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 . . .