marketing of tobacco and calorie-dense, low-nutrition foods, where they live. Something like 100-150,000 Americans every year die prematurely because of breathing pollution from motor vehicle exhaust—living near the highway, which is where poor people are likely to live, is very harmful and we never talk about that. Where you live and where you stand in society determines a lot of how long you can expect to live and how well you can expect to live and how healthy you’re going to be. And it’s not news. I mean I guess news has to be new. So these are just facts that we live with all the time. You’re much more likely to be killed by a lot of things that we could be fixing that aren’t flu. And we don’t talk about it enough; we don’t do enough about it. So, I guess the distraction, the faulty perspective that this created you know, this is making people think that this is what I really have to worry about. This thing is going to come out of nowhere and strike me down and that’s really terrifying, but you know there’s stuff that is likely to strike you down that isn’t coming out of nowhere, that’s part of what we live with all the time.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Bart Laws. He’s a medical sociologist at Tufts Medical Center. You can go to Alternet to reach his piece “Much Ado About the Flu: Is the Media Frenzy Justified?” Thanks so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

BL: Okay, thanks a lot.


CounterSpin: Listeners will likely remember something about the payola scandals of recent years. Turns out that some of the songs on radio station playlists weren’t there because they were just so popular, but because of deals between radio station owners and major labels. Of course playing a song day and night gives it a better chance to become popular, paying back the label and seemingly justifying the station. Besides the unseemly influence-peddling, it’s easy to see how such a scenario closes out the space for all of those artists who aren’t being pushed, legally or illegally, by big corporations, making for a radio landscape that’s much less rich and diverse and interesting than it could be. The FCC seemed to recognize this two years ago, when they issued what are called “consent decrees” against the four biggest radio station group owners in the country, in response to the payola investigations, fining them some $12.5 million. The station owners also agreed to work out rules by which they would increase the proportion of music by local and regional artists, artists on independent labels and even unsigned artists.

Well, now it’s two years later. Has anything changed? The Future of Music Coalition is an artist education, research and advocacy organization; they’ve just released a report examining the evidence on playlists since the ’07 consent decrees. Joining us now by phone from Philadelphia is Kristin Thomson, she’s the education director at the Future of Music Coalition. Welcome to CounterSpin!

Kristin Thomson: Thank you for having me.

CS: Well, let’s look back at 1997 and those agreements that the station group owners signed. We’re talking about Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Citadel and Entercom—what did those station owners agree to do differently?

KT: The consent decrees mostly talked about better business practices. What some commissioners at the FCC wanted to do was actually have a formal investigation into the payola allegations, given all of evidence that Elliot Spitzer who was New York Attorney General at the time sent over to the FCC, so that they could continue the investigation. But there was disagreement among the commissioners about the tack to take and by 2007 they had moved away from a formal investigation towards these consent decrees. So what they do is try to set up business practices about sponsorship identification, which is the sort of formal term for payola in the legal parlance, and what they tried to do was set up and establish non-discriminatory procedures for music submissions. And they weren’t allowed to barter or sell access to music programmers and all these things that are part of the FCC payola law right now but needed to be redefined in the 2007 consent decrees.

CS: Or reinforced or underscored—”Please follow the law we’ve established.” But then there was more. They were actually going to set aside space, right, specifically for independent music that we hadn’t been hearing?

KT: That’s right. This is another agreement that was done on the side. So this took place between the American Association of Independent Music, which represents independent labels, and these four major radio group owners. And what this voluntary agreement, which is sort of called the Indie Set Aside, said things like we promise to set aside 4,200 hours of programming for local, independent, or unsigned artists. Although it was a good first step, there were some problems with the language, most specifically that the 4,200 hours didn’t have a time frame on it, so we were’t sure—did that mean a week, a year? There were a lot of questions about enforceability or even how to measure outcomes on the Indie Set Aside.

CS: Well, it did express at least, or looked like some intention on the part of these station group owners, to mix up the playlists a little, to do things differently. So now two years on, Future of Music Coalition has looked at the playlists to see what’s changed. So why don’t you just let us know, what did you find in this new report?

KT: We found after looking at playlists from 2005 to 2008, both at the national level, looking at playlists across the spectrum and also at playlists at seven different and specific formats—we found that playlist composition has remained remarkably consistent over the last four years despite these policy interventions. We found that neither national airplay nor the majority of format-specific playlists had much measureable change in the ratio of major label airplay share to non-major label, whether it be indie labels or even Disney or other forces in the music industry. That was one thing. As I was doing some of the analysis, I found myself coming across songs that were released in 2002, 1995, 1975 because the release date is on the playlist. So I just did an analysis that found that in almost every format measured, more than 50 percent of the spins in a given year were of songs that were more than five years old and sometimes they were more than 10 years old. What that tells us is that air play for new songs is somewhat constrained because they try and mix in the new things with the hits that everyone likes and listens to and keeps them listening to the radio station.

CS: Well, if I’m a station owner I say, what’s wrong with that, I’m serving my audience; there are popular songs from the ’50s or ’60s, what’s the problem with that?

KT: There’s really no problem, and we really underscore in the study that we understand that this business decision really is probably in the radio stations’ best interest in order to keep listeners from changing the channel when they hear too many things that are unfamiliar, but what it does mean in the practical sense for access is that the small sliver of time available for new releases is in some cases 12-15 percent of the total air play. It just means that there’s a limited window of opportunity for new music to get on the air. Then we moved to the next stage of the analysis to say now who gets access in this small sliver of time? And we found that even with major lables and indie labels, having some access to having songs played, we found that major labels were much more successful at getting more spins of new songs.

CS: And I want to underscore of course that you make the point in the report that big labels have this built-in advantage with or without payola. It doesn’t have to be illegal. Well, you do make some policy recommendations in this report? What are you calling for?

KT: We say first of all, that it would behoove the FCC to improve its data collections. We’re not interested in content monitoring but I think the FCC should recognize that radio stations are very data rich. They could learn a lot about this field that they are charged with overseeing and regulating. The second one is that we think stations and the FCC need to refocus on localism. There’s been a longstanding localism proceeding at the FCC that I think will be revisited soon and we think the radio industry, the commercial sector is clearly in crisis—and it seems like it’s because stations have lost touch with their local markets and unfortunately the industry seems to have responded by pushing for greater consolidation and syndication. We think it might be helpful if the stations tried to embrace one of their best assets, which is their local-ness, to remain live and local. And the third thing was to expand the number of voices, that if we feel like these decisions about the relationships between stations and major labels makes it difficult for independent voices to get on the air, then why not allow more stations on the air? So this would be a call for more Low Power FM licensing, especially in more urban areas, and allowing more stations more voices on the air in that form as well.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Kristin Thomson of the Future of Music Coalition. You can find their new report, “Same Old Song,” on their website: Thanks so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

KT: Thank you for having me.