SYNOPSIS: Bad incentives, media consolidation, and implicit favors are turning the media into a toady to the government
A funny thing happened during the Iraq war: many Americans turned to the BBC for their TV news. They were looking for an alternative point of view something they couldn't find on domestic networks, which, in the words of the BBC's director general, "wrapped themselves in the American flag and substituted patriotism for impartiality."
Leave aside the rights and wrongs of the war itself, and consider the paradox. The BBC is owned by the British government, and one might have expected it to support that government's policies. In fact, however, it tried hard too hard, its critics say to stay impartial. America's TV networks are privately owned, yet they behaved like state-run media.
What explains this paradox? It may have something to do with the China syndrome. No, not the one involving nuclear reactors the one exhibited by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation when dealing with the government of the People's Republic.
In the United States, Mr. Murdoch's media empire which includes Fox News and The New York Post is known for its flag-waving patriotism. But all that patriotism didn't stop him from, as a Fortune article put it, "pandering to China's repressive regime to get his programming into that vast market." The pandering included dropping the BBC's World Service which reports news China's government doesn't want disseminated from his satellite programming, and having his publishing company cancel the publication of a book critical of the Chinese regime.
Can something like that happen in this country? Of course it can. Through its policy decisions especially, though not only, decisions involving media regulation the U.S. government can reward media companies that please it, punish those that don't. This gives private networks an incentive to curry favor with those in power. Yet because the networks aren't government-owned, they aren't subject to the kind of scrutiny faced by the BBC, which must take care not to seem like a tool of the ruling party. So we shouldn't be surprised if America's "independent" television is far more deferential to those in power than the state-run systems in Britain or for another example Israel.
A recent report by Stephen Labaton of The Times contained a nice illustration of the U.S. government's ability to reward media companies that do what it wants. The issue was a proposal by Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to relax regulations on media ownership. The proposal, formally presented yesterday, may be summarized as a plan to let the bigger fish eat more of the smaller fish. Big media companies will be allowed to have a larger share of the national market and own more TV stations in any given local market, and many restrictions on "cross-ownership" owning radio stations, TV stations and newspapers in the same local market will be lifted.
The plan's defects aside it will further reduce the diversity of news available to most people what struck me was the horse-trading involved. One media group wrote to Mr. Powell, dropping its opposition to part of his plan "in return for favorable commission action" on another matter. That was indiscreet, but you'd have to be very naοve not to imagine that there are a lot of implicit quid pro quos out there.
And the implicit trading surely extends to news content. Imagine a TV news executive considering whether to run a major story that might damage the Bush administration say, a follow-up on Senator Bob Graham's charge that a Congressional report on Sept. 11 has been kept classified because it would raise embarrassing questions about the administration's performance. Surely it would occur to that executive that the administration could punish any network running that story.
Meanwhile, both the formal rules and the codes of ethics that formerly prevented blatant partisanship are gone or ignored. Neil Cavuto of Fox News is an anchor, not a commentator. Yet after Baghdad's fall he told "those who opposed the liberation of Iraq" a large minority that "you were sickening then, you are sickening now." Fair and balanced.
We don't have censorship in this country; it's still possible to find different points of view. But we do have a system in which the major media have strong incentives to present the news in a way that pleases the party in power, and no incentive not to.
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.13.03