|Nick Gowing: We live in a media age, there are more television channels than ever before, the Internet has given everyone the chance to be a publisher and to cross national boundaries to find out what's going on. The diversity of opinion has never been greater. But here is the contradiction: the number of media operations is shrinking. In the last few years both CBS and ABC have been swallowed up by media conglomerates with Time Warner and CNN heading the same way. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp has interests worldwide, and in Europe Bertlesman and other companies are major and massive players. At the very least, does this kind of globalization lead to some loss of distinctiveness, even eventually homogenization? Is pluralism at the heart of our discussion today?
Herein lies the crucial question. Does making a profit come ahead of the responsibility to report the news in the objective, balanced, and impartial fashion that we all expect? Does the boardroom interfere in the newsroom? If there is no direct interference, then is there an implicit acceptance that certain things cannot be reported for fear of upsetting the bosses who worry more about corporate balance sheets, dividends, and also perhaps their bonuses? Or, is there nothing new to report here, because television journalists have always been answerable to their commercial masters and have usually managed to get what they want on air with little hindrance? This afternoon therefore we are going to debate these issues in an effort to clarify whether journalism is threatened by the corporate commercial imperative of companies for whom media ownership might be only a small part of their interests. I'd like to introduce first Robert McChesney.
Robert McChesney: My work deals with the tension between the corporate dominated, highly concentrated, commercially based media system and the communication needs of a democratic society--stuff that is really elementary to liberal democratic theory. My argument is, and I think the evidence shows, that the problems you traditionally have with any sort of commercial media system are greatly accentuated with the modern era. We're see deregulation nationally and globally, producing major waves of mergers and acquisitions that leave us with a very small number of massive firms dominating the communication landscape. With this has come hyper-commercialism of content as the traditional barrier between the creative and editorial side and the commercial side has collapsed due to pressure--in journalism specifically, which is the area of greatest communication of democracy.
You need two things according to democratic theory. One, we need a rigorous coming of people in power and people who want to be in power, both in the private and public sector. Secondly, we need a wide range of informed opinions on all important issues of the day. In a democratic society the media system as a whole should produce this sort of culture. My argument is that the structure we currently have in the global system, especially in the United States but increasingly around the world, works directly against the needs of democratic journalism and a democratic society. It does so not because the people who manage our media are bad people. They are rationally following the views that they are given and therefore the solution in my view is not to guilt trip, bad mouth, or whine but to create structural reform.
Ian Hargreaves: Nick, you asked "is the boardroom too influential?" I think that's the right question for an American television journalist to ask, because their organizations are virtually all run by major private sector corporations. But if you have been working in Britain as a television journalist in the last twenty years you know that the big scandals of influence in British television journalism have tended to be about the government; they tended to be around the subject of Northern Ireland. What that tells us is that the influence of the owning or funding institution is crucial. So I think we have to put the question in a slightly different context and imagine how that question might be put, for example, in today's Russia. It is not difficult to name the principles that we are striving to defend and to uncover inconsistencies: they are plurality, diversity, and transparency. We want to know the extent to which new media will help us to pursue, promote, and advance those goals and overcome the natural tendency that all concentration of ownership whether in public or private hands has in narrowing the agenda of journalism and, at some deep cultural level, making it self-serving.
Neil Docherty: I produced a documentary in 1996 about events that took place in 1995 when both ABC and CBS gave in to tobacco pressure. Let me briefly outline what happened. On September 6, 1995, Lowell Bergman, Don Hewitt, and Mike Wallace are called to Black Rock, the corporate headquarters of CBS. In thirteen years at CBS it is the first time Lowell Bergman had been invited to Black Rock. They are told that they can't run a story that they have for legal reasons. It turned out that the story was one of the most important stories. These were historic pieces of journalism and at a time when the tobacco issue was very much a frontrunner issue in the States. In the case of CBS, it started when Jeffrey Wigand agreed to talk to CBS. Jeffrey Wigand was the first high-level executive from the tobacco industry who agreed to talk, to revel secrets never heard before, which were of enormous public importance. They were told they couldn't run that story because Jeffrey Wigand also had an agreement with his former employers, Brown and Williamson Tobacco, which tied him to confidentiality; if he talked to "60 Minutes" he would be breaking that and the program would be liable. But what the journalists don't know at the time is that there are a lot of corporate machinations happening behind the scenes.
