Corporate Media and Dissent

In the midst of an otherwise uneventful World Series, Major League Baseball took time out to honor its All Century Team. The ceremony became an occasion for fans not only to recognize the game's greatest players but to revile the media that cover the game. Jim Gray's controversial interview with Pete Rose elicited an extraordinary outpouring of hostility both to Gray and to NBC. The propriety of his questioning was widely debated not only in many local papers but in network commentaries as well. That this interview evoked more vocal protest than most congressional legislation strikes me as a curiosity meriting more analysis than it received. I suspect that public concerns about the nature and direction of our corporate media played as large a role in this controversy as fans' feelings about Pete Rose.

The World Series was preceded this year by media machinations that will help set the tone for the coverage of all future controversies. In September, Viacom announced its decision to purchase CBS for $37 billion. The new corporation is slated to become one of nine media conglomerates that control virtually the entire U.S. media market.

The pattern of media concentration has moved to a whole new level from that of earlier eras. Newspaper chains and network television often concentrated players in one segment of the media and placed significant limits on the dissemination of ideas. Unfortunately, the current combinations make old style newspaper and movie chains seem quaint. The new giants represent vertical as well as horizontal consolidation. Media analyst William McChesney points out in a recent issue of The Progressive that Viacom/CBS "will now be able to produce a movie at Paramount ..., air it on Showtime or CBS, advertise it on its thirty-four television stations, as well as on its 163 Infinity Radio stations, and then sell it at Blockbuster Video -- all owned by the same company." These "synergies" lead to tremendous profit potential, but they also spell unprecedented difficulties, barriers to entry as economists call them, for the producers of alternative programming and viewpoints.

Defenders of the new media argue, in ways analogous to the defenses Microsoft is now mounting in its escalating anti-trust case, that the constant evolution of technology and the rise of the internet render concerns about monopoly obsolete. Yet however much the internet may change the face of our media system, it has, as McChesney points out, failed to spawn a competitive information and entertainment media of any significance. It may do so over a period of many years, but as the great British economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped, "in the long run we are all dead.''

In the mean time, we are confronted by a world of print and broadcast that threatens to become increasingly monolithic. McChesney comments on how NBC, owned by nuclear producer GE, repackaged a two part miniseries titled Atomic Train, to replace references to nuclear waste with the more generic term, "hazardous material.''

I am less worried about such overt censorship than the emergence of a lowest common denominator form of print and broadcast journalism. That genre seeks always to maximize its audience by minimizing controversy and depth in its reporting. It reduces politics to personality and considers reporting synonymous with repackaging of the latest press releases from the Governor's office, White House or Pentagon.

Most of us will still watch such programming because it is often the only source of immediate information. Yet many resent the singular and limited focus of this journalism. Much of the antagonism to Gray probably lay not so much in the difficult questions as in Gray's unwillingness really to allow Rose to debate the accusations. Like Rose, most of us most of the time have no effective right of reply to current media orthodoxy.

Media concentration has given us a significant paradox. The media and its stars are profitable and compensated beyond their wildest dreams. Yet these same media figures also include in their number some of the most distrusted figures in our society.

The journey from Murrow and Cronkite to Rather and Rivera is more than a personality saga. It reflects a sea change in our media and one that will only be addressed by sustained media criticism, strengthening independent media outlets, and political activism. More than ever, democracy needs a diverse and independent media. I will close with the thought that old fashioned anti-trust, making the Viacom CBS alliances impossible, would be a good place to start reform of our media empires. Otherwise, we will have little else to do beyond calling our local conglomerate affiliates to complain when the next smug reporter lays his or her unassailable truth on us.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. He invites comments via e mail at:

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