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Single-Payer & Interlocking Directorates

The corporate ties between insurers and media companies

Kate Murphy

How often are employees allowed to work on projects that might put some of the people they work for out of business? That's the conflict of interest that journalists reporting on the healthcare reform debate are often put in by the boards of media corporations they work for, which frequently include representatives of the insurance industry.

While a recent New York Times/CBS poll (6/20/09) has found yet again that the majority of Americans believe the government would both provide better coverage and keep costs lower than private insurance companies, a single-payer plan as an option for healthcare reform continues to be underrepresented in the media (Extra!, 6/09). A single-payer plan would allow the delivery of healthcare to remain private, but the government would pay for it out of a single federal health insurance fund. Like Medicare or Canada's healthcare program, it would cut out the middleman by bypassing private health insurance companies. But such companies are well-represented on the boards of directors of media conglomerates-a factor that may help explain the blackout of such a popular possibility for reform.

When a director from one company sits on the board of directors of another company, that's known as an interlocking directorate. For example, directors of the New York Times Co. also sit on the boards of several other large companies, including Chevron, Verizon and Ticketmaster. These directors are expected to act in the best interest of each company they direct; when one of the corporations in question is a media company, this can pose a conflict. Would someone who sits on a media company's board object to coverage that damages another company that board member directs? Extra! has pointed out this conflict in the past (e.g., 9-10/01), noting that "even if these board members do not attempt to influence coverage of their businesses, their presence likely suffices to make media executives think twice about covering certain stories."

A recent FAIR study of nine major media corporations and their major outlets, Disney (ABC), General Electric (NBC), CBS, Time Warner (CNN, Time), News Corporation (Fox), New York Times Co., Washington Post Co. (Newsweek), Tribune Co. (Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times) and Gannett (USA Today) found connections to six different insurance companies. Five out of the nine media corporations studied shared a director with an insurance company; two insurance companies--Chubb and Berkshire Hathaway--were represented by more than one media corporation director.

The study also found crossover between these media corporations and several large pharmaceutical companies, such as Eli Lilly, Merck and Novartis, whose profits would also likely be negatively impacted by a single-payer system. Out of the nine media corporations studied, six had directors who also represented the interests of at least one pharmaceutical company. In fact, save for CBS, every media corporation had board connections to either an insurance or pharmaceutical company.

For example, the board of directors of the Chubb Corporation, whose accident and health division has offered health insurance for over 30 years, shares directors with two major media companies: Gannett and General Electric. A search of the Nexis database from January 1 through June 30, 2009, found just six articles mentioning single-payer in USA Today, Gannett's major outlet. Out of those, only one (6/12/09) is from an advocate--a reprinted block quote from Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) originally published in the Huffington Post (6/8/09). On NBC News, GE's major outlet, single-payer was mentioned on only two occasions in the past six months. Of those two occasions, one was on Meet the Press (6/28/09), in which both Republican strategist Mike Murphy and former Governor Mitt Romney asserted that a public option would lead to a single-payer plan. The other NBC News mention of single-payer was favorable, but very brief--PBS's Tavis Smiley named Obama's move away from the plan as one of his concerns after Obama's first 100 days (4/25/09).

At the Washington Post Co., two directors are on the board of insurance conglomerate Berkshire-Hathaway, whose subsidiary General Re sells health reinsurance. In fact, Washington Post director Warren Buffet not only chairs Berkshire-Hathaway's board, he is the company's CEO. (Berkshire-Hathaway is also one of the 10 biggest U.S. advertisers, along with pharmaceutical company Abbott Labor-atories-Ad Age, 6/22/09.) Another Washington Post director, Thomas Gaynor, is the vice president of insurance company Markel Corporation. In the past six months, the Washington Post has published hundreds of articles on the subject of healthcare reform, fewer than 25 of which mention single-payer. Fewer than 30 percent of the sources who spoke about single-payer in these articles were advocates of the plan. In all, though healthcare reform has been mentioned thousands of times in the output of these media corporations' major outlets, single-payer was mentioned in only 164 articles or news segments from January 1 through June 30, 2009; over 70 percent of these mentions did not include the voice of a single-payer advocate. Over 45 percent of the pieces that did include a single-payer advocate were episodes of the Ed Show, an MSNBC program whose host, Ed Shultz, frequently advocates for single-payer healthcare. Without the Ed Show, just 19 percent of articles or news segments that mentioned single-payer would have included an actual advocate of the plan.

While it should go without saying that correlation is not causation--and MSNBC's example proves that interlocking directorates are hardly the only factor in media coverage--this study indicates that, at the very least, corporate media and the insurance and pharmaceutical industries' interests are fundamentally aligned.

Disney/ABC Proctor & Gamble
GE/NBC Chubb, Novartis, Proctor & Gamble, Merck
Time Warner AIG, Health Cap, Paratek Pharmaceuticals
Fox/News Corp GlaxoSmithKline, Genentech, Hybritech
New York Times Co. First Health Group, Eli Lilly
Tribune Co. Abbott Labs, Middelbrook Pharmaceuticals
Gannett/USA Today Chubb


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Kate Murphy is a student at Fordham University and an intern at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting).

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