At that point CBS is owned by the Tisch family, Lawrence Tisch. The Tisch family gets 60-70 percent of its profits not from broadcasting but from tobacco. They own lot of tobacco brands. Months earlier Andrew Tisch, the son of Lawrence, had gone before the U.S. Congress in the famous hearing in which seven CEOs swear on the Bible that tobacco is not addictive. Among them is Andrew Tisch, who repeatedly makes that claim. The Department of Justice launches a criminal investigation of perjury on those seven individuals. This is going on the same time when the journalists are doing their story on Wigand. It also turns out that the Tisch family is buying up brands from Brown and Williamson Tobacco, the employers of Jeffrey Wigand. And more important than all of that, and to confound the problems further, we have Westinghouse currently negotiating with Lawrence Tisch to take over CBS. Lawrence Tisch of course stands to gain about 22 million dollars by this. The people making the decision not to run this story, General Counsel Ellen Kaden and News Division President Eric Ober, stand to make about 1.2 million dollars if the merger goes ahead. Eventually the story runs; on both occasions the path was cleared by the Wall Street Journal.
Hargreaves: Your story is a smoking gun, isn't it? How corporate conspiracy actually prevents journalists from doing stories that are important. How do we know about this story?
Docherty: We knew of this story largely because Bergman was leaking the story to other media.
Hargreaves: Doesn't that suggest that no matter how evil the corporate interest, maybe they don't have a chance against journalism?
Docherty: I think there are several aspects one has to consider. Of course it is incumbent on the journalist to try to get the story out, and I think a lot of us will try and do that. But there is undue pressure on the journalist. It also implies that the journalist has the mental resources and possibly financial resources to withstand the possible onslaught. Further, I would argue that as media barons take over more and more of the media, the avenues for getting this stuff out becomes more and more restricted.
Hargreaves: How can you say that the avenues for getting it out become more restricted, given the diversity of outlets which is occurring as a result of new technology?
Docherty: It may well be that you can put up a website, but that I'm arguing that in terms in making real public impact.
Hargreaves: I agree, there is a different level of impact with a CBS documentary compared with someone putting up a website. I recognize that, but what I really want to get further into is this business of undue influence. Of course its lamentable that there would be undue influence, terrible that journalists would feel restrained in that way--but have you ever met a journalist for whom you had a single notion of respect who would cave in front of that pressure?
Docherty: The sad thing about this case is that in fact two of our most venerable journalists, Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace, did cave in by their own admission. I'm not being provocative; both of them really admitted that they did cave in under that pressure.
Hargreaves: What do you think accounts for that? Docherty: I don't want to read what was in their minds; however let me say that I think the message was not lost. That if "60 Minutes" can't stand the heat, if people of Hewitt's and Wallace's integrity and stature can't stand the heat, then it can happen to any producer or news reporter or anchor in any station across North America.
McChesney: A couple of issues here. First of all, in a way isn't this sort of ancient history? CBS then connected to Tisch, later Westinghouse announced it was buying Viacom. Almost all our major news media in the United States now are no longer connective conglomerates that have non-media holdings. Viacom, which owns CBS, is simply a media company. All our major news media are simply media companies. They have other media outside of newspapers but they don't own factories and armaments. The exception is NBC, but the balance of them are just media companies. They don't have these conflicts of interest? Do they?
Docherty: Well I think the answer to that is we don't know. All I can tell you is that we know what happened in this instance, where corporate pressure seems to have prevailed at least for some. Eventually the story gets on air. I think the solitary lesson in that is that we have to take a look at them and see what happens. I think we need to have more defenses for journalists. Firewalls that I think were once in place in newsrooms throughout North America have been crumbling, is what I'm being told by my colleagues. So if Viacom is just a media company, that doesn't mean it doesn't have corporate interests, it doesn't mean that it's not lobbying certain senators or congressmen for certain changes in legislation, it doesn't mean that journalists within those organizations will feel those senators and those congressmen are off limits.
McChesney: Isn't it really a good thing that CBS had to jump through so many hoops to get this story out? You're dealing with a company that has workers and investors. The standards should be super high, shouldn't they? These are major firms; if it is a reckless story that doesn't meet standards it will do untold damage to the economy.
