Albion Monitor /Commentary
Mass Mediations

Mortgaging the Fourth Estate

by Mark Lowenthal

Media company conflicts of interest continue to erode the public trust

It was with something along the lines of a hearty chortle that I perused the item forwarded to me by the editor of this fine publication:


...Or so proclaimed the headline of the Society of Professional Journalists "Press Notes" brief of December 11.

According to the item, it seems that NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer is sporting a deeply crimson ass over TV Guide's recent cover hyping the ratings-challenged FOX show "Party of Five" ("The Best Show You're Not Watching," says the Guide).

As can be imagined, Ohlmeyer is furious over the blatant conflict of interest dripping from the Rupert Murdoch-owned TV Guide's front-cover promotion of a Rupert Murdoch-owned FOX network show (and a fledgling one at that).

So angry is Ohlmeyer, according to the Press Notes item, that he has threatened to pull all NBC advertising from TV Guide and also has blasted the magazine, in a letter to Editor-in-Chief Steven Reddicliffe, for coming "as close to an ad for a failing FOX show as could possibly be imagined."

This amuses me.

Casting the second stone...

To be sure, the TV Guide/FOX scenario is not to be trivialized -- indeed, it once again underscores how the dominance of the media industry by a handful of corporate giants can artificially manipulate the marketplace -- and the audience.

It becomes a tad hard to swallow, however, when such dangers are articulated by the devils at the helms of the corporate chariots that lead us hurtling down the path to consolidated, media-merged hell.

How seriously can we take Ohlmeyer's indignation when on the very same day of the SPJ Press Note brief, the New York Times is reporting that Ohlmeyer's NBC is poised to announce a partnership with Bill Gates' Microsoft Corp. to start a 24-hour all-news channel/online news service --"msNBC."

This is all to be part of something Microsoft's Gates is calling "an integrated media experience" -- but looks and sounds more like a deepening conflict of interest problem that will continue to work against the public interest.

In light of the ironic timing of the NBC/Microsoft announcement, Ohlmeyer's ethical temper-tantrum rings a tad hollow -- particularly in light of NBC's recent extended two-week commercial -- er, ah...I mean "news" coverage of the release of Microsoft's Windows 95 software program -- which occurred, quite clearly, while NBC was in negotiations with Microsoft over the aforementioned msNBC venture.

Fire sale

...And speaking of blatant conflict of interest, CBS -- or more specifically, the Loews Corp., (the network's parent company) -- has set a new standard for pure ballsiness in compromising journalistic independence for the sake of corporate self-interest (read: profit-maximization).

First, the once-proud network's once-proud news show "60 Minutes" caves into CBS lawyers, self-censoring a ground-breaking interview with former Brown & Williamson tobacco company executive Jeffrey Wigand -- without even being threatened by the tobacco giant.

Next, CBS allows itself to be scooped by the New York Daily News, which reported excerpts of Wigand's "60 Minutes" interview, in which, among other charges, he accused the tobacco company of adding a cancer-causing flavoring (coumarin) to its tobacco products -- then scooped again by the New York Times which reported on Wigand's testimony in a Mississippi court case where he was to discuss industry executives and lawyer's efforts to cover up and falsify evidence of tobacco's harmful effects.

The capper, however, came earlier this month, when less than thirty days after the killing of Wigand's "60 Minutes" interview, Loews, the CBS parent company, announced that another of its subsidiary companies, Lorillard Tobacco (that's right, it has simultaneously owned a tobacco company for many years now), has purchased six cigarette brands (Montclair, Malibu, Riviera, Crown's, Special 10's and Bull Durham) from -- you guessed it -- Brown & Williamson.

Minding their own business

Included with the aforementioned message concerning the NBC/TV Guide flap were some comments by online newspaper and new media consultant Mindy McAdams, who had originally excerpted and circulated the SPJ Press Notes item.

In concluding her thoughts on the subject, McAdams poses the question: "How can we expect the public to trust the business information in any form of mass media? Or, for that matter, any information at all?"

As the number of companies that dominate the news and information industry continue to shrink, leaving a literal handful of huge, mind-numbingly diversified behemoths, the answer to that question is becoming increasingly -- and frighteningly -- clear.

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

Albion Monitor December 21, 1995 (

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