Concerns about the very real and very disturbing merger-fueled consolidation of the news and information industry
last column, I was relaying the account of my debate with
one Harry Fuller, vice president and general manager of KPIX-TV -- the CBS
network's owned and operated San Francisco affiliate.
"This is exactly the kind of simplistic, alarmist analysis that academics and these self-styled media "critics" are always raving about," shot back a dismissive Fuller -- who proceeded to launch into a monologue that was equal parts diversion, condescension and distortion.
"Have you ever worked for a corporate-owned media outlet?" He challenged.
"No," I replied flatly.
"Exactly!," thundered Fuller. "All these academics who are so quick to criticize corporate media have no experience, whatsoever, with the day-to-day realities of the marketplace."
"The fact is," he continued, "that news would be virtually impossible to produce without corporate ownership. In fact, I can tell you flat out that without corporate ownership, local news would no longer exist -- period."
Now properly warmed up, Fuller kicked into high gear, offering a mind-boggling hybrid of genetic and economic theory.
"The simple fact is that these independent owners that you long for don't know the first thing about running a profitable business. I mean...the largest independently-owned media company in San Francisco -- the Chronicle -- is also the worst run business in town."
"Be that as it may," I countered, "there is something undeniably disturbing about an ever-shrinking handful of huge companies controlling the production and distribution of news and information both domestically and globally."
As I argued to Fuller and his brethren, this small group of conglomerates -- as large corporate institutions -- have remarkably similar interests and priorities which tend to be reflected (quite naturally) in the product that they produce -- news and information.
An even greater area of concern arises when these companies' interests and priorities (due to their individual size and the diversity of their subsidiary holdings) increasingly run counter to the public interest.
"And let's remember," I reminded Fuller, "that the airwaves over which you broadcast, are still public airwaves -- leased to CBS -- provided that it's broadcast content serves the "public interest, convenience, and necessity," as mandated by the Federal Communications Act of 1934.
I sat back for a moment, eager to hear Fuller's response, but he would have nothing of such "alarmism" -- and redirected the conversation back to the realm of economic viability.
"Look," he replied, "this isn't rocket science. If a mom and pop TV station has a news van break down on them, they've got a serious problem. If I have a news van break down, I just pick up the phone and I've got three new vans by 10 a.m. the next morning."
And so it went, for the better part of an hour, until the formal debate ended, and it came time for questions and answers portion of the program.
It was at this point that the underlying theme of journalistic independence -- or more specifically, the lack thereof -- became crystallized in an all-too-tangible metaphor that creeped me out and brought the afternoon to a fitting conclusion.
All puckered up and no place to go
another, the questions from the audience focused on two
topics -- job security -- and job insecurity.
The former, also known as good-old-fashioned, unadulterated ass-kissing, was generally couched in the following manner: Questioner: "I've been in this business for quite some time and I can tell you from experience that Harry's right. I remember when I used to work for (radio station) K-(whatever) when it was independently owned and we had a news staff of three and a half. Then Liberty media bought the station in 1989 and with their resources we were able to up the staff to five."
"But," I inquired, "did you increase the amount of news you broadcast or increase the length of the stories?"
"I'm not sure that we did," came the reply, "but we had more resources to work with and we were a more stable operation."
There were a number of exchanges akin to this -- but not one question or comment even addressing -- let alone supporting -- the points that I had initially raised.
The price of "security"
became apparent, such highly-touted "organizational security"
(as created by corporate ownership) also has a richly ironic byproduct --
individual insecurity -- as in: "I work at a CBS-affiliated station,
and with the pending takeover by Westinghouse, a lot of us are worried
about down-sizing -- and whether we're going to have jobs after the merger
is completed. Can you please speak to that Harry?"
"Well," responded Fuller rather sternly, "there is the definite possibility that as we consolidate operations, there may be some jobs eliminated."
"But," he continued optimistically, "I can also tell you that the merger will very likely result in the creation of some new jobs as we expand into new areas -- and those that might see their jobs eliminated will absolutely be encouraged to apply for the new positions."
After about twenty minutes of this, our RTNDA host rose from his seat and drew the symposium to an official close, thanking everyone for attending and making his way to the front of the room in order to give Harry Fuller and I the plaques that the group evidently bestows upon its monthly speakers.
attendees began gathering their belongings, I was seized
with a compulsion to stop the proceedings before the room had a chance to
"Ah...pardon me," I interrupted.
"Before we officially conclude this discussion, I would like to have the chance to make a closing statement."
The shuffling and amiable small-talk that had overtaken the room abruptly stopped -- replaced by stares of confusion and annoyance.
"At the outset of this discussion," I began, measuring my words carefully, "I outlined what I, and many others, deem to be some serious concerns about the effects of increasing corporate dominance over our system of news and information. And I posed a number of questions to Harry -- and by extension, the group here as a whole. And I must tell you before we conclude, that I'm quite disturbed by what I've heard over the course of the last hour and a half. Because over the course of the discussion, not one point that I initially raised has even been addressed." Instead, the discussion has been repeatedly redirected -- and focused entirely within the context of 'economic viability.'"
"And I must tell you," I continued, "that if those are the only parameters within which we are going to discuss this topic -- then I have absolutely nothing to say."
A deathly silence loomed over the room as I concluded my summation.
"It is indeed, much easier -- and infinitely more comfortable -- to pretend that the issues that I've raised simply don't exist. And if that is, in fact, the position that you collectively choose to take -- then we as a society -- and a democracy -- are in much worse trouble than I imagined before coming here this afternoon."
With that, I thanked the group for their invitation, relinquished the floor, and the program was officially ended.
The big chill
I gathered my notes to the uncomfortable murmuring that now
permeated the room, Harry Fuller's hand shot under my nose and into my
field of view.
Holding a business card between his middle and index fingers, he engaged me directly for the first time all afternoon.
"Swing by the station next time you're in the city," he offered through a tight smile, "I'll give you a tour."
"I'd love that!," I replied -- just as insincerely, "I will!"
Making my way to leave, I was stopped in the hall outside the room by three separate attendees. All three said just about the same thing, in just about the same manner (a hushed, almost whispering tone): "...I just wanted you to know that we don't all march in lock-step on this. A number of us have similar concerns...but Harry's a pretty powerful figure in this business...and there were a number of other management people here today...and I know that many of us didn't feel comfortable speaking up in this atmosphere..."
"Precisely my point," I smiled weakly to myself, digging into the pocket of my jacket for my keys.
Mark Lowenthal is assistant director of Project Censored, the national media research project at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.
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