THE MORALS OF A MONEY CHANGER
William Allen White once wrote an obituary following the death of a newspaper chain owner in which he summed up by saying that the deceased had "the talent of a meatpacker, the morals of a money changer, and the manners of an undertaker."
After seeing last week’s shamefully minimal and exceedingly wan coverage of the Democratic Convention by ABC, NBC, and CBS, the same might be said about our three major commercial television networks. By the end of last week, ABC News president David Westin was trying to defend the decision against all critics in a WaPo op-ed piece titled Don't Blame the Networks .
But the dissembling way he marshals arguments in defense of the networks only raises suspicion of darker currents at work. With the impudence of a wife-killer arguing for mercy on the grounds that he's become a widower, Westin claims the major networks' joint decision not to broadcast much more than one lame hour per day of the political conventions was an act of "democracy."
"We've moved," Westin has the jutzpah to suggest, "from a media oligarchy to a media democracy. We've gone from a few programmers in New York and Los Angeles deciding what people will watch to the people themselves voting with their remote controls every night, really every minute, on what they want."
"This changes fundamentally the decision a news division makes about what it covers. If we broadcast extended convention coverage when most Americans would rather be watching something else, our audiences will flock to the alternative programming."
Let's back up and run that tape again. Yep. Just as I thought. He actually said "...moved from a media oligarchy" and "...the decision a news division makes about what it covers."
Given a wantonly complaisant FCC under Michael Powell and a somnambulant Anti-Trust Division in John Ashcroft's Justice Department, there are ample reasons for broadcasters to suppose they may air or refuse to air just about anything they like, the public interest standard be damned. But lack of oligopoly power is not one of them.
The proposition that the diminishing number of major media companies are moving away from oligopoly is laughably outlandish. Viacom (CBS) owns two TV networks, 36 broadcast TV stations, 16 cable outlets, three TV production companies, and over 175 radio stations ... Disney has 10 TV stations, 13 cable networks ranging from the many ESPN versions to Lifetime and an assortment of others including the Comedy Channel, four TV production companies, 14 international TV networks, two radio networks, and over 60 radio stations ... General Electric controls two wholly owned TV networks plus 38% ownership of the Paxson TV network, 38 broadcast TV stations, and 20 cable TV networks.
Even Ted Turner, hardly a liberal champion of media regulation, is becoming alarmed as he looks at media ownership trends. In the current issue of Washington Monthly he writes:
"To get a flavor of how consolidated the [television production] industry has become, consider this: In 1990, the major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox -- fully or partially owned just 12.5 percent of the new series they aired. By 2000, it was 56.3 percent. Just two years later, it had surged to 77.5 percent."
If that isn't oligopoly, Harper Collins (a subsidiary of News Corp), Simon and Schuster (Viacom) and Knopf, Random House, and Doubleday (Bertlesmann, the largest TV station owner outside the U.S.) may as well burn all those econ textbooks and dictionaries.
The oligopoly power of a handful of program decision-makers now reigns supreme chiefly because of the outright purchase of political influence in Washington, which has led directly to abolition of the decades-old Fairness Doctrine and a rapid and continuing relaxation of anti-concentration rules at the FCC, as Common Cause documents in great detail. Major media owners, including Westin's corporate employer, Disney Corp., in just the last six years have paid out "more than $81 million... . [N]early $13.4 million in campaign contributions to federal candidates and political parties, and... more than $68 million on lobbying."
Westin also sly implies that ignoring the political conventions was a professional judgment reached by journalists themselves, the product of a "news division [that] makes decisions about what it covers." This is no more believable than his notion of ‘democracy’ in network TV program production. Was ignoring Barack Obama and virtually all of the Democratic Convention (plus, one presumes, next month's Republican convention as well) truly an ABC News Division decision, democratically determined by journalists concerned about not awakening a narcoleptic audience with the remote control in their hands?
As Julian Brooke of Mother Jones tantalizingly asks, "OK, so if media coverage is down, and --let's assume -- public interest is waning (even admitting that this may be a result, not a cause of the reduced coverage) how come there are 15,000 journalists (yes, that's right, three times the number of delegates) at the convention this week? What are they up to?"
