Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Influence of Media Ownership On Content As Foreseen By Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (And How Fitting That The Pivotal “Voice-of-God” Scene Was Filmed In One of World’s Greatest Libraries)

Scene filmed in great world library: Peter Finch playing Howard Beale escorted by Robert Duvall as network executive Frank Hackett to meet Arthur Jensen, Chairman of the owning conglomerate, played by Ned Beatty.
It’s a scene filmed in one of the greatest libraries of the world (at least, it was then) and it is also important to talk about that scene in terms of some very important matters concerning libraries.  This is something we’ll come back to . . .

Watching Paddy Chayefsky’s masterful film “Network” again it is remarkable to think that it was written and made as long ago as it was.  It came out in 1976 Gol Darn it!  (Chayefsky’s “mad as hell” script would have used actual swear words.) The thing that makes it such a devilishly clever satire is the way that it moves in undetectable micro increments from the sane actual world we once thought we were living in to a shudderingly ghastly caricature of what the world might be in the process of becoming without ever letting you put your finger on exactly where the line was being crossed to move between the two.

It’s a testament to screenwriter Chayefsky’s perspicacious insights about society’s direction at the time that the film still works now at least as well as it did when it was first released. If anything, the seemingly increasing transgressive absurdities of life and shifting norms of 2018 might have us wondering whether the crossover point in the film where you can pinpoint that happening has actually moved: A reality TV star president who was elected in an election where the head of the CBS network commented with shameless accuracy about the unremitting, nonstop media coverage of Trump's campaign for office: “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
Rewatching “Network” might also reveal another startling fact to people who have been engaged in trying to save New York’s public libraries recently: A pivotal scene in the film [Spoiler Alert!] occurs in the 42nd Street Central Reference Library.  It was filmed in the Trustees opulent meeting room and on the grand Carrère & Hastings designed central staircase leading up to the room.  There is even a brief glimpse into the adjacent office of the NYPL president.

Scenes from "Network" filmed in the NYPL's trustees room (including a glimpse of the NYPL president's office) and then, current day, the NYPL trustees meeting in the room.  Also, the Thomas Jefferson inscription over the fireplace and the dedication of the building to serve the public.
The scene is where the Howard Beale character, the crazed former news anchor played by Peter Finch in the role for which he posthumously won best actor, hears the voice of God.  He undergoes a conversion as a result that sets up the film’s final denouement.  Beale doesn’t hear actual voice of God; he hears the voice of capitalism pretending to be God and bring him enlightenment that allows him to preach its gospel.  What he actually hears is the voice of Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty) the Chairman of the global conglomerate that has acquired the network on which Beale is now a rating’s success as the “mad prophet of the airwaves.”

“Enlightened,” Beale about-faces from his populist message to preach the new capital establishment-praising dogma and his ratings plunge, but Chairman Jensen, personally a fan of this new skew to Beale’s script won’t allow Beale’s show to be cancelled.  This plot pivot deftly allows Chayefsky a jump that skewers the effects of corporate ownership on media content from two directions: First, as the movie had done up to that point, it skewered the pursuit of corporate profit-at-any-social-cost as seen in the chase of ratings down the swirling drain of lowest common denominator bad taste, and then it flips to skewer the penchant for wealth and corporate capitalism to want to narcissistically bask in laudatory self compliment even if delivery of that package is insincerely just purchased and paid for.

For starker relief, this satiric critique is presented against the backdrop of a mythically imagined legacy of great newsmen, sober gentlemen in the mold of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid, who were sagaciously grounded in the notion that there is a sacred obligation to transmit the news with fidelity.  Not that the real state of affairs things at CBS News and elsewhere in the news media influencing our country were historically ever exactly what they seemed when the mythos of that veneer was being polished.  Nevertheless, in the early scenes of the film, the pitch perfect performances of William Holden playing Max Schumacher and Peter Finch playing Beale (before his madness flowers) do evoke the gravitas of such men that in a previous time it felt were so reassuring and reliable to have at the helm of the Fourth Estate looking out for our interests as if they were obligated by a public trust.

 -   In case anyone has forgotten, the nation’s broadcasting airwaves are supposed to be a public trust, actually a public commons owned by the American public itself, not the corporations who now control it and treat it as their private property to be bought, sold and used any way they will. Additionally, the model for ownership and tending of the airwaves didn’t have to be one where this precious asset was handed off to profit making corporations controlling virtually everything and wanting to direct all your attention to advertising.  There were other possible non-profit models that could have taken hold.  (Read Tim Wu’s books the “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” and the “The Attention Merchants: The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.”)

