The China Syndrome
[Corporate Media and Iraq
by Paul Krugman
New York Times, May 13, 2003
A funny thing happened during the Iraq
war: many Americans turned to the BBC for their TV news. They
were looking for an alternative point of view - something they
couldn't find on domestic networks, which, in the words of the
BBC's director general, "wrapped themselves in the American
flag and substituted patriotism for impartiality."
Leave aside the rights and wrongs of the
war itself, and consider the paradox. The BBC is owned by the
British government, and one might have expected it to support
that government's policies. In fact, however, it tried hard -
too hard, its critics say - to stay impartial. America's TV networks
are privately owned, yet they behaved like state-run media.
What explains this paradox? It may have
something to do with the China syndrome. No, not the one involving
nuclear reactors - the one exhibited by Rupert Murdoch's News
Corporation when dealing with the government of the People's Republic.
In the United States, Mr. Murdoch's media
empire - which includes Fox News and The New York Post - is known
for its flag-waving patriotism. But all that patriotism didn't
stop him from, as a Fortune article put it, "pandering to
China's repressive regime to get his programming into that vast
market." The pandering included dropping the BBC's World
Service - which reports news China's government doesn't want disseminated
- from his satellite programming, and having his publishing company
cancel the publication of a book critical of the Chinese regime.
Can something like that happen in this
country? Of course it can. Through its policy decisions - especially,
though not only, decisions involving media regulation - the U.S.
government can reward media companies that please it, punish those
that don't. This gives private networks an incentive to curry
favor with those in power. Yet because the networks aren't government-owned,
they aren't subject to the kind of scrutiny faced by the BBC,
which must take care not to seem like a tool of the ruling party.
So we shouldn't be surprised if America's "independent"
television is far more deferential to those in power than the
state-run systems in Britain or - for another example - Israel.
A recent report by Stephen Labaton of
The Times contained a nice illustration of the U.S. government's
ability to reward media companies that do what it wants. The issue
was a proposal by Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications
Commission, to relax regulations on media ownership. The proposal,
formally presented yesterday, may be summarized as a plan to let
the bigger fish eat more of the smaller fish. Big media companies
will be allowed to have a larger share of the national market
and own more TV stations in any given local market, and many restrictions
on "cross-ownership" - owning radio stations, TV stations
and newspapers in the same local market - will be lifted.
The plan's defects aside - it will further
reduce the diversity of news available to most people - what struck
me was the horse-trading involved. One media group wrote to Mr.
Powell, dropping its opposition to part of his plan "in return
for favorable commission action" on another matter. That
was indiscreet, but you'd have to be very naïve not to imagine
that there are a lot of implicit quid pro quos out there.
And the implicit trading surely extends
to news content. Imagine a TV news executive considering whether
to run a major story that might damage the Bush administration
- say, a follow-up on Senator Bob Graham's charge that a Congressional
report on Sept. 11 has been kept classified because it would raise
embarrassing questions about the administration's performance.
Surely it would occur to that executive that the administration
could punish any network running that story.
Meanwhile, both the formal rules and the
codes of ethics that formerly prevented blatant partisanship are
gone or ignored. Neil Cavuto of Fox News is an anchor, not a commentator.
Yet after Baghdad's fall he told "those who opposed the liberation
of Iraq" - a large minority - that "you were sickening
then; you are sickening now." Fair and balanced.
We don't have censorship in this country;
it's still possible to find different points of view. But we do
have a system in which the major media companies have strong incentives
to present the news in a way that pleases the party in power,
and no incentive not to.
Media's Threat to Democracy