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When legendary media critic A.J. Liebling issued that warning some
decades ago about the corrosive effect of media monopolies on the First
Amendment, media ownership was a great deal more varied than it is today.
Even then, it was far more concentrated in a few hands than when the
Bill of Rights was written, when "the press" was a low-capital venture,
and newspapers were easily launched by those who had something to say.
The founding fathers hardly anticipated today's media market, in which
journalism is a vehicle for mega-corporate profits, and the diversity of
opinion implied in the First Amendment is threatened less by a king or the
state and far more by the motives of media barons.
Nowadays, media mega-mergers are the rage, and the Bush Administration
is determined to remove legal barriers to media conglomeration that long
have prevented a few giant corporations from controlling all of print and
broadcast journalism. But can we count on the very news organizations
whose owners are zealously pursuing profit from those mergers to also
objectively cover the implications of media concentration for a free
The initial signs aren't promising. When America Online purchased Time
Warner in the biggest media merger in US history, there was
considerable analysis of the deal's business aspects but meager attention
to implications for a representative democracy of having a significant
portion of its media controlled by one corporation.
Previously, one could assume that Time magazine, AOL and CNN, as well
as other parts of the new conglomerate, at least reflected the voices of
different owners, but that's no longer the case. Also, with that merger,
AOL went from being an outsider company demanding open access to cable to
being the second-largest cable operator. Suddenly it muted its open
access demand, leaving the perception that the news outlets now assembled
under the AOL banner might also have had a change of heart as to what's
important in the cable controversy.
Most recently, the new Bush FCC appointees relaxed a long-standing
"dual network rule" barring one television network from buying another.
The result is that Viacom, which owns CBS, will have a large stake in the
UPN network. Will other broadcasters anticipating similar deals permit
their news organizations to voice dissenting opinions, or launch
investigations of the FCC's abandonment of its consumer watchdog role?
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch has made clear his intention to purchase
DirecTV from General Motors. If he succeeds, he'll combine the largest
US satellite broadcaster with his existing satellite network, which is
pervasive in much of the rest of the world. Will journalists laboring in
his vast empire dare raise troubling questions about the danger of one
man holding such overwhelming power in the world communications market?
Further, Bush's new FCC chairman, Michael Powell, promises to
eliminate the 1975 prohibition against cross-ownership--a company owning
a TV station and newspaper in the same market. That might prove immensely
profitable to the Tribune Co., which, in purchasing the Times Mirror Co.
last year, acquired newspapers in three markets where Tribune already
owned television stations. But is cross-ownership healthy for independent
journalism in those markets, which include New York and Los Angeles? Will
the news outlets that are subsidiaries in the deal fully examine the
journalistic implications of media concentration? Or will they only
report on the wonders of what the owners celebrate as "convergence" or
The answer suggested by the last election is that media have
difficulty covering themselves fully when the owners' financial interests
are seriously in play. How else can one explain the scant attention paid
to the difference between Al Gore--who opposed cross-ownership--and
George W. Bush on this issue?
Also ignored in the coverage was the stake that media moguls had in
the Democrats not gaining control of Congress. Had that happened, John
Dingell (D-Mich.) would be chairing the House Commerce Committee, which
oversees the work of the FCC. Dingell was on record as opposing the
Tribune purchase of Times Mirror because such mergers lead to a "huge
concentration of power in a small group of hands."
That's why Dingell and others believe that government regulation to
preserve a diverse media market is essential. The rules concerning media
ownership were not carelessly drawn up over the preceding decades to
inconvenience the media industry. Rather, they were designed to save the
media business from its worst instincts.
Regulation is a reminder that there is a public interest in the news
media as in no other industry because corporate concentration threatens
the competition vital to an unfettered press. The free press belongs to
us all and not just to the few who own one.
When we last visited New York Times foreign affairs pundit Thomas Friedman during last year's Seattle protests, he was attacking critics of the antidemocratic World Trade Organization as a
The turn of the millennium provided yet another occasion to celebrate a triumphant American Century.
Let's not begrudge Dick Cheney his $36 million income last year.
