Of course, TV is more than ever picture-driven; but that series of mug shots, while diverting, also had an ideological subtext. The comic shift in medium--from TV footage to classic cinema--implied that there is no comparison between the baldly dictatorial tycoons of yesteryear and those cool, hands-off CEOs in charge today. Wells made the point explicit: "But in this day and age," she asked, "could one man get away with manipulating the public through the media?"
"I think today," I said in 9.2 seconds, "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." As if I'd just agreed with her, Wells cheerily went on: "Despite the concerns of journalists monitoring who owns what, most companies keep their hands off most newsrooms!" As proof, she introduced a moment at the Viacom press conference, when both CEOs "joked" at the idea that they could ever interfere with their reporters, even if they wanted to: "Oh, like I interfere with news! [There's] some chance of that!" laughed Karmazin.
In fact--as I'd just suggested--"most companies" don't "keep their hands off [their] newsrooms." ABC's retraction of the solid Day One story about nicotine, its dismissal of Brian Ross for his PrimeTime report on Disney's pedophile problem, 60 Minutes' infamous spiking, on CBS's orders, of its interview with whistleblower Jeffrey Weigand, Rupert Murdoch's chronic interference with his employees worldwide and Jack Welch's readiness to mess with NBC are only some of the examples that we've heard about. With so many cases known, there are surely countless others that have never been reported; and for every such example of overt manipulation from on high, there are probably 10,000 cases of self-censorship--reporters just not bothering with stories that their companies have tacitly forbidden.
Back on camera from her perch in Burbank, Wells summed up: "Despite the criticism, you can't accuse today's media moguls of doing what Hearst did--starting a war, rigging an election. But Professor Miller actually criticizes them for sometimes doing the opposite: not caring enough. [Split-screen, with Rivera on the left.] Geraldo, he says we have too many outlets showing us tons of information that's really irrelevant to us, and not enough places where we can get information that we really need to know."
Thus spake Geraldo: "Well, that may be true, but, uh, on the other hand, Jack Welch isn't going to call me up, or you up, and say, 'Hey, do this as your lead story tomorrow.' I think that the fear is overblown. I mean, I don't know, maybe I'm Pollyanna about it."
JW: "Well, and I think if he tried, you'd be the first person to go on television and say that!"
GR [in a funny gangster voice]: "Hey, Jack Welch called me!" Y'know: "Hey, listen ta dis!"
Jane laughs merrily.
GR: "Anyway, thank you, Jane!"
GR: "Nice to see you!"
Thus Rivera showed us brilliantly just how the system works, especially at the top. "Jack Welch isn't going to call me up" because Welch doesn't need to. Rivera knows enough to churn out just the sort of lurid teledreck--O.J., Monica, JonBenet--that keeps the advertisers happy. For all his posturing as prime time's only frank left-liberal commentator, he would never rile the man upstairs by starting any genuine controversy. It is such smooth adaptiveness that explains the outspoken token's vast success, with an annual salary of $5 million and a nightly stint in CNBC's prime-time bully pulpit. Meanwhile, in the trenches, many brave reporters still go after stories that their companies forbid--and suffer for it.
While Rivera thinks "the fear is overblown," many journalists know otherwise--which may explain the recent surge of skepticism toward such giants as Viacom. The power of such inordinate players hurts the very possibility of journalism. The danger isn't that the CEOs will force their journalists to load the news with propaganda but that those journalists, in trying to get ahead, won't let themselves perceive the difference. And if such "news" is all we get, we too could learn to make the same mistake.