During the Cronkite days of journalism, there were scarcely media watchdogs
to dissect the messengers. Now there are varied left-wing, right-wing and
centrist watchdog groups, writers who specialize in the media message and the
internet, which has spawned even more critics. Stories such as Dan Rather and
Eason Jordan's fall, the lack of WMDs in Iraq, the outing of Valerie Plame, the
ousting of Jeff Gannon/James Guckert, the unveiling of Armstrong Williams,
Maggie Gallagher and Mike McManus. ... Questioning the journalists seems to be
as partisan an issue as the journalists themselves.
But many of these stories, scandals by many accounts, even federal offenses,
are often only alluded to by the mainstream media, getting more attention from
late-night comics than news desks. In fact, an increasingly bigger story that
has hushed the notebooks of reporters, the waxing of columnists and the demands
of editorials is the story of how the media is entangled and interconnected with
politicians (its supposed regulators) corporate interests and, binding them all
together: lobbyists. The simple fact is, objective journalists are not supposed
to be proactive on issues, which is the definition of lobbying. "It is the
subject of the least journalistic scrutiny," says Peter Hart of the media
watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Asking a media outlet to
report on its parent company's lobbying expenditures and the goals associated
with such spending, gives new meaning to "conflict of interest." Considering
other options, such as one medium reporting on another's lobbying interests,
would only invite scrutiny, which is called, in an economist's terms, collusion.
And so the story goes unreported in mainstream media as if, it is not only
unimportant, it is nonexistent.
The numbers beneath the 2003 FCC vote
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2000 alone, the parent
companies of the big five television and cable broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN
and Fox) spent close to $27 million on lobbying firms. And that excludes the
National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) which spent $5.7 million the same
year. According to the Center for Public Integrity, from 1998 until 2003, when
the Federal Communications Commission considered another round of "relaxing"
ownership regulations, "the lobbying expenditures by the broadcast industry
ha(d) risen 74 percent."
In maybe the most audacious increase in lobbyist spending history, Clear
Channel Communications Inc., which owns nearly 1,200 radio stations and some
television stations, had a clear interest in the relaxation of media ownership
rules to expand its holdings into more market areas. In 2001, Clear Channel
spent only $12,000 on lobbying the government. By 2003, the year of the FCC
vote, it spent $2.28 million, an increase of 19,000 percent in just two years'
time. That same year, Clear Channel's CEO, Lowry Mays told Fortune magazine what
he thought of the publicly owned airwaves entrusted to his company: "If anyone
said we were in the radio business, it wouldn't be someone from our company.
We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the
business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of
selling our customers products."
Although broadcasters generally outspend print media by a large margin,
companies such as Media General (Tampa Tribune, Denver Post) and Gannett
Company (Arizona Republic, USA Today), owners of mainly newspapers, saw
sharp increases and each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying
expenditures in 2003, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. Both had
a distinct interest in the consolidation of outlets. Gannett spent $20,000 on
lobbying in 2002, but the next year it spent $220,000. Media General argued to
the Supreme Court that the scarcity of ownership, which had been outlined in the
Communications Act of 1934, was "obsolete" for the simple reason, and seemingly
weak argument, that there had since been a "telecommunications revolution."
True, there have been great technological advances since 1934, much
appreciated by a business community now able to reach many readers/listeners at
once. But does that change the idea that scarcity and diversity of ownership is
best for the public? So how could such flaccid reasoning have swayed so many FCC
chairmen? According to comments made in the media before the vote, several
commissioners were ready to allow a new round of mega-mergers of media and to
change the nature, even further, of the mainstream press into an ever more
In a May, 2003 investigation, the Center for Public Integrity found that over
a period of eight years, FCC commissioners had gone on some 2,500
industry-sponsored trips. Which of course means all expense paid outings for
commissioners funded by lobbyists hired by the media industry. Ironically,
according to FCC travel documents, Las Vegas was the most favored destination,
which leads to the question: Is the media industry gambling away its
One person who believes so is Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies
at New York University and author of Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New
World Order (Norton). "The hiring of lobbyists, from any general patriotic
point of view ... it's grotesque," Miller said. "No one who signed the
Constitution would've been comfortable with this."
Enjoying free travel and entertainment, all paid for by the industry they are
supposed to be regulating is another case of gross conflict that many felt would
compromise the commissioners' vote. Apparently, some politicians were also
convinced, and in September of 2003 U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who oversaw
the FCC's budget, asked Chairman Michael Powell to "end this practice."
"In this town, perception often becomes reality, so I sincerely believe it
would be in the best interest of the FCC, and the American public, if the travel
of FCC commissioners and staff were only through appropriated funds," Wolf said
in a letter to Powell.
In the end though, it was a grassroots organization of citizens, backed by
millions of e-mails sent to commissioners and politicians that turned the tide
of the FCC vote against the industry.
