Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chapman Takes Over the News

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

The notion of powerful business interests owning, influencing, and dictating the news is nothing particularly new in America.

As orange tycoon/mayor Charles C. Chapman gained political and economic power in Orange County around the turn of the century, he began to receive criticism from Edgar Johnson, editor of the Fullerton Tribune. Johnson often called Chapman “hizzoner,” “Czar,” and even “The Great I Am.”

Fed up with this criticism and the debate it sparked, Chapman started his own newspaper, The Fullerton News, in 1902. He hired former photographer and advertising man Vivian Tressler as editor. Chapman also appointed Tressler as postmaster. In those days, the post office was a popular gathering place for people to share news and ideas. Chapman didn’t like that, so he used his power to control information and discourse.

Even more disturbing was Chapman’s stated purpose for establishing his own newspaper. He called it a “prohibition or temperance and republican” newspaper. Chapman sought to channel the public discourse TOWARD the evils of drinking and the temperance movement, and AWAY from issues like economic justice, labor unions, checks and balances of power, fair wages, or even participatory democracy.

If he could get everyone arguing about saloons and drinking then their attention would be diverted from other, perhaps more important, issues like: Why are workers paid so little? Why are we denying them citizenship? Why are they segregated from us in work camps?

This tendency to direct public discourse away from issues of fairness and justice and toward narrowly-defined personal/moral issues like drinking lingers today.

I grew up in the evangelical Christian culture of the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton. I heard numerous sermons about the evils of abortion and homosexuality. I heard no sermons about health care, labor issues, or the environment. The clear message I got from my community was that abortion and homosexuality are the most important social ills facing America.

When I reached voting age, I got the clear impression that the only candidates I could, in good conscience, vote for were pro-life and anti-homosexuality.

As I got older, I realized that, while those issues are important on a personal/moral level, you have to look at larger issues like health care, labor, and the environment when deciding who to vote for.

A more recent example of corporate media dictating public discourse is the recent media obsession with the Michael Jackson trial. It’s become a running joke between me and Kami, who works at the liquor store by my apartment. Every day I walk in and Kami says, “More Michael Jackson!” I reply, “Who cares about Michael Jackson when there are wars and global protests going on?” Those, more pressing, issues remain marginalized by corporate media, who would prefer people argue about a dead pop singer than what’s happening in Libya, on Wall Street, or even in their own city.

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The Fullerton Tribune was eventually acquired by The Fullerton News to form the Fullerton News Tribune, which is owned by the same corporation that owns The Orange County Register, one of the more worthless papers in the US.

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