Docherty: I think that is what's so good about this example, because nobody ever questioned the veracity of the story at the time, and in fact the veracity of the story was proven by subsequent events. So here we had case where that wasn't a issue; it wasn't a matter of standards. In fact what happened was Bergman had stopped researching the story. He was told he could no longer talk to Wigand. So he is in position where he had cultivated a contact, made promises to him, and he is now told, "you can't even talk to this man because we may be sued."
Hargreaves: But you just leave the organization at that point. Isn't that the self-respecting journalist's answer to that problem?
Docherty: I certainly think that's one option. I think it ill-behooves us to have an industry where that is the journalist's only option to get the story on air. In Bergman's case there is a lot of dispute as to whether he resigned or not. He tells me at one point he did resign from CBS, after the story went on air. But I would say that Bergman at this point is actually fighting very hard to protect Wigand, because if CBS doesn't come on board with this story, Wigand is left out to dry.
Hargreaves: When I started work on a local weekly paper it was definitely the case that the big-guy advertisers in town were a force that the editor was frightened of. There is no doubt about that; it was a feature of small town journalism everywhere, and you learn to resist it. I don't think it is harder to resist it there than it is for these guys in CBS.
Docherty: I think that is the thing that's most disappointing about the CBS case, because with reputation and high salary does come responsibility. I think here was a chance for our most venerated journalists to give a lead to everyone else, to the small newspapers which may be facing this situation. Bear in mind that often editors will choose who they want to put on certain stories. They may not choose to put these experienced journalists on a story where they think there is going to be that kind of problem. They may decide to put someone who is very new to the organization and has a very high mortgage.
McChesney: But don't journalists have an obligation to think about the financial well being of the institution they work for? If they run a story that is going to lead to a libel suit, that could drive the company out of business and put people out of work. Shouldn't that factor into the decision-making process?
Docherty: Well I think that's a very good question. Should Bergman, Hewitt, and Wallace to "we want to save you money, so we won't run a story that is a) true and b) historically important, because possibly you will be sued under a seldom-used legal maneuver. And I would argue in that case the balance is very clear. In fact history has proven it so, because The Wall Street Journal ran essentially what was supposed to be "60 Minutes" story, didn't get sued, and went on to win a Pulitzer.
McChesney: But doesn't that prove the system worked, that the story got out?
Docherty: It proves that journalists have to fight hard to get it out, and in this case Bergman, standing tall, got it out and he deserves the credit.
Nick Gowing: I now call Chris Cramer, president of CNN International, part of the Turner Broadcasting Network, which of course is part of Time Warner, which will be soon a part of AOL if the regulators will approve the deal. Chris, can you put your hand on your heart and say there is and has been no corporate interference in your journalism or journalistic agenda because of Time Warner's overriding corporate and commercial interest?
Chris Cramer: None, none whatsoever, in the six years I've been there.
McChesney: Last week I was watching CNN in the United States and the Florida elections story of course was on. The announcer said, "and now let us see how the Florida story is affecting our stock portfolios. Here is the latest from Wall Street." What was striking about that was something that we have almost taken for granted from television news services like CNN, which is the assumption that the viewer views as a stock donor, buys business equipment, travels, this is a middle to upper middle class person. We've seen the basic writing out, not just in CNN but across the board, of the bottom third to half of our population. Labor, which used to be a standard beat in every U.S. daily newspaper in the mid-century, has been eliminated in our media culture in the United States today. We see the whole cropping of stories that are primarily of concern to people in the bottom third of our society, like the rise of the massive prison-industrial complexes in the United States, which affects disproportionately poor people. Now is there a problem here, central to how people deal with social problems in the world, that is built into this emphasis on a small section of the population of a whole, and this might do damage to a democratic society.
Cramer: I don't accept your assertion at all. There is an assumption in this room that big is bad and it is not an assumption that I accept for the moment. We live in the age of mergers and partnerships, there will be fewer delegates here next year and fewer delegates the year after. This is a fact of life. The issue is whether or not we're pulling our journalistic punches. Whether or not we are soft on ourselves. That's the issue that we need to get to the heart of.
