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US: The Media Lobby

by Alexander Lynch AlterNet
March 11th, 2005

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 homogeneous industry.

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 objectivity?

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 reasons."

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 northern border.

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."

Getting local

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 Tucson.

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 corporate office.

Lovefest

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.