Profit over public
|by Lowell Bergman
If you had gone to any major news program before September 11 and asked
to do a story about Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kurdistan or the political
upheaval in South and Central Asia, they would have laughed. Since then,
Nightline has broadcast a series on those forgotten lands, and CNN regularly
visits them. The reason for this change is simple. After September 11,
the public wanted to know, "Why? How? Who?" And so reporters
were empowered, finally, to go in search of answers.
"Why do they hate us, who are they, and how did this happen?"
still remain the central questions. They are long ignored questions,
and they are in danger once again of being neglected. The tendency to
give the public what it allegedly wants - meaning what is profitable
- over what is obviously in the interest of the public understanding
has undermined national security.
The catastrophe of September 11 forced the networks to drop Gary Condit
and go after those questions.
They reversed course. For a brief period known in corporate circles
as the "last quarter of last year," real news trumped the
slavish pursuit of bigger profits. Recently laid off veteran producers
at ABC were asked to rejoin the network for the duration of the terrorism
crisis. CBS and NBC made foreign news a top priority, even though NBC
had virtually left the field, and CBS had cut back so far it was covering
half the world from London.
Inside the industry,
once proud news divisions have been made into "production companies"
whose rate of profit has to be at least as high as its entertainment
divisions. So the definition
of "news" has changed.
Gossip, dramatic confrontation,
ideologically skewed commentary and human interest are now the
routine fare of any number of news magazines.
At PBS' Frontline we had a head start. Among other projects, we
already had documentaries on the shelf about bin Laden, Saudi Arabia
and the terror bombings of the 1980s. Using those as a starting point,
and exploiting the now established alliance with the New York Times,
we were able to pull together a half dozen in depth reports in less
than two months. Networks began using our footage. And when in the midst
of all this Enron collapsed, once again we had the experience of being
in possession of the only interviews with its now disgraced top executives
and their old friend, Vice President Dick Cheney. Enron and the story
of corporate power in Washington, and Al Qaeda and the story of why
and how we have become ground zero for Muslim anger, were either non-existent
or peripheral stories on the publicly owned airwaves.
Why is it that a skeletal crew at a nonprofit documentary program can
have cutting edge material ready, but the networks found themselves
with a few exceptions virtually empty-handed?
The answer can be traced, I believe, to the dismantling of broadcast
regulations. Not that the rules governing the communications marketplace
did not need to be changed. But the wholesale dismantling of the public
interest responsibilities of a broadcast license holder have left us
in a crisis. Hundreds of network and major producers and reporters trained
to service the public interest have been sacked or forced out.
Until the last two decades, networks lived in fear that the Federal
Communications Commission or the public would actually make them live
up to the regulations that were on the books. Unlike the print press,
whose distribution system is guaranteed by the Constitution and unregulated
by custom and tradition, broadcasters have to use the public airwaves.
Congress and Supreme Court decisions made it clear long ago that those
airwaves belong to the public. To qualify for a license, broadcasters
did not need money but rather a character and a commitment to broadcast
in the public interest. For that reason, the broadcast fees for a license
in television or radio has always been nominal. Today a broadcaster
with a station worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the marketplace
only has to pay $100 every eight years to renew his license.
Armed in effect with a license to mint money, those same broadcasters
never mention the public interest if they can help it. With the most
powerful lobby in Washington, they have been able to make us believe
that they own those airwaves. Broadcasters have been able to finesse
the federal government into non-enforcement of the public interest rule
- the very standard that once frightened them into providing real
in-depth news and public affairs programming, whether they wanted to
In their defense, broadcasters argue that the world has changed. Their
share of the market, they remind us, has decreased 40 percent over the
last 20 years - which means that 40 percent of the viewing audience
is watching cable or using their computers instead of watching network
television. They argue that they shouldn't be held to the public
interest standard because the cable companies aren't, and networks
are no longer the only source of information. As their argument goes,
viewers can get news 24 hours a day on cable or the Internet -
so why should their networks be held to an outdated rule?
What makes the situation
even more depressing
is seeing fund raising on public television - begging, really
- combined with slick corporate sponsorships, which are essentially
ads. Underscoring this tragedy is the fact that the
budget for public television is peanuts.
They talk that way in public. But when they want to sell advertising,
they argue that broadcast is the one way to reach the public. And their
advertising rates have never been higher. Television broadcasting over
the airwaves is in fact a hugely profitable business taking in more
than $44 billion a year. If you can make all that money, and not have
to carry "loss leaders" such as truly dedicated news divisions,
you are ahead of the game. As one network executive told me, inside
the industry those once proud news divisions have been made into "production
companies" whose rate of profit has to be at least as high as it
entertainment divisions. So the definition of "news" has changed.
Gossip, dramatic confrontation, ideologically skewed commentary and
human interest are now the routine fare of any number of news magazines.
The lack of regulation is a reflection of political muscle. The power
of the broadcasters over Congress has never been greater. Fearing that
power to deny them coverage in the local market or to work against them,
our representatives regularly vote for whatever network executives want.
After the collapse of Enron, whose campaign contributions and access
tied it to the Bush administration and both aisles of Congress, there
was an immediate move to pass campaign finance reform. The strategy
called for passing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill intact
without amendment so it could become law while there was overwhelming
momentum. But McCain-Feingold called for lower rates, and the possibility
of nearly free political advertising - a logical way to reduce
the amount of money needed in a campaign.
Publicly no one argued against it because it was so obvious: most of
the billion or more raised in political campaigns goes straight over
the airwaves. It looked like the broadcasting business would have to
sacrifice in the interest of democracy.
But very little is ironclad in Congress, and even less so when a bill
involves the most powerful political action group in Washington: the
broadcasting lobby. The industry, working with a stealth honed over
the last 75 years, was able to amend McCain-Feingold. Under the radar,
virtually unreported, was a change in the law that eliminated any cap
on what networks can charge in political campaigns. The print press
missed the story and, of course, the networks somehow managed not to
After September 11, the networks and the more than a thousand broadcast
television licensees gave into the idea of public interest programming.
For weeks the networks operated as non-profits purveyors of public information
forsaking ads when necessary. There was news coverage 24 hours a day.
And, by the way, ratings soared. But now, though bin Laden appears to
be at large and the threat of a new attack still looms, the networks
have reverted to their old routine.
The recent tempest over David Letterman replacing Koppel is a good
example. For the first time in 45 years the fate of a regularly scheduled
daily news program was in jeopardy. It was a fact the media missed again.
They covered the story the way the broadcasting executives like it:
as a celebrity contest. It was Letterman versus Koppel, more profit
versus less profit. Even Ted Koppel agreed with that formulation although
he did take umbrage over being called "irrelevant" by one
of his own network bosses.
What makes the situation even more depressing is seeing fund raising
on public television - begging, really - combined with slick
corporate sponsorships, which are essentially ads. Underscoring this
tragedy is the fact that the budget for public television is peanuts.
The total budget, for example, for Frontline for production infrastructure
and promotion is less than Katie Couric's salary and perks.
Most people agree that an informed electorate is essential for a true
democracy to function. A democracy in which people vote, and know what's
going on, and have a right to know what's going on through the
public airwaves, is the key to prosperity and to a free and open society.
If most people get their news from ABC News (as they like to brag) and
they're dependent on the over the air single broadcast medium for
information, the country's future remains in jeopardy. When profit
trumps the public interest and in-depth reporting withers, people don't
have the information they need to rationally understand the world, much
less make a wise choice about an elected official.
Today the networks have gone back to their old selves. Unfortunately,
the next time there is an attack most Americans will still be asking
the question "Why?" And the follow up question, "How
could this have happened?" will still be a mystery.
We'll at least know why it is we remain so uninformed, and why,
as the old adage goes, we have repeated history through our own ignorance.
Lowell Bergman is a correspondent for the New York Times, a producer-reporter
for PBS' news documentary show Frontline and a founder for the
Center for Investigative Journalism in San Francisco, CA.
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