When Boardroom Values Clash with Newsroom Values

September 12, 1995|By JANINE JACKSON

NEW YORK — New York. -- Disney's recent purchase of Capital Cities/ABC is not the beginning or the end of the media mega-merger parade. But while Peter Jennings settles into his new office down the hall from Mickey Mouse, the rest of us are still trying to figure out what it means, besides a few zillion more dollars for Michael Eisner.

For answers, we should be able to look to the media itself, but press coverage of merger mania hasn't been much help.

Most of what we hear is sheer boosterism: ''gee whiz'' stories on the marvelous (if ill-defined) possibilities of corporate synergy. These stories are well stocked with ''sky's the limit'' quotes from upbeat industry sources -- but of course, it's their job to say that stuff.

These same sources claim that the watershed legislative changes clearing the way for further media consolidations are really an attempt to encourage ''competition.'' For example, both the House and Senate have approved telecommunications bills that would lift restraints on how many radio stations a company could own, and let them own multiple TV stations in a single market. A front-page New York Times story predicted ''freewheeling competition'' as the result.

But Time magazine seemed to point to motives other than entrepreneurial spirit when it reported that, in the current deregulatory climate, movie ''studio bosses are calculating that it's better to buy a TV network than compete with one.'' Better to buy than compete? That sounds like old fashioned monopoly. ''Bigger looks better than ever,'' chimes Time. But for whom?

Ben Bagdikian, a journalism professor at the University of California, wrote the book on all this back in 1983. His classic, ''The Media Monopoly,'' warned against ceding dominance over the country's media to an ever smaller group of corporate owners. Besides their unprecedented ability to shape public opinion, he said, this handful of executives wields inordinate economic and political influence.

Imagine a town where the radio stations, cable, newspaper, perhaps two television stations, and a big chunk of the telephone system are all owned by the same corporation. Now imagine that the same company, through another of its subsidiaries, is dumping waste in the river, developing real estate, or financing candidates for local office. Can you rely on those newspapers, television and radio stations for unbiased, critical reporting? How likely are they to include perspectives that undermine their corporate parent's interests?

The telecommunications bills recently passed through Congress would make such a gloomy scenario entirely possible. But there is already plenty of evidence that quality journalism is an early casualty of merger mania.

During the last major round of media buyouts, in the late 1980s, Time and Warner Brothers merged. At the time, CEO Steve Ross boasted that the new company would use its power to ''attract and nurture'' journalists. Then he laid off 600 employees in Time Inc.'s magazine division.

When General Electric acquired NBC in 1986, the company had to promise the FCC not to ''interfere'' with NBC News. That didn't stop GE boss Jack Welch from confronting NBC News president Lawrence Grossman with his criticisms of stories. Mr. Welch instructed Mr. Grossman to ''stay away from using depressing phrases like 'Black Monday' to refer to the 1987 stock-market crash,'' the NBC News chief later revealed, and ''even insisted that 'Today' show weather forecaster Willard Scott continue to mention GE light bulbs on the air.''

Owners don't need to be as heavy-handed as Mr. Welch -- who reportedly poked Mr. Grossman in the chest shouting, ''You work for GE!'' -- to make the point that news has to serve owners' and sponsors' business interests above all. Reporters know which kinds of stories will move their careers ahead and which will get them branded as trouble-makers.

What happens when newsroom values compete with boardroom values is as clear as recent headlines. Capital Cities/ABC wasn't thinking about journalism when it bowed to the intimidation of major tobacco interests -- and major sponsors -- Phillip Morris and R. J. Reynolds. The companies had threatened an expensive suit over a ''Day One'' newsmagazine segment on the manipulation of nicotine content in cigarettes.

Over the dissent of the reporter and producer involved, ABC used its airwaves to ''apologize'' to the cigarette makers, not once but three times. Thus ABC smoothed things over with its corporate cronies, at the same time sending a chilling message to any other journalist considering scrutinizing powerful business interests.

There are plenty of reasons to resist the monopolization of the airwaves. But the threat to independent reporting is perhaps the most compelling. Unfortunately, you won't read that on the front page.

Janine Jackson is director of research at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, and co-host of ''Counterspin,'' its weekly radio show.

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