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June 25, 2000 | Print this story

Breaking The News
Do Media Mergers Really Undermine America's Democracy?
Book Review by RUSS BAKER

Copy of Blondie drawing from book, The Newspaper in Art.

Books Mentioned
in this Review:

By Robert McChesney
University of Illinois: 427 pp., $32.95
Press, Politics, and Public Life
By Michael Janeway
Yale University Press: 256 pp., $22.50
Ten Leading Reporters and Editors on the Perils and Pitfalls of the Press
Edited by William Serrin
The New Press: 192 pp., $16.95
By Jay Rosen
Yale University Press: 352 pp., $29.95
Freedom and the Press
By Richard Reeves
Harvard University Press: 128 pp., $19.95
     These days, consumed with our own hectic lives, we seem able to apprehend only discrete events, not the big picture. Score: Trees 1, Forest 0. Take corporate mergers. Once they were big news, harbingers of powerful societal realignments to come. Lately, these organizational swallowings, hitch-ups and disembowelings have become so routine--except as they relate to our investments--that we scarcely consider their cumulative effect.
     Is this proof that we have become a nation of bookkeepers, with our eyes increasingly trained down at the bottom line or up at the clock? Or is our inability to focus on so serious a problem itself a symptom of the problem? Have we lost sight of what really matters in the stampede for personal and corporate gain, or are we merely buying the self-serving spin placed on mergers by the corporate interests behind them?
     While real democracy--active participation in civic life and self-government by an informed, substantial part of the populace--may stand in real danger, the very institutions we traditionally count on to shout warnings from the ramparts have themselves become increasingly compromised.
     Anyone interested in understanding the consequences of this trend can turn to several recent books. Foremost among them is Robert McChesney's "Rich Media, Poor Democracy," which ranges broadly over the macrocosm of the information age. Three other books--Michael Janeway's "Republic of Denial"; "The Business of Journalism," edited by William Serrin; and Jay Rosen's "What Are Journalists For?"--fit inside like Russian nesting dolls, taking on narrower aspects of the nexus of commerce, politics and journalism. Together these books remind us that journalism can serve a greater purpose than offering tips on hard abs, hot stocks and summer blockbusters.
     McChesney explores what is unquestionably an ongoing assault on the reliability and independence of the media we count on to explain the world to us. He walks us through the increasingly complex relationship between music, movie, cable, telephone, radio, TV, newspaper, advertising, Internet providers and software companies, which together determine what we learn and how it is presented to us. As technologies converge and media companies merge, as information is sliced, diced, injected with ads and plumped for entertainment value, it becomes increasingly turned into a commodity, so that what is being sold subsumes what is being told. Thirty years after Marshall McLuhan became famous for saying it, the medium--farther reaching than ever--is more and more the message.
     McChesney also spotlights the federal government's rush to shed its role as guardian of public resources and guarantor of a vigorous and diverse press. Since 1934, when it officially opened up the airwaves to commerce while in the same breath declaring them public property, Washington has stood by as commercial media steadily advances upon the public sphere. The forward march turned into a mad dash in 1996, after the government deregulated cable and telecommunications industries and significantly relaxed broadcast cross-ownership rules. McChesney amply chronicles this long sorry history of abdication, which has left "We, the People" with virtually no say in three areas central to a modern functioning democracy: We are denied the right to choose what goes over limited "publicly owned" cables and airwaves. We do not determine who profits from technology developed with taxpayer funds. We have no part in deciding how much control of the media any one player gets.
     Recent events have corroborated his analysis. AOL swallowed Time Warner, Viacom devoured CBS and AT&T consumed MediaOne. Each deal took advantage of relaxed government regulations to aggrandize an existing media megalith. If all goes as planned, AT&T will control one third of the nation's cable network; four of the most mammoth media conglomerates will own six major TV networks; CBS-Viacom will reach (and surpass, if lobbying efforts are successful) the recently elevated government cap of 35% of the national audience; and the old-media giant Time Warner will emerge a more powerful new-media giant.
     While everyone was busy contemplating Los Angeles Times' then-publisher Mark Willes' emphasis on the bottom line at all costs--and the related, controversial profit-sharing pact between the Staples Center and The Times' Sunday magazine--the paper's parent company, Times Mirror, got swallowed up by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. (That move, ironically, almost came as a relief after the ex-cereal executive's mercantile reign.) Tribune Co. adds The Times to a local empire that includes KTLA-TV Channel 5 and could conceivably include--if the company chooses to purchase it--the Daily News of Los Angeles. (If anything bears out McChesney on the retreat of competition-minded government action, it is the fact that Tribune actually owned the Daily News until 1986, when it was forced to divest the paper to get KTLA. Now, pretty much anything goes.)