Redefining conflict of interest
There is no scale to weigh conflicts of interest, no rate of
increase/decrease. In fact, it's not even a crime. Traditionally, journalists
and media who'd been exposed for having a conflict of interest, bowed to
pressure in an attempt to save face. There existed a more integrity-based system
of self-regulation rooted in a concern for one's reputation for objectivity.
But that conflict, more and more people are coming to believe, is no longer a
motivating factor for a journalist to change his/her stance, in fact, it is now
more of a systemic problem. "There is a fundamental conflict of interest
afflicting American journalism," Miller said. "On the one hand, the press has a
tacit constitutional obligation to inform people. On the other, publicly-traded
corporations that own news are run by people who have a strict fiduciary
obligation to shareholders. These two obligations are utterly opposed for many
One example of this systemic conflict is that media organizations, supposedly
objective on all issues, are sharing lobbyists with companies that are very
partial on issues. Imagine, if you would, a lobbyist taking a congressman on an
all-expense paid outing and arguing, for instance, the need to stop cheaper
drugs from being imported from Canada (or demanding government and military
contracts for his/her client) and then, and in the next breath, representing the
interests of the media.
No need to imagine, actually, for this scenario is no figment. In 2000, to
cite only one lobbying firm, (Podesta/Mattoon) General Electric (NBC, MSNBC),
Time Warner (CNN), News Corporation (Fox News Channel), Washington Post,
Viacom (CBS), NAB and the Newspaper Associations of America, all shared
representation with the likes of Lockheed Martin and Pharmaceutical Research and
Manufacturers of America Inc. (PhRMA). Lockheed Martin has benefited greatly
from the war in Iraq by dumping weapons and gaining government/military
contracts to make more. And PhRMA, who coincidentally just hired Gordon Giffin,
former U.S. ambassador to Canada, to lobby for them, is at the head of the
industry's movement to prevent the importation of prescription drugs across the
This only scratches the surface of the combined relationships between issue
oriented corporations and the media, whom the public depends on to report, not
only on the companies themselves, but on the issues. Walt Disney (ABC) and GE
share the lobbying firm Verner, Liipfert et. al, with insurance agencies such as
Aetna Inc., the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, the New York
Stock Exchange, PhRMA, General Motors, the tobacco industry's Philip Morris, the
richest in the banking industry Citigroup, and weapons manufacturers such as
Raytheon, Harris Corp. and the infamous Carlyle Group.
News Corporation and GE also shared lobbyists in 2000 with Enron a year
before its most undistinguished fall, and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,
which recently has been one of the big players behind the Bush administration's
plan to partially privatize Social Security. "From a pure journalistic
standpoint, you'd not want a parent company involved in any of this," Hart
explained. "Certainly not sharing lobbyists that are the focus of your
reporting. That is the conflict that reporters need to report on, the silence on
it speaks volumes. For GE and others, it makes perfect sense to get in the door
at the White House. From a corporation's interest, it's good business, for
journalists it's a conflict of interest."
The silence does speak volumes, and when NBC Nightly News ran a multi-night
series called "The Fleecing of America," covering the duping of taxpayers and
citizens on issues such as pharmacist's windfall profits from Medicare,
e-commerce and internet fraud and pyramid scams, it didn't however, cover its
own parent company.
General Electric, which spent twice as much more on lobbying from 1998 to
2003 than the next-closest media competitor at $105 million, has been charged
under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for fraudulent accounting as the
financial backer of WorldCom (the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history) and
they've even defrauded the Pentagon. Despite GE's nefarious history, and more
than $1 billion paid in fines, it has no problem winning government and military
contracts, a.k.a. taxpayer dollars. Turning journalism on its ear, GE is the
epitome of the corporate media's conflict of interest.
Miller sees this compromise of journalistic standards not as some collateral
damage or unintended consequence of an ever increasing powerful media, but as a
purposeful assault to frame issues by silencing public discussion: "Corporations
get into news not just to make money, but because it helps determine the content
of the national debate," Miller says. This is an extraordinary statement that
should not be taken lightly. Put another way, the media is not so much
"reporting" on the news as much as it is "influencing" how the public perceives
issues. "News is essentially different from propaganda," Miller says, "People
depend on a free press to provide information to defend themselves. Businesses
churn out propaganda to sell things. Democracies can't function that way."
