TV News To Viewers: You Don't Matter Very Much

 

My column May 6 about Dan Rather's ouster from CBS News in 2006 would have benefited from more analysis of network news economics. So let's dig deeper today.

SheepThe TV networks want us to believe they use the best and toughest reporters to break the most important stories.

Do they? Yes and no.

Sure, it's great for them to have a terrific reputation, win the highest ratings and charge more than rivals for advertising. So lots of effort goes into that. Uplifting ads are part of it, such as CNN's slogan, "The most trusted name in news!" This is from a news organization whose top news personality, Wolf Blitzer, got his start as PR director for one Washington's leading lobbying groups.

But the big bucks are in mergers, sales and other deal-making, especially by a network's corporate parent. These deals often run the risk of political or regulatory impediments, such as antitrust concerns. Little known to the public, television networks historically do not obtain a share of monthly cable subscription payments.

Hence the longtime tension between news-oriented reporters pushing for a big story -- and the corporate deal-makers. The latter understand that it's cheaper to buy a reputation than to earn one. That's particularly true if a story antagonizes political leaders who can brutally punish the parent company. Most viewers are far too busy to know what they're missing. Many prefer pseudo-news and entertainment to hard news anyway.

Edward r. MurrowThat's the central drama of Dan Rather's new memoir, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News. Near the end, he summarizes the impressive array of companies owned by Viacom, the parent company of CBS at the time. "In that lineup," he then concludes, "CBS News was about as important as a nit on a gnat's nut." Drawing on long experience, he fears that voters and consumers are increasingly victimized by unaccountable government leaders and their profit-focused political supporters who run conglomerates.

“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves” is the apt saying attributed to CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow, shown at left. Murrow, a hero to Rather and his generation for gutsy news coverage, was himself eased out from CBS News even when the network was still run by civic giants.

Today, I'll amplify on this theme by drawing from my own experience. Part of it was as a metro newspaper reporter and then media critic who published in 1987 Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America's Oldest Newspaper. The book was a case study of how news standards at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut changed after it was acquired by one of the best of the nation's conglomerates. Later, I switched careers to become a Washington-based, globe-trotting attorney and CEO advocating for communications companies seeking favorable government actions to create the wireless Internet industry.  The trade association I ran from 1996 to 2008 included companies such as HBO from the video sector, WorldCom and BellSouth in from telecom, and many large and small Internet companies. Billions of dollars of shareholder value sometimes hinged on regulatory decisions or deal approvals in plans concocted by such entrepreneurs as Bernard Ebbers and John Rigas, both now imprisoned for fraud. Others, of course, helped enable the delivery of wireless services we all enjoy today.

Good Night Poster

I savored the chance to learn from visionaries who create a legacy. One was Dr.  Martin Cooper of Arraycomm, who devised the world's first cellphone in the early 1970s. Fifteen years ago, we spoke on a panel at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention as he predicted how wireless Internet could provide consumers with TV-like, mobile video. Another successful visionary was Ralph Baruch, who in retirement wrote his memoir, Television Tightrope: How I Escaped Hitler, Survived CBS and Fathered Viacom. What a story! While Baruch was not part of my association, several of his companies were. I bought copies of his memoir for all of my association's directors to help illustrate how new opportunities for business are all around us.

Sumner Redstone, who acquired Viacom in 1999, also has an impressive track record of vision, hard work, and achievement. Born in 1923 in modest family circumstances in Boston, Redstone achieved brilliant academic success, and served during World War II as a cryptographer breaking Japanese codes. Then he became special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, ran a trade association fighting for the rights of theater owners -- and became the richest American in the entertainment industry by the turn of the century. It's a fine story, well told in, A Passion to Win, his 2001 memoir.

But Redstone's book indirectly confirms Rather's thesis in several ways.  For one thing, many of Redstone's triumphs in recent decades stem from deal-making. Some of it required favorable federal government action at key junctures for such purposes as regulatory approvals or to intimidate rivals with litigation or even the threat of FBI investigation. Redstone has no space in his memoir to mention any of the journalistic CBS News luminaries such as Murrow (portrayed in a George Clooney movie at left), Rather or Cronkite. Clearly, they're not that important in the grand scheme of things. Yet Redstone, whom Rather describes as the major villain forcing his unwarrranted ouster from CBS, frequently reassures readers in his book that his goals go beyond shareholder value. Redstone writes, for example, of a family-like atmosphere at his companies, his love of university teaching and, curiously, his lifetime of politics  primarily as a "liberal Democrat."

Times change. Dan Rather's news team published a report Sept. 8, 2004 questioning President George W. Bush's military service during the Vietnam War. Then Viacom in effect offered up the team's scalps to the White House, as we described May 9. Redstone announced his allegiance to Bush and support for his re-election. On cue, much of the rest the corporate-owned media scapegoated Rather and his team.

Now, as broadcaster Paul Harvey used to intone, let's hear the rest of the story.

Rather's book and interviews tell it better than my summary. What I can provide is a bit of insider Washington lore and a sample of history.