     McChesney, a communications professor and media historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is not a journalist, which may partly explain why he sees journalism as but an inseparable strand in an ever-more-tightly woven cloth of commerce. As such, he says, it is run according to the market-driven imperative of capitalism: more profit with less risk. The best way is to grow as large as possible. And not just big but tall, or "vertically integrated." The most powerful media companies not only produce content but also own the channels that distribute it. The excitement surrounding new technologies and the propagandistic rhetoric of "free trade" and the "marketplace of ideas" drown out concern about the meaning of "free media" in an oligopoly. This concentration in ownership, says McChesney, exacerbates the worst in existing media trends--commercial exchange at the expense of public dialogue, advertising instead of education, entertainment rather than analysis--making it no less than "a poison pill for democracy."
     Most journalists would resist McChesney's argument, saying their "objectivity" shields them from corporatization and conglomeration of the news business. But McChesney points out that journalism's much-acclaimed professionalization was part and parcel of these trends, rather than an enlightened in-house effort to protect and improve the craft by applying internal standards. "To the contrary," he says, "professional journalism emerged as a pragmatic response to the commercial limitations of partisan journalism in the new era of chain newspapers, advertising support, and one-newspaper towns." His conclusion: Reporters, however unbiased, cannot protect themselves from profit pressures or commercialization of the news. McChesney views modern journalism as an essential part of the corporate mechanism, whose owners rely on it to legitimize their product and, especially, to yield ripe synergistic opportunities.
     For McChesney, the only way journalism might become the independent and public-minded profession it should be is through drastic economic reform in media. He urges expansion of noncommercial and nonprofit media, establishment of an integrated public broadcasting network and strengthening of antitrust, cross-ownership and advertising restrictions on commercial media. These steps are necessary because our media system does not merely suffer the decline in representative democracy but has itself become "a significant anti-democratic force."
     Maybe his is not such a lonely cry in the dark. The government's lawsuit against Microsoft and the recent court ruling that the company must split into two will undoubtedly have significant consequences and they raise the question of whether a new will exists to put a halt to monopolistic practices. Besides the general antitrust implications, it is important to remember that Microsoft is not just a software company anymore: Its holdings of MSNBC and several of the world's largest photo archives, as well as its online magazine Slate, make it a prominent player in the world of journalism.
     The shadow of the media oligopoly extends beyond what were once largely in-house discussions of what's good and bad about contemporary journalism. Richard Reeves, a syndicated columnist and faculty member at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, argues in "What the People Know" that we are practically in a post-news era. Real news, he says, is that which "you and I need to keep our freedom--accurate and timely information on laws and wars, police and politicians, taxes and toxics." Classic good journalism, says Reeves, is anathema to media kingpins because it is controversial, expensive and not necessarily advantageous to the bottom line. Among his evidence: A quarter century ago, more than half the stories in major news outlets--including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times--were straight news accounts; now only one in three is a hard news story. Over the same period, celebrity coverage tripled. From 1977 to 1987, Newsweek and Time reduced their public policy-oriented covers from one in five to one in 20.
     At the same time, real news is often relegated to the fringes of mainstream media. Recently thumbing through the Wall Street Journal, I spotted a two-inch news agency dispatch, squirreled away at the bottom of the business section's second page. Headlined "Groups Ask Agency to Reject AOL Deal," it contained a rare note of criticism--a consumer coalition's warning that the buy-out should be rejected unless anti-monopolistic safeguards are imposed. Then came AOL's boilerplate response: The deal "would deliver tremendous benefits to consumers." The benefits were not mentioned, but we know what the company likes to tout: one-stop shopping; faster download time; all-in-one Internet, cable and phone service; and the convenience of, say, CNN viewable 24-7 over AOL. Apparently, not all consumers are convinced that these benefits outweigh the negative consequences to democratic media, but their voices have been so marginalized that hardly anyone will know it.
     Although the press is commonly characterized as a collection of bleeding heart liberals, McChesney argues persuasively that whatever journalists' personal politics, the media's dominant ideology is pro-market and business class-biased and rests on the assumption that the news business works just fine or, at most, requires only minor tinkering. Rosen, chair of the New York University graduate journalism department, is one of those with a plan for modest adjustment.