McChesney: That is exactly right. So you have lots of stories on stocks and investments if that is who your viewers are, the five percent who own stocks and have investments. There won't be any stories on the prison-industrial complex, or very few, because most of your viewers don't go to prison. But in a democratic society in which we are building a massive array of prisons, it is a huge expense now on the United States, its tripling the number of prisons in the U.S. in the last twenty years.
Cramer: I simply don't accept your assertion. If you spend any time watching CNN's twenty services you will soon discover that CNN is in the business of a comprehensive news agenda. Particularly the international service--the international service broadcasts to 160 million people around the world. If you look across the week you will see that we're covering a whole spectrum of stories. What I'm saying is that the demographic for CNN in the United States is that five or six percent who happen to be in share ownership.
McChesney: Isn't the problem that the news is aimed at them? A program is lopsided to favor stories that interest the wealthy, when journalism is to serve the entire society. For the poor person who watches CNN, a significant chunk of your storyline is totally irrelevant to their life. Which is why they wouldn't watch it--only that six percent of shareholders do.
Cramer: Forgive me sir, not true. The majority of our viewership in the Middle East, for example, covers a very young demographic. They watch in the tens of millions, and they watch BBC World ,and they get comprehensive coverage on their own part of their world. Here I'm addressing the U.S. audience.
Hargreaves: Chris, you gave the answer I expected you to give to Nick's very straight question: that you have never suffered direct, open interference in your editorial judgments at CNN. I could give the same answer--actually I couldn't about all the organizations that I've worked for, but I believe you. I'm sure that it is an honest statement, but it doesn't take us to the heart of the matter, because the pressure that you and your colleagues are under in forming judgments about what you cover and how you cover it are much more subtle. It's not a matter of direct instruction; its about the culture of the organization. The question I would like to put to you: you have worked in the last several years for the BBC, for CNN in its Ted Turner original form, for CNN in its Time Warner-owned form. Are you saying that there wasn't any difference for you making the judgments that you make about news in those organizations?
Cramer: Before I answered a specific question about CNN. It would be much more fertile territory if you examined the previous 26 years; you know there have been uncomfortable moments for me at the BBC, primarily dealing with in-house stories, stories concerning the BBC's behavior. I'm sure you know these are very difficult stories to cover.
Hargreaves: It would be interesting to hear you compare the news culture of the BBC and the kind of internal pressures with the corporate world of the United States. This gets to the heart of it, really.
|Cramer: It does. First of all I think that the BBC and CNN actually have many similarities--passion about news affairs, passion about the world. But I have more discomfort with the BBC, the pressure always being there about government funding. The pressure always there about the license fee. There was a spring in my step working for CNN and Time Warner because they understand the brand. They understand the brand can be destroyed in a nanosecond. They understand soft journalism, that pulling the punches and getting it wrong can destroy your brand. And if you destroy your brand, whether it is Time Magazine or CNN, you destroy your business.
Hargreaves: What is the worst thing you did for the BBC as a result of these pressures?
Cramer: No specific instance comes to mind; I'm talking about a culture of discomfort. Never did I receive direct instructions to go soft, but there is a discomfort because it concerns the funding mechanism. Very brave, courageous people were there. But there is freshness about working for the company that I work for in America.
Hargreaves: But you're wrong, aren't you, to say as you said to Bob that bigness isn't the problem: it could be too big. There could be too few players, surely you accept that.
|Cramer: The issue which we touched on when we started was the issue of homogenous news. It's an issue of whether or not that which comes out of the tap becomes the same. The issue is the sameness of the product, whether we actually see it as a product, whether or not it actually reduces plurality, whether or not it actually cuts down on difference of opinion.
Hargreaves: Do you agree that's a major problem?
Cramer: I can see it is an issue which needs to be addressed.
Hargreaves: How should it be addressed?
Suddenly our main news media corporations also are dominant players in the very economy of the world, the political economy they report upon.
|Cramer: I think you need organizations, like the one I'm working for now, which recognize Time magazine and its respective properties, CNN and its respective properties of which there are twenty or thirty, websites and television channels. Different agendas, different international agendas, different domestic agendas, different documentary agendas ensure this plurality, so it isn't just a tap, so isn't just a product out of a bottle.Gowing: Can I just interject here and ask if there is any attempt to self-censor? Do you concern yourself as president that some members of your staff know that there are certain limits which is drawn somewhere in the mental sand beyond which they dare not go in journalism?