Kevin MartinFirst, a question: Can you identify which five-member regulatory body has since the beginning of the Bush administration in 2001 had at least one member -- and usually two -- who made their bones working on the Bush Florida vote recount team that helped deliver the election? A hint: Kevin Martin, the friendly-looking figure at left was one of them. It's the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which can enrich or bankrupt a company as it sees fit. Martin became a commissioner beginning in 2001, and replaced his GOP predecessor and top staff in a brutal intra-party FCC purge near the beginning of the Bush second term. Martin's wife, meanwhile, was communications director for Vice President Cheney before she moved to a similar post for President. So, her job was to influence the media. Her husband's was to regulate the media. That's efficiency.

Did your network news station ever report those things to you?  Probably not. But you can be confident that company lobbyists knew all about it, and helped their companies adjust in the appropriate ways to government leadership that deeply values loyalty at election time and extending favorable regulation to supporters..

When loyalty is so valued, try to imagine the tension facing Viacom's corporate decision-makers upon learning that Dan Rather's team planned to broadcast a story in 2004  that Bush had been AWOL, at best, during the Vietnam War. The 2004 re-election campaign was largely based on his status as Commander in Chief during two land wars then ranging in the Mideast.It didn't help that CBS had already broken the story about torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, or that Helen Thomas was asking the White House press secretary to comment on her tip that Bush had been sentenced to what she called "community service" on a never-reported cocaine conviction in 1972. Virtually alone among White House correspondents, she asked repeatedly about the issue as the President's pess secretary dodged the question and challenged her to state why she might be interested.  

My book research for Spiked enables me to place such journalistic battles into historical context. The good news is that such pressures have always existed. And there have been courageous patriots tSpiked Cover o fight for the public, no matter what the consequences. The first edition of the Courant in 1764 contained this inspiring slogan (with the "f" for "s" spellings common for the era):

Was it not for the Prefs, we fhould be left almoft intirely ignorant of all thofe noble Sentiments which the Antients were endow’d with.

The newspaper's next publishers went on to create the nation's largest newspaper during the Revolutionary War by printing the latest news about freedom fighters. Later, they created a distinctly American language ("draft" instead of "draught" and "jail" instead of "gaol," for example) by publishing the Blue-Backed speller, devised by former Courant reporter Noah Webster. But when they criticized President Thomas Jefferson over what they regarded as an excessive price for Louisiana Purchase to expand the nation's footprint they found themselves sentenced to federal prison for seditious libel. Then, a narrowly divided Supreme Court ruled in their favor in what is arguably the nation's first press freedom case before the court.

Ted DriscollFast forward to the mid-1980s. My friend Ted Driscoll is shown at left on a balcony overlooking Connecticut's state capital. Despite his smile, he was deeply saddened by disturbing trends he had seen in journalism at the Courant and in other newspapers around the nation. Driscoll, now honored with a score of others in a "Hall of Fame" of the state's top journalists from the past two centuries, had been one of the founders of the nationwide group Investigative reporters and Editors. They vowed to report who car-bombed reporter Don Bolles in Arizona in 1976. Their slogan was, "You can kill the reporter but you can't kill the story."

But by 1987, Driscoll worried that too many editorial decisions were being made by "opportunists, career-minded people" in the news business who shaped the facts for corporate or other selfish motives (including obscuring their own slip-ups). "That is 'the story,'" he told me as stress and cancer tore at his insides, causing a premature death at age 52. "That's what people need to care about."

The story, in other words, is far larger than George Bush, Dan Rather, Sumner Redstone, and the assorted lobbyists and media critics mentioned in my first column May 9. News providers -- especially television stations -- make relatively little money from news, and certainly very little from direct payments from subscribers. As for newspapers, the Washington Post makes only about 4% of its income these days from circulation, according to its quarterly reports.

So if you think they're just "trying to sell papers" with their stories that's wishful thinking. They -- and many organizations like them -- are cleverly brainstorming on how to earn money from affiliates who depend heavily on the good graces of government officials. readers may think it's business as usual but it's not. That's why the Post keeps the Watergate image going. An encore could make important people in government very unhappy. And those are the people who are important. So what if 41% voters in West Virginia's Democratic Presidential primary voted this week for a Keith Judd, a felon imprisoned in Texas. Most outlets gave it modest coverage. It deserved deeper examination as either a sign of voter malaise, dirty tricks or both. 

Summing Up

Just to complain is rather pointless. Business executives want to make money? That's like complaining that wolves want to eat the cute sheep out on the range.

As Walter Cronkite used to say at CBS News at the end of his programs, "That's the way it is."

His successor, Dan Rather, used a different expression: "Courage." Cynics mocked it in those days as overly dramatic. But I hope readers here better understand the stakes and why those reared in a news tradition fight so hard to sustain it.

And there is hope.  If business executives began to think that viewers knew what was going on -- and cared enough to focus on pressure points -- important changes would happen, pronto.

