Tales of the Sausage Factory: A lesser known side of consolidation

As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, group owner Sinclair Broadcasting will not air the Nightline episode in which Ted Koppel will read the names of all American troops killed in Iraq. Whether one agrees with Sinclair’s decision or not, it highlights how concentration in the hands of a single owner can shape news nationally. The controversy has an added level of interest since Sinclair has agressively pursued centralcasting news, which further re-enforces the ability of a politically motivated group owners to govern the national debate.

Most discussion of media consolidation has focused on the dangers of vertical consolidation. News Corp. and Viacom hold huge interests in addition to their broadcast properties, and critics of consolidation (like me) have argued that this creates conflicts of interest in their news coverage.

But another trend in consolidation has been toward large group owners. Sinclair Broadcasting, Paxson, Belo, and Scrips-Howard are not exactly household words (and this ignores the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership companies of Hearst-Argyle, NY Times, Tribune, and Post/Newsweek). But they own huge swaths of stations.

And, if someone owns huge numbers of stations, they can set the tenor of local and national debate. It is bad enough if a local affiliate decides to censor programming for political reasons (we used to require local affiliates to show both sides of an issue rather than present only one side, on a silly theory that democracy depends on exposing citizens to mutliple perspectives). But to allow a single company or a handful of companies to make such decisions for the entire nation threatens us all.

Now add to this mix the growth of “centralcasting.” Many Sinclair-owned stations broadcast “local” news filmed in their corporate HQ of Hunt Valley, MD. Sinclair distributes it nationally to its affiliates and inserts limited local content (like weather) at the point of broadcast. Not that Sinclair ever tells viewers what pieces are centralcast. Viewers think its all local.

But they aren’t getting local coverage with local perspectives and events of local interest. They are getting a single source mass produced product, which Sinclair at least feels free to determine based on its political content.

Full disclosure on my views on the Nightline content. I supported the Iraq war and, although daily dismayed by the way the Bush administration has handled the reconstruction, do not beleive we should pull out. When I heard about the Nightline show, my reaction was “cool” and “Very fitting.” I didn’t think it was partisan at all.

Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. We have a strong tradition of “yad vashem” an everlasting name, and listing the names of Holocaust or other victims is a standard memorial and tribute to their lives.

And ABC has done this sort of thing before. On April 9, 2003, they did a list of names and montage of photos of the war dead, as tribute to their courage. On Septemebr 11, 2002, they did an on air list of all the names of the September 11 victims.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, the Administration and its ardent supporters have been obsessed with the conventional wisdom that evidence of war dead will drain American courage and have done their best to supress these images, and going to ridiculous lengths to attack anyone running such images.

Americans are not averse to sacrifices, but they are averse to _needless_ sacrifices. We do not need to hide our war dead or dishonor their sacrifice by refusing to honor their memories. We need to see allegations of corneyism and kickbacks investigated, and public examples made of those who have dishonored the sacrifices of our soldiers and sullied our country’s reputation among the nations by profiteering.

Stay tuned . . .


  1. This is a universal issue. Australia is suffering the same consolidation of media, the two big voices are Murdoch and Packer who own most of the mass media. The Fairfax group (Sydney Morning Herald : http://www.smh.com.au) have been marginilized enough that they can almost be viewed as fringe media now. Their paper is stronger for it though.

    Mass media has been broken for quite a while now. One of the reasons I like the idea of a Ratification/Sortition model for an Australian Republic is that it would be harder for elite interest legislation to get through. I would trust a plumbers judgement on this issue over a politicians anyday.


  2. John McCain has sent Sinclair a very strong and well argued letter protesting their decision. He concludes by saying that their action is unpatriotic. Strong stuff, and right on the money.

    I’ve opposed this war since its inception. And whether the country would have supported it had the reasons behind it been honestly debated is something we’ll never know.

    To lead a country to war is a terrible responsibility. But in a democracy it should not be the leader who makes the decision to go to war, it should be the people. It is the leader’s responsibilty, his solemn duty. to state his case and let the people decide– after earnest debate.

    This country never had an earnest debate about our current war in Iraq. Its cowardly media never forced the most important facts into the open. Instead they spent their energies coming up with flashy logos featuring flags and other patriotic imagery. The president misled the people, the people were willingly misled, and the media were willing accomplisses. As a nation were afraid to look at the issues honestly.

    It’s like the Jack Nichoson/Tom Cruise showdown scene in “A Few Good Men.”

    Colonel: “What do you want me to say?”

    Lieutenant: “I want the truth.”

    Colonel: “You can’t handle the truth.”

    And now we have Sinclair deciding for us that we can’t handle the truth. The truth is that these men and women, whose name will be read on Nightline, are dead. They ain’t coming back. That’s the truth. We owe it to them to face that truth.

    Whether they should have been sent in the first place is a totally different question. Harold and I disagree on that. That’s fine. Whether their sacrifice will bring about some ultimate good is unknown, at least as I see things today.

    But if their deaths lead us closer to becoming a nation where news is propoganda and where merely stating true and important facts requires political “courage”, then their sacrifices may indeed turn out to be in vain.

    I remember a very similar situation that happened in 1966, when I was in 8th grade. Some people had organized a reading of the names of the soldiers who had died in Viet Nam. There were thousands of names by then. And this was denounced as a partisan publicity stunt by people who thought it was “subverting the war effort.”

    “They don’t even know how to pronounce the names” one comentator said. “They don’t care anything about these dead soldiers. They’re just trying to arouse emotion to make their point.”

    And I remember thinking, “Well even if the people who are organizing this thing DO have a political agenda, even if they DON”T know how to pronounce all the names. The guy is dead, for God’s sake. What the heck is wrong with somebody at least reading his name? In fact A LOT of guys are dead. Isn’t it worth hearing their names read in sequence?”

    I thought arguments against reading the names was phony then, and I think it’s phony now. The difference in how I think about these two situations is that now I see the relationship between media consolidation and political discourse, whereas then I had a naive sense that at least the facts were getting out.

  3. “Politics” has become a dirty word. Politics means “about policy.” Policy is our decisions about what to do. When someone says “don’t make the war news political,” they mean “don’t talk about what to do.”

    There is nothing wrong with “politicizing” any matter of policy. Ever.

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