It was Feb. 17, the day on which about a fourth of all the TV stations in the country will pull the plug on analog transmissions, but Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro was focused on what he suggested the traditional media, TV and otherwise, weren't doing.
Focusing on the current economic crisis, Shapiro suggested the media were complicit in "our national conspiracy to ignore financial reality," and said that "while the First Amendment is alive legally, it is an unnoticed, underused and often forgotten tool whose spirit has shifted from traditional media to YouTube and blogs."
According to a copy of a speech to be given at The Media Institute in Washington Tuesday Shapiro said the press has "failed" the country by underreporting, and perhaps more importantly, insufficiently analyzing some big stories.
"It has been mostly reactive, favoring the politics and the battles between the political parties rather than independently reviewing the big issues," he said, most recently the bailout packages for Wall Street, and more recently Main Street.
"Has the media been so decimated by the economy and new media that thoughtful analysis of these immense proposals is off the table?" he asked.
The Media Institute is a First Amendment think tank sponsored by major media companies including Time Warner, and Shapiro gave them a lot to think about in terms of his view of their defense of that freedom.
In outlining places where he thought the First Amendment had not been well served, he suggested CNN was failing to honor the spirit of the amendment when it "gives its global platform, including every major U.S. airport, to xenophobic and protectionist Lou Dobbs?" Shapiro and Dobbs have butted heads on the issue of free trade. Shapiro spent some of his speech criticizing what he saw as the protectionist parts of the stimulus package, including the "buy American" provisions.
"Lou is a highly informed and independent voice who tackles challenging issues with clarity every night," said a CNN spokesperson asked to comment about the characterization. "His perspective, which he discusses and debates with a wide range of analysts and newsmakers, contributes to a national dialogue which is the essence of the first amendment."
But the thrust of the speech was that the media in general had "[lost] track of its core mission. Where was the scrutiny of how millions of Americans could pay for the mortgages being marketed to us every day? Was it simply politically correct to favor home ownership and not question how so many people could buy mortgages they could not afford? Was it easier and better to focus on Britney Spears?"
Shapiro said that the combination of a new president and a press seemingly infatuated with him was problematic.
"We are at a double danger area," he said. "First, we have an intensely charismatic leader who broke through a huge barrier and almost every American wants him to succeed. Second, we are in the middle of a serious economic downturn. Those two together have blunted criticism and careful analysis. Many in Washington see the goodies they are getting as in their self interest. In any case, critical inquiry has yet to manifest itself."
Shapiro conceded it was unusual for an association executive to share what he called an unpopular perspective, but said he was doing so after hearing from members who said the government was mortgaging their future and asked "why we are standing idly by." He also said he was doing it because the current policy was mortgaging his grandchildren's future.
"If our ancestors were as passive as our citizens and press today, we would all still be sipping tea and paying for it in pound notes," he said, invoking the Boston Tea Party."
"We must ask the tough questions and push for answers," said Shapiro. "We must insist our government act with some level of long term financial and strategic planning....Our national conspiracy to ignore financial reality will doom us to second class status and we will all be responsible for our silence."