Cramer: No, because the downside to being an international brand the size of CNN is that you are as good as your last story. You know, the Tailwind documentary debacle of two years ago substantially damaged the CNN brand, and we had to pick ourselves up after that. But that was an issue of lousy journalism, it wasn't an issue of pulling punches, but our brand was damaged.
Hargreaves: But isn't there a danger when you get that kind of damaging incident? It was damaging. Everybody starts trying to be a bit safer. You don't respond to that by saying "let's climb the more difficult mountain here."
Cramer: In the case of CNN there was incredulity that they could have screwed up so badly, and incredulity on the part of the service that they had been there for twenty years and hadn't done so yet. So in their case they set up systems which you could argue should have been in place before. So I think in continuing to climb the mountain they made sure they had the right crampons. They didn't have the right crampons before.
McChesney: If we could return to the point you were making regarding self-censorship, Today all of our main media firms rank among the 100 or 150 largest companies in the world, something that wasn't the case twenty years ago. This is a dramatic change. Suddenly our main news media corporations also are dominant players in the very economy of the world, the political economy they report upon. Their main beneficiaries are things like NAFTA, GATT, the World Trade Organization, which it makes it much easier for them to sell their cases around the world. CNN International is a big beneficiary in that area too. Then you have one of the main causes of our age: global trade and what that means for the environment, for governing, for education, for labor standards, and it has emerged as a huge political issue across our planet. And so we have a interesting situation: the news companies are controlled by corporations that strongly benefit by one side. But the news requires that we have a full hearing from both sides so we can make democratic decisions.
In 1999 we had two extraordinary stories that took place four months apart. In the summer John F. Kennedy Jr. died, and television sets across the world were turned into virtual aquariums. Television news channels were hunting for pieces of the plane, and we received around the clock news coverage like it was the return of the Messiah. Four months later in Seattle we have the American Tiananmen Square, the unprecedented demonstrations against the WTO, with 50,000 people coming out, and the coverage was much less than JFK Jr. Does this reflect the very contradiction that the main companies that should be covering this are conflicted?
Cramer: Now let me pick out one single word from that very long question. You said "control." You're assuming that large companies control their news organizations. No sir.
McChesney: What about what was said before, that they don't cross that line in sand? That you don't even need to walk into the newsroom; by the time it gets there they know what kind of stories not to cover.
Chris Cramer: I'm not sure what analogy you're drawing. Your point I think is that there is some type of corporate agenda. There is no corporate agenda at CNN, no corporate agenda in Time Warner.
McChesney: You had no time for the coverage of the WTO!
Cramer: Well if they didn't I'll take your word for it. Actually I'm not sure what they did on CNN International.
McChesney: The coverage of the WTO in fact almost solely concentrated on the demonstrators at the GAP stores.
Cramer: The assertion that your making is that there is some kind of wiggling of the tiller to ensure that one story gets more than another. That is simply not true. This is a facile suggestion.
Hargreaves: Put the question into the frame of the CNN and BBC comparison. The BBC has just had its first business editor to sort out all these people in the BBC who don't care about shareholders and all that good stuff. CNN is accused of being overattentive to the agenda of the private investor. Isn't it the bottom line that healthy cultures need both of these things, and the American culture of which CNN is essentially a part lacks that dimension in a very significant way?
Cramer: If you're asking, is business good business for us on CNN, the answer is yes. Because our audience tends to watch us to get that. We have a financial news channel. Thirty-five percent of the output on CNN International is business, which is actually not much more than sport. This is all a balancing act having to do with the demographic you're broadcasting to. We are not in our international networks in any way selling the rest of the world short when it comes to our coverage. We spend about 500 million dollars a year on international news coverage.
Gowing: Danny, can you give me examples of bad journalism you claim are because of corporate pressure?
Danny Schechter: This just in from Florida, its Gore, no no wait a minute it's Bush, we don't know who it is. I think if we look at the stories everyone in the world is talking about right now and we think of it as simply a case of an error in projecting the results of one primary, as an example of why the media today says it has egg on its face, then we miss an institutional relationship between media and politics. A kind of merger is taking place that has not been noticed. With all the reporting on where the money comes from in politics, there is very little coverage of where it actually goes, which is back into the coffers of the media. What I am arguing is in fact media coverage is actually driving people away from political participation. That's one thing I would like to talk about, because I think it is directly related to why so many disclosures have come out now that were never raised before.
