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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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