In the spring of 1990, Philip Morris circulated a top-secret proposal suggesting that the nation's biggest cigarette manufacturer acquire a news company such as Knight Ridder in order to "improve the climate for the marketing and use of tobacco products."
Luckily, Big Tobacco never acquired Big Media, and the nation was saved from the prospect of newspapers run by the Marlboro Man. Since then, the threat of special interests' owning news outlets hasn't gone away. In fact, it has come closer to reality.
Earlier this month, at its annual meeting in Pittsburgh, the National Rifle Association (NRA) launched NRANews.com, a private news company that offers a daily Internet talk show and plans to acquire TV and radio stations.
NRA President Wayne LaPierre was candid about the goal: to give the NRA's media arm the same legal recognition as a mainstream news organization, so that it can push pro-gun views and candidates without the pesky constraints of the campaign-finance law's ban on certain donations.
In the U.S., there are few legal restrictions on who can own news outlets. After all, defense contractor General Electric owns NBC. So who's to say Wal-Mart or ExxonMobil — or Philip Morris, for that matter — shouldn't own a national television network or newspaper chain? There's little stopping political advocacy groups, either.
More than the mike
When Ronald Reagan uttered his famous line — "I paid for this microphone" — during a New Hampshire primary debate nearly 25 years ago, he probably never imagined that one day a prominent Democrat — former vice president Al Gore, who, with a business partner, recently bought the tiny digital-cable channel Newsworld International — would own not just the microphone, but also the whole news organization.
What's legally possible, though, isn't necessarily desirable. In a nation already bitterly divided along partisan lines, we don't need more media bias. An overtly political press is a clear step backward — to the 19th century, to be precise, when parties openly subsidized newspapers. And we certainly don't need to muddy the already-fuzzy line between public relations, advertising and news.
The NRA is one of the biggest magazine publishers in the country and trumpets its views through ads, news releases, newspapers and a slickly produced Web site. What it doesn't do — and shouldn't do — is pretend it is providing "news."
President Bush was correct when he described the news media as "the filter." That is, in fact, the journalist's job: to gather information from a variety of sources and put it through a fine-mesh screen to sift out inaccuracy, untruth, imbalance and unfairness.
The NRA, cigarette manufacturers and advocacy groups of all stripes aren't interested in "the truth." Their aim is to persuade the public of a point of view without being forced to answer uncomfortable questions from reporters.
As long as the Federal Election Commission can say with a straight face that NRA News isn't really just a vehicle for political advertising, the gun lobby may, in fact, get its wish. Many Americans will, no doubt, shrug at the notion of politicians owning news organizations. They distrust the media anyway and figure everyone is biased, so what's so awful about that bias being out in the open?
But that misses the point. The NRA's recent action corrupts the conventional definition of "news" and takes us one step closer to a world in which self-interested information generated by a swelling chorus of hawkers, hucksters and hacks is sold as journalism.
For lobbies and private interests to wrap themselves in the cloak of dispassionate news gathering when what is actually being practiced is PR and political advocacy is the ultimate cynical act. It demeans the journalistic craft and mocks the democratic principle that for self-governance to work, citizens must have access to accurate information.
The cigarette manufacturers never got their "filter," but the gun lobby may yet get its shot. If so, the American people and journalism stand to lose.
Susan E. Tifft teaches journalism and public policy at Duke University and is the co-author of 'The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times'.
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