Hargreaves: Those are generalizations from a particular political angle and it's a respectable argument from that political angle. But it is significant that you didn't answer Nick's question directly. Neil Docherty had an example of a clear "they told us to do the wrong thing," where the corporation was to blame. How many do you know about?
Schechter: I have sat in meetings, like everyone else in this room has, knowing what the line is and where the line is drawn. What stories are not going to fly because your particular executive is not interested in that story, or is in other ways discouraging you from investigating it, or there's a lack of funding for investigative reporting so you don't even propose stories because you know there is no budget to carry them on. I would like to raise a current story that is not really being reported on. On September 3 this year, Mike Wallace interviewed Jiang Zemin, the president of China in a two-part segment, which is very unusual for "60 Minutes" for an interview. It was in my view one of the most surprisingly softball interviews that I have ever seen on television, so much so that President Clinton himself when he meet the Chinese president told him that Mike Wallace had Jiang Zemin purring like a little child, that he thought the interview was great, that he wished he could get an interview like that.
Two weeks later, in Hong Kong, Jiang Zemin attacked all journalists for asking him tough questions and said to them "why can't you be more like Mike Wallace?" Now, the context for this that I am curious about is a speech by Sumner Redstone, the president of Viacom, at a conference that Time Warner gave in Shanghai, basically calling on the media people there to go soft on China, we work in this country, let's not antagonize our host, this whole sort of line. And there followed from that in my view--and I looked carefully because I had just written a book about it--a real downplaying of the resistance in China today of the Falong Gong movement.
McChesney: Realistically if you look at the issues of human rights like you're talking about now in corporate media, it's truly only the Time Warners and the Viacoms who are strong enough to stand up to these governments, isn't it? Smaller media are the ones with journalists getting beat up and their stories not getting printed.
Schechter: They're doing business there and they don't want to stand up; they want to get along by going along, and that's the problem here. They're ingratiating themselves to a dictator in China, not asking tough questions, not doing followup, not informing people about what the issues really are.
McChesney: The head of MTV, which is part of Viacom, leads human rights campaigns across the world. There are corporate media figures who are doing wonderful human rights work.
Schechter: I ran the only human rights television series that was on for four years on public television in America, and in order to get it on the air we had to battle public television bureaucracy, which told us point blank, "human rights is an insufficient organizing principle for a television series."
McChesney: But that's not commercial television necessarily.
Schechter: We offered the same program to every cable channel and they weren't interested. If you're an African lion you can get your own show on cable in America. If you're an African person its much more difficult to get any exposure of the issues at all.
McChesney: Doesn't that say more about the American people than it does about the commercial media? I think that if CNN or Viacom thought there was an interest in this, they would gladly put these shows on.
Schechter: One of the most popular miniseries in the history of America was "Roots." Whether or not people will watch depends on how stories are presented. We have a lot of very creative producers who are capable of doing programming that is very compelling if they get the chance to do it. What we have seen across the board, and this includes BBC, is more and more docu-soaps, softer and softer features, less and less hard-hitting programming, and it is very difficult for independent producers particularly to crack through here.
Gowing: MBAs with no experience and little love for journalism are meddling in the newsroom, slipping product placement into new shows, censoring investigative reports that bite the hands that feed?
Schechter: You know, I think that goes on. I worked at ABC for 20/20. We did an investigation on the Statue of Liberty renovation in Manhattan, which was a commission headed by Lee Iacocca, the president of Chrysler. It was announced that ABC was given exclusive access to cover the event itself, and President Reagan came and spoke, Ted Koppel presided over it. They turned what was a legitimate news story into a celebration sponsored by a news division. They made it into an event.
Hargreaves: Do you think that television journalism is better in other countries where the companies that deliver it are less corporate dominated?
Schechter: From my own personal experiences, having studied at the London School of Economics for two years, I'm impressed by the culture of the BBC, I'm impressed by public service broadcasting around the world, and I'd like to see an improvement in the United States.
Gowing: What about independent TV as well?
Schechter: I think there is some hard-hitting and good journalism. But I think in our own country there has been a 50 percent decline at the network level of coverage of the world.
