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."
How do the media affect people today, I was asked, now that the corporations can no longer "rig elections or start wars," as Hearst did? But today's elections, I replied, are profoundly "rigged," what with the addiction of both political parties to expensive airtime, chummy coverage and elite fundraisers. And I recalled the US war against Iraq, when the newsmen of GE et al. were just as fierce as Hearst's chain in their rabble-rousing, the media corporations wanting not just to exploit a hot story but also, possibly, not to irk the White House, since they were lobbying to have the syndication rules repealed, a change worth millions to them. I summed up: "The media are too powerful, too wealthy, too heavily dominated by corporate interests, and therefore too cozy with the government."
That night I saw that I had flapped my lips in vain: I was on for all of twelve seconds, in a segment not four minutes long; and yet Jane Wells, the segment's voice, portrayed me as the only person living who was troubled by the merger: "But the whole business bothers media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller!" This, after several shots of the exultant Karmazin--and after 2.8 seconds of me saying only: "The media are too powerful--" Thus did the program take a tiny bit from what I'd said about the media's distortion of our politics to forge a protest so banal as to mean nothing.
Of course my sentences did not fit CNBC's manic pace. The format was distracting also in its heavy use of visuals--which served to simplify as well as bedazzle. The segment included Variety reporter Cynthia Littleton, who listed the top media CEOs with all due emphasis, thereby narrating the crucial train of images--Redstone & Karmazin, Disney's Michael Eisner, Murdoch, Time Warner's Gerald Levin, GE's own Jack Welch. There was then a funny shot of "Hearst"--or rather, Orson Welles's Charles Foster Kane (blast of dated marching music), and then a grainy close-up of the actual Hearst--as Jane Wells knowingly explained the "legend" of the magnate's having sparked the Spanish-American War deliberately to boost his papers' sales.
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.