Sure, it dwarfs the puny $744,682 reported by the President, but George
W. Bush represents old money, and he knows better than to be too showy,
particularly when you're running for office as a Joe Six-Pack kind of
guy. Better to roll over the income from inherited money into
Cheney didn't have time for such accounting niceties. Bush caught him
right in the middle of a tax year with that Vice President nod, and
remember, Cheney was only supposed to be advising Bush on the best choice
for Veep. How was Cheney to know he'd be forced to recommend himself as
the most qualified?
Still, just because he had become Vice President didn't mean he had to
take a vow of poverty. As Cheney told CBS News at the time, "I'd like not
to give away all of my assets to serve the public." And why should he,
since there's no law limiting the assets of federal office-holders or any
requirement that they give up their acquired wealth? Cheney had only to
look as far as Bush, who merely put his in a blind trust, no questions
Huge financial assets are now the norm for leaders of our
representative democracy, and it wasn't unexpected that the mostly
wealthy members of the Senate recently voted rich people like themselves
an enormous tax cut, albeit not as large as the one Bush wanted for
himself and his pals.
Cheney's assets are only at risk of taxation if he wants to leave a
huge amount to his heirs without paying additional taxes. Soon, even that
will no longer be a problem because Bush and Cheney are sensitive to the
unfairness of the estate tax to ordinary people like themselves, and they
want to eliminate it.
What was at issue during the campaign was not Cheney's assets or his
income but his future stock options in Halliburton Co. These being tied
to the rise and fall of Halliburton stock, presented a potential conflict
of interest because, as Vice President, it was conceivable that he could
influence stock prices. Under considerable pressure, Cheney decided to
donate those stock options to charity, but he was left with a bit more
than a hair-shirt.
Even after taxes, Cheney cleared more than $20 million in 2000. If the
Bush tax cut had been in effect last year, Cheney would've saved another
couple of million, to which he obviously feels entitled.
Don't forget, Cheney was playing catch-up after years in the public
sector, first as a congressman and then as Defense secretary. As it
turned out, he only had about five years in the private sector to cash in
his chips, and he didn't really know much about the energy business. When
he hired on to serve as the CEO of an oil services firm, he knew he would
have to justify the big bucks he was getting paid.
Fortunately for him and Halliburton, it all worked out in the end.
For the Texas-based Halliburton, there initially was some concern.
Only two years ago, with the company's stock floundering, the board of
directors chastised Cheney for the company's poor performance. But then
came the presidential election, and those same directors must have
figured they had died and gone to heaven after Cheney got the Veep nod.
That's when the board of directors turned around and rewarded him with an
incredibly lucrative severance package providing the bulk of his reported
$36 million income in 2000.
Can you blame them? Most of Cheney's working hours last year were
devoted to seizing the White House for the most avidly pro-Big Oil
presidency in US history, and servicing Big Oil is what Halliburton Co.
is all about. That and construction projects around the world that an
anti-environmental Administration now seems all too eager to facilitate.
Quite an impressive record for an executive who was just learning the
business. They knew the guy would be good; after all, as a congressman he
had one of most pro-industry voting records. And it was Defense Secretary
Cheney who had made the decision to privatize logistical support
facilities for the military, which gave Halliburton's subsidiary, Brown &
Root, huge construction contracts for the US military at bases
throughout the world.
Of course, as the former Defense secretary who'd saved Kuwait, where
Halliburton has huge contracts, Cheney was already known to be an
effective player. But how could Halliburton have known Cheney would be
this good? Not only did he help elect another Texas oil guy as President,
but if you look at the short record of the Bush-Cheney Administration,
when it comes to opening the environment for energy exploration, even
that most pristine area in Alaska, these guys know no limits.
Indeed, they must be guffawing down in Texas to have two good old boys
running the White House without a scintilla of shame. It's been oil money
Despite all the palaver, the denouement came quickly.
The editors of The New York Times Magazine had a good idea recently.
The financial crisis that collapsed Asian economies in mid-1997 and then bounced around the world was a distant sideshow to most Americans until it reached Wall Street.
A massive natural disaster reminds us why people worldwide have been engaged by the issue of debt relief.
Ajit Singh, who graduated from Punjab University and obtained his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, is professor of economics at Cambridge University.
Pakistan today is a complete mess, a sad example of what can happen when a once-favored "frontline state" is reduced to the status of a cold war orphan.