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6/27/04


 

MAXIMIZING
SHAREHOLDER VALUE

By David Podvin

Four corporate liars own the major commercial television networks that supply the information used by most American voters to decide which presidential candidate they will support. The Walt Disney Company (ABC) has been cited for destroying evidence in a civil trial and then lying about it under oath. Subsidiaries of Viacom International Inc. (CBS) have been convicted of libel, slander, and defamation, in addition to lying under oath about polluting the environment. The News Corporation Ltd. (Fox) has been convicted of libel and was found to have lied before the Monopolies Commission in Great Britain and the Federal Communications Commission. The General Electric Company (NBC) has been penalized numerous times for deceiving consumers, defrauding the Department of Defense, violating the False Claims Act, altering government contracts, engaging in procurement fraud, and committing perjury.

Despite stirring platitudes about freedom of the press, the corporations that own the mainstream media are strictly business enterprises. They do to not exist to serve the public interest or to promote democracy or to exemplify the noblest virtues of journalism. The subsidiaries of these conglomerates function solely for the purpose of making money.

According to the media companies, their accounting and journalistic divisions are separated by a “Chinese Wall” that protects the integrity of news departments from the pressure of generating profits. It is the same divide that supposedly existed between the accounting and research departments on Wall Street. As the headlines of the last year prove, corporate self-control is a concept without practical application, and when companies perceive a threat to profits, it is the monetary factor that dominates decision-making.

“Maximization of shareholder value” was the reason cited by Disney Chairman Michael Eisner as he announced his refusal to distribute the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Eisner did not suggest that the film was poorly made or commercially nonviable - he specifically said that it was in the best financial interests of Disney shareholders to avoid harming George W. Bush. His public acknowledgement that the communications conglomerates engage in censorship for the purpose of protecting Bush confirms the obvious: the corporate media has spent the last three years concealing from the American people information that would damage the current administration. 

On October 25, 2001, MakeThemAccountable reported on a deal that had been made in 2000 between political advisor Karl Rove and Jack Welch, who was then Chairman of General Electric. The arrangement consisted of the mainstream media agreeing to run interference for Bush with the understanding that a Republican administration would eliminate regulations on communications conglomerates.

The rules of this game are unwritten, but they are very clear, and the master practitioner is the chairman of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch. From Australia and New Zealand to Great Britain and the United States, the owner of the Fox network has made billions of dollars by offering biased news coverage in exchange for political favors. Unlike some of his more discreet peers, he has done so in a very public way that provides an insight into how corporate journalism has been corrupted.

Richard Searby, who is a former Murdoch executive in Australia, explained the approach by saying, “Rupert offers governments a deal. If they will let him do business his way, he will use his media empire to promote their political objectives. Everybody wins.”

In 1972, Murdoch threw the support of his media empire behind Australian Labor Party candidate Dolph Whitlam with the understanding that News Corp would be rewarded after the election. According to reporter Mungo MacCallum of The Australian, “Rupert certainly felt that there was a quid pro quo involved.”  When Whitlam reneged on their deal, Murdoch instructed his journalists to destroy the new prime minister, causing some reporters to go out on strike in protest. During the next election, Murdoch championed the cause of candidate Malcolm Fraser, who won and implemented the regulatory changes that his benefactor demanded.

In New Zealand, Murdoch’s papers were opponents of the government coalition until Communications Minister Richard Alston proposed a change to media ownership laws that would benefit News Corp. Soon thereafter, the newspaper The Age observed, "It has already been noted that whether by coincidence or design, News Ltd. papers appear to have recently started to support the government.”

That support, which was won through changing the law to put more money in Murdoch’s pockets, resulted in the cooperative politicians retaining power. Representative government had been subverted by deals designed to benefit a media magnate and his political allies.

In 2003, Jackie Ashley of The Guardian reported on the arrangement as it exists in England:

[Murdoch’s] papers have been intertwined with New Labour ever since it became clear that [Tony] Blair would be in Downing Street. Blair wooed them, and from the first Murdoch, sensing a winner, responded. Sun and Times journalists were courted and favoured with leaks, which they could promote as scoops; Murdoch editors were treated as visiting royalty when they were entertained at No 10 and Chequers…. Why do they do it? Because the deal is frank, and even on its own terms, honest. Murdoch wants media power and Blair wants reliable media support. So long as nobody takes journalistic principle or the public interest too seriously, then there is a deal to be done. One day, if Murdoch gets his way, he will be in a position of terrifying influence over any future government.

When Murdoch decided to start the Fox network in the United States, he faced substantial opposition from the FCC based on concern about a foreigner owning American broadcasting licenses. Murdoch contributed heavily to the Republicans during the 1994 campaign and gave them an additional $200,000 following the GOP takeover of Congress. After News Corp subsidiary Harper Collins provided a $4.5 million advance to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Republican lawmakers threatened to suspend the FCC’s funding unless Murdoch was granted the right to form Fox. In the end, Murdoch had his network, and the Republican Party had an invaluable propaganda outlet.

Although Murdoch assumes a higher profile than the other media barons, his methodology is standard operating procedure. In 2000, the broadcasting conglomerates employed the Murdoch method to slant news coverage in favor of the candidate who was willing to provide them with taxpayer-subsidized kickbacks.

