Albion Monitor /Commentary
Mass Mediations

Enter the Dragon (Part I)

by Mark Lowenthal

A journey through the mind of a corporate media executive

Since the disastrous experience of the Vietnam war, much has been written about the United States' failure to understand its North Vietnamese adversary -- and the effects that such ignorance had on tactical and political decision-making.

As one who makes his living monitoring the behavior and collective output of the corporate media, I have always found the aforementioned "Vietnam lesson" invaluable. As a result, I have gone out of my way to engage major media representatives whenever possible, in order to better understand the collective consciousness behind the faceless monolith.

So it was with great interest and enthusiasm that I accepted an invitation to participate in a panel discussion hosted by the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) in San Francisco last week.

"Media-Merger Mania" was the discussion topic which the panel was to address, -- and, as I was forewarned, I would be the lone panelist taking the "mergers: not-so-good" position.

Joining me on the panel -- to be held at no less patrician a site than the San Francisco Tennis Club -- were to be one Ken Berry, news director for KGO-TV (ABC's owned and operated San Francisco affiliate); Harry Fuller, vice president and general manager of KPIX-TV (CBS's owned and operated San Francisco affiliate); and a yet-to-be-determined executive from KTVU-TV, the Bay Area FOX affiliate.

"This oughta be interesting," I mused, after confirming my attendance. And indeed, it was.

In fact, the entire afternoon turned into one giant metaphor -- underscoring, on many levels, the censorial nature and troubling implications of such huge corporate institutions.

The most recent wave of deregulation that stands to change the face of news and information as we know it

Alone in a crowd

Upon arrival at the tennis club, I was notified that (due to some unexplained circumstances) both the ABC and FOX representatives had canceled and would not be participating -- leaving KPIX v.p. and general manager Harry Fuller and myself to duke it out mano-a-mano.

Somewhat bemused by this, I grabbed a plate and began assembling my lunch, which attendees were enjoying prior to the start of the festivities.

With one of those dorky "TODAY'S SPEAKER" badges pasted to my lapel like a scarlet letter, no one, not one attendee offered to make room at their table -- or even speak to me during the half hour preceding the main event.

So there I sat, alone at a table, eating my salad and taking in all the gossip and ego-flexing that my ears and stomach could withstand, feeling very much like the reporter who pushed his "used car-dealer/rip-off story" one time too many.

As lunch finally wound down and Fuller and I took our places at the head table, I couldn't help but notice a tension that had filled the room. Fuller, for his part, embodied the group's unusual blend of grim seriousness and flip smugness -- refraining from even smiling at me or acknowledging my presence in any way, shape or form -- even though we were practically touching elbows.

Into the cross-hairs...

After Fuller's opening statement -- a soliloquy concerning the wonders of current and future media consolidation (i.e., more consumer choice, incredible multi-media capabilities, better audience penetration, increasing profitability, etc.), I was finally given the floor.

"While it is true," I agreed, "that the possibilities are exciting and the resulting technologies downright intoxicating, these mergers do carry with them some implications that are of great concern to quite a few people."

After running through a brief history of the deregulation that made such high-profile mergers as the Time-Warner and Disney-CapCities deals possible, I focused on the most recent wave of deregulation that stands to change the face of news and information as we know it.

"Does it concern anyone here," I rhetorically asked, "that as a result of the deregulation and merger-mania that you champion, one company will be able to own multiple television stations, radio stations or newspapers in the same service area?"

"Does it concern anyone here that a single company will be able to own a television station, a radio station, a newspaper -- and even a phone company -- all in the same market?"

"Does it concern anyone here that there will no longer be any limits on the number of television stations, newspapers, or radio stations that one company can own?"

"Does it concern anyone here that the national "audience cap" will be raised to thirty-five percent -- making it literally possible for three companies to own the entire news and information industry?"

As I looked up to see my questions greeted by blank stares and more than a little fidgeting, Harry Fuller sprang into action.

Next issue, Part II: "The Dragon Roars"

Mark Lowenthal is assistant director of Project Censored, the national media research project at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.

Albion Monitor November 14, 1995 (

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