NYT’s on Media Cross-Ownership: Too Much Frenzy and Not Enough Reporting and Reflection

Today’s business section column [reg. required] on why concerns over newspaper-broadcast ownership safeguards are “yesterday’s news,” illustrates how poorly informed too many media beat reporters are about their own industry. First, writer Richard Siklos fails to acknowledge that his own employer—The Times Co.—lobbied the FCC to sweep away such rules during the 2001-3 proceeding. Reporters need to do a better of digging to learn about what their own employers are doing—both politically and in terms of market investments. In addition, Siklos, like so many others, fails to address how the Internet, due to recent FCC decisions, may not be able to provide a meaningfully diverse array of information sources in the near future. The elimination of network neutrality for U.S. broadband permits a very few—including cable, telephone, and broadcast TV stations—to send their content on so-called “fast lanes” [and for the 98% of the public, captive customers at that]. Siklos argues that “… the most important reason that cross-ownership rules no longer make sense is this: the distinctions between print and television are starting to blur in a digital world. Video on the Web is the biggest thing since turkey and gravy.” But today’s wide-open broadband frontier is likely to be tamed by the growing power of the Internet monopolies, now freed from operating their networks under a non-discrimination requirement [broadcast TV stations are already using their legislatively-procured “retransmission consent” to obtain favorable digital transport and promotion. Such market power is enhanced by the Congressional digital TV spectrum giveaway—which the Times Co. stations also received. Digital “retrans consent” has made owning a station a strategic investment during this transition period in the broadband market. Such a selling point is no doubt part of what the Times Co. is now making as it sells its stations.]

Siklos also fails to meaningfully assess how the business models of so many publicly traded newspapers have helped bring the industry to its current crisis point. Tribune tried to squeeze every dime out of its operations—hurting journalism as a result. Mr. Siklos should be interviewing colleagues who work at the LA Times and other Trib papers. Or get embedded in a paper run by Dean Singleton. We also wish Mr. Siklos had spent more time thinking about the unique journalistic culture of a newspaper—and why maintaining its editorial independence from TV/show-biz focused businesses is important to protect.

Diversity of media ownership is an serious topic—not one to be treated so flippantly as Mr. Siklos does for his largely business readers. It’s about the First Amendment in the digital era; open broadband networks; local and national news operations with the resources and commitment to do a serious job covering private and public power; and ownership by people now largely left out—namely everybody else other than white men. Cross-ownership is an important part of the “check and balances” the U.S. has relied on to ensure the electronic media can serve the public interest. Granted, things are changing—but much is not in the short term. This is a story that Mr. Siklos should return to soon—but do more careful reporting. Whether we have a media system capable of doing the investigative reporting necessary so it can stand up to a future Administration wanting to go to war without real documentation is part of what’s at stake.

Political Games Advertisers Play: A GOP Protection Racket

The nation’s biggest advertisers and marketers have developed an effective political operation in Washington. Madison Avenue and its clients have been able to ward off calls for policies, for example, that would protect our privacy. How the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) conduct its lobbying efforts have largely been off the radar screen. After all, the press cannot examine itself (since the ad lobby is ultimately tied to the fate and fortunes of broadcasting, cable, newspaper, and much of online).

So we thought it was worth pointing out a telling comment in a recent Advertising Age story written by its indefatigable and enterprising D.C. bureau chief Ira Teinowitz. In his story titled “What Democratic Control May Mean for Marketers” (Oct. 16, 2006), he quotes AAAA VP Dick O’Brien. A change in control, said O’Brien, would mean that “[T]he sort of protection we have had on the House Commerce Committee will disappear.”

While not a bombshell, such admissions help tell the story of how all too often, Commerce chair Joe Barton and Telecom subcommittee chair Fred Upton have worked to help the big buck special interest agenda (think Bells, cable and no network neutrality for broadband). While we don’t believe the Democrats are Saints, at least once in a while they will yell and scream. The Ad industry, in our opinion, needs to lose its protection racket defense.