The four major network television news divisions embraced Bush not only because he had promised to enact the agenda of their parent corporations, but also because the alternative was unacceptable. Al Gore had threatened to govern on behalf of the people rather than the powerful, a pledge that alienated him from big business. Under a Gore administration, there would not have been huge tax cuts for the media industry or unlimited opportunities for mergers in defiance of the Sherman Antitrust Act or multi-billion dollar transfers of broadcasting licenses from public to private ownership free of charge.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, the network news divisions minimized the importance of policy issues while relentlessly promoting the storyline that Bush was charming and Gore was dishonest. Yet even with the mainstream propaganda machines deceiving the electorate on his behalf, the hapless Texan lost the election, and had there been just one more honorable justice on the United States Supreme Court, Bush would have also lost the presidency. Due to the ineptitude of their chosen candidate, the media giants came perilously close to missing out on four years of lucrative government largesse.

The consequences would have been severe. None of the media companies could have achieved their profit objectives without the kickbacks provided by Bush. In at least one case, the fallout would have been vocationally fatal. At Disney, Eisner is under attack by powerful shareholders who are disappointed in the value of the stock. He has barely survived a no-confidence vote, and could not have kept his job without the boost to earnings from taxpayer cash that the company has received from Bush.

The other media titans have also enjoyed the benefits of backing Bush. General Electric is the world’s largest defense contractor and has been a beneficiary of Bush’s worldwide military adventurism. Both GE and Viacom are serial polluters that have been treated with kid gloves by the Environmental Protection Agency. And as the recipient of regulatory decisions from the FCC that seemed specially written to help its cable division, News Corp has been the biggest winner of all.

Since Bush was inaugurated, the House of Murdoch has become first among media equals. News Corp has so much influence with the administration that Condoleeza Rice skipped a meeting of the National Commission on Terror Attacks Upon The United States in order to brief Murdoch on foreign policy. Regardless of who wins in November, Murdoch will expect similar courtesy involving his latest legislative and regulatory wish list.

He is likely to get what he wants, as are his fellow broadcasting moguls. Last time, despite the best efforts of the corporations that dominate public discourse, the wrong candidate almost got into the White House. This time, the media companies are not taking any chances: while the Republican nominee is still their guy, the Democratic nominee is their guy, too.

John Kerry wouldn’t be the standard bearer of his party if not for the communications conglomerates and their premeditated destruction of frontrunner Howard Dean following the governor’s statement that he intended to “break up the media companies”. Surveys of network news broadcasts airing in the months after this remark found that negative reports about Dean outnumbered the positive stories three to one. Kerry, whose biggest contributor is a firm that lobbies on behalf of the telecommunications industry, enjoyed a ratio of better than three positive news stories about him for every negative one. He had declined to endorse the Dean plan, instead issuing a meaningless proclamation that the FCC should operate “in the public interest”.

Rupert Murdoch only tolerates politicians who operate in his interest. One revealing aspect of the current campaign is that Kerry has received numerous contributions from executives at News Corp. Over the years, the senator has repeatedly sought subsidies for media companies. Kerry voted to transfer the digital spectrum from public to private ownership, an act of piracy that cheated the taxpayers out of an estimated fifty billion dollars. He has introduced legislation to protect domestic broadcasters from foreign competitors.

Kerry has recently been making subversive noises about “public control of the airwaves”, but the words and the music don’t match. At each crucial juncture of the deregulation process, Kerry has verbally sided with the American people while promoting the interests of the media industry. It was his willingness to serve on behalf of this nation’s communications oligarchy that enabled John Kerry to be the last man standing in the Democratic primaries.

Based on the track records of Bush and Kerry, the media conglomerates have no reason to fear that their ruthless quest to maximize shareholder value will be impeded by the presidency of either man. During the next four years, it is likely that whoever is president will attempt to accelerate broadcasting deregulation. Bush has already loosened the rules to permit cross ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets in most of the nation. He has also codified single company ownership of stations that reach forty five percent of American households and single company control of three stations in large markets. The industry views these changes as being transitional and desires to have the restrictions eliminated altogether.

Consumer groups are lobbying Congress and filing lawsuits in an attempt to stop further consolidation, yet on those rare occasions when they have won, the victories have been Pyrrhic. Politicians are willing to pass hollow resolutions and cosmetic legislation favoring diversity in media, but they are afraid to do anything of substance that would alienate the broadcasters. When the courts have ruled against deregulation, the rulings have not been accompanied by mandates for tangible action that would dilute the concentration of media power.

The FCC, which is charged with the responsibility for protecting public ownership of the airwaves, is staffed by acolytes of the communications conglomerates. During most of Bush’s term, FCC policy was actually being formulated by a bureaucrat who used to work as a lobbyist for Disney. The broadcasting companies will insist that for as long as they have to endure being regulated, the regulators must continue to be of their choosing.

This ultimatum cannot be ignored by those ambitious politicians who yearn to lead the free world. In twenty-first century America, gaining the presidency is a “pay for play” deal: the favorable news coverage necessary for victory occurs only after a candidate has surrendered to the multinational businesses that control the news coverage. Al Gore was unwilling to pay that price, but George W. Bush and John Kerry are far more pragmatic.

Four years ago, the corporations that decide what is newsworthy had to muscle their man into the White House over the will of the voters. As a reward for assisting in that coup, the communications industry is more powerful than ever, so powerful that now it owns both major party presidential nominees. Regardless of who is inaugurated in January, the media companies will be able to exert even more influence over the political process. In that sense, the election has already been decided, and the broadcasting conglomerates have won in a landslide.

More David Podvin

Podvin, the Series

 


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