Last March, about 350 executives of the broadcast industry descended on Washington, as they do each year, for a week of concentrated lobbying, organized by the NAB. Key members of Congress and top aides from the FCC were invited to give speeches and briefings to the assembled group, and to answer specific questions about the industry's hot-button economic issues. The various state association members then piled into taxis and sped off to visit their congressional delegations on Capitol Hill.
The five-person group from South Dakota included three broadcast executives and a hired lobbyist. The fifth member--there to lobby, not to cover the trip--was J.P. Skelly, a well-known reporter and radio news director in Mitchell, South Dakota.
The group visited the offices of South Dakota's two Democratic senators, Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson. Interviewed afterward, Skelly said they talked about low-power FM radio (which broadcasters continue to oppose) and a requirement that satellite home video carry the programming of local TV stations (which broadcasters favor). Also, Skelly said, they argued against a proposal that would require broadcasters to give free airtime to campaigning politicians, an idea being pushed by public interest groups and some members of Congress. The broadcast industry condemns it as unconstitutional.
Daschle, in a speech before the entire NAB assembly, complimented Skelly as "somebody I talk to a lot on the radio. He interviews me and is one of the best newsmen in the state of South Dakota."
Later, I asked Skelly if he felt awkward about lobbying the same politicians he interviews on the air. "Generally, within the station walls, I'm wearing my news hat," he said, "and really I'm impartial about it. We don't report on a lot of broadcasting issues as such, so it's not as important as all that."
The South Dakota Broadcasters Association certainly doesn't feel awkward about Skelly's dual role. It issued a press release announcing that Skelly had won a journalism prize and then proudly stating that he "has lobbied members of Congress..regarding campaign finance reform and other issues." (Broadcasters have opposed campaign finance legislation aimed at reducing the amount of money in politics, because of the impact that could have on political advertising.)
The broadcasting lobby benefits greatly from the web of personal relationships it forges with politicians at the local level. These relationships can be especially close in states with relatively small populations. Daschle, the Senate minority leader, says he spends "a good deal of time traveling around South Dakota, especially in the summer. I get to all 66 counties every year, and one of my favorite things to do is to drop in on J.P. [Skelly] or one of the stations in the heart of the rural community and talk about some of the issues, the farm reports. Sometimes they'll even let me read them."
He says, "I've spent so much time in studios over the years that I've been in public life, I feel like a member of NAB."
Paula Maes of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association describes something similar in her state. She says when a legislator comes home from Washington, "he'll visit our radio stations in Hobbs or in Roswell or Las Cruces, and he's on a first-name basis with these managers."
The NAB tries to track all of those local contacts. The Texas Association of Broadcasters, for instance, posted a notice to members advising that Congress "is not in session at this time, so broadcasters should take the opportunity to get to know their members better while they're in their districts." It asked that they "please report all contacts" back to the association. "Such information is extremely helpful in our lobbying efforts on your behalf."
Any local broadcaster who meets with a member of Congress is expected to file a contact report, which goes into a database at NAB headquarters in Washington. It allows the NAB to categorize lawmakers as friends or foes. The information is also used to keep tabs on lawmakers issue by issue, much like the House and Senate whips tally their members' votes.
Dennis Wharton, the NAB spokesman, points out that this is not unusual for Washington interest groups. "The cable industry does it, the computer industry does it. It's a very common lobbying practice," he says.
Wharton is right. Still, when a giant media organization is keeping such dossiers, it's hard to blame politicians for feeling a little paranoid.
Newspapers' basic product has always been news, while the basic product of broadcasting is entertainment, with news as an adjunct. This may explain why traditions of journalistic ethics don't run as deep in broadcasting.
At this year's Border Governors Conference in Santa Fe, a KOB-TV anchorwoman, Monica Armenta, introduced the governor of New Mexico at a reception. "Bill Richardson has done more for New Mexico in two legislative sessions than any previous governor accomplished in decades," she told a crowd of several hundred people. Armenta has interviewed Richardson on the air many times. She has a 30-minute Sunday show that often discusses politics.
Both Albuquerque newspapers reported her remarks, along with the fact that they had been written for her by a member of the governor's staff. The Albuquerque Tribune called it "one of the most glowing introductions" the governor had ever received.
Considering the criticism she got from the papers, Armenta told me she might not give such an introduction if she had it to do over again. "Lesson learned," she said. However, she added, "I've done hundreds of these over the years, and so have many other people in this market, who I've never seen mentioned for introducing anyone, although the introductions were not that different from what I did."
KOB's station manager, Mike Burgess, told the Tribune that he welcomes the publicity his station gets from appearances by its newspeople. As for Armenta's specific remarks, he said she was "probably wanting our governor to look good before all the other governors" at the conference.
