Chicago Tonight, Chicago Too White?: An interview about a study of Chicago public television
With mentions in the Sun-Time, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Daily Herald, WBEZ, WZRD, WLUW, Free Press, Media Channel, and Current Magazine (the trade publication of public broadcasting), Chicago Media Action's study of WTTW's flagship news program Chicago Tonight" has generated a lot of buzz. The study, released last month, finds that Chicago public television, rather than living up to its mission of serving the underserved and unserved, is instead bowing down to "Elites, Affluence and Advertising". CMA member and Third Coast Press staff writer Mitchell Szczepanczyk sat down to answer some frequently asked questions about the study, and to set us straight on some frequently questioned answers about it.
Q: What made Chicago Media Action decide to do a study of public television?
A: CMA, since its founding, has taken on as one of its projects, improving public broadcasting in America and in Chicago. We've tried a number of approaches: submitting a number of documentaries for the station to consider airing (they haven't said yes once), and requesting a documentary-and-forum series on issues of community importance (that was turned down, too). CMA has also tasked itself to carry out formal, scholarly studies of the media as a tool for improving the media. In the face of these repeated turndowns, WTTW was our first major target for these studies. We particularly focused on Chicago Tonight, the main daily flagship show of Channel 11.
Q: Tell us more about the study itself. How was it set up? What kind of things were you looking for? What did you find out?
A: We focused on guests who appeared on the show -- those who said something on-air. We looked at thirty episodes all told: 20 episodes in September 2003, and ten episodes in January and February 2004. We looked at a number of criteria: demographic data (sex, race, occupation), topic segment (politics, economics, science, entertainment, sports), and whether the segment was live or pre-recorded. We recorded all the episodes, had people go through these episodes, put the data into a database, and extracted aggregate information of the data.
Among the findings: More than half of the topics discussed were about entertainment or sports, and thus had nothing to do with news. Of the demographic data, 79% of all guests were white, 73% were male, 79% were elite (corporate representatives, high-ranking government officials, or corporate media). It gets worse: on business and economic segments, all the guests were white. In segments on politics and elections, some 90% of guests on these segments were white -- ironic since Illinois will likely send a man of African descent to the Senate. Of segments representing large public constituencies like public interest representatives or organized labor, [non-whites] were guests just a shade above 3 percent combined. The case of organized labor is especially shameful: 0.5 percent, just two guests out of 419 guests, and one of those was on a segment titled "The Best Bosses in America."
Q: In the study, you don't just look at what's happening on TV, you also take a look at what's happening behind the scenes, how the station is funded, how it's run, and how this influences what gets on the air. Could you elaborate?
A: This ties in with the documentary-and-forum series. When we asked for the series, we were pushing especially hard (this was early March 2003) for a discussion of the then-impending war in Iraq. It turns out that shortly after the station turned us down, it was announced that one of the new members of WTTW's Board of Directors was Kenneth Hannah, the VP for Finance of Boeing, a newly transplanted Chicago company and a major military contractor which stood to cash in big directly from the war. While the station and Chicago Tonight could have mentioned the growing peace movement in Chicago, it could not have given consistent coverage without irking major financial interests, along with many other financial and corporate ties that also play a part in the station's board. You simply can't irk them for very long if you hope to ask them for funds to maintain a $25-million-a-year operation.
Q: The subtitle of the study is "Elites, Affluence, and Advertising." I think one of the most damning things in the study is Appendix Twelve, which shows internal documents from an underwriters' (or advertisers') package given out by the station.
A: We just asked WTTW, Could we have your advertising package? And lo and behold, they sent us a copy, thinking we were a prospective advertiser. The package presents a different perspective on the station, and I would describe it as a more accurate perspective. But this is addressed to an audience which needs to know the truth so that they have information about making sound investment choices, even though it is disgusting to see WTTW describe its audience as "Affluent, Cultured, and Educated" (their words).
Q: WTTW hasn't made a lot of replies to the CMA study, but in a report on WBEZ and in a piece in the Chicago Reader, WTTW said that some of the things CMA wants are or could be covered by public access channels like CAN TV. Is that true?
A: It's not true, and the reason is enmeshed in law, particularly the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 which founded what became PBS and NPR. The Act mandates that public broadcasting serve as an alternative to the dominant commercial broadcasters in the United States, to provide "a forum for debate," to "serve unserved and underserved audiences." It's a fantastic cause, one I support wholeheartedly, but the problem is: what's the economic and institutional support to make sure that's more than just words? And there's been precious little in the way of that kind of support. I can understand why WTTW is currying favor from major corporate interests for whatever the percentage of its budget is for underwriting. The station is trying to marginalize efforts of public concern to public access, and that's not to belittle public access in the least. CMA has fought very strongly in support of CAN TV, especially in its funding fight in calendar year 2004. But remember that WTTW has a much wider reach than CAN TV.
Q: What kind of impact has the study had so far? Has it made any waves outside of Chicago?
A: It's gotten a fair amount of local media coverage (the Sun-Times, the Reader, NPR). We hope to continue this in coming weeks and months. There's been some buzz among media activist organizers nationwide: Free Press in Massachusetts and Mediachannel in New York made prominent mentions of the study. Current magazine, the trade magazine of public broadcasting, also mentioned the study on their website. So we're getting coverage.
Has the study had an impact on WTTW or in other communities? Haven't seen that just yet. It's still early in the ballgame.
Q: What do you think would Chicago Tonight look like if it were better representing the Chicago community?
A: I can mention my own vision, but I should say that it shouldn't be just my vision alone. I can say what I think, but it shouldn't be a single blueprint for the station. An ideal Chicago Tonight would be to show stories that simply weren't being covered in the major corporate media. In fact, my reading of the data in the study is that Chicago Tonight tends to be a very close mimicking of how the corporate media reacts to various stories. I would like to see Chicago Tonight break stories.
There are plenty of resources and examples for grassroots, independent reporting that can be looked to for use as a base model for improving the station. One example that comes to my mind is the Chicago Independent Media Center (chicago.indymedia.org, NOTE - Mitchell is involved with the center -ED). They're directly involved in all kinds of participatory direct grassroots campaigns. The strength of their model is that they invite people to post stories of interest on their website. And this is a resource which has very little to do with highbrow connections or money; Chicago Tonight would dwarf Chicago Indymedia in terms of connections or money. All they'd have to do is change orientation so the station is asking people: What's important? What do you think should be covered?, and soliciting input rather than feeding people content from above.
Q: But don't you think that the argument would be, "You know, people are interested in sports. People are interested in entertainment. This is what people want, and advertisers are just paying for what people want."
A: I wouldn't call for excluding such topics. But when we're dealing with the economics of media, it's not the same as the economics of other industries. People would not know or cultivate an interest in certain topics if they were never exposed to them. The classic example that comes to my mind is that of political documentary filmmaking. Take Michael Moore, for example. Before Fahrenheit 9/11, or even before the Oscar-winning Bowling For Columbine, you could argue justifiably that people aren't interested in political documentaries because no one makes any money from them, it's always a niche market, they're boring, they're too much like what you see in school.
But when people are exposed to good political documentaries, then came the realization that it's entirely possible to make a moneymaking documentary. And so more people have been making documentaries. And now, people have a taste and an interest in political documentary filmmaking where they hadn't before. But it wasn't a matter of giving people what they want, it was a matter of giving people exposure to different options and letting people cultivate new tastes they didn't have before. I think a strong media, and a healthy vibrant media system would let people cultivate these new tastes and interests.
The study is available in PDF format online at chicagomediaacction.org or call 866-260-7198 to request a print copy of the study.