The millions of Americans who tune into Madison Square Garden next week will see the pageantry of a party in full, with a primetime-friendly roster of speakers, a tightly choreographed throng of delegates and the ever present balloon cascades. They'll also catch an occasional glimpse of the less orderly theater of political protest taking place citywide.
What Americans won't see is perhaps the most important story of them all, one the mainstream media are loath to report in an election year. That, of course, is the story of the mainstream media themselves.
The real elephant in The Garden this year is the rise of big media to the commanding heights of power and influence in America. The eight top media firms in New York to cover the conventions now rank among Fortune's 2004 list of the 300 largest corporations in the world. General Electric, which owns NBC, USA Network, and Universal Pictures to name a few, posted $134.2 billion in worldwide revenues in 2003 -- more than five times the gross domestic product of Azerbaijan.
This year, Forbes magazine calculated that over one-third of the 40 richest Americans generated the bulk of their income through media or media related industries.
Most mainstream journalists seem to tune out these facts about their bosses -- at least as far as their own reporting is concerned. Moreover, they believe the old "J" school saw that media -- as the Fourth Estate -- serve to challenge the politically powerful; not to play in their game of influence.
The lay of the modern media landscape reveals a different view. The rise of 21st century media translates in Washington to hundreds of millions of big-media dollars spent to steer politicians toward industry-friendly legislation and to influence election outcomes.
From 1999 through 2003, Washington lobbyists pocketed $160 million in media largesse to support dismantling rules against conglomerates buying up more independent media outlets in more markets, according to a recent report by Common Cause. In the last eight years, big media has tipped more than $30 million into the war chests of federal candidates, with the larger share (62 percent) ending up in the hands of regulation-hostile Republicans.
All this political grease boils down to a virtual mainstream news blackout of stories devoted to the intertwined relationship of big media and politics.
With a mind to lifting the lid on this hidden affair, the thousands of journalists in New York to cover politics this week might consider the following questions:
The surge of media consolidation, that began in America during the early nineties, continues unabated. Viacom alone controls more than a dozen cable networks, 35 local television stations, five major movie production studios, the largest home video rental chain and over 175 radio stations, as well as major publishing and Internet companies. These corporation's news executives still present themselves as stewards of the Fourth Estate -- keeping in check the powers of the corporate and political elite -- even while they're being tapped for membership in this same class.
Question: How does the media's consolidation under a handful of politically involved corporations affect the quality of their political reporting, especially when questioning the government line?
From 1999 through 2003, General Electric doled out $69,610,000 to media lobbyists in Washington, DC. The company, which controls NBC, CNBC and MSNBC, also contributed more than $5 million to federal candidates seeking office over the last eight years.
Question: Should mainstream news outlets do more to inform the public about their corporate owners' efforts to write media policy and influence elections?
Airtime for Democracy
The spiraling costs of airtime for political ads is the main reason candidates raise increasing sums of campaign money from wealthy special interests. This year, broadcasters - that were granted licenses to use publicly-owned airwaves, free of charge -- will rake in a record $1.5 billion from political ads. At the same time, radio and television news coverage of local, state and federal campaigns has plummeted, with more than half of all top-rated local television newscasts airing no campaign coverage in the seven weeks leading up to Election Day 2002.
Question: Should the Federal Communications Commission require broadcasters to devote a portion of their programming to candidates and other civic and electoral affairs as a condition of receiving their government-granted licenses?
Conflicts of Interest
It's not uncommon for CNN to lead off its news programs by trumpeting a political story reported by TIME. What is rare, however, is for their anchors to reveal to viewers that one company -- Time Warner -- owns both CNN and TIME. These newsrooms often base story selection not on the relevance of the news at hand, but on their bosses' wish to cross-promote titles.
Question: Should news organizations have to reveal their corporate ties when "inter-sourcing" stories from affiliated media outlets?
The Fairness Doctrine
In 1987, a bill to turn the Fairness Doctrine into federal law was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan after furious lobbying by the media industry. Today, most Americans still believe that news media are held to this rule, which required broadcasters to cover controversial issues in their community, and to do so by offering opposing views and diverse political perspectives. This is not the case. An August 2004 Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study of Fox's "Special Report with Brit Hume" found that conservatives accounted for 72 percent of the show's political guests, while centrists made up 15 percent and progressives only 14 percent.
Question: Should a new Fairness Doctrine be put in place to guide broadcasters that bill their news coverage as "fair and balanced" and for those that transmit their news programs over publicly owned airwaves?
-- Timothy Karr is executive director of MediaChannel.org, which this week released "The Unofficial Media Guide to the 2004 Republican National Convention." The Guide, available at www.mediafordemocracy.us/mfd/rncguide.html, is being made available to the more than 16,000 journalists expected to come to New York next week to cover the convention.
© MediaChannel.org, 2004.