Newspeople as 'buckrakers' By serving as sponsors, corporations can control content of news programs

January 25, 1998|By Jeff Cohen

I've discovered a sound even worse than nails dragging across chalkboard. It's the sound of journalists whining about their fallen "icon," David Brinkley.

Enough already!

Some journalists can't stop moaning about how the ex-anchorman tarnished his fine reputation by becoming a pitchman for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the agribusiness firm and corporate welfare king that sponsored "This Week With David Brinkley" from its launch in 1981.

The problem with all the noise about Brinkley's role as a corporate huckster is that these same mainstream journalists are usually silent over a much bigger issue: the power of TV sponsors to shape - and limit - debate.

The truth is that two conservative, politically active sponsors - ADM and General Electric - have long dominated TV pundit programming, often determining which shows and pundits get on the air. (Shouting head John McLaughlin has GE to thank for his overblown prominence on TV.)

Besides ABC's "This Week," ADM has sponsored the show's competitors, "Meet the Press" (NBC) and "Face the Nation" (CBS). The firm also underwrites the news on "public" broadcasting with annual gifts of more than $6 million to PBS's "NewsHour" and $600,000 to NPR's "All Things Considered."

Needless to say, ADM and GE are not charities. They're profit-driven corporations. When they invest money in news and pundit broadcasts, they expect a return on that investment. Some researchers believe they are buying silence.

Author James Ledbetter has noted that "NewsHour" virtually ignored the ADM price-fixing scandal throughout 1995, even though it was front-page news elsewhere. Similarly overlooked on the

"NewsHour" has been the issue of corporate welfare - a good thing for ADM, which might be the country's top welfare recipient thanks to hundreds of millions in various federal subsidies every year.

Viewers have reason to question whether sponsors buy silence on the weekend pundit shows. Those programs purport to take us "inside Washington," yet ignore news about the special interest bills that pay their bills - such as stories about how a General Electric lobbyist helped draft a federal tax law that eliminated the company's tax burden, or how GE's political influence continues to stall a cleanup of the Hudson River polluted by toxic PCBs from a GE plant.

Through major donations to both parties, companies such as ADM and GE seek a narrow political debate that won't impede environmental waivers, tax breaks or subsidies. And through major sponsorship of TV and radio programming, these firms seek a narrow media debate that leaves out tough scrutiny of corporate influence over the political process.

Far from being a model of journalistic integrity and independence, Brinkley - along with former "This Week" colleagues such as Cokie Roberts, George Will and Sam Donaldson - is an icon of insider cronyism. Cozy with top corporate officials and lobbyists, the cast of "This Week" (with or without Brinkley) can be counted on to overlook the power of big business in Washington. (In his memoirs, Brinkley - a longtime friend of ADM chair Dwayne Andreas - blasted federal bureaucrats for taking perverse pleasure in taxing business people.)

For years, Brinkley and his "This Week" colleagues were premier buckrakers, pocketing hefty fees for friendly lectures to corporate lobby groups. Addressing a trucking industry group in 1992, Brinkley offered a crowd-pleasing denunciation of Bill Clinton's proposal to raise taxes on the well-off: He called it "class warfare" and a "sick, stupid joke."

If there's a sick, stupid joke here, it's the idea that journalistic corruption is a problem worthy of denunciation when a TV anchor pitches products, but not so when he pitches corporate news and views.

In many ways, Brinkley has long been a pitchman for corporate America, promoting its world view, if not its wares.

Jeff Cohen is the director of the national media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) and co-author of "Wizards of Media Oz."

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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