McAdams On: Ownership
11/6/2009 10:56:13 AM
Public interest advocates need a
reality check when it comes to news and media ownership. There’s a prevailing
notion that greater ownership concentration yields less diverse and competitive
coverage. There may be a kernel truth to that assumption--sometimes, in some
markets. It may be the case in Hawaii, for example, where a local watchdog
group is vigorously opposing a shared services agreement among the CBS, NBC and
Coverage may become less diverse, but in all likelihood, it will look exactly
like it does now.
That’s because news costs money. It has to be paid for, even if competent
journalists are expected to work 24/7 for the sheer joy of doing so. News
requires boots on the ground, face-to-face exchanges, research, access and
quite often, time to develop a story. Sometimes those stories turn into rabbit
holes. Sometimes they shine the light on wrongdoing by very powerful interests.
Occasionally, those powerful interests are the ones paying the bills for the
news organization. There once was a day that journalism could bite the hand the
fed it. That day is gone, and no one so much as peeped about it. Public
interest groups are happy to say they’ll boycott advertisers in shows that
displease them. Where are the groups supporting businesses advertising with
Hearst-Argyle’s Peabody-winning news? Where are those guys?
You hear the word “greed” a lot when it comes to media consolidation. That
greedy broadcasters just want to make money. I want to make money. I don’t feel
greedy. Greed, thy name is Bernie Madoff, perhaps, or even corporate officers
of money-losing companies firing a few thousand folks to fund their bonuses.
There could be a few broadcast executives like that--sluicing a bit more than
their share, pretending magic ponies will save them. But I doubt there’s many.
Several top broadcast executives have taken pay cuts, roll backs and furloughs.
A $500,000 executive can absorb that more easily than a $50,000 newsroom
employee, I get that. But we all live to scale, don’t we. We plan our lives
according to numbers. When those change, so do our lives.
Corporate executives are the poster folks of greed in this country, rightly or
wrongly so, but shareholders should be on milk cartons as well.
Most of the media in this country is publicly owned. It’s owned outright in
stock, tucked into 401ks and mutual funds and vicariously owned by bondholders
and banks. And shareholders--that would be the public--want as much ROI as
possible and typically more.
If media consolidation is being driven by greed, there’s certainly plenty of
places to point fingers.
The public bears culpability in another fashion as well, and that’s
consumption. There’s the old saying in news that if it bleeds, it leads. It’s
true, because mayhem draws the biggest audience. If people hankered for
esoteric, detailed, intellectually rigorous reporting, that’s what they’d be
dished, Mr. Copps. Seriously, dude. How many people do you really think can
accurately identify Jim Lehrer versus Rihanna?
Which brings us back to Hawaii, at least in our dreams. Hawaii has around 1.3
million people. How many big stories can there possibly be going on every day? The
local news there is probably pretty cookie-cutter already. The Los Angeles
market has around 18 million people, and the local TV stations here all cover
the same thing, sometimes in the same rotation.
The situation with media ownership and news certainly isn’t ideal, but further
regulation of TV stations at this point could very well mean the end of local
I’m not sure anyone wants that.