McChesney: What about China's national television service? How do they do in human rights?
Schechter: I don't think they cover it. When I was in Beijing at a conference and I told them what public television in the United States told us about human rights not being a sufficient organizing principle for a TV series, they said, "here we would agree with that." I think there is unfortunately a uniformity of view as market values increasingly drive journalistic culture.
Hargreaves: But to engage with Chris Kramer's statement, which is that he as a senior news executive felt in some way more constrained working inside the BBC than he has at CNN: he's not making that up, but it makes no sense in the context we're discussing. Because you are insisting on pinning everything on the business corporate system, whereas we should be looking at where the locus of power and ownership is, whatever it is.
Schechter: You are kind of giving a didactic view here to some degree. In some ways, curiously, I agree with Chris. I don't think this is a conspiracy as much as that in public television today you have as much branding, as much corporate underwriting concerns, as much market-driven, demographic research and the rest as you have in the corporate sector. Yes, ownership is very important, but I think it is the culture of the news values and the amount of money that is really allocated to coverage--and that has been shrinking, as have news divisions.
Hargreaves: What's your view about the ability of new media, things like your own organization, to puncture some of this?
Schechter: I have a lot of hope that we will be able to create on the Internet a public space similar to what public service broadcasting represented when it first began. Our MediaChannel was an attempt to monitor media organizations worldwide. We started with 50 organizations; we now have 550 groups from around the world. We have a global approach and an analytical approach and a very diverse approach. We have conservative groups as well as groups on the left. We are trying to create the kind of debate that we are having here on a regular basis.
Gowing: Do you expect today to get any corporate pressure or funding pressure?
Schechter: We actually have some corporate support, and we would like to get more of it. To tell you the truth, if I know that company A is interested in supporting the environment and the media, and I'm interested in involving corporations in the media, I might be tempted to put together a program on the media and the environment because I can get funding for it. That is a reality.
Gowing: Would you compromise your journalism then?
Schecter: It hasn't so far--we try to safeguard standards.
Hargreaves: But the reality is that in some sense it must.
Schechter: Well, I think you have to judge. Is there integrity in what we are doing? Check it out and see for yourself, you may have a very different view than I have.
McChesney: Dan, it just seems that this rise of the Internet just proves that there is no reason to bash Viacom or AOL. You got your chance to do this now, in our age people like the sort of journalism that you are doing and they will flock to it, and you'll force these other people to start doing what you are doing.
Schechter: But when I started off with an independent company called Globalvision we were very excited about getting the means of production--suddenly the means of production came down in cost, but we still don't have the means of distribution. We can't market like larger companies. We simply don't have the budget to do the promotion and marketing that increasingly consumes large parts of news budgets.
McChesney: They all started small too.
Schechter: Except you have a series of people who have guaranteed access to the airwaves from regulators, and they have been able to dominate the whole broadcast spectrum. The cost of entry for an independent voice or another voice is very difficult. That's why Bruce Springsteen has a song "57 Channels and Nothing On." It's a homogenous world more than a diverse world, unfortunately.
Cramer: It has nothing to do with conspiracy but it has to do with economics. In the year 2000 most organizations have fewer international bureaus than they did ten years ago. Why is it that most organizations are closing their bureaus? Why is it that they are cutting news costs? It's not conspiracy, it's economics. That for me is much more dangerous.
Gowing: But that's affecting the editorial agenda.
Cramer: Of course it is.
Docherty: I want to clarify that I'm not claiming there is a conspiracy. I am claiming that these economic constraints are what is increasingly going to put us under pressure. In fact what happened in CBS's case is that I think Lawrence Tisch positioned his company to be taken over. And he closed foreign bureaus, he greatly restricted the reach of CBS. He then got more value for his investment. The other thing that I would say is that the test of this whether the system is working is when its stressed. The case in 1995 of both CBS and ABC giving in to the tobacco industry was a clear example of how the system responded under stress, and I would argue that it didn't respond very well.
Schechter: One issue that Bob mentioned has been the fusion of newsbiz and showbiz--how showbiz and entertainment values are infiltrating into news selection as well as presentation. Like all the Monica news all the time in the United States. All the OJ all the time--every network was devoting an inordinate amount of time to the coverage of one story and creating in a sense a dramatic presentation of that story to conform to all the Hollywood formats: strong characters, narrative arc, undecided outcome, so there was a mystery to what was going to happen.
