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.

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.

The Columbia Journalism Review wrote that the piece "easily confirmed the public's worst fears of the high potential in synergy for journalistic sin." New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggested the company was injecting "self-serving infomercials into news broadcasts."

ABC fired back that it was a legitimate news story, and, in a letter to the Times, noted that many major media organizations did feature stories on the institute, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Newsweek Magazine, US News & World Report, and yes, even The New York Times.

"It's a perfectly reasonable story to cover," says ABC News Vice President Richard Wald. "But if you look at it from the viewpoint that any coverage [of Disney] represents an evil, then you see evil."

Mr. Wald said it would be ridiculous for Disney to coerce ABC into doing a story that would alienate audiences because it would "ruin the show, and Disney would get nothing." He also sent a dart back in The New York Times's direction for deleting a reference to its own coverage of the Disney Institute when it published ABC's letter to the editor.

But for Mr. Rich, the bottom-line concern goes beyond what he calls the "shameless self-promotion" of corporate products to the exclusion of stories that should, but don't get covered.

A classic example is the Telecommunications Reform Act, which became law in February and set the stage for the recent spate of mergers. It is the first major overhaul of the nation's telecommunications law in 60 years. It affects everything from consumers' telephone and cable rates to the number of television and radio stations one company can own. Yet, according to the Tyndall Report, a weekly analysis of network news coverage, the three major networks gave the bill an average of seven to 11 minutes of coverage each during the entire year prior to passage.

"That's because in this time of bigger and bigger conglomerates, too much was at stake, [for network news organizations to raise serious questions about the bill]," Rich says.

But many media experts say the problem wasn't corporate interest and control, but the bill's complexity. Evening news programs, with their short time frames and dependence on pictures, have long had difficulty with complicated issues like the savings-and-loan crisis and telecommunications bill.

The Tyndall Weekly quotes CBS's Bob Schieffer reporting, the day the new law was signed by President Clinton, that it "is so technical that there has been very little public interest."

But Rich and others charge the public would have been more interested if only they had learned more about it from the media. And critics don't buy the argument that it was too technical or too boring to report on regularly. "If you're talented, you can make anything complicated interesting," Rich says.

Nancy Woodhull, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, also worries about stories that may not get told. "Does the editor, who gets a pretty good bonus every year, push for an investigative piece that may involve the parent company?" asks Ms. Woodhull, one of the founders of USA Today. "Does the corporation start to hire malleable people whose bonuses are based on ratings or circulation versus journalistic standards?"

On the network level, both Heyward and Wald say their companies have gone out of the way to protect journalistic independence.

But Woodhull is also concerned that small and medium-sized companies are not investing in the kind of training needed to turn young journalists into seasoned, critical thinkers with an understanding of history, the role of journalistic independence, and the need to protect it. As a result, she fears, they could become more susceptible to subtle corporate influences.

Other analysts argue that the proliferation of news sources, from the Internet to talk radio, has built some safeguards into the system. If a major company decides not to print an article or do a story on the nightly news, any individual can go on the Internet and broadcast it to the world.

Woodhull also says that, ultimately, it is journalists' responsibility to fight to uphold their standards and the First Amendment in the face of corporate pressure. In film critic Schickel's words, maintaining that "point of honor" that keeps the media objective and skeptical.

"It's our ethics, our professionalism, that will keep the corporations at bay," Woodhull insists. "It's not so much what 'they' will do to us; it's what we'll allow them to do to us - so there's a big responsibility here."

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