Wall Street sharks circle the news media
Washington — The threat of corporate takeover may be joining libel suits as a way to punish this country's most powerful news operations -- those run by the major television networks. Only weeks after CBS News reached an out-of-court settlement in a $120 million libel suit brought by Gen. William Westmoreland, the nation's top-rated network news organization is facing yet another challenge: the threat of being taken over by hostile investors, some of whom are bent on purging the network of what they perceive as a ``liberal bias.''
Cable television entrepreneur Ted Turner filed papers with the Federal Communications Commission Thursday stating that he intends to gain a controlling stake in CBS by offering current CBS shareholders a financial package equivalent to $175 per share. The closing price of CBS stock on Wednesday was $109.75. There are 29.7 million shares of CBS common stock outstanding.
News-media experts note that because of the size and potential influence of the major networks -- which constitute the largest source of daily news and information for Americans -- television news organizations have a special responsibility to the public to be fair in their news coverage.
Some media specialists question whether Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina (who leads conservative critics of CBS) or Mr. Turner would be as fair as the current executives at CBS. But none of the specialists interviewed by the Monitor questioned Turner's or Mr. Helms's right to take over and run CBS as he pleased.
``Even if Ted Turner turned it into a conservative network, it doesn't bother me any more than the idea of the Unification Church financially sponsoring The Washington Times,'' says Philip Robbins, chairman of the Journalism Department at George Washington University.
``They have every right to do this and find whatever audience they can. After all, that is what the First Amendment [which guarantees free speech] is supposed to be all about.''
Some media experts say that in a perfect world US television news would be made up of a large number of national television news organizations, each reflecting diverse opinions, rather than the current situation of only three major networks and Turner's Cable Network News.
``The public should be concerned about the concentration of media power -- the CBS's of this world that control the free flow of information and news,'' says media critic Hodding Carter. ``Whoever controls them has far too big a spigot.''
Mr. Carter says he sees the CBS takeover controversy as ``just another raid on yet another corporation.'' He adds: ``CBS is run not as a custodian of the First Amendment, but as a big business. It is an entertainment conglomerate.''
Mackie Morris, chairman of the broadcast department at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, says, ``I think the marketplace would determine whether any kind of regular and biased newscast could ever succeed.''
He adds, ``The conservatives might produce a different kind of newscast each evening, but if people are not watching it they won't make money, and if they aren't making money, they will not be broadcasting for very long.''
According to some media experts, even if Ted Turner and Jesse Helms fail in the current attempt to takeover CBS, conservatives may already be winning their battle to influence CBS's news coverage.
David Protess of Northwestern University says he is concerned about the ``potential chill that takeover attempts might have on the news.'' He says: ``I think Helms may succeed in his threatened takeover by moving CBS News to a position where they are less challenging of the Reagan administration or conservative policies.''
``That is probably more likely to happen than an actual takeover,'' Mr. Protess says. ``If it does, Helms has had his desired effect at no cost.''
Michael Massing, a free-lance writer and contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review, agrees. ``The current takeover attempts are definitely part of an effort to influence news coverage at the networks,'' he says. ``I believe it is inspired by the same motives as public figures who bring libel suits against big news organizations.''
He also says, ``There is often an attempt to dull the aggressive instincts of news organizations and make them less willing to fulfill their role of informing the public . . . .''
Wall Street analysts have been skeptical that Turner could raise the $3 billion to $4 billion needed for the takeover. Earlier this month, CBS took out a $1.5 billion line of credit to defend against the takeover bid.
CBS executives, who say they will fight a takeover, used the corporation's annual meeting in Chicago Wednesday to defend the its news coverage and to warn about the consequences of a takeover. ``We are quite clear that the integrity of CBS News and the independence of CBS News are inextricably linked,'' CBS chairman Thomas H. Wyman told shareholders. ``We are dedicated to resisting efforts which threaten both our ability to live up to our public trust, and CBS News's tradition of excellence and independence.''
Takeover rumbles began in January, after Helms and the group Fairness in the Media announced that they would urge fellow conservatives to buy CBS stock in an effort to correct what they saw as a liberal bias at CBS News. Helms said he'd like to be CBS anchor man Dan Rather's boss.
The takeover effort is being supported as well by Washington-based Accuracy in the Media (AIM), the organization that supported General Westmoreland in his 18-week libel suit against CBS.
``The problem now is that the conservatives feel they are left out, that their voice is not being heard, and they would like to have at least one network that represents their voice,'' says Bernard Yoh of AIM.