Editorial by John Ziegler

Conflicts in the Media? This is News?

2/17/2002 6:07:49 PM

Conflicts in the Media? This is News?

As the carcass of the Enron debacle gets picked over in an effort to find out what went wrong, it is beginning to look as if almost every entity remotely involved is at least partially to blame. The latest institution to receive scrutiny for somehow missing the fact that the nation's seventh "largest" company was little more than a dressed up shell game is the news media.

Apparently, politicians were not the only ones having their pockets lined with considerable Enron cash. Numerous prominent pundits, including CNBC's Lawrence Kudrow, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, and the New York Times' Paul Krugman all received enormous amounts of money from Enron for seemingly very little, if any, "work."

So now the media elites are beginning to shine the spotlight on themselves (one of their favorite pastimes) and question whether these types of conflicts in interest compromise their credibility. Well, it is about time.

In this age of corporate consolidation and media fragmentation conflicts of interest in the media are at least as common as a softball question from Larry King. Corporations that own media outlets now routinely also run so many other businesses that it has become almost impossible for their newsrooms to avoid reporting on stories that involve one of their superiors' holdings.

CNN and Time Magazine cannot help but cover stories involving the massive empire that is AOL/Time Warner. ABC and ESPN have the same problem with Disney, while NBC is owned by all that is General Electric and the "MS" in MSNBC stands for Microsoft.

Websites that purport to be providing news (like AOL and MSN) routinely promote, or even sell, products and people in which they have a vested interest. TV Pundits (a group of which I am an occasional member) are constantly reporting/commenting on the very same media outlets from whom they are desperately hoping for another invitation to appear, while hosts of shows are always reporting/commenting on people making news that they would like to have on as guests.

In an increasing number of areas (such as here in Philadelphia), the two major newspapers are run by the same company. Often, media companies (such as Comcast) that own major sports teams also operate the sports news networks that cover those teams. While all of these outlets do an admirable job of maintaining their objectivity, the people running these units are only human, and are therefore prone to providing only what their bosses want to hear.

The examples of how these types of conflicts actually affect what we see and read, while incredibly widespread, are often so subtle as to be seen individually as irrelevant. So let us look at some seemingly benign instances that I witnessed in just the past week alone while causally sifting through the media landscape.

I saw NBC's Tim Russert use two full segments on the venerable "Meet the Press" to interview the Sixers' Allen Iverson along with fellow NBA All-Star Jason Kidd. Were Iverson and Kidd introducing an alternative to the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, I wondered? No.

In fact, why exactly two basketball players with questionable pasts WERE on such a show (other than Russert's passion for sports) is a bit of a mystery, at least until you realize that later that day the NBA All-Star game was being broadcast on the very same network that carries "Meet the Press."

Speaking of the Shays-Meehan bill, why is it that almost every major (non conservative) newspaper in the country has editorialized strongly in favor of this legislation? Perhaps it is because they honestly believe that banning "soft" money and almost eliminating "issue ads" will help clean up our corroded electoral system.

But is it more than just a coincidence that these very newspapers would also see their political power dramatically increased because these measures would make it more difficult for opposing views to be heard? Would they still have that position if newspaper ads were going to be under the same restrictions as the broadcast variety? Is it also just a coincidence that television networks, which do not generally have editorial boards, have been largely silent on the issue when they would stand to lose massive amounts of campaign cash should these reforms become law?

Unfortunately the media coverage of the campaign finance travesty was largely muted by another, far more ratings-friendly sham; the scandal involving the pairs figure skating medal. Even Fox News dumped out of a live address from President Bush to carry a full press conference to announce the earth shattering news that the color of the Canadian team's medals would be changed from silver to gold.

On the night that the Olympic games began in Utah, only one of the three major network newscasts treated that story as the most important item of the day, while the other two buried it and emphasized the scandalous nature of how the games were obtained. Do I even need to mention that the network who is carrying the Olympics (NBC) just happened to be the one that chose the opening ceremonies as their lead story?

Some of the media conflicts I found ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Each of the last two weekends CBS's golf coverage has been infested with corporate conflicts. During the Pebble Beach Pro-Am viewers saw much more of Ray Romano (who just happens to star in a CBS sitcom) than they did any of the actual leaders. During this past weekend's Buick Invitational far more TV time was spent on Buick spokesperson Tiger Woods than anyone else, even though the world's best player was out of contention for almost the entire tournament.

Too bad all media/corporate conflicts don't result in coverage as wonderfully harmless as getting to see too much Tiger Woods.

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