We remember Michael Moore with his characteristic glee explaining what he saw to be the Achilles heel of capitalism in his ability to get his message out: So long as I am making a profit for them, they don’t pay attention to what I say. .  And so, he said, he could keep saying it.  (If you find a link for this send it to us please.)  That bravado is somewhat contradicted by what almost happened to Moore and his anti-George W. Bush message when his publisher wanted to pulp unpublished his book “Stupid White Men: ...And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!”  The publisher viewed its point of view as unsuitable for the post 9/11 era.  The book became a best seller and thus made a huge profit for his publisher, but had to be rescued by brave librarians focusing on principles quite apart from the pursuit of profit who were the only reason it wound up being published.
The ability to get a message out and to get out content that has trenchant integrity is an escalating concern in our world given the increasing conglomeration of the media giants and the dwindling number of owners particularly when you consider questions about the way such conglomerates engaged in all sorts of other businesses may see things.  For instance, AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner is regarded as a first significant beachhead for a wave of further consolidations of media company ownership.  It generated an article in the New York Times about the possible fate HBO’s future production culture and content:
Media analysts and tech-industry prognosticators look at AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner and wonder about the future of an industry in flux. Hollywood looks at the deal and wonders what’s going to happen to HBO.
See: New York Times- Will AT&T Be Able to Handle HBO? By John Koblin, June 14, 2018.
In the article, “Richard Plepler, the smooth-talking, perpetually tanned chief executive of HBO” bravely envisioned that HBO would escape ownership directed change because such an escape was needed for HBO to succeed at what it does, referring to “Mr. Plepler’s view that HBO needs to be left alone in order to thrive.”  More specifically:
“You have to have a Chinese wall between the creative process and everything else,” Mr. Plepler told The New York Times shortly after the deal was announced in 2016. He added that he would be “very surprised” if AT&T did not embrace that.
Of course, the movie “Network” is very much about so-called “Chinese walls,” or the actual lack thereof when it comes to media ownership, first when the business oriented corporate types want to take over network’s news division to make it more of an infotainment ratings success and then later when Chairman Arthur Jensen wants his voice-of-God capitalism gospel preached to the world.  In real life, the corporate types at Networks have leaned hard on the news divisions to suppress news.  Two of the movie docudramas about journalism, “The Insider” (about trying to broadcast a whistle-blower’s revelations about tobacco company lies) and “Truth” (about reporting events leading up to the firing of CBS news anchor Dan Rather and his “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes) concern what were actually real life events. . . . 

“Truth” focuses on altercations between Rather, Mapes and their team and the corporate types at CBS in the lead up to their forced departure from the CBS network, but they had altercations before that.   Just recently on Democracy Now, legendary reporter Sy Hersh described how sitting on “photographs of torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib” for weeks the corporate people running the CBS network didn’t want Rather and Mapes to run the news story that was unflattering to the government:
They had had it for two weeks. [And they didn’t run it.]  But, you know, the people doing it, the reporters, Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, the producers, wanted to. But the suits stopped them.
It took a deal to forcing publication with the story coming out simultaneous elsewhere.  Said Hersh of the subsequent Rather and Mapes firings: “It’s too bad. It’s not good to be good at your job in network television. That’s my theory.”

By contrast, Mr. Plepler, head of HBO thinks that at HBO the talent of being good at your job is integral to its success:
“It’s very much part of the DNA of HBO: Talent is sacred,” Mr. Plepler said after the AT&T deal was announced. “They bring the magic into our company. Writers, producers, actors. It’s their gifts that make HBO HBO. It’s pretty clear to anybody who looks at our company from afar — and, in AT&T’s case, more closely — we are a talent-centric place.”

In what could be construed as a plea to his possible future boss, he added: “I can’t imagine, with everything that Randall made clear to us, why would you ever change a winning game? I don’t think they have any intention of doing so.”
(Not mentioned in the article is that a fair amount of HBO's content is also political.)

But is it ever just so simple as declaring an expectation that the ownership of our media will stay on the other side of a “Chinese Wall” and won’t interfere?  Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin was a panelist at a June 18, 2018 Brooklyn Historical Society discussion about local news in New York City: “RIP Local News?”  In his opening remarks Dobkin spoke about what happened with a planned merger of  DNAInfo and Gothamist, two local news web outlets that, with an acquisition of the Gothamist were both under the ownership of billionaire Joe Rickets. Dobkin explained that the shutdown of both sites by Ricketts, instead of a merger, that occurred when the employees unionized, was unanticipated because it was unanticipated that the employees would unionize.  Dobkin made it seem unfortunate, almost sad that they did unionize.  Mr. Ricketts, a Trump-supporting conservative Republican owner, has a deep antipathy towards unions.  The shutdown was especially scary when it occurred because it raised the possibility all the past reporting on the sites was about to vanish permanently.  In fact, for a while it seemed to; and it could have.

Explaining the misfortune of the shutdowns, Dobkin told the Brooklyn Historical Society that the “owner. .  had never involved himself in the politics of the site.”  Afterwards, noting his statement about Mr. Ricketts non-involvement with the “politics of the site,” we asked Dobkin about reports that even before the unionization occurred, news and information on the acquired site written about Mr. Rickets, was eliminated or rewritten.  Mr. Dobkin dismissed the importance of the reports saying that it was only a few articles and that he had done it with the hope that people would have jobs and be able to feed their families.  In other words, an owner doesn’t even have to ask before editors try to intuit what they may need to do to keep their jobs and livelihoods afloat.

