THE NEW SUBSCRIPTION CARDS FALLING OUT OF Mother Jones magazine ask readers to check one of two boxes: "Yes (I'll gladly subscribe to a news source not owned by some huge corporation)." Or "No (I trust General Electric, AOL Time-Warner and Disney to tell me everything I need to know)." Missing is a third box: "Maybe (But first I want to know whether your seemingly badass reporters are beholden to Big Media themselves)."
Even the hardest-working journalists who regularly decipher the mojo of Big Media know they're losing the battle of influence by the moguls. Who among us can say, thanks to partnership deals cooked up by agents or bosses like book deals and TV appearances, that they haven't drunk the Kool-Aid? Some of the conflicts of interest are basic, like the Entertainment Weekly film reviewer about to pass judgment on a Warner Bros. movie. Others are complex, like Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter enjoying a Hollywood deal with Barry Diller while at the same publishing a fawning (and, we now know, faulty) profile of Diller's then-new Vivendi boss, Jean-Marie Messier. And a few are impenetrable, like the Tribune Company's Los Angeles Times taking the unusual step of running a recent editorial that dissed Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner, which on the surface looked like the opening salvo in a rivalry between two media giants.
Case in point: The other day, one of those closed-door Big Media love fests -- like the kind regularly put on throughout the 1990s before media stocks plummeted and wiped out the kids' college funds -- was held in a lavish ballroom in a Wall Street hotel, where invited VIPs hung on the words of Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.), Barry Diller (Vivendi Universal) and Steve Case (AOL Time-Warner). Most of the moderators were star journalists on Big Media's payrolls: Kurt Andersen (consultant to Diller), Charlie Rose (correspondent for CBS/Viacom's 60 Minutes), Forrest Sawyer (anchor on MSNBC) and others who know today's interviewee is potentially tomorrow's boss and so therefore decided quite openly to lick the hand that feeds them. The result is that everything said at the conference was kept off the record.
With friends this accommodating, who needs real journalists?
The fact is that truly independent coverage of Big Media is disappearing right before our eyes. As for what's left, we can no longer trust our sight. Given the recent layoffs at Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Forbes, the pool of independent business reporters grows smaller by the day. Then there's all that cross-fertilization, whereby print reporters pocket appearance fees or even fat contracts from, say, CNBC. (Interesting that it wasn't those news outlets but Jack Welch's second wife who informed parent company GE's shareholders about his company-paid retirement perks.) Other journalists have recently quit the Big Media beat to join its PR machine. Some have tired of trying to pry info out of the same all-powerful handful of moguls. (The latest is Los Angeles Times' Corie Brown, who's giving up The Industry to cover the restaurant business.)
In this Big Media age of agendas upon agendas upon agendas, being co-opted is the rule rather than the exception. Michael Wolff, the award-winning New York magazine media columnist, signed a book contract with a News Corp.-owned publisher to opine about media moguls. Since then, he's written too fondly about Rupert Murdoch. (As Murdoch biographer Neil Chenoweth newly observes, "It's . . . the sort of charitable prescience that only a $750,000 book advance from Murdoch's HarperCollins properly illuminates.") Tina Brown now works for News. Corp.-owned The Times of London as a media columnist to tattle on moguls other than Murdoch. Since then, there hasn't been a peep out of her husband, Harry Evans, who has said and written reams over the years about the dark side of Murdoch's empire. (Asked once to give his opinion of Rupert, Evans drew the connection between Paradise Lost and Lucifer.)
We're shocked, shocked, to see Big Media conglomerates fail to accurately or extensively cover themselves when journalism to them clearly has no value unless it's profitable or propagandistic. Take the impending CNN/ABC news merger. Everybody is fixated on the prospect of a shotgun wedding between Barbara Walters and Larry King. But still to be resolved, before profit-starved parent companies Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time-Warner can begin saving that $200 million in operating expenses, is just who will control editorial? Hopefully, neither of them, considering their recent histories of validating our worst fears about conglomerate ownership of major news outlets.
After buying ABC in 1995, Eisner declared on the record, "I would prefer ABC not cover Disney." Interesting that, just a few days after this Eisner interview was broadcast on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, ABC news boss David Westin killed the network's story which examined whether Disney's policy of not running criminal background checks on all new hires allowed for the employment of convicted pedophiles at its theme parks and resorts. ("Are you crazy?" Westin reportedly said when the story's instigator, Brian Ross, kept insisting the fruit of his four-month investigation should air, according to the behind-the-scenes account in Brill's Content.) Westin "concluded that the script did not meet ABC News editorial standards." It's not just no ABC coverage of Disney, but no criticism, either. When Barbara Walters used her ABC show The View to express dismay at Disney's attempt to replace Ted Koppel with David Letterman, she received a verbal drubbing from Disney president Bob Iger in Vanity Fair.
Now the CNN business show Moneyline is already cozy with Disney. Host Lou Dobbs, instead of asking about big layoffs, was interviewing Eisner about the news merger and offered "to help you through this," to which Eisner responded, "I'll take notes." A few beats later, Dobbs was still sucking up: "ABC News [is] blessed with terrific talent."
Not that Dobbs' bosses at AOL Time-Warner are any better. C'mon, AOL's Steve Case didn't even mention CNN or Time Inc. when he publicly hyped the newly merged corporations way back when. And talk about dazed and confused coverage of its own company. One year ago, CEO Gerald Levin was on the cover of Fortune being praised as "among the smartest people we know." Ten weeks later, the merger is a disaster area, AOL is the wrecking ball, and, in the pages of Fortune, Levin goes from god to goat.
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BOOK PUBLISHING USED TO BE IMMUNE TO outside influence. Now the outsiders are insiders, and Hyperion is owned by Disney, Simon & Schuster by Viacom, Little Brown by Warner Bros., and so on. It is common practice at HarperCollins and William Morrow to vet writers planning media-related books on exactly what will be said about Murdoch and his News Corp. before a proposal will be bought. Meanwhile, News Corp.'s New York Post and Fox News have a well-documented policy of barely reporting on their parent company's worldwide enterprises and the world's most interesting mogul.
Just last week, Murdoch made an unusual appearance on Fox News Network's Your World With Neil Cavuto and announced that his cable holdings "reported a 200 percent increase in profit . . . the television stations all were fantastic . . . we're 20 percent ahead of last year . . ." and so on. Cavuto didn't ask, and Murdoch didn't volunteer, a word about News Corp.'s problem areas, like Fox Entertainment's sputtering TV ratings.
The only solution is for journalists to make fuller disclosures, just as Wall Street financial analysts were finally forced into doing about themselves and their firms. Here comes mine: I'm involved in a legal dispute with Disney and News Corp. about a journalist's right to report the truth about Big Media. Mea culpa.
If you want to reach Nikki Finke, send her an e-mail at email@example.com.