New Media Alliances Test Press Objectivity
When asked if he ever felt pressured to give good reviews to movies produced by Warner Bros., Richard Schickel, Time magazine's film critic, pauses and responds somewhat incredulously: "You ought to see my review of 'Twister.'" He panned it.Skip to next paragraph
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Since Time Warner, Inc. is the parent of both companies, Mr. Schickel says he occasionally gets asked that question, and his response is always the same. "It is a point of honor to be objective about Warner Bros. work," he says. "It's both personal and institutional."
The proposed merger between Westinghouse/CBS and Infinity Broadcasting is the latest in a series of deals that has realigned the media into fewer, larger corporate entities with competing interests that could threaten journalistic independence. For many people, it raises the question: Can the public still trust the press to be objective?
Some media analysts think not.
They see the increasing media concentrations eroding the revered independence of the press by blurring the line between the business office and the newsroom. They also contend that a subtle, corporate "chilling effect" has influenced news coverage, while resources to train tough reporters have drained slowly away. But people who practice the trade insist, overwhelmingly, that there is nothing to worry about.
"Absolutely not," says Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, which was recently bought by Westinghouse. "I know it sounds like boilerplate, but I can't imagine a scenario where we would be embarking on a story on nuclear power and someone from Westinghouse said, 'Don't do that.' It's an outlandish proposition."
Mr. Heyward says it would be both "wrong and stupid" for a parent company to intrude into a newsroom's operations, in part, because it would result in "an enormous hue and cry" in other media outlets.
But Larry Grossman, the former president of NBC News and the Public Broadcasting System, insists there is a reason to worry about the diversity of information that's getting out.
"It's not really the simple thing of: 'You print what I like or you're fired," Mr. Grossman says. "It's an environment that's set up, a corporate environment where people with odd views are not encouraged and tend not to be hired."
Grossman also contends that media concentration in a few powerful hands changes the political landscape. Savvy corporate executives recognize there is "great advantage" in adding "media mogul" to their portfolio, he says, in part, because politicians suddenly look at them in a whole different light than if they were dealing simply with an industrial powerhouse. "It opens interesting new dimensions in the relationships between governments and companies, when the companies are also very big media dispensers," he says.
Recently, several incidents reinforced media critics' doubts.
Shortly after CBS's Heyward made his comments, a minor "hue and cry" about an international incident did erupt. CBS News came under fire from The Washington Post for producing a "five-to-seven-minute" video on the Baltic republics for a charity dinner hosted by Westinghouse chairman Michael Jordan. The event also honored three presidents of the Baltics, where, according to the Post, Westinghouse is pursuing business contracts.
Media critic Howard Kurtz implied the video violated the "sacred ... 'church and state' separation between journalists and corporate executives." He wrote that several CBS News staffers were "disturbed" and quoted one saying: "It smells really bad."
Heyward countered that it was a "routine courtesy to the chairman" that had no political or financial implications for Westinghouse, or for the network's news coverage. He also noted the news division was fully reimbursed for its expenses. "I don't think it smells at all, and I've got a very sensitive nose," Heyward says. "I put it in the category of pro bono work that all of the networks do."
ABC also came under fire during the last few months for blurring the lines between corporate needs and journalistic independence. It aired an extensive, positive piece on the Disney Institute on "Good Morning America." The Institute offers educational vacations with classes in everything from cooking to canoeing.