No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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"Corporatization of the Media" was a discussion session held at News World 2000: The Global News Forum, held in Barcelona, an international conference designed specifically for news professionals and organizations [see report on event in this issue; for more information visit the News World website at http://www.newsworld.co.uk/] Many thanks to Sue Phillips, managing director of News World, for granting TBS permission to print these proceedings. The transcript has been edited for length.

Corporatization of the Media

The world's media is being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer companies. Is it just paranoia to suggest global media giants are willing to forgo journalistic quality and ethics in exchange for shareholder return? Mass media has always been influenced and controlled by megalomaniacs; will the corporations be any different? Do corporate companies meddle in the newsroom, slipping in product placement or curtailing investigations that might bite the hand that feeds? The corporatization of the media will be explored through a classic News World hypothetical.

Participants

Chair: Nick Gowing, presenter, BBC World and BBC News 24
Ian Hargreaves, professor of journalism and head of the department of journalism at the University of Cardiff, Wales
Robert W. McChesney, professor of journalism, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Chris Cramer, president, CNN International
Danny Schechter, MediaChannel.org
Neil Docherty, producer, CBC's Fifth Estate

 

Nick Gowing: We live in a media age, there are more television channels than ever before, the Internet has given everyone the chance to be a publisher and to cross national boundaries to find out what's going on. The diversity of opinion has never been greater. But here is the contradiction: the number of media operations is shrinking. In the last few years both CBS and ABC have been swallowed up by media conglomerates with Time Warner and CNN heading the same way. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has interests worldwide, and in Europe Bertlesman and other companies are major and massive players. At the very least, does this kind of globalization lead to some loss of distinctiveness, even eventually homogenization? Is pluralism at the heart of our discussion today?

Herein lies the crucial question. Does making a profit come ahead of the responsibility to report the news in the objective, balanced, and impartial fashion that we all expect? Does the boardroom interfere in the newsroom? If there is no direct interference, then is there an implicit acceptance that certain things cannot be reported for fear of upsetting the bosses who worry more about corporate balance sheets, dividends, and also perhaps their bonuses? Or, is there nothing new to report here, because television journalists have always been answerable to their commercial masters and have usually managed to get what they want on air with little hindrance? This afternoon therefore we are going to debate these issues in an effort to clarify whether journalism is threatened by the corporate commercial imperative of companies for whom media ownership might be only a small part of their interests. I'd like to introduce first Robert McChesney.

Robert McChesney: My work deals with the tension between the corporate dominated, highly concentrated, commercially based media system and the communication needs of a democratic society--stuff that is really elementary to liberal democratic theory. My argument is, and I think the evidence shows, that the problems you traditionally have with any sort of commercial media system are greatly accentuated with the modern era. We're see deregulation nationally and globally, producing major waves of mergers and acquisitions that leave us with a very small number of massive firms dominating the communication landscape. With this has come hyper-commercialism of content as the traditional barrier between the creative and editorial side and the commercial side has collapsed due to pressure--in journalism specifically, which is the area of greatest communication of democracy.

You need two things according to democratic theory. One, we need a rigorous coming of people in power and people who want to be in power, both in the private and public sector. Secondly, we need a wide range of informed opinions on all important issues of the day. In a democratic society the media system as a whole should produce this sort of culture. My argument is that the structure we currently have in the global system, especially in the United States but increasingly around the world, works directly against the needs of democratic journalism and a democratic society. It does so not because the people who manage our media are bad people. They are rationally following the views that they are given and therefore the solution in my view is not to guilt trip, bad mouth, or whine but to create structural reform.

Ian Hargreaves: Nick, you asked "is the boardroom too influential?" I think that's the right question for an American television journalist to ask, because their organizations are virtually all run by major private sector corporations. But if you have been working in Britain as a television journalist in the last twenty years you know that the big scandals of influence in British television journalism have tended to be about the government; they tended to be around the subject of Northern Ireland. What that tells us is that the influence of the owning or funding institution is crucial. So I think we have to put the question in a slightly different context and imagine how that question might be put, for example, in today's Russia. It is not difficult to name the principles that we are striving to defend and to uncover inconsistencies: they are plurality, diversity, and transparency. We want to know the extent to which new media will help us to pursue, promote, and advance those goals and overcome the natural tendency that all concentration of ownership whether in public or private hands has in narrowing the agenda of journalism and, at some deep cultural level, making it self-serving.