The answer seems to be that political conventions have become a meat market for journalists themselves. Brooke unearthed this intriguing explanation from a 1988 article by Nicholas Von Hoffman, who wrote:
"The mass media has moved into the politicians' spot like a cowbird in a thrush's nest and turned it into journalism's equivalent of the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association... . Every four years this is where thousands of media executives, editors, reporters, public relations firms, and who knows what all else come to network their little heads off, making contacts and cruising for job offers."
Just as at an MLA meeting, hours before the Democratic Convention opened in July a panel was convened by the Shorenstein Center in Cambridge with the leading network news stars of our time: Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Jim Lehrer. According to the always reliable Geneva Overholser, although Rather claimed that he can tough it out, there seems to have formed a broad consensus that "there is anxiety in the newsroom, and... it comes from the corporate suite," as Peter Jennings put it. The networks' corporate offices, it seems, are intimidated by censorious right-wing protestors as well as timid advertisers who want to avoid any whiff of controversy.
So, with 15,000 journalists plus the leading luminaries of broadcast news out-numbering conventioneers 3 to 1, which view of this ‘reality show’ do you find more believable? That television network coverage was restricted because of a "news division" judgment? Or, that political calculations were made high up in the oligarchy's command structure for reasons that have nothing to do with news value?
Of course, others may answer -- as Westin does -- that the competitive demands of the media marketplace ultimately affected the decision to ax convention coverage. "If we broadcast extended convention coverage when most Americans would rather be watching something else, our audiences will flock to the alternative programming," he says. (At ABC, that 'something else' apparently was a serial installment of "Law and Order SUV," which doubtless will be in re-runs longer, even, than Ralph Nader.)
Westin's argument is considerably more difficult to credit when you consider the strong circumstantial evidence that the broadcast networks explicitly agreed among themselves to limit coverage to almost the same number of minutes on the same nights. Combinations in restraint of trade, through illegal 'signaling' or otherwise, are the antipodes of competition, not their complement.
The premise of Westin's argument that viewers were uninterested also turns out to be shaky. According to a report published in the Saturday St. Louis Post Dispatch "Last week's Democratic National Convention drew surprisingly strong television ratings, at least compared to the last one. Overall viewership for the four-day affair was up slightly from the Democratic convention four years ago. There was an unexpected spike for the convention's Thursday night finale, when an estimated 24.4 million viewers tuned in to watch Sen. John Kerry accept the party's nomination."
"That figure rose to 27.7 million people when PBS viewers were added to the mix - an increase of nearly 16 percent over the estimated 23.9 million viewers who watched Al Gore's acceptance speech in 2000."
So the ABC News president is left with a last-gasp plea to the jury of public opinion: Technology, he says, has made it "inevitable" that commercial networks no longer will cover the quadrennial conventions. After all, look at the expanding number of other cable stations, and web sites, and digital cell phone services that ABC (and its most agreeable competitors) own. We will do the conventions over one of these new mediums, he says. It's inevitable. It’s technology’s fault.
That seems to me less of an argument than a dizzy tautology: Network television will not cover conventions because their sister subsidiaries will do so because they know network television will not.
But, of course, those 'others' can hardly fulfill the same demand. Even Westin must know this much since the ABC News division he directs decries on a regular basis lousy voter participation rates among the poor and the young and minority communities, even as its corporate arms are shoveling more money into the pockets of politicians (who, irony-of-ironies, need all that cash to buy -- well, TV ads, of course!). Even if there are some people who can imagine themselves squinting at a tiny screen on their cell phones for hours on end to watch the party conventions, in this economy who among them without cable TV can afford the cellular bill?
I do not hold out hope that in the current state of things the networks will change their minds about covering the upcoming Republican convention or any later ones in the years to follow. But I do think the decision not to do so should be seen for what it really is: the over-reaching of an oligarchy "with the morals of a money changer." One that is contributing in major ways to the corrosion of American democracy, is utterly heedless of the public interest, and apparently without talent enough to figure out how political conventions might be televised in an engaging as well as an informative way.
The one thing they own that makes all the difference is not technology. It's Congress.