Are you feeling glutted by monopolist mergers?  This week tech columnist Brian X. Chen wrote a column in the New Times, With Latest Acquisitions, Amazon Continues Its Quest for World Domination,” asking “Does anyone else feel that Amazon is slowly taking over the world?”

Chen noted how Amazon was giving discounts on groceries at Whole Foods to those who became Amazon Prime members, how Amazon had also gained, through its acquisition of PillPack, a license to start shipping pharmaceutical prescriptions in all 50 states, and how it was planning to start up its own delivery services, an “army,” to compete with FedEx, United Parcel Service and the United States Postal Service.  Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos are also part of media conglomerate universe.  Bezos owns The Washington Post, the most important newspaper in the nation’s capital.  Amazon started by selling books, led people into digital books, ‘kindling” there interest, and sells a vast amount of all other content at its site.  It is now making films while often being a sole source for video streaming much of the historical/vintage content you would once find in the video stores that have gone out of business around the country.

We are told that Mr. Bezos doesn’t want to “control the editorial product” at the Washington Post, that the only micro-management stuff at the paper with which he likes to get weightily involved is “on wonky issues like web-page load time and ease of subscription sign-ups.”  We are even told that the Washington Post wrote a lengthy 2017 article “suggesting that Amazon could become a dangerous monopoly” that Mr. Bezos did not react to. (Gee, Amazon really could?- That might happen in the future?)

There is a certain extreme irony when it comes to writing denials that Mr. Bezos as Washington Post owner will exercise any influence over editorial content at the Post at the very same time that theaters were playing Spielberg’s Oscar-contending The Post dramatically lauding the courage of the central character, Katherine Graham, former Washington Post owner, Mr. Bezos’ predecessor, in deciding what content the newspaper would and would not publish when it was presented with the Pentagon Papers. If you want to see the film now, you can get it through Amazon.

Furthermore, one has to figure that the Washington Post almost has to print at least one article about Amazon’s monopolistic tendencies and exploits to help inoculate itself against criticism that such ownership is having exactly the kind of censorship effect.  The test is not whether the Post writes about monopoly and Amazon, but whether any of the legislators in Washington that the Post regularly covers carefully takes up that concern as a cause.  They haven’t.  Lastly, there is also a lot more to criticize about Amazon concerning the immense amount of data it is collecting on everybody in the country and its ties with the CIA and U.S. military.                         
Both these pieces about media monopolies ran in the same edition of the New York Times this week.
Not feeling sufficiently glutted by these mergers yet?  The same day that Brian X. Chen wondered in his Times column whether people noticed that Amazon was taking over the world, the Times ran an editorial noting troublingly that the Disney-Fox merger sailed through exceptionally fast: Opinion- The Disney-Fox Deal Sails Through, a Bit Too Easily, by The Editorial Board, July 1, 2018.  Said the Times:
Government officials appear unconcerned that the combined Disney-Fox will account for about half of the box office revenue nationally this year and about 30 percent of scripted TV programming, according to the Writers Guild of America West, a Hollywood labor union.

    * * * *

 . .  antitrust regulators and judges are usually . . . dubious of horizontal deals like Disney-Fox. In these cases, it’s much easier to show that the combined company would have the power to raise prices and limit choices. In the movie business, for example, Disney already wields considerable clout — its studios accounted for more than a third of box office sales in the first five months of the year. The additional 15 percent share of box office sales that the company will gain through this deal no doubt will increase Disney’s clout when it negotiates with movie-theater chains. For instance, the company might be able to demand top billing for its movies and a bigger share of revenue than smaller studios get. According to a handful of theater owners who talked to The Wall Street Journal last year, Disney has already engaged in such tactics, forcing them to accept more onerous terms if they wanted to show its blockbuster “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
As for ownership and influence?  The Times noted speculation about whether politics came into play in the Trump administration’s rushed approval.  It noted something to be concerned about Trump-supporting Rupert Murdoch and his family: 
While Disney will not acquire Fox News or the Fox network and stations as part of this deal, the acquisition will make the Murdoch family the largest individual shareholders in Disney, increasing their wealth by billions of dollars.
And the gospel that Murdoch and family will want preached?

Now to conclude with an observation we simply must make: Isn’t it bizarrely appropriate that Paddy Chayefsky’s pivotal voice-of-God scene was filmed in the trustees meeting room one of the world’s greatest libraries with that trustees room masquerading as a corporate board room? . . .

As our New York City libraries are being plundered and shut down, their books eliminated, people are, perforce, and quite likely even by plan, being pushed out to the corporately owned media for their alternatives.  The decisions that shut down and plunder our libraries and banish their books while pushing people more and more into the arms and the technology of the new media empires are being made by boards of trustees that look a lot like multiplied versions of the Arthur Jensen character that Chayefsky’s scripting (and the location scout) put into that library trustees room.  The motivations and rationalizations of these new library trustees are increasingly corporate and free market enterprise-deifying in the same way.

As the public is pushed out and away from the traditional resources of public, nonprofit libraries what will we get instead?: The latest glitz that profit-minded corporations are pushing?  Or will we get their stories about how splendid monopolistic capitalism is?

Unfortunately, whatever we get and will have to live with is real.  It’s not satire.

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