* * *
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 editors of The New York Times Magazine had a good idea recently.
That the mainstream media are increasingly conservative and gossip-driven is not exactly news.
"Electrifying and oh-so vital." If that sounds like model Melania Knauss testifying about the sexual prowess of her former boyfriend, Donald Trump, guess again. It's the sound of R.W.
This article is adapted by permission from Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century (O'Reilly).
China Spying Story: All the Excuses Fit to Print
The words of the FBI inquisitor concerning his treatment of Wen Ho
Lee couldn't have been more chilling: "It seemed like the more times you
hit him upside the head, the more truth comes out; it's like a little
That totalitarian sentiment was cited uncritically by the New York
Times as the summation of the first part of a lengthy examination of the
two-year case, in which the newspaper's reporting played a driving role.
Both the government and the Times acted as if Wen Ho Lee was presumed
guilty of spying until proved innocent.
The "little kid" in question, is a 61-year-old PhD and a highly
regarded ex-Los Alamos scientist. A Taiwanese-born US citizen, Lee
never was charged with actually spying or passing secrets to any
government, but he was held for nine months under what the judge in the
case came to define as "extraordinarily onerous conditions of
Those conditions, dictated over the judge's objections by the Justice
Department under its power in such cases, included solitary confinement
in a constantly lit cell and full-chain shackles even during brief
moments of exercise or meetings with his attorneys. That barbaric
treatment ended only after nine months, when Reagan-appointed
conservative Chief US District Judge James A. Parker released Lee for
time served, severely rebuked the prosecutors for deceiving him with
their flimsy case and, in an unprecedented gesture, added "I sincerely
apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody
by the executive branch." Lee was exonerated of fifty-eight charges and pleaded
guilty to unlawful retention of classified documents.
As the New York Times now concedes, government prosecutors had only
the weakest case against Lee but hoped that the threat of life
imprisonment and the harsh jail conditions could be used to break the man
and obtain a confession to a crime of spying for China, of which there
was not a shred of solid evidence.
Although the government case "collapsed of its own light weight," as
the Times put it, employing curious physics, the newspaper has only
feebly touched on its own role in this case.
Particularly onerous was the newspaper's original hoary front-page
headline: "Breach at Los Alamos...China Stole Nuclear Secrets for
Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." The story went further: "Working with nuclear
secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a
leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its
That was a reference to the W-88 warhead, but in the conclusion of its
recap, the Times concedes that many of the top scientists in the Energy
Department and the FBI since 1995 have "disagreed with the conclusion
that China, using stolen secrets, had built a weapon like the W-88." At
the same time, the newspaper conceded that there was nothing in the files
downloaded by Lee that would actually allow China to build such a weapon
and that "secrets" concerning its development are widely dispersed
throughout the defense industry.
The techniques for miniaturization are also well understood by former
scientists for the Soviet Union, who long ago developed such weapons and
whose talents are for sale on the world job market. Despite having
destroyed Lee's reputation with its uncritical ventilation of government
leaks, the Times seems bent on continuing the process. Its recent series
is larded with such references as: "According to a secret FBI report
recently obtained by the Times, Dr. Lee told agents . . . "
Isn't the government committing a more egregious violation of national
security by leaking information about secret computer codes--as it
apparently did to buttress its claims against Lee in the current New York
In the landmark 1971 Pentagon Papers case won by the New York Times
before the US Supreme Court, the Times asserted that it was merely
exercising rights guaranteed by the free press clause of the 1st
Amendment to print in toto a lengthy secret government study of US
actions in Vietnam. The same principle of fully sharing information with
the reader should apply to so-called secret documents obtained by the
Times in the Lee case so that we can make our own judgments.
But in its two years of reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case, the New York
Times has relied extensively on selected references to secret government
documents that smeared Lee, documents that Lee and the newspaper's
readers were not permitted to examine. Freedom of the press is presumably
for the benefit of the readers in general and of victims of government
abuse in particular. Yet the Times, as with many media outlets these
days, has perverted that freedom to justify its willful participation in
government manipulation of the news.
The New York Times has not yet come to grips with the enormity of its
betrayal of the principles of fairness that should govern a great
newspaper. What could be more basic to that obligation than the vigorous
protection of the right of any citizen, Taiwanese immigrants included, to
the presumption of innocence?
Media critics are more accustomed to pointing out problems than pointing to victories.