Not many major newspapers have such lax standards. Newspapers tend to discourage just about any kind of partisan activity by their newspeople. This year, the Baltimore Sun banned a reporter from writing about state government after she gave the governor of Maryland a baby bib for his newborn son. The New York Times won't allow a reporter's spouse to have a bumper sticker favoring a candidate. Many newspapers would also disallow the kind of public appearance Sam Donaldson made at the NAB convention. And newspaper organizations generally don't give awards to politicians.
Since 1997, when the Newspaper Guild merged with the Communications Workers of America, which is very active politically, the leaders of the combined organization have had to deal with some cultural dissonance. When the CWA endorsed John Kerry this year, Linda Foley, as head of the Guild, abstained on behalf of her newspaper journalist members. And when the group makes endorsements at its convention, Foley says, "someone gets up and abstains and makes a speech about why that's important for the reporters."
Still, consolidation of ownership is closing the gap between print and electronic media. Belo Corp., once mainly a newspaper chain, now gets half its revenues from television. The Tribune Co.'s broadcasting and entertainment division accounts for 39 percent of its profits, and the company's CEO, Dennis FitzSimons, got his start not in newspapers but as a buyer of TV time for a New York City ad agency. The NAB's board of directors includes executives of entities most people think of as newspaper companies: Media General, Gannett, Post-Newsweek, Tribune, Belo and E.W. Scripps. Executives from such companies are also active in various state broadcasters associations. Representatives from Gannett can be found in the anterooms of the FCC just about as often as those from Disney. And at last year's convention of the Newspaper Association of America, who should turn up as a featured speaker but Michael Powell of the FCC.
So they're all in it together now, all lobbying harder than ever, and all subject to a similar range of ethical pitfalls and embarrassments.
In May of last year, William Dean Singleton walked into a small ambush at the Senate Commerce Committee. He was there to speak on behalf of the NAA and the company he heads, MediaNews Group, which owns newspapers and TV stations from coast to coast.
The issue at hand was whether companies should have more leeway to own both print and broadcast outlets in the same city. Such combinations can enhance profits, and Singleton thought they should be allowed. Many of the senators did not. They cited the loss of diverse voices, and they feared that a few companies, given too much control over information in a community, might shape the news to their own interests.
Not so, Singleton assured them. News outlets owned by the same company "generally present diverse perspectives." And large newspaper chains allow their papers "local autonomy and editorial freedom."
When Singleton was done speaking, the committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), sprang a trap. The senator "squinted and leaned into the microphone," according to a Washington Post account. In his hand was a list of newspaper editorials about a controversial bill passed by Congress in 1996. It was the same bill Bob Dole had opposed, the one giving TV stations free use of the digital broadcast spectrum. Some newspaper chains--those that owned TV stations--stood to gain a lot from the bill. Others, without TV holdings, would gain nothing.
And the curious thing, to McCain, was that every paper on his list that had editorialized in favor of the bill was owned by a company that would benefit from it. And every paper that had written in opposition was owned by a company with little to gain.
"Do you think that's an anomaly?" McCain asked Singleton.
"I do," Singleton replied.
"So," said McCain, voice heavy with sarcasm, "it's a coincidence."
A growing body of evidence suggests that the economic interests of media companies really do affect their news and editorial content. Scholars are finding interesting ways to document this.
The study McCain produced at the hearing was by J.H. Snider and another researcher, Benjamin Page of Northwestern University.
Todd Schaefer, a political science professor at Central Washington University, has done a similar study of newspaper editorials.
In the late 1990s, President Clinton proposed that TV stations be required to give national political candidates free airtime to express their views. The idea was to lower campaign costs and give underfunded candidates a better chance to be heard. The FCC backed the proposal for a time, and it was included in the original McCain-Feingold bill regulating campaign finance. The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial, asserted that free airtime might help eliminate "the legalized bribery that's at the heart of corruption in American politics." However, broadcasting lobbyists attacked the idea as violating their First Amendment rights.
Schaefer analyzed newspaper editorials on the subject. Of the editorials appearing in papers without an ownership stake in broadcasting, 73 percent favored free airtime. But of those editorials in papers with broadcast holdings, only 30 percent favored free airtime. "Interestingly," he wrote, "none of the papers owning broadcast interests informed their readers of that fact in their editorials."
Last year, AJR looked at the editorials of a single newspaper chain, the Tribune Co., on the subject of cross-ownership of newspaper and television properties. (See "News Blackout," December 2003/January 2004.) The combining of print, radio, television and online news is central to Tribune's business strategy. It probably exploits the synergies of such multiple ownership--cross-promotion, the sharing of newsgathering resources and the packaging of multimedia ad deals--more systematically than any other company. (See "Synergy City," May 1998.) Tribune was lobbying fiercely against restrictions that would force it to sell off some of these overlapping properties, and its editorials reflected that bias. All five Tribune papers that editorialized on the subject favored abolishing the restrictions.
