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The Little Picture: Media’s urge to merge damages news coverage

Mar 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Perhaps it escaped your notice, but the other week they handed out the George Polk Awards for investigative journalism. Considered second in prestige only to the Pulitzers, the Polk Awards are mostly given to the print media. But every year, one or two English-language broadcasters also pick up a prize.
This year, the Polk committee singled out one network for its coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the war in Afghanistan. And it wasn’t ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News or CNN, all of which had large bureau offices mere miles from Ground Zero and all of which spent several months and millions of unbudgeted dollars covering the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Instead, the Polk judges honored the BBC World Service, a London-based newscast heard here mainly on public radio stations during the listener-friendly hours of midnight to 5 a.m.
Now it seems to me there are two possible ways to react to this. One is to assume that the Polk committee is made up of Anglophile snobs who distrust anything sent to them by “Dateline” or “20/20.” Except that “Dateline” and “20/20” have both won Polk Awards in recent years. In fact, this prize-named for a CBS News reporter who died in the line of duty 55 years ago-has been handed out many times in the past to U.S. broadcasters.
The only other possible response, then, is to ask: What went wrong? How did American television manage to get beat on the most important story in a generation to happen on American turf? Some say the BBC got lucky; it had a reporter in the lobby of one of the towers at the time of the attack. Yeah, that’s it.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s something else. After a decade of consolidation, job cutbacks, bureau deletions and the rise of two insidious trends in the news business-cross-promotionalism and the mania for “branding” every tragedy that comes along-after all that, maybe the chickens are finally coming home to roost.
Last month, after the D.C. Court of Appeals issued its ruling that set the stage for a new round of media mega-mergers, the opponents of industry consolidation lashed out at the judges’ decision. A typical response came from Rep. Bernie Sanders, the left-wing congressman from Vermont.
“A healthy democracy requires a diversity of viewpoints,” said Sanders. “If just a few corporations can control both production and distribution of the news across America, democracy itself is in danger.”
Strong words. If you’re reading this column, you’ve probably heard them a few hundred times, in publications like this one, in casual conversations, on C-SPAN. And if you’re like me, the argument instinctively makes sense. But after a while you start to notice what’s missing: namely, the supporting evidence. Surely if something as bedrock to the American way of life as “democracy” is under attack, we might see some concrete proof, no?
The snub by the Polk Awards suggests something less drastic-not that democracy is in peril, more like what used to pass as good electronic journalism (except at the BBC, which continues to generously bankroll a worldwide news-gathering operation). Problem is it’s hard to get people excited about saving TV news, let alone rally them against the media industry as it marches inexorably toward oligopoly.
While would-be media reformers appeal to abstract notions such as “democracy” and “diversity,” the proponents of consolidation appeal to something people can relate to-namely, our wallets and our retirement plans (at least, those of us who have retirement plans). The media loves quoting those Wall Street analysts who go on and on about the benefits of efficiency and cost cutting and deregulation.
And so, barring a new campaign slogan that hits business reporters between the eyes, the reformers are likely to watch helplessly once again as another parade of media mergers goes sailing by. This time, the news organizations that will be affected won’t be located in New York but in cities like mine, where the most likely acquisition targets own TV stations. (Hearst-Argyle Television, Meredith Corp., Sinclair Broadcast Group and E.W. Scripps all have properties in Kansas City.)
Actually, it occurred to me that if the 35 percent ownership cap is relaxed or removed by the government, it would pave the way for Disney to buy most or all of its mid-size ABC affiliates, including KMBC-TV here. And that would have a significant upside for several thousand Kansas City viewers who for 22 years have had to wait 90 minutes after the late news (through two sitcoms and “Entertainment Tonight”) just to watch “Nightline.” Disney managers are as frustrated by that delay as the viewers. Assuming David Letterman doesn’t render the matter moot by hopping to ABC, Disney could fix that problem faster than you could say “vertical integration.”
That’s not to belittle the potential harm of ongoing media consolidation. As I say, I think those Polk jurors might have been sending the industry a message. But the reformers who are fighting consolidation need to do a better job of explaining to the rest of us why that would be a bad deal for viewers. I can assure you, there are a lot of “Nightline” fans in my readership who think it would be a very good deal.
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.