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The Business Motive

I guess I officially qualify as an old fart now. I agree with much of Robert McChesney’s diagnosis of the media’s problems; I just lack faith in the prescription. I think that the “media politics” syndrome he describes has reached its advanced stages — too advanced, in my view, to be corrected or cured in the foreseeable future. The remaining hope, therefore, is to acknowledge the existence of this disorder and use that knowledge to offset or limit its most damaging effects.

Most of the phenomena McChesney describes, including media concentration, are actually reflections of a more powerful and disturbing trend. That trend is the conversion of the media business to “just another business.”

As recently as the 1960s, much of the newspaper and broadcast-news industry stood apart from the mainstream of corporate America. Obviously it was a business, as the great newspaper-family fortunes attest. But the fundamental goals of large news organizations were more complicated than those of, say, Mattel or Citibank. Mattel just had to make money. The Los Angeles Times, the news division of ABC, Newsweek magazine, and other news businesses had to make money, too — but they also had to meet formal and informal expectations of their “extra” duties as part of the Fourth Estate. The formal expectations included those imposed on broadcasters by the Federal Communications Commission. The informal ones included the expectations of Sulzbergers, Grahams, and Chandlers about the way their family businesses should behave — not to mention expectations from employees and managers, who quaintly thought their organizations were serving more than purely commercial ends.

As a business proposition, it was highly risky for The Washington Post to go after the Nixon administration over the Watergate scandal. But the Graham family’s conception of its paper’s role practically required it to behave “abnormally” for a corporation. (As McChesney says, the Prospect‘s own Paul Starr admirably traces the history of these conflicting ambitions in his new book, The Creation of the Media.)

Obviously the existence of nonbusiness motives in the media business had its imperfections. For instance, William Loeb. (For youngsters: As the longtime publisher of the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, Loeb prefigured Rush Limbaugh’s role as a bully from the right wing.) And obviously there are significant parts of the news business that still resist the gravitational pull toward the corporate-finance realm. Opinion magazines, from right and left, wish they had a normal business base; National Public Radio exists on grants and contributions; the three strongest newspapers in the country — The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal — are protected by abnormal corporate structures that leave their respective noblesse-oblige families in control.

But those are, at best, interesting exceptions to the fundamental trend. Media companies, like banks or fast-food chains, are basically under pressure to do more of whatever makes money and less of whatever does not. In a media world configured this way, the results are more or less inevitably those that McChesney describes. There are specialized publications offering high-end news to people willing and able to search or pay for it. (There are also reporters and broadcasters and even bloggers doing their level best every day to report on and explain the world.) And there is infotainment for the general public=

Can it be any different? Not unless the “differentness” of the news business is re-recognized and re-established. In his book, Starr emphasizes that the public, through political choice, sets rules for the media that reflect the temper of a given era. When a new republic was being formed, the rules encouraged the media to serve democratic ends. The rules of this era allow the media to serve strictly commercial ends.

I hope for a different set of expectations, but I’m not holding my breath.

This column originally appeared in the July 2004 edition of The American Prospect.