On Air

May 24, 2010

Professor of Communication Jeffrey M. McCall was being interviewed via satellite in an Indianapolis television station. On the other end of the feed, Bill O'Reilly, host of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor, had quickly affirmed his assertive reputation.

"All right, now, Dr. McCall," O'Reilly said. "Obviously you would sanction Stern but not sanction Oprah, and I'm still not getting why."

mccall_feature_oreilly.jpgThe topic was Howard Stern versus Oprah Winfrey and the Federal Communications Commission. In 2004 Stern complained of a double standard when it came to indecency regulation, pointing to a rather blunt discussion of sexual activity from Winfrey's daytime show as evidence.

"Well, context is everything," McCall replied. "Are we trying to discuss mature issues in a rational, sensible way, or are we trying to have a big laugh, a big joke and talk dirty like we are behind the middle school?"

O'Reilly, satisfied with McCall's answer, moved the conversation along. There was no shouting match, no histrionics — nothing that would catapult the segment into YouTube's Most Viewed. But it was good television, nevertheless.

America's relationship with the media isn't much different than its appetite for fast food; we continue to indulge even though we generally agree that most of it is junk. McCall says the problem is not just that we have an unhealthy media diet, but that we rarely know whether what we're being fed is good or bad.

"As consumers, we don't approach the media in a very critical fashion," McCall says. "I find that interesting because I think American consumers in general are fairly finicky. If you go to a restaurant and the food isn't right, you send it back. If you buy a garment and there's something wrong with the stitching, you return it. But when you tune in to a newscast that you don't think is professionally up to standards, you usually just take it."

Ten years ago, McCall decided to bring this discussion to the public. He started by writing and distributing op-ed columns addressing issues such as mediated violence and journalistic accuracy. By 2004, McCall's growing reputation as a media critic earned the attention of The O'Reilly Factor's producers, who have asked him to appear as a guest nine times.

McCall Book Viewer Discretion.jpgMcCall's op-eds have since appeared in more than 100 newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Miami Herald, and he has been interviewed about media issues and quoted innumerable times by print and broadcast media across the nation. His book, Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences, published in 2007, continued his media literacy efforts.

After graduating from DePauw in 1976, McCall cut his teeth as a news producer for National Public Radio affiliate and an on-air correspondent for the network. By the time he returned to DePauw as a professor in 1985, CNN had already begun to shape the news media landscape. Today, McCall says that cable news has contributed to what he describes as "information segregation" — camps of people defined by their news sources.

"We end up creating cultural myths based on what we see in the news," McCall says. "When you watch cable news, for example, what the programs almost always do is bring on one guest who represents Democratic strategy and one who represents Republican strategy. It creates this notion that views are more polarized than they are, and that we only have two choices. At some point, the culture created by the media becomes our culture."

As businesses, cable news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and FOX News do very well, but McCall believes that public interest, rather than profit alone, should be included in their bottom line.
Of course, many of McCall's concerns predate the students he teaches. In his classroom, McCall reads excerpts of a 1961 speech given by former FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow before the National Association of Broadcasters:

"I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. ... You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."

mccall_feature_small.jpgMinow's Wasteland Speech is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Perhaps the only clue of that passage's true age is its mention of Westerns, which have since fallen out of favor with audiences.

"Television hasn't moved forward, and it likely has gone backwards," McCall says. "The wasteland is still there."

"There is a lot of good television out there, but we need to look for it and support it," he adds. "It is not necessarily found on the major networks. We also need to make our preferences known to the programmers at our local stations, so they will know what we appreciate and what we don't."

If McCall's inbox is an indicator, American audiences are responding to his message. FCC commissioners, network news correspondents and average viewers and readers regularly write to McCall about his opinions — the majority supportive, or at least respectful.

"Most feedback I receive is civil, even if they disagree with me," McCall says. "I do get an occasional shot across the bow, but that's okay."