Update:

Bill Maher / Huffington Post, Dan Rather: Corporate Media 'Is In Bed With' Washington, (VIDEO) Staff report, May 20, 2012. Dan Rather slammed corporate media on Friday night, alleging that news coverage is guided by political interests and profits.  The former CBS News anchor has recently returned to the spotlight, speaking out about his former employer and defending the controversial Bush National Guard story that ended his storied career at the network. On Friday, Rather appeared on Bill Maher's show to discuss his new book "Rather Outspoken." He spoke out about the controversy again, and stood by his story (his comments start at the 1:50 mark in the video above). He said that he was fired because CBS News caved into the Bush administration's demands. "The powers that be and the corporate structure were very uncomfortable with the story," Rather said. "They got pressured by the Bush administration and others in Washington, and it cost a lot of people their jobs, including myself."

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Related News Coverage (Republished from previous editions)

Dan Rather Book CoverJustice Integrity Project, Dan Rather’s New Memoir: Read, Enjoy, Reflect, React. Andrew Kreig, March 9, 2012. Dan  Rather has written an important and entertaining new memoir. Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, works on several levels. For one, it’s his passionate insider’s account of how CBS News forced him out as anchor and managing editor in 2004, potentially affecting the election that fall. His contract was not renewed in 2006, thereby ending his CBS career after his 44 years of tireless, courageous service.

WhoWhatWhy.com, Osama, Obama, And Us: A Shocking Display Of Propaganda From NBC, Russ Baker on May 4, 2012. When I got an email announcing an exclusive from NBC about the raid that, we’re told, resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, I dared raise my hopes. The last time a major media organization, the New Yorker, had promised us the inside story about what really happened on that day in early May, 2011, we got a major bit of disinformation. Can you believe an entire hour (or about half an hour plus endless ads) and not one interesting revelation? Can you believe that almost the entire thing dealt with how people in the White House felt that day, what kind of chairs they sat in, etc, and almost nothing on the details of the raid or the disposition of the body? ... But why even offer this purported exclusive insight into the raid? Because it was nothing of the sort. Because it was propaganda to make these people look good, to quell reasonable doubts about what really happened that day, and to get the president and his team re-elected.

Salon, NBC News’ top hagiographer, Glenn Greenwald, May 3, 2012. The role of Brian Williams is to glorify political and military leaders, but he really outdid himself last night. Whatever one’s position is on the killing of Osama bin Laden — and I’ve always argued that there is a range of reasonable views — there are many journalistically important questions and significant disparities that still need serious examination (with all due respect (i.e., none) to John Kerry’s dictate that we all “shut up and move on”). None of those questions was even acknowledged, let alone meaningfully addressed, by last night’s one-hour melodramatic extravaganza hosted by NBC News anchor Brian Williams. This bin Laden show — “Inside the Situation Room” — was hagiography in its purest, most propagandistic, and most subservient form. This is typically the role Williams plays — he cleanses and glorifies American government actions, especially military actions, with his reverent, soothing, self-important baritone — but he really outdid himself here.  In essence, the entire show was devoted to uncritical veneration of our national political and military leaders. It was as vapid as it was propagandistic; as Josh Gerstein wrote: “Much of the program was devoted to the thoughts and feelings of the senior officials involved and to such details as Biden clutching his Rosary ring as the raid unfolded and the sourcing of the food consumed by officials on that fateful day.” We got to hear about how the President’s daughters reacted upon hearing of bin Laden’s death, and how very difficult it was for him to attend the White House Correspondents’ dinner that evening. The coolness of American military gadgetry was constantly on display (the SitRoom has multiple digital clocks for different time zones, one of which always shows the time where the President is located, as well as some really big and flat TV screens!).

Justice Integrity Prioject, DC News Workshop Preserves Lost Era of Press That Protected Public, Andrew Kreig, April 26, 2012. American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop this week premiered an impressive documentary illustrating observations about journalism by 26 of the most distinguished American reporters and editors of the past half century. The Workshop’s executive editor, Charles Lewis, presented excerpts of the film, Investigating Power, at the National Press Club in the nation’s capital on April 26. He then led a panel discussion for three of featured journalists, who responded to tough questions from him and the audience. Panelists Bill Kovach, Barry Sussman and Dana Priest brought vast experience, concern and wisdom to their comments.

Justice Integrity Prioject, National Ridenhour Awards Honor Truth-Tellers, Patriots, Andrew Kreig, April 26, 2012. Four patriots told their inspiring stories of civic service at an unusually compelling awards ceremony April 25 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The ninth annual Ridenhour Prizes went to four who are “fostering the spirit of courage and truth,” plus film-makers for, “Semper Fi: Always Faithful.” Each speaker focused on a topic so important that it would be arbitrary to emphasize one over another. Better to list them in order of presentation and to recommend that readers see them on video. A free version of the 90-minute ceremony is posted on the Ridenhour site. The awards are named for the latKeith Judde Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam veteran who in 1969 revealed the My Lai Massacre by United States forces. Each of this week's stories was a passionate, courageous call for justice.

USA Today, Prisoner gets 41% against Obama in W.Va. primary, David Jackson, May 9, 2012. President Obama is so unpopular with some West Virginia Democrats that they voted for a prisoner in yesterday's primary. A prisoner in Texas, no less. Keith Judd, right, who is serving a 17-year sentence at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Institution in Texas for making threats, actually, got nearly 41% of the vote against Obama in the West Virginia Democratic primary.