the story about Viacom and CBS broke a few days ago, news accounts quickly
depicted a match made in corporate heaven — at more than $37 billion, the
largest media merger in history. With the public kept outside the frame, it was
a rosy picture.
hailed the deal as a good fit between two complementary companies," the
Associated Press reported flatly. The news service went on to quote "a
media analyst" who proclaimed: "It’s a good deal for everybody."
Well, everybody who counts in the mass-media calculus. For instance, the media
analyst quoted by AP was from the PaineWebber investment firm. "You need to
be big," Chris Dixon explained. "You need to have a global
showed up again the next morning in the lead article of The New York Times,
along with other high-finance strategists. A woman at Merrill Lynch agreed with
his upbeat view of the Viacom-CBS combo. So did a guy from ING Baring: "You
can literally pick an advertiser’s needs and market that advertiser across all
the demographic profiles, from Nickelodeon with the youngest consumers to CBS
with some of the oldest consumers."
sync with the prevalent media spin, the Times devoted plenty of ink to assessing
advertiser needs and demographic profiles. But for the crucial first day of
Times coverage, foes of the Viacom-CBS consolidation did not get a word in
Washington Post, meanwhile, provided a similar ode to the latest and greatest
media merger, pausing just long enough for a few dissonant notes from media
critic Mark Crispin Miller: "The implications of these mergers for
journalism and the arts are enormous. It seems to me that this is, by any
definition, an undemocratic development. The media system in a democracy should
not be inordinately dominated by a few very powerful interests."
overall, big media outlets — getting bigger all the time — offered only narrow
and cheery perspectives on the meaning of the humongous merger.
after the announcement, the nation’s most influential TV news show aired its
unwitting parody of corporate-friendly coverage. "The NewsHour With Jim
Lehrer" featured an interview with two guests. It was hard to tell the
financial analyst apart from the journalist, Ken Auletta.
able to stifle a smirk in response to Lehrer’s beachball questions, Auletta kept
repeating that "bigger is better." No one bothered to mention that
Auletta — currently a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine — can hardly be
expected to voice strong objections to the steady march of media monopolization.
After all, the owner of The New Yorker is an expanding media conglomerate,
Advance Publications, which holds an array of glossy magazines including Vogue,
Glamour and Self. Generally, people in glass skyscrapers are uninclined to throw
accounts keep focusing on the market-share preoccupations of investors and top
managers. For good measure, coverage of mergers and buyouts is now routinely
filled with various permutations of metaphors that liken financial wheeling and
dealing to intimate human relations.
$37.3 billion deal joins not just two enormous media companies," a New York
Times article declared the other day, "but two oversized corporate
personalities in a marriage that was consummated after a two-year flirtation and
a brief but painstakingly intense two-week prenuptial discussion." Ugh. (Is
there a sublimation crisis in American journalism?)
worst of all is the evasive tone that now pervades so many news stories about
media consolidation. "The merger impulse," one Times article concluded
last Wednesday, "is driven by the belief that at a time of increasing
uncertainty in the media business, there is an advantage in owning both the
programming and the distribution networks."
With the federal government serving more and more as enabler rather than
regulator of rapacious conglomerates, the media business knows few bounds.
some huge corporations are sitting on the windpipe of the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, many journalists — and the public at large — are gasping for the
oxygen of public discourse that allows democracy to breathe.
rare exceptions, news outlets have covered the Viacom-CBS deal as a business
story. But more than anything else, it’s a story with dire implications for
possibilities of democratic media as the 21st century gets underway.
Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."