Wednesday, January 02, 2008

We Bring [only those] Good Things [that do not harm the bottom line] to Life!

Coming on the heels of the FCC's most recent misguided decision to relax media ownership rules, the allegations described in this Reuters piece are more than germane:

A former "Dateline NBC" correspondent claims that in the aftermath of September 11, the network diverted him from reporting on al Qaeda and instead wanted him to ride along with the country's "forgotten heroes," firefighters.

John Hockenberry, who was laid off from "Dateline" in early 2005, wrote in this month's Technology Review that on the Sunday after the September 2001 attacks he was pitching stories on the origins of al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism. He claimed that then-NBC programming chief Jeff Zucker, who came into a meeting Hockenberry was having with "Dateline" executive producer David Corvo, said "Dateline" should instead focus on the firefighters and perhaps ride along with them a la "Cops," the Fox reality series.

According to Hockenberry, Zucker said "that he had no time for any subtitled interviews with jihadists raging about Palestine." [...]

Hockenberry is a distinguished fellow at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. But for more than 20 years, he was a broadcast journalist working at National Public Radio, ABC News and from 1996-2005, a correspondent at "Dateline." Hockenberry's blistering article trained much of its fire on the controversial NBC newsmagazine, which has been criticized for its "To Catch a Predator" series -- a "highly rated pile of programming debris," in Hockenberry's words.

Another bombshell is Hockenberry's claims that General Electric, NBC's parent company, discouraged him from talking to the Bin Laden family about their estranged family member. Hockenberry asked GE, which does business with the Bin Laden family company, to help him get in contact with them. Instead, a PR executive called Hockenberry's hotel room in Saudi Arabia and read a statement about how GE didn't see its "valuable business relationship" with the Bin Laden Group as having anything to do with "Dateline." [emphasis added]

It is entirely rational for large corporations with diversified holdings to seek to ensure that none of its parts is cannibalizing or otherwise detracting value and profitability from the other. Thus, GE has a valid business interest in trying to quash stories that might queer existing business relationships, or otherwise reflect badly on a brand within the corporate family. The problem for news consumers, and the public in general, is that such deference to narrow business interests is not an ideal calculus for the impartial dissemmenation of all the relevant facts (even and especially the embarrassing ones).

Given this inherent, likely incurable, conflict of interest, decisions like the ones made by the FCC to allow fewer and fewer corporate entities to own larger and larger stakes of the media landscape exacerbates the dynamic and will inevitably result in an increasingly narrow band of information deemed acceptable for distribution to consumers. Such control of information by the few does not bode well for the nurturing of a well-informed polity - an essential component of a healthy, functioning democracy. You know, the type of stuff that we like to lecture other nations about, when we're not invading them to teach them these lessons with shock and awe tutorials.

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