Big Is Beautiful

Big Is Beautiful

Big Is Beautiful

Media criticism.
Jan. 13 2000 8:00 PM

Big Is Beautiful

When AOL and Time Warner announced their merger, the nation's media reporters autodialed the usual critics of media conglomeration: Robert A. McChesney, Tom Rosenstiel, Ben Bagdikian, and Mark Crispin Miller. Their collective complaint, known to every reader of The Nation, was duly recorded: Media conglomeration is bad for journalism and society.

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"It's a business thing," McChesney said in the New York Times. "Good journalism is bad business and bad journalism is, regrettably, at times good business." In the Miami Herald, Bagdikian fretted that AOL Time Warner's devotion to the bottom line would injure democracy. Rosenstiel warned the Washington Post of the conflicts of interest posed by the purchase. Miller told NPR that the new conglomerate would stuff Warner Bros. movies down our throats via AOL.

The McChesneyite critique of big media misses the long-term trend that started with Gutenberg and is accelerating with the Internet: As information processing becomes cheaper, so does pluralism and decentralization, which comes at the expense of entrenched powers--government, the church, the guild, nobility, and the magazines and TV stations that Big Media God Henry Luce founded. Do McChesney and company think we were better off in 1970, when there were three TV news networks, than we are today, when there are six or eight? Better off before the New York Times and Wall Street Journal become national newspapers? Before FM radio and cable? Evidentially so. McChesney obsesses about the nine global media companies, but as this Columbia Journalism Reviewpage shows, there are three dozen big media companies in the United States alone.

Critics of big media suffer from the Fallacy of the Golden Era. They think things were better in the past, but they never specify the status quo to which they want us to ante. Was small really small enough to be beautiful in 1898, when William Randolph Hearst ran the headline "How Do You Like the Journal's War?"? How about 1944, when the White House press corps ignored the president's infirmities and poor health? Or the 1950s, when Scotty Reston carried official Washington's water?

From my vantage point, this is journalism's golden age--we just have a hard time detecting its luster because golden ages always shine more brightly from a distance. Another thing that tarnishes modern journalism is the recent proliferation of media critics, who bring brisk scrutiny to every ethical lapse. Editors and reporters of 20 years ago got a free ride compared with today's journalists.

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As for McChesney's "good journalism is bad business" formula, I can only offer a horse laugh. Only a fool would say that the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post haven't paired editorial quality with financial success. Nor does McChesney acknowledge that as USA Today has become a better paper, it has become more viable as a business. Truth be told, the anti-conglomerate conglomerate seems less vexed by conglomerate meddling in journalism--the Los Angeles Times' Staples Center scandal, Time's decision to put Pokémon (a Warner Bros. release) on its cover, and Rupert Murdoch's capitulation to the Chinese, who wanted the BBC off his satellite--than by the ultra-evil the media conglomerates might do in the future.

Essentially, the McChesneyites have four beefs: 1) Consolidation reduces the number of voices. That's true only if you rig the tally, as McChesney does. 2) Global consolidation promotes cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism isn't always bad, and new technology makes it easier for small cultures to export their voices. 3) The more the press acts like a business, the less attention it pays to its civic functions. See the previous note on golden ages. 4) Big media treats its audience like consumers, not citizens. Like WTO critics, the McChesneyites hate anything that doesn't conform to their idea of democracy.

The critique of big media invariably romanticizes small, independent newspapers. But for every Emporia Gazette edited by a William Allen White, there's a Manchester Union Leader piloted by a William Loeb. As a reader, I care more about the newspaper I read than who owns it. Most of today's independents are family-operated companies blighted by the biological law of "regression to the mean," which dictates that heirs are rarely as bright or motivated as founders (look at the San Francisco Chronicle). So let's not reflexively mourn the gobbling of small media by big media.

Small, independently owned papers routinely pull punches when covering local car dealers, real estate, and industry, to whom they are in deep hock. The chains that buy up the Podunk Banners don't necessarily do a better journalistic job (look at Gannett), but they're not as beholden to the local powers that be as the "independents" are. What's more, if the owners (independent or corporate) of the Podunk Banner flinch from a story about contaminated groundwater or police brutality, the big media New York Times or 60 Minutes can parachute in and do the story without fear or favor. Hurrah for big media!

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Whatever its shortcomings--and they are many--only big media possesses the means to consistently hold big business and big government accountable. In the '80s, Exxon's brass visited the Wall Street Journal's top editors to complain about the paper's coverage. According to a reporter who was present, Exxon suggested that it might have to pull the company's advertising from the Journal in protest. At that point, Executive Editor Fred Taylor responded, "I didn't know advertising was one of Exxon's philanthropic activities." The Exxon threat proved hollow. As big as it was, it couldn't hurt the Journal. How would the Podunk Banner have fared against a similar threat from the area Chevrolet dealer?

If you don't believe big media has a leg up in making government behave, try this. Call Attorney General Janet Reno's office. Say that you're from the Podunk Banner and that you want to talk to her about some new policy. Then make a similar call posing as a reporter from the Washington Post. I needn't ask which call would get returned.

Fundamentally, the McChesney brigade worries more about AOL Time Warner's pulling journalistic punches than about any lost "independence." (Remember, they weren't Time Warner fans prior to the AOL deal.) But they exaggerate the propaganda power of Time Warner media. Not even a cover rave in Time for Eyes Wide Shut--a Warner Bros. release--could turn that plodding movie into a hit. (By the way, I believe the rave was genuine, and not ginned up to sell tickets.) Any sustained effort--conscious or unconscious--by a media conglomerate to slant the news in favor of its holdings will only damage the long-term value of its journalistic properties. Bad press is bad for anybody, but bad press is worse when it's directed at the press, as Disney learned when it killed a story by its ABC News subsidiary that criticized safety at Disney theme parks. Disney would have been better off letting the negative story run.

Some would have big media erect Fifth Columns within their walls, but navel-gazing doesn't automatically impress, as the Times-Mirror flagship Los Angeles Times learned after publishing a 30,000-word self-examination on the Staples Center scandal. One prominent critic called the story a "whitewash." What damaged the Los Angeles Times most after the initial revelations seeped out (from an alternative weekly that didn't exist 20 years ago, it's worth noting) was the beating it took from other big media. Big media strives to be ethical for the same reason big government and big business do: New technology prevents it from controlling information the way it used to, and being exposed by others hurts too much.

Media conglomeration runs in cycles, so the fish currently progressing through the bellies of the media kings may not stay there for long. In 1980, the media hysterics prophesied the end of literature when conglomerates bought the family-owned book publishers for their "synergy." RCA snared Random House. ITT took Bobbs-Merrill. CBS bought Holt, Rinehart, Winston, and other houses. A few years later, RCA, ITT, and CBS abandoned their "synergy" plans and sold their book divisions. Good publishing survived RCA. Good journalism will survive AOL.

[Full disclosure: I draw my paycheck from Microsoft, which co-owns MSNBC with General Electric.]