In 2000, Martin Gilens and Craig Hertzman of Yale University published a study of coverage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a landmark piece of legislation that loosened caps on radio and TV station ownership. These researchers went beyond editorials and looked at the news coverage of papers with and without an economic interest. They made a list of the arguments advanced for and against the legislation and then counted the number of times those arguments appeared in news stories. They found that papers owned by corporations with no TV stations (Times Mirror, Central Newspapers, McClatchy and Copley) mentioned negative consequences of the legislation three-and-a-half times more often than they mentioned positive consequences. And papers owned by corporations with nine or more TV stations (Gannett, E.W. Scripps, Pulitzer and Lee Enterprises) mentioned positive consequences more than twice as often as negative consequences.
"This study provides systematic evidence that the financial interests of media owners influence not only newspaper editorials but straight news reporting as well," the authors concluded.
Gilens, who is now at Princeton, says that he was "quite surprised" at how convincing the findings were. He says he has no idea exactly how the bias gets transmitted from top executives to reporters and editors. "I do think there has to be some kind of communication going on," he says.
Mark Crispin Miller, director of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University, has a theory about that. He writes that "the chill of censorship" has "less to do with outright interference by the parent company (although that happens) than with editors and reporters learning what it takes to get ahead."
When the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Columbia Journalism Review surveyed 300 journalists, both print and broadcast, one out of five said they had faced criticism or pressure from bosses after doing a story that was seen as damaging to the company's financial interests. And one in four said they had voluntarily softened the tone of stories or avoided doing them altogether for fear of what their bosses might say.
That could explain what happened last year at the Tampa Tribune. The Tribune and WFLA-TV in Tampa are both owned by Media General. They are housed in the same building and have an unusually close relationship, sharing resources, teaming reporters on news stories and promoting each other's work. Last October, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post wrote that a WFLA morning show called "Daytime" was selling some of its interview segments to local businesses for $2,500 a pop, a practice the Post criticized the next day on its editorial page. Broadcasting & Cable advanced the story a few days later, quoting a Media General official as saying some of the company's other stations were considering launching shows similar to "Daytime."
Although "Daytime" had been airing for more than two years, the Tribune had ignored the matter of the paid interviews until the Post revealed it. The Tribune then ran a story loaded with lame justifications by three Media General executives. A commentary in Broadcasting & Cable said the story "read like a corporate press release," which it did.
In February 2002, David Folkenflik, who covers the media for the Baltimore Sun, found himself in an ethical dilemma and decided to face it head-on. In a column, he told readers: "The people who sign my paychecks entered into an agreement last week with some of the folks that I write about, and boy, am I conflicted about it."
He went on to explain that the Sun had formed a news and advertising partnership with Baltimore's WMAR-TV, under which the two would trade ad time on the air and ad space in the paper, Sun reporters would appear on WMAR's newscasts to talk about their stories, and the station would plug the next day's edition of the Sun.
"On the one hand," wrote Folkenflik, "readers may reasonably wonder whether The Sun will tilt its coverage in favor of WMAR because of their new partnership. On the other hand, there is no other hand."
In an interview, he said he'd "had an unbelievable number of conversations" about the tie-in while interviewing people at rival stations. "It's either a subtext, under the surface, or it comes to the surface real quick," he says.
Various news companies--including Tribune, Belo and Media General--have similar cooperative arrangements. They call them synergies; others call them conflicts of interest.
"Almost everyone in Big Media has got one of these issues," says Rob Karwath, business editor of the Chicago Tribune. He was talking mainly about how media companies risk losing credibility by owning sports teams. The Tribune owns the Chicago Cubs, airs their games on its broadcast stations and covers them in the newspaper.
"Just the relationship opens you up to questions," Karwath says, "and not necessarily press-critic-type questions, but questions in the public about, well, did you pull a punch there?... The sports guys deal with it all the time."
Last year the Newspaper Guild/CWA filed comments with the FCC arguing against cross-ownership of newspaper and TV outlets in the same city. The union said that reporters and editors from around the country had provided "a wealth of anecdotes to demonstrate how ownership influences news reporting." One of these accounts, said the union, was from a reporter at a paper whose owner also owned a local TV station. This reporter said:
"When the Nielson TV ratings come out, I know I am expected to write a big story if the co-owned station's ratings are good and to bury the story if the co-owned station's ratings are down. Or another example. A few years ago, I ran a survey asking readers what they thought of local television news programs. My general manager told me the next time I do something that might affect our sister station, I better check with him first. I got the message--I haven't done a similar project since then."
