Nation Topics - Corporate Media and Consolidation
News and Features
These days, it's the media conglomerates who are drunk with power--demanding a larger share of the nation's airwaves and threatening to turn the World Wide Web into an electronic theme park--and
Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently
undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related
happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a
book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic). The
lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't
wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists,
by contrast, were near despondency. They had entered the profession
"armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an
exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the
significance of stories and the manner in which they should be
presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a
profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from
professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the
professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits"
focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient
interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned"
profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.
Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered
Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or
anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine
journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet
in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of
figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction
of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its
corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're
not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing
more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on
As much as the media like to report on themselves--I'd use the
obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation--few
observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been
transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with
more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.)
Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers
have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire
the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the
University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the
Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news;
swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless
task. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive
the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff
wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its
Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual
end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many
people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with
exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David
Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But
its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been
shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier
lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed
discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism
that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel
Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si
Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary
journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS,
under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard.
If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else
can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?
With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of
survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a
significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news
division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman,
which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could
they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the
division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is
coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their
corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving
Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public
humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the
entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.
Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of
serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with
only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning
and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The
evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as
well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors
goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local
affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds,
It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public
watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who
has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service
regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein
Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue
operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US
Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies
really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter,
Ted, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's
dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little
noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?
The nation's largest media corporations are now poised to gain dramatically greater control over what Americans watch, listen to and read. A February 19 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit nullified two longstanding government regulations limiting the scope and size of media companies that use the public airwaves. If the decision stands, there will no longer be limits on the same company owning television stations and cable franchises in the same market. The court also ordered the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider a rule barring a TV network from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience.
The end result of this latest deregulation wave could be, in the words of Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union, "the most massive consolidation in media this nation has ever seen." The only good news in the appeals court's ruling was its rejection of a claim by media company lawyers that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. This means that even as FCC chairman Michael Powell seeks to repeal the remaining regulatory limits on media monopoly, Congress could reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful legislators, including Senator Ernest Hollings and Representative John Conyers Jr., want to do just that. But they are going to need public pressure from a real media reform movement if they are to have any hope of converting their fellow members to a fight for Americans' right to a diverse media.
With the looming prospect of one or two giant media conglomerates controlling almost all our news and entertainment, the survival of alternative, noncommercial media outlets becomes more important than ever. One of them--Pacifica radio--has famously been rocked by internal problems and requires support from all who care about independent media. The Nation is deeply committed to the Pacifica ideal of independent broadcasting (at both the national and local levels) and has many friends and longtime contributors involved in the network in various capacities. Now that an Alameda County Superior Court judge has replaced the old board with an interim body charged with restoring harmony and solvency to the battered network, it's vital that those of us in the penumbra of the Pacifica community do what we can to help the new cast of characters be true to the Pacifica ideal.
Recent events--including the axing of Pacifica Network News, the firing of KPFK station manager Mark Schubb, the suspension of Marc Cooper and the cancellation of his daily show on KPFK (Cooper is a contributing editor of this magazine and also the host of RadioNation)--suggest that all is not pacified at Pacifica. Further, the network is saddled with a debt of $4.8 million, partly as a result of litigation during the recent troubles.
We'll have a report in an upcoming issue on the latest developments. Meanwhile, Pacifica remains a beacon of independent thinking and progressive values in a sea of conglomeratized and homogenized media. Readers who have strong views on Pacifica's future course should convey them to their local station. For those of you who wish to send contributions to offset the alarming deficit: Make out checks to Pacifica Foundation and mail them to Pacifica Radio, Attention: Accounts, 2390 Champlain St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
One of the pitfalls of publishing a weekly journal of critical opinion at a moment when the political culture has drifted to the right is that there is so much of which to be critical that we often don't take time out to count our blessings, hail our heroes and salute our comrades in arms. Add to that the liberal left's propensity for internecine warfare (see our editorial on page 3) and the temptation to pass over those guilty of committing good works is often too great to resist. So, let us take a moment to cheer two local heroes whose good works, not incidentally, have benefited Nation writers, among many others, over the years.
First, Bill Moyers. For years, his documentaries, speeches and articles have illuminated such subjects as the way money distorts politics, how secrecy perverts liberty and how, under the flag of free trade, NAFTA has permitted multinationals to undermine democracy. As Moyers (quoting John Dewey) wrote in our pages, it's not easy to interest the public in the public interest. In recent weeks Moyers has been the target of a Weekly Standard demolition job and a misguided assault by the Washington Post's Sebastian Mallaby. He must be doing something right.
Second, Jeff Chester, one-man monitor of concentration among the communications conglomerates, reminds us how we were almost deprived of the good works of Norman Lear. Citing a Writer's Guild of America statement on harmful vertical and horizontal integration in television, he notes that Norman Lear (and his colleague Bud Yorkin) made two pilots for ABC of the controversial series All in the Family. ABC kept asking him to water it down, soften it, blur the edges. Lear refused and took the series to CBS, where he was allowed to follow his vision and create one of the groundbreaking shows of all time. As the WGA notes, "He could do that only because he owned it. Today, the network would have an ownership position and would be able simply to fire Lear and replace him with a writer and producer who would do what they wanted." As a result Lear made his fortune and has used it, among other things, to purchase one of the few surviving original versions of the Declaration of Independence and to found People for the American Way, which fights to put the principles of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights into practice. A recent example: turning the national spotlight on a Bush court nominee with an abominable civil rights record, as described by John Nichols in this week's issue.
We take our hat off to Bill Moyers and Norman Lear.
The Federal Communications Commission is presently conducting an inquiry--a "rulemaking"--to determine whether to relax, or even to eliminate, the remaining few regulations that limit how many me
Media consolidation is creeping in slowly while the public’s attention is elsewhere—is it too late to fight back?
John Stossel has high Q-ratings, so he doesn't have to worry about the rules.
To keep the press free, Ben Franklin made sure that periodicals once got preferential treatment from the USPS. It's time to revisit that idea again.
Cultural critics and producers sound off on Big Media.
Getting serious about media reform: at a standstill now, the media reform movement's time has come.