Of course, many of the unreported stories surrounding the media lobby are
local. For some time, communities surrounding Tucson, Arizona's Davis-Monthan
Air Force Base were complaining to their local representatives about the noise
level that came from the base's aircraft. Faced with the possible closing of the
federally funded base, residents' complaints were ignored and local politicians
and businesses sprung into action organizing a trip to Washington D.C. to lobby
the Air Force, Defense Department and politicians to keep the base in
The Arizona Daily Star's Tucson bureau covered the story closely and
allowed the governor, Robert E. Walkup, a member of the group heading to the
capitol, to write an opinion piece outlining the goals of the trip. The group,
called D-M 50, supported a local resolution to expand the protected noise zone
area by more than 400 percent, effectively prohibiting new construction closest
to the base's corridors. The resolution would also allow for even louder planes
to land at the base in the future. The support group that flew to the capitol
included Walkup, the Pima county supervisor, local business representatives, and
the local president of the Chamber of Commerce. But there was one name that
surprised local residents: Jane Amari, editor and publisher of the Daily
Star. Apart from lobbying in Washington D.C., Amari oversaw the coverage the
Daily Star gave the issue.
Residents who'd been against the resolution complained that the Daily
Star was one-sided on the issue and was carrying quotes that characterized
them as being "unpatriotic" for not supporting it. The resolution passed to the
jeers of residents who had attended the meeting, but one concession made was to
extract a provision which required homeowners, when selling their property, to
divulge that it is within the base's noise zone.
This, city councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar said in an Oct. 26, 2004 article,
"would solve the money issue for those who think selling real estate is more
important than supporting our troops." In the same article, Michael J. Harris,
president of the D-M 50, of which Amari was a member, was quoted as saying that
residents who were unhappy by "sacrificing too much when planes fly over should
think about the sacrifice of those who fly the planes."
Although much of the Daily Star's coverage was fair, at issue is the
ethical dilemma that arises when a journalist (in this case the editor and
publisher) can appear objective to the public, or more importantly, the side
opposed by the journalist, when lobbying politicians on an issue. Via e-mail,
Amari said the paper has for years editorialized to keep the base. She did not,
however, respond to the idea that some in the community saw her proactive stance
on the issue as a conflict, preferring to emphasize the fact that her
participation was understood by both the executive editor and Pulitzer Inc., its
The three-way orgy between lobbyists, government officials and journalists
comes to a steamy climax each year at the capitol. Casting its daunting shadow
alongside the myriad special interest headquarters lining N Street in
Washington, NAB owns a building which the American Journalism Review called "an
imposing edifice." NAB is the largest and most influential lobbyist trade group
representing the interests of radio and television broadcasters and it holds an
annual awards show euphemistically named "Service to America."
Last year, NBC's David Gregory and MSNBC's Deborah Norville presented a
"humanitarian" award to Nancy Goodman Brinker, a top Bush campaign contributor.
In 2003, Bob Schieffer of CBS presented an award to Laura Bush and the year
before that, Cokie Roberts of ABC shared the stage with Rudy Giuliani and Tom
Ridge, then the Homeland Security secretary. Somehow, none of the journalists
seem to find a conflict of interest in a lobbying trade group putting on a show,
wherein supposedly objective journalists present awards to powerful, and often
very partisan political figures whom they regularly interview and whose actions
they cover. At times, the back-slapping and hobnobbing can become so incestuous
that it's difficult to keep up with who's who and which hat they're wearing at
any given moment.
The Media Institute, a conservative think tank, also holds an annual gala and
gives awards at its "Friends & Benefactors" banquet. The 2002 banquet saw
FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy give the keynote speech while Charlie Rose
(PBS) presented an award to Comcast CEO Ralph Reed. Also, Andrew Young, former
ambassador to the UN and former president of the National Council of Churches,
presented the institute's Freedom of Speech award to James Kennedy, chairman and
CEO of Cox Enterprises, Inc (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Palm Beach
Post). It just so happens that Alex Netchvolodoff, vice president of public
policy at Cox, is on the Media Institute's Board of Trustees. But who would care
anyway since the award is given, it would seem, only to solidify the triangular
connections between politicians, lobbyists and journalists?
In 2003 the Bush administration gave its stamp of approval to the American
mainstream media configuration when it awarded a $96 million contract to Harris
Corp, a defense contractor, to run the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), al-Iraqiya. In
fact, Harris Corp., which was given responsibility for al-Iraqiya's news content
despite having no experience in covering news, received over $1 billion in
contracts from the U.S. government during 2003. Harris Corp. has also spent
millions of dollars over the years on lobbying and, according to the Center for
Responsive Politics, gave 96 percent of its campaign contributions to the
Republican Party during the 2004 elections. These stories, and so many more,
remain either underreported or entirely unreported perhaps one reason for the
blog rebellion comprised of citizen journalists covering the stories that the
mainstream media either cannot or will not cover.
Though the American mainstream media is not state-run, the state of the media
is in question. And when the U.S. government chooses a system for a
foreign country that is very similar to the media at home; a media that is
supposed to be looking at it with cynicism to keep it honest, then a serious
credibility problem arises.
The corporate media's dramatic increase in lobbying is one that all Americans
should be outraged by. Whether employing lobbyists for their own interests or
sharing lobbyists with issue oriented companies, the media should be reporting
on these trends, not engaging in them.