Consolidation and Quality

Robert McChesney and John Nichols write:

Recently we have seen an acceleration of the collapse of journalistic standards. Veteran reporters like Walter Cronkite are appalled by the mergermania that has swept the industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news and gutting newsrooms. Rapid consolidation, evidenced most recently by the breakup of the once-venerable Knight-Ridder newspapers, the sale of the Tribune Company and its media properties and the swallowing of the Wall Street Journal by Murdoch's News Corp continues the steady replacement of civic and democratic values by commercial and entertainment priorities. But responsible journalists have less and less to say about newsroom agendas these days. The calls are being made by consultants and bean counters, who increasingly rely on official sources and talking-head pundits rather than newsgathering or serious debate.

The crisis is widespread, and it affects not just our policies but the politics that might improve them. There are two critical issues on which a free press must be skeptical of official statements, challenging to the powerful and rigorous in the search for truth. One of them is war--and in the case of the post-9/11 wars, our media have failed us miserably. (Even former White House press secretary Scott McClellan now acknowledges that the media were "complicit enablers" in the run-up to the Iraq invasion). The other issue is elections, when voters rely on media to provide them with what candidates, parties and interest groups often will not: a serious focus on issues that matter and on the responses of candidates to those issues. Instead, when the Democratic race was reaching its penultimate stage, the dominant story was a ridiculously overplayed discussion about Barack Obama's former minister. Before the critical Pennsylvania primary, studies show, the provocative Rev. Jeremiah Wright got more coverage than Obama's rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton. And forget about issues--the most covered policy debate of the period, a ginned-up argument about whether to slash gas taxes for the summer, garnered only one-sixth as much attention as Wright.

I find these complaints about quality plausible, but the alleged connection of these problems to mergers and consolidation is hard for me to see. Preventing firms from assembling chains of newspapers (for example) wouldn't alleviate the declining revenue issues that are driving papers to cut their budgets. What preventing consolidation would do is make it difficult for newspaper firms to realize efficiencies (does every big city newspaper really need its own set of film and television critics? do the LA Times and Chicago Tribune need separate Washington bureaux?) that might let them still produce a decent product in the new economic climate.

What does seem true to me is that really excellent journalism is probably not compatible with strict adherence to a profit-maximizing imperative. It's not a coincidence that the most interesting newspapers and magazines in the United States tend to be run as private or family-controlled or non-profit enterprises, thus allowing managers to pursue ideals other than the pure pursuit of profit. That's long been the case and will presumably continue to be the case, and the issue is largely one of whether or not an adequate number of new people and families can be persuaded to step up, as some old players (like the Bancroft's) decide to abandon journalism.

But it's difficult for me to see how enhanced FCC scrutiny of proposed mergers is going to compel news organizations to become more substantive in their coverage. And it's very difficult for me to see how enhanced FCC scrutiny of proposed mergers is going to compel news organizations to become more skeptical of official claims. It seems to me that such scrutiny would make news organizations more inclined to shade their coverage in order to curry favor with the powers that be.