Neil Docherty: I produced a documentary in 1996 about events that took place in 1995 when both ABC and CBS gave in to tobacco pressure. Let me briefly outline what happened. On September 6, 1995, Lowell Bergman, Don Hewitt, and Mike Wallace are called to Black Rock, the corporate headquarters of CBS. In thirteen years at CBS it is the first time Lowell Bergman had been invited to Black Rock. They are told that they can't run a story that they have for legal reasons. It turned out that the story was one of the most important stories. These were historic pieces of journalism and at a time when the tobacco issue was very much a frontrunner issue in the States. In the case of CBS, it started when Jeffrey Wigand agreed to talk to CBS. Jeffrey Wigand was the first high-level executive from the tobacco industry who agreed to talk, to revel secrets never heard before, which were of enormous public importance. They were told they couldn't run that story because Jeffrey Wigand also had an agreement with his former employers, Brown and Williamson Tobacco, which tied him to confidentiality; if he talked to "60 Minutes" he would be breaking that and the program would be liable. But what the journalists don't know at the time is that there are a lot of corporate machinations happening behind the scenes.

At that point CBS is owned by the Tisch family, Lawrence Tisch. The Tisch family gets 60-70 percent of its profits not from broadcasting but from tobacco. They own lot of tobacco brands. Months earlier Andrew Tisch, the son of Lawrence, had gone before the U.S. Congress in the famous hearing in which seven CEOs swear on the Bible that tobacco is not addictive. Among them is Andrew Tisch, who repeatedly makes that claim. The Department of Justice launches a criminal investigation of perjury on those seven individuals. This is going on the same time when the journalists are doing their story on Wigand. It also turns out that the Tisch family is buying up brands from Brown and Williamson Tobacco, the employers of Jeffrey Wigand. And more important than all of that, and to confound the problems further, we have Westinghouse currently negotiating with Lawrence Tisch to take over CBS. Lawrence Tisch of course stands to gain about 22 million dollars by this. The people making the decision not to run this story, General Counsel Ellen Kaden and News Division President Eric Ober, stand to make about 1.2 million dollars if the merger goes ahead. Eventually the story runs; on both occasions the path was cleared by the Wall Street Journal.

Hargreaves: Your story is a smoking gun, isn't it? How corporate conspiracy actually prevents journalists from doing stories that are important. How do we know about this story?

Docherty: We knew of this story largely because Bergman was leaking the story to other media.

Hargreaves: Doesn't that suggest that no matter how evil the corporate interest, maybe they don't have a chance against journalism?

Docherty: I think there are several aspects one has to consider. Of course it is incumbent on the journalist to try to get the story out, and I think a lot of us will try and do that. But there is undue pressure on the journalist. It also implies that the journalist has the mental resources and possibly financial resources to withstand the possible onslaught. Further, I would argue that as media barons take over more and more of the media, the avenues for getting this stuff out becomes more and more restricted.

Hargreaves: How can you say that the avenues for getting it out become more restricted, given the diversity of outlets which is occurring as a result of new technology?

Docherty: It may well be that you can put up a website, but that I'm arguing that in terms in making real public impact.

Hargreaves: I agree, there is a different level of impact with a CBS documentary compared with someone putting up a website. I recognize that, but what I really want to get further into is this business of undue influence. Of course its lamentable that there would be undue influence, terrible that journalists would feel restrained in that way--but have you ever met a journalist for whom you had a single notion of respect who would cave in front of that pressure?

Docherty: The sad thing about this case is that in fact two of our most venerable journalists, Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace, did cave in by their own admission. I'm not being provocative; both of them really admitted that they did cave in under that pressure.

Hargreaves: What do you think accounts for that? Docherty: I don't want to read what was in their minds; however let me say that I think the message was not lost. That if "60 Minutes" can't stand the heat, if people of Hewitt's and Wallace's integrity and stature can't stand the heat, then it can happen to any producer or news reporter or anchor in any station across North America.

McChesney: A couple of issues here. First of all, in a way isn't this sort of ancient history? CBS then connected to Tisch, later Westinghouse announced it was buying Viacom. Almost all our major news media in the United States now are no longer connective conglomerates that have non-media holdings. Viacom, which owns CBS, is simply a media company. All our major news media are simply media companies. They have other media outside of newspapers but they don't own factories and armaments. The exception is NBC, but the balance of them are just media companies. They don't have these conflicts of interest? Do they? continued

Next page: Are news decisions governed by economics?

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Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
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