When Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin announced their wedding plans last week, the initial coverage was all corporate hearts-and-flowers, the business journalists and pundits gushing like so many bridesmaids. To hear them tell it, the match of Viacom with CBS was made in Market Heaven: “a perfect fit,” the strengths of each correcting for the other’s weaknesses, and also finally solving Viacom’s notorious “succession problem,” with Karmazin–“the media world’s most ruthless manager and cost-slasher,” as one newspaper noted briefly–now in place as Redstone’s chiefest courtier, partner, hatchet man and son. This was not unusual, since all such bad news of the nineties, from the monstrous growth spurts of Time Warner, Disney, Fox et al. to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has been thus brightly packaged, with every stroke of further concentration played as somehow good for “competition.” But last week was a little different: The bouquets stopped flying by Day Three, and some reporters–at the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Boston Globe–even started questioning the trend.
Why this new strain of impiety? Maybe it’s becoming obvious, at last, that more is really less. “Eventually it will all get bought by AT&T, and then it will all get bought by Microsoft, and then all of us in America will be working for the same company,” Representative Edward Markey said last week. The moguls’ style is as excessive as the merger’s scale, the two men flaunting their big assets and strong mutual attraction with a brazenness not often seen outside of blue movies. “Our union will be king,” the aging Redstone boasted at their coming-out, and he told happily of Karmazin’s amazing mojo: “He seduced us. This began as a deal involving some television stations. Then he started talking about cable networks. Then I could see it coming. He is a master salesman, and he began to turn me on.”
Whatever the reasons for it, the new coolness meant a rare chance to speak critically about the issue to an audience outside the progressive forum. And so those usually invited to weigh in–industry flacks, financial types–were now at times outnumbered by such critics as Robert McChesney, Paul Wellstone, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting’s Jim Naureckas, Jerry Landay (who did an Op-Ed for USA Today), Janine Jaquet of the Project on Media Ownership, Andrew Schwartzman and others, all of whom variously sought to answer the key question: “What’s wrong with this picture?” I too addressed that complicated question throughout the week, with radio hosts and newspaper reporters. But TV is, of course, “the place to be”–and I wound up even there, on CNBC’s Upfront Tonight, hosted by Geraldo Rivera. There I failed completely to do justice to the basic question; in fact, I barely got a word in. And yet the question was superbly answered by the show itself–and by Geraldo in particular. On Monday afternoon, I was interviewed at NYU by a CNBC producer. I tried to answer with the necessary punch, and yet without providing cues for wrong impressions. For instance, I was asked to name the media’s six top bananas. I did–but to counter the naïve view that the system is the simple tool of six rich guys who use it any way they want, I added that “shareholder pressure” is the true decisive force: “If you want to know who’s calling the shots, you have to say that the whole system of publicly owned corporations is ‘in charge.'” (One should always tape such exchanges independently.)
I was also asked if any one tycoon could dominate the media the way that Hearst once ran his empire: “I think today it’s every bit as easy as it was in the past for one person to impose his views on a whole wide range of media properties,” I said, contrasting Hearst, a power in newspapers alone, with Rupert Murdoch, a global player in newspapers, TV, movies, magazines, book publishing and sports. “And we have seen in recent years that he has not been shy about fiddling with content, killing stories that he doesn’t like.” Just how Orwellian such control might be is arguable, I said, “but the fact is that that kind of individual power can keep a lot of people from knowing a lot of things, and can also keep a lot of people fixated on stuff that’s basically trivial.”