     Rosen is a founding member of the reform movement he calls "public journalism." His thrust is that standards of objectivity, accuracy and fairness are not the end of reporters' obligations. Journalists not only give the news but also craft a world. Rosen says they must encourage the public to engage in that world by reclaiming from corporate interests, campaign managers and PR spin-meisters the right to say what is important. If only journalism could get beyond horse race-style campaign coverage, spend less time investigating private foibles and more time reporting on public issues. Then, the thinking goes, faith in the profession might be restored and representative democracy rejuvenated to boot. Rosen describes the movement's high hopes: "Politics and public life, journalism and its professional identity, could be renewed along civic lines. . . . If citizens joined in the action where possible, kept an ear tuned to current debate, found a place for themselves in the drama of politics, got to exercise their skills and voice their concerns, then maybe democracy didn't have to be the desultory affair it seemed to have become."
     In "Republic of Denial," Janeway, director of Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program and former Boston Globe editor, takes up where Rosen leaves off. He is more interested in the larger forces--economic, social and, especially, political--that influence both journalism and civic life. Janeway sees the press as orbiting the political planet, roiling its waters yet forever in its pull. Both revolve around, and depend for their existence on, a lively public body. "The real problem, the very devil, is the fragmentation of society and the disintegration of political culture," he declares. And the bottom-line imperative of the corporate news business leaves no room for exploring ways to exorcise it. On the contrary, says Janeway, it "demands of the press that instead of considering the argument for combating social fragmentation, it figure out how to profit from it."
     Janeway holds little hope that good journalism alone can revive debate among an atomized public of individuals who, although greatly optimistic about their own futures, are surprisingly less so about that of their nation. (Perhaps not so surprisingly: Isn't this a foreseeable condition in a country with tens of millions of impoverished children for every Ted Turner? Maybe, but we don't see it that way.) We belong to a republic of denial, says Janeway, unlikely to awaken to the imperiled state of our so-called representative democracy, never mind mobilize for the political reforms--party, campaign, electoral and Constitutional--that might help save it.
     In William Serrin's "The Business of Journalism," the former New York Times labor reporter and ex-chair of the New York University graduate journalism department assembled a collection of essays that illustrate the wretched unwritten rules of the contemporary newsroom. These say, essentially, tread lightly on corporate interests (in-house and out), don't be too generous with time or money and stay within the ideological limits of the news business.
     Although Rosen argues that "journalism is neither a science nor a business," the first line of Serrin's introduction challenges that notion: "A nasty, unreported truth about journalism is this: Journalism is a business." Serrin knows it better than anyone: His former beat has shriveled in the blinding light of a booming economy fueled by dot-com fever and merger mania. As McChesney points out, our nation's daily newspapers today have hordes of business scribes but collectively employ fewer than 10 labor reporters.
     Cynics like Jack Shafer, writing for Slate (the ultimate in new media hybridization), like to accuse reformers of yearning for a golden age of journalism that never existed. All of the authors discussed here would agree there was no golden age. But, as Serrin's collection shows, that doesn't mean the business hasn't been transformed. The biggest changes are in ownership concentration, mounting profit pressures, the profession's socioeconomic elevation, growing (but still inadequate) newsroom diversity and eroding public trust. Contrary to the belief that reporters operate within some sort of magic bubble that insulates them from all outside influence, contributors to "The Business of Journalism" show that changes like the ones described above affect newsroom operations as well as reporters' sense of ethics and professionalism. After all, notes Serrin, journalists are often their own severest censors.
     If so, then it takes a nonjournalist like McChesney to get the big picture. Something of an unapologetic alarmist and political radical, he favors language like "socialism" and "solution is left reform. . . ." That's scary to a lot of people but probably not as scary as a world in which a handful of like-minded people control all media. As McChesney points out, the annual private Idaho retreat, at which the heads of major media companies--Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corp., Sony and Microsoft included--meet to discuss their industry and strategize for the future, bears "the earmarks of a cartel."
     It's hard to imagine that Americans of any political or philosophical bent would be comfortable living in what McChesney argues is our future. Some may find his prognosis overly pessimistic. But every thinking person is likely to agree that a serious start needs to be made somewhere. Journalists engaging other journalists in discussions of purpose, la Rosen, is one approach. A more consequential strategy is to press top public figures to acknowledge the gravity of the threat to our democracy. We might begin by asking someone other than Ralph Nader if he or she thinks this matters at all. Perhaps Al Gore and George W. Bush would like to distinguish themselves by taking on a truly presidential challenge.

Russ Baker writes frequently on the media for the Columbia Journalism Review. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Esquire and The New Republic.


Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times



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