All of this--the structural conflicts of interest, plus the ways in which media organizations throw their weight around, plus their flattering of friendly politicians with awards, plus the evidence of self-serving news bias--damages news credibility in ways not seen before. It is breeding a profound cynicism about the news and those who report it.
Media lobbyists have even sown cynicism about the First Amendment. They use freedom of the press as an all-purpose bludgeon, wielding it in support of things that enhance their profits but which many thoughtful Americans abhor. Cable TV uses the First Amendment to fend off curbs on violent programming aimed at children. The Association of National Advertisers uses it in response to criticism of deceptive drug ads and junk food ads that foster obesity in children. Last year, in a speech, Dennis FitzSimons, the Tribune Co.'s CEO, associated free-speech rights with beer and wine ads, prescription drug ads and resistance to proposals for free airtime for politicians. The Media Institute, a media-supported Washington think tank, has argued that the First Amendment protects all kinds of pharmaceutical advertising, tobacco advertising, sex and violence on TV, commercial e-mail and bomb-making information on the Internet.
When the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law came before the U.S. Supreme Court last year, 42 ex-members of Congress--from both major parties and all points on the political spectrum--asked the court to uphold it. In an amicus brief, the former lawmakers said the measure was needed because America's campaign finance system had "corrupted and undermined the legislative process." The court's majority, in its ruling, tackled head-on the question of whether campaign donations have a corrupting influence, and it concluded: "Both common sense and the ample record in these cases confirm Congress's belief that they do."
Broadcasters have fought consistently, though, both in the courts and in Congress, to prevent restrictions on money in politics. The politicians know perfectly well why this is. Most of the money they collect--perhaps as much as 80 percent--goes straight into radio and television advertising. As former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) once described it, "You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations." And while many citizens deplore this, it is openly celebrated in broadcasting circles. In April, Broadcasting & Cable joyfully reported that candidates might pour a record $1 billion into national and local races in 2004. "The early mudslinging between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry may not be pretty," the magazine said, "but it will be very profitable for stations." In their arguments for maintaining the unrestricted flow of all this money, however, industry lobbyists don't cite their profits; they cite the First Amendment.
Yet, when it suits their interests, these same lobbyists turn around and argue for more restraints on speech--the speech of their competitors. One branch of the media will often use the First Amendment against another.
Cable companies say that because of the First Amendment, the government can't force them to carry all the signals of local broadcast stations. But the NAB, representing those stations, argues the opposite. Satellite broadcast services say they have a First Amendment right to beam weather and traffic information into local markets. (See Broadcast Views, page 104.) But the NAB, fearing the competition, wants the government to prohibit them from doing that. The NAB also thinks the government should hold cable TV (a voluntary service for which people pay) to the same decency standards as free, over-the-air TV. The cable industry says this would violate its First Amendment rights.
"I can't recall people from the media relying on the First Amendment unless it was going to help them economically," says Bill Luther, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. Until he left office in 2002, Luther was on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is heavily lobbied by all kinds of media interests. "I didn't see any principles being advanced," he says. "It's all just pocketbook."
We need to see the media business for what it truly has turned into: a huge economic special interest. People in government see it that way, and so do many ordinary folk. A recent report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism speaks of a public perception, apparent in various polls, that the media are driven "by financial and self-aggrandizing motives rather than the public interest."
Every journalistic code of ethics recognizes the danger in that. RTNDA's code, for instance, begins by saying electronic journalists "should understand that any commitment other than service to the public undermines trust and credibility."
Yet that's exactly what journalists do--undermine credibility--when they go beyond newsgathering and begin to associate themselves with their industry's economic and lobbying activities. Giving awards to politicians or moderating a panel of government regulators for the NAB compromises them just as much as if they did those things for trial lawyers or members of the National Rifle Association. The NAB is just as political as those groups.
Furthermore, in its lobbying, the media industry often undermines what many journalists consider to be clean government. We have touched very briefly on some of this--the political money game, the junkets, the revolving door.
Ideally, newspeople would not only stay clear of those activities, they would make sure the public knew about them. It's a real problem when one of Washington's most powerful interests doesn't get mentioned on the news, because it owns the news.
As a practical matter, what can journalists do? At a minimum, they could do more of what David Folkenflik did with WMAR--acknowledge the ethical problems and disclose the connections as frankly as possible. They could also put a lot more distance between themselves and their industry's paid political pleaders. When asked to perform at those conventions, sales conferences and awards ceremonies, they could start saying no.
Senior writer Charles Layton wrote about coverage (and lack thereof) of the debate over the FCC's plans to revise media concentration rules in AJR's December 2003/January 2004 issue.
Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
In "Lobbying Juggernaut," we failed to make clear that, although the National Association of Broadcasters represents radio and television stations throughout the United States, the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) do not belong to the NAB. They have their own lobbying operations, which do not always agree with the NAB on issues affecting the broadcast industry.