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Column > Stop the Presses

Unreality Television

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The network honchos called by Louisiana Representative Billy Tauzin and the House Energy and Commerce Committee to testify on the election night debacle were a decidedly ungrateful bunch. True, they were forced to sit through a video of their billion-dollar babies making idiots of themselves. (Watching Dan Rather offering "a big tip and a hip, hip, hurrah and a great big Texas howdy to the new President of the United States," and instructing viewers to "Sip it. Savor it. Cup it. Photostat it. Underline it in red. Press it in a book. Put it in an album. Hang it on the wall," more than once ought to be considered cruel and unusual by anyone's standards.) And how rare it must be that anyone, much less mere members of Congress, would dare keep these boys cooling their heels for a full five hours before finally bringing them forward to demand that they swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth--in public, no less. But really, all the "concern" and "uneasiness" voiced by the execs about government meddling in the news was a bit much. There was never any danger to the networks' independence in Tauzin's hearings; at least none that originated from Congress, rather than their own parent companies.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

Tauzin, a Democrat turned Republican, originally professed to possess an "analysis" that indicated "in almost every case, [the networks] favored early calls for Al Gore over George Bush." Absent any evidence, however, he withdrew the charge of intentional bias and retreated behind a mysterious theory of "flawed data models" and "biased statistical results" that happened to favor Democrats. He offered no evidence this time either, but almost all reporters felt duty-bound to repeat his nonsensical accusations. Hence precious little attention was focused on more concrete election-coverage questions, most notably Fox's decision to rely on the analysis of John "I can't be honest about [my cousin George W. Bush's] campaign.... He's family, and I'm for him" Ellis. And needless to say, there was no time left for an examination of the corrupting effect of the networks' interlocking structure of corporate ownership.

Had Tauzin and company really tried to censor or intimidate the networks, that would have been interesting, but it is damn near impossible to imagine. As a comprehensive report on media lobbying by the Center for Public Integrity demonstrates, when it comes to mutual backscratching, the primates in the National Zoo have nothing over the networks and Congress.

Take Tauzin, for instance. According to the CPI report--which might as well have been classified "top secret" for all the attention lavished on it by the media it exposes--the cagey Cajun received more PAC money from media companies than anyone else in the House, including more than $150,000 from entertainment and telecommunications companies for his 2000 campaign, in which he had no credible opponent. Moreover, no member of Congress has traveled more frequently on the media industry's dime. Between 1997 and 2000, Tauzin and his staff took a total of forty-two trips--one out of eight industry-sponsored junkets taken by members of Congress during that period. In December 1999 Tauzin and his wife enjoyed a six-day, $18,910 trip to industry "meetings" in Paris. Representative John Sweeney managed to make the same trip for a mere $7,445. How can Tauzin act as an honest broker for the networks filling his pockets? Easy: He simply does not believe in the concept of conflict of interest. "I have no choice but to do effective oversight," he says by way of explanation. Tauzin's view is hardly unique. His successor as chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Fred Upton, has a portfolio worth millions in those very same companies.

Again, we are seeing nothing unusual here, except perhaps gumption. In 1999 alone, according to the CPI, the fifty largest media companies and four of their trade associations coughed up more than $30 million to lobby Congress, an increase of 26.4 percent in three years. Since 1993, they have given more than $75 million in direct campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And the numbers tell just a small part of the story. These fellas are not just selling toasters, after all. As former FCC chairman Reed Hundt has explained, more important than the industry's money is the perception of its "near-ubiquitous, pervasive power to completely alter the beliefs of every American." Politicians fear that if they displease these companies, they will simply "disappear" from view.

And what do the media want in exchange for this largesse? They want to be left alone so they can make themselves and their stockholders rich, regardless of their impact on American democracy. To take just one example, according to data collected by Competitive Media Reporting, politicians and special interests spent an estimated $600 million for paid political ads in the last election cycle, which makes the $11 million or so the National Association of Broadcasters and five media outlets cumulatively spent between 1996 and 1998 to defeat campaign finance reform look like a prudent investment. Note, by the way, that John McCain, the heroic white knight of campaign finance reform, who raises more money from the media companies than even Tauzin, was crucial to the media companies' successful effort to kill the FCC's plan to force a lowering of the cost of political commercials, the primary culprit driving the vicious election/money cycle.

With Michael Powell as George Bush's new appointee to head the FCC, the networks might not even have to bother lobbying Congress anymore. Powell signaled his own expansive definition of conflict of interest when he refused to recuse himself from the vote approving the merger of AOL and Time Warner, despite the fact that his father, Colin Powell, stood to make millions from the stock he received as a company director. (I don't suppose he opposes the repeal of the estate tax, either.)

"We don't look to the government to correct the press. We look to the people," explained ABC News president David Westin to Tauzin's committee. "If we fail, the audience will judge us and move somewhere else." I'm thinking France.

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