Jul 1 1998

From the Top

What Are the Politics of Network Bosses?

While David Croteau’s study demonstrates that Washington journalists are to the right of the general public on many economic issues, it needs to be stressed that the personal views of news reporters do not translate directly into the slant of news coverage. Reporters have editors or producers who play a key role in how the news is presented; these editors and producers in turn are overseen by higher-up news executives, part of a hierarchy that eventually culminates in the chief executive officer of the corporation that owns the news outlet.

But those who specialize in scