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Media Monoliths Should Talk To The People

Ryan Blethen

The kings of technology, media and investment gathered last week in Sun Valley, Idaho, for what has become the event for those who dominate their fields, and others, to the detriment of Americans.

The annual getaway, put on by investment banker Herbert Allen, has long attracted the traditional conglomeration mongers such as Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. What would a conference put on by an investment banker be without fresh faces from the Internet? So, room has been made for junior members such as Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. All are formidable names that only heighten the excitement of a conference with Bill Gates and super-investor Warren Buffett.

Strip away the star power. Look at the companies represented. Most have been at a feast of voracious competitors - or were once small, innovative companies that sold out to quench the Biggies' insatiable thirst to quell competition.

I worry when that much power is concentrated in one area, even if it is for just a week of strategic thinking and golf. I worry that this media summit is hosted by somebody whose profession is to make money, and all the attendees are potential clients. I worry that the most visible person from the news media in attendance is Rupert Murdoch, who will no doubt be flaunting The Wall Street Journal as his at next year's meeting.

Reading the stories of the Allen meetings triggered thoughts of a media conference I attended in January. The National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, Tenn., generated far less press than the recent Sun Valley gathering, and had a much different mission.

Where Allen and Co. focused on corporate strategy, and pondered transactions and acquisitions, the Media Reform conference - which was put on by Free Press, an organization that works media policy and encourages the public to engage in the media debate - focused on the problems with the Biggies of Sun Valley, and how the nation's media could become less concentrated and better able to serve democracy, not shareholders.

Both conferences would benefit from a dose of each other. It's doubtful invitations will be extended to speakers from the Memphis conference such as Bill Moyers, who has railed against the concentration of media.

The reverse could, and should, happen. Google's Brin and Page would be a nice addition to the Media Reform conference. Google now owns YouTube, which has become a major conduit for the media-reform movement.

YouTube's power was demonstrated last year when it became home for Net neutrality's siren call. The debate erupted when consumer groups began to push for a bill that would not allow the cable and telecom companies that own the pipes that deliver the Internet to make a tiered fee system.

Essentially, the legislation would not allow the cablecoms to charge Web sites or companies for a faster Internet. That is important for a medium that has spawned innovation, and works as a conduit for ideas and debate.

The Net-neutrality movement gained tidal-wave force when a number of irreverent and funny videos about Net neutrality were aired on YouTube. The issue was also buoyed by some bloggers and organizations such as Consumers Union.

Page and Brin should hear the concerns of the 3,000-plus people attending the Media Reform conference to see how their company was used for a good cause and to hear how their ever-growing empire is troublesome.

The movement for a democratic media, a media not singularly driven by dollars, would benefit from some mainstream voices. The Kings of the Valley would benefit from soaking up the concerns of a country that has awakened to the monolithic media.

This can happen only if the two meet.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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