Gowing: But would you say that is to conform to a boardroom imperative?
Schechter: Yes, which is to get more of an audience.
Gowing: Chris, CNN gave enormous amounts of coverage to these stories.
Cramer: Monica, yes, I defend that. People simply can't stop watching it. I can't stop watching it. This has nothing to do with corporate agenda, this is to due to what makes good journalism. Would CNN devote weeks of coverage overseas to O.J. now? No. But that was a long time ago.
Gowing: Rex Granum from ABC, are you in the audience? Do you think your corporation will be shaking in its boots from what it's heard this afternoon?
Rex Granum: Hardly, and I certainly do not always agree with my friend Chris Cramer, but I absolutely must agree with him in terms of this situation being set up as some massive conspiracy on the part of the networks. I would point out to you that if there is such a conspiracy then we have been oddly inept in carrying it out. If you go back a mere twenty years--a very brief period of time in the broadcasting business--ABC, CBS, and NBC were seen by 99 percent of the audience in the States. Today, collectively, they are seen by 55 percent. If there is a conspiracy out there, it's an incredibly inefficient one.
Nick Gowing: Can I ask Rex and also Chris Hanson, who is here from NBC: do you ever have your morning conferences feeling that there is any type of corporate boardroom pressure on your news agenda, as opposed to editorial pressure from New York?
Chris Hampson: From NBC's point of view, absolutely not. In fact quite the opposite. I think because we are related to GE, the pressures on us to maintain our integrity are enormous. We have guidelines which say to every employee who comes through the door that the most important assets we have as journalists is our integrity. I don't think we can forget that we're dealing with individual journalists here, and that's one of the most important points. I've been a journalist like a lot of people in this room for many years. I've worked for many different organizations. I can tell you that I had pressures from the very first day that I walked in the door from one source or another. It's my job to resist those as a journalist. I find it interesting that the one case we are talking about here, the tobacco case, was made into a movie because it was so extraordinary. Let's not lose sight of that. There is no conspiracy. There are commercial pressures, but there are commercial pressures everywhere.
Julian Sher: Julian Sher of JournalismNet. Is not a much bigger problem to look at the underlying assumptions that we as lazy journalists--and I'm saying that of all of us-make? In other words, in the 1920s most media considered it normal that women didn't vote, suffragettes were considered crazy radicals and treated as such, and it would take a brave journalist to go out and cover the suffragette movement in a bold way. In the 1890s the major London papers thought it was a tremendously radical idea that children should work less than 18 hours a day. It seems to me that our task in these kinds of conferences is to push ourselves to question our assumptions. The problem with CNN and ABC and NBC is that they are big companies, which like the rest of the big establishments are kind of slow to pick up what is new, what is out in the frontier. Our task as journalists and corporate executives is not to be afraid to challenge some of the main assumptions in society. It's not a question of conspiracy, it's that we don't pose the embarrassing questions that we should be asking.
Cramer: I think this is really good territory. I think we should absolutely be challenging ourselves. Of course we are lazy, yes we arrogant, we think we can do it better than most people can. Of course we are dissatisfied on a daily basis about CNN's coverage and try to do something about it. I want to provide more coverage of Africa, I want to provide more coverage of Asia. I'm not happy having 36 bureaus, I want 360 bureaus. So, yes we should test ourselves on a daily basis.
Gowing: To bring this to a conclusion, or a least a close, because I don't think we will get a conclusion: Bob, did you get the answers you were seeking?
McChesney: I think there are fundamental differences that really can't be resolved. Even if the facts are out there, there are going to be different values and interpretations. But it's good to lay it all out on the table.
Gowing: Ian Hargreaves, did you get the answers and the clarifications that you were seeking?
Hargreaves: I think the debate shifted to where it really matters, which is the economic forces that shape journalism. I think that is absolutely right, but I resist the conspiracy theory of corporate power mainly because I think it contributes to journalist laziness. The reality is as a journalist that every single day you're up against this kind of difficulty, and it's your job as a journalist to overcome it. That's not to say that you should be blind to the institutional and cultural forces at play, because they are very large. But at the end it's a matter of individual professional integrity, and that is the only sustainable form of resistance to all these undesirable effects.