Sumner Redstone: Media Mogul Hypocrite

Yesterday, Sumner Redstone gave a speech where he reportedly blasted the `climate of fear’ and self-censorship created by the federal focus on indecent TV content. At a “freedom of speech” event organized by The Media Institute, [which is really a lobbying group working on behalf of the media conglomerates] Redstone said that “Let us rise above the temptation to censor or fine or regulate the most basic and primary of our constitutional rights. Not only because it is an improper role for government, but also because it is not what Americans want from their government.”

But Redstone really isn’t a supporter of free speech. Otherwise, why would his MTV Networks just announce a deal to distribute video content over the Chinese search engine Baidu? Baidu itself engages in self-censorship to appease the Chinese government. We assume part of Redstone’s China deal includes a provision that any content deemed objectionable to the government will be quickly trashed.

We dislike the atmosphere of pressure about content coming from both parties at the FCC and many in Congress. But we don’t believe in saying we stand up for freedom of speech in one country, but turn a blind (but profitable) eye elsewhere.

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Stupid Ads Running at [Non-commercial!] PBS: “Ancient Tea that Dissolves Belly Fat”

Hey, folks at Nova—or better yet Frontline. Better launch an investigation into the health claims originating from PBS. One of the site’s “sponsored” ads asks: “Hate Your Body Fat? Drop 1 Jean Size Every 7 Days. The Tea that Dissolves Belly Fat!”

AncientOkinawanTea’s site, which one is transported to from PBS.org, claims that it “Boosts Energy and Mental Well-Being.” “Reduces Cancer Risk.” “Strengthens Your Immune System.” “Each cup of Ancient Okinawan Slimming Tea melts away stubborn bodyfat, reduces wrinkles, boosts brain power and enhances your health. Scientific Research proves it!….Not available in stores. Hurry, going fast! Normally $95.99. Today Only $37.”

The tea, so it is claimed, can help one shrink “8 Jean Sizes in 8 Weeks.” We think someone has been putting it in the water cooler at PBS HQ. But it’s their brains that have shrunk—so they cannot imagine a PBS digital environment without ads.

AT&T’s “30-Month” Net Neutrality Merger Trade-in Offer: What a Joke!

So desperate to become a digital colossus once it swallows BellSouth, AT&T offered the dissident Democrats on the FCC a network neutrality “concession” today. Unbelievably, AT&T offered to operate its broadband Internet system as an open and democratic network—but only for 30 months! The offer illustrates how unethical and cynical the top executives are at Ma(d) Bell. `Yes, U.S. public,’ they say. `We will give you a democratic Internet for a brief moment, if you let us grow as an even larger unaccountable monopoly.’ AT&T’s offer underscores why permanent network neutrality safeguards are worth fighting for. The very companies who will provide the vast majority of broadband service, such as AT&T, really don’t want the public to have it.

AT&T is trying to sell to FCC Commissioners Copps and Adelstein the digital equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge. They should say: “sorry, wrong number.”

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What Google-YouTube Means for the Public Interest

Here’s a new piece I wrote for The Nation magazine online that summarizes my concerns about what is happening with our digital media system–and what we should do about it.


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Inappropriate PBS Ad of the Week–about the Pope and the Devil!

PBS, abandon all sense of perspective when ye enter into commercial digital marketing contracts. Here’s a ad on the PBS.org site alongside its promotion of news and public affairs programming. “Next Pope is John Paul II Impersonated. Bible Prophecy Shows He Will be Last Pope. Learn More www.worldslastchance.com.” By clicking, you go to: [http://www.worldslastchance.com/index.php?p=next_and_last_pope.php]

There you can learn about the “world’s last chance” and that a “New World Order is About to Start.” Then a headline declares that: “The Bible Reveals next and last Pope will be a Devil impersonating John Paul II.”

No fooling! I think the fundraising drive has depleted the oxygen at PBS HQ. They better meditate now on the foolish digital ad path they trod.

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Way to Go on AT&T Broadband Monopoly! FCC Commissioners Copps and Adelstein

I’m sure the sell-outs who make up most of the Washington telecom lobbying corps believe that FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein must come from another planet. But these all too rare two officials represent so much about what is right with the U.S. They are doing more than standing up for the public interest and demanding merger safeguards. Each has made a powerful and honest critique about what is at stake. They recognize that the U.S. broadband digital media system has been handed over to an ever-shrinking few. They realize that the U.S. media system, especially news, is in a deep crisis. Copps and Adelstein correctly critiqued what the Bush Department of Justice just did yesterday when it blessed the merger without safeguards. How refreshing to have officials who work for the public–and not really on behalf of a handful of self-serving media giants who place corporate and personal profit before the real needs of a democratic U.S.

Copps and Adelstein: Onwards to the Noble Peace Prize (Media Policy division!). Nobel citation: Trying (probably in vain) to restore honesty, integrity, and real public service to the FCC.

Digital Dollars to Unleash Digital Ads: the Google/YouTube takeover

This deal is about expanding the interactive advertising economy–one to one marketing, data collection, the prominent availability of video from deep-pocked interests, and an endless platform that can commercially target every taste. While a smart business move (since Google now also represents Rupert Murdoch’s MySpace/Fox, the other leading Web 2.0 site), we are concerned about the total commercialization and commodification of the Internet/digital media. We have consolidation in both old and new media with increased cross-ownership of both. There are no network neutrality rules to ensure digital lanes can operate fairly for those non-Google pocketed content providers. And they are paving cyberspace with the mentality of Madison Avenue.

We will be back with more analysis.

The RTNDA Undermines TV Journalism—with a little help from the most powerful pro-consolidation media lobbyist. RTNDA asks for a cover-up of the VNR scandal

The Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) is working to further undermine the ability of TV reporters and producers to engage in serious electronic journalism. In a nearly two dozen-page filing to the FCC on October 5, RTNDA comes to the defense of the use of Video News Releases. RTNDA actually told the Commission “…VNRs often are a source of newsworthy material of particular interest to the public which stations may not be able to obtain through other means.” Why would the RTNDA support the practice of using VNRs? It’s because the organization is both shortsighted and a political tool of TV owners. RTNDA doesn’t really represent the interests of reporters—but the bosses. It is trying to quash an FCC investigation into 77 TV stations identified in a report for failing to disclose VNRs. Everyone in the news biz knows that the reliance on VNRs—even by network O and O’s– is a cancer on electronic journalism. VNRs—placed by both commercial and government PR efforts—undermine serious reportage. But with station owners and news managers forcing local news to be a ever growing profit center, VNRs have become a form of information `cocaine.’ Too many stations are willing to sell time for the promotion of propaganda at worst and stealth commercial spots at best. Or they want to rely on free materials coming from special interests in order to save money on actually producing their own news.

Richard Wiley
The RTNDA should be telling the FCC that such outside “spin” oriented content should be prohibited by the industry itself. News should be produced by a local station, its contractors, network feeds, wires. Not by a pyramid scheme coming from PR flacks. One sign that RTNDA is working for owners—and not journalists or the public—is the use of arch media lobbyist Richard Wiley’s law firm [that’s Mr. Wiley’s picture above]. It is the Wiley firm which has been leading the media lobby campaign to wipe out ownership diversity safeguards—all so its clients can control more properties both in a single community and nationally.

The RTNDA wants the FCC to immediately kill its investigation of the stations involved in the VNR scandal. Incredibly, the RTNDA told the FCC that by investigating the charges made by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), it is “following the lead of an organization that is unrelenting in its hostility to the principles of free speech and a free press…” Such venomous, inaccurate, and out-right loony language illustrates how out of touch RTNDA’s leadership is. An organization concerned about electronic journalism requires leaders who place the First Amendment rights of TV reporters, producers and the public first. Not, as RTNDA just did, the political agenda of station owners, the National Association of Broadcasters, and media lobbyists such as Dick Wiley.

We think the RTNDA is violating its own Code of Ethics, which requires that “[P]rofessional electronic journalists should recognize that their first obligation is to the public.” We hope there are board members courageous enough to call for the organization to re-think its whole approach to media policy.

Disclosure: My organization occasionally works with a close colleague of CMD—Free Press. I also admire the work of CMD—which has done a first-rate job at exposing the invisible connections between the public relations industry, its clients, and public policy. I don’t believe, as Wiley argues, that such an FCC investigation will have a chilling effect. There do need to be limits about what government can do with the news media. But when news organizations act irresponsibly in a way that deceives the public, action is required. What is wrong—Ms. Cochran and Mr. Wiley—with a little sunshine?