Gary Bannerman Speaks Out

Postby Jack Bennest » Sun May 07, 2006 8:17 am

date of this opinion piece not known

Modern Media Ownership

Does anyone have a stake in this community?

If you study the history of any media outlet - print or broadcast - that dates back 25 years or more, you will find that they are, with only rare exception, an extension of the personality of the individual or group who built them. Libraries are full of books about the big names: Beaverbrook, Thomson, Hearst, Pulitzer, Paley of CBS, Ochs of the New York Times and the Grahams of the Washington Post.

Yet my focus is on smaller fish. Just about every historic radio and television station, the ones central to our way of life when we grew up, were reflections of the community they served, usually led by a prominent citizen who viewed business success, reputation and the ability to shape local events as equally important.

Today, media holdings are commodities bartered and traded among major corporations. It has become normal in Canadian cities for several radio stations to operate under one roof, using the same infrastructure. When broadcast organizations "merge" the news release usually is full of claptrap about "synergies" and bringing more resources to serve a community.

In radio, what it means is that one entire set of management and a complete team of technicians gets fired. Wherever possible, automated equipment controls the music and minimal numbers of newsmen are employed pretending to the public they are doing anything but reading what shows up on their computer. And they hop from station to station.

Only the external facade of each signal remains and exclusive "stars" who attempt to establish a unique personality for the station. Advertising sales, production and programming can be done by one small group for entire networks of stations.

Television "synergies" have been more difficult to hide, and the explosion of specialty cable channels has undermined the monopolies, but ownership here is also dangerously narrow.

The buzzword now among media megalopoly is "convergence." This means about the same thing as "synergy" in radio. It is a new way to lessen competition, fire people and depreciate the work of independent reporters and editors. Convergence means now that monopoly owners, who may have newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations within their empire, can attempt to have central newsrooms, advertising departments and other infrastructure serve all outlets.

From a journalism point of view, radio is a black hole. Only the best of stations invest time and money promoting stars and specialists among beat reporters. There is virtually no investigative reporting. Talk radio is a dollar a holler, strong opinions expressed by people without significant experience or credentials. A kook a minute.

Newspapers remain faithful to tradition to some extent, but there is far more pompous and ponderous subjective content than the kind of crusading investigative work which would be more useful. Television, despite its superficiality and artificiality, at least makes an effort to be our eyes wherever news exists.

All media, today, is cowardly, more afraid of the costs of litigation than a search for truth. The fear of being sued paralyses editors, muzzling far too many reporters and far too many great stories.

Media has harrumphed a lot about the Enrons and the World Dot Coms, and the failure of regulators to control these grotesque frauds, but where is the media liability? What, pray tell, did the major media do as these nightmares evolved? Media were the cheerleaders, blanketing cover pages and headlines with the glory of these disgraceful criminals. Public belief in these disastrous investments was largely fuelled by print and electronic puffery. Negligent stock brokers go to jail for promoting frauds. What about editors?

Given the wonders of modern technology and the tools that never existed when the legends of journalism were created, it's a professional tragedy. So much now available to achieve so little.

But mergers and acquisitions are building mountainous corporations. Decisions affecting a community are most often made at distant headquarters, ignorant of local tastes, needs and sensitivities.

Some fear that the new Ted Turners, Conrad Blacks, Max Beaverbrooks or Roy Thomsons will use their monopoly power to control society.

Have no fear. They know not what they have nor how to use it.

None that I've studied come close to resembling Turner's vision and tenacity, Black's eloquence, literacy and commitment, Beaverbrook's business genius and passion for society, and Thomson's sheer determination and love of the media sport.

Today's media barons are money managers and paper pushers. The business disasters of AOL Time Warner, Vivendi, Edgar Bronfmann Jr. and others serves as a beacon of hope for traditional media investments in serving their communities and audiences.
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Jack Bennest
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