Until 1983, when the old Memphis Press-Scimitar bit the dust, Memphians were graced with a choice of sorts in their daily news fare. Granted, both the Press-Scimitar and The Commercial Appeal were creatures of the national Scripps-Howard organization. But they managed a healthy rivalry at the local level, competing with each other for news coverage and endorsing opposite slates of candidates at election time.
To be sure, there was a by-the-numbers quality to some of that competition. For years the CA was "conservative" and the Press-Scimitar was "liberal." Then, at some point in the 1960s, the papers switched ideological identities. Even so, there was choice of a sort, even if, on national issues, the papers were in lockstep, forced to heed a majority vote of all Scripps-Howard editors on whom to endorse for president, for example.
There's the rub, and that's one reason why it's a bad idea for Michael Powell, the current chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to proceed in weakening current FCC regulations so as to permit more monopoly ownership in media markets. Even if all managers of collectively owned media enterprises are well-intentioned, their tendency -- for reasons of cost-efficiency, if none other -- is toward uniformity of opinion and standardization of taste, the very real prospects for which are documented in this week's cover story.
A diversity of opinions may be inconvenient and certainly it's less "efficient" when it comes to the major media corporations' profit margins. But the FCC's allegiance should be to the First Amendment, not to corporate profits.
Three weeks ago, the Flyer reported that the staff of the Greater Memphis Arts Council's Center for Arts Education program had resigned en masse. Since then, CAE programs have been cancelled, artists' contracts broken, and certain federal grants put in jeopardy. Questioned about the situation, GMAC told the Flyer only that the resignations constituted a personnel problem and it could not comment further on the situation.
In Saturday's Commercial Appeal, GMAC board president Tommy Farnsworth III said, "We had to look at sustainability [of the CAE] If you're going to go after a $45,000 grant and it's going to cost $75,000 to run the program [you have to ask] have you made the right decision?" Not to overstate the obvious, but isn't providing significant financial assistance for art programs that can't cut it in a competitive marketplace the very thing the GMAC is supposed to do?
Also from Saturday's CA: "Jackie Nichols, director of Playhouse on the Square, says that many major arts groups such as Ballet Memphis, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and Theatre Memphis already have well-established educational outreach programs. Nichols says the Arts Council should stick to distributing state-provided ticket subsidy money, which helps schoolchildren see shows at reduced prices." That's an apples-to-oranges comparison. We're all for sending children to the symphony or to see a play, but the CAE involved students hands-on in the arts as a means of exploring basic academic curriculum. One example: a sculpture project where teaching artists worked with students to make a functioning model of the Mississippi River. The sculpture had to be grounded in basic principles of geography and geology and informed by literary descriptions of the Big Muddy. Such a project combines sculpture, regional history, earth sciences, geography, and literature -- hardly the same thing as going to see a production of Peter Pan.
GMAC's silence on the CAE issue is perplexing and wrong-headed. The public has a right to know what's going on and the GMAC needs to come up with some answers.