June 4, 2002

 






 

 

 

 

 

Profit over public interest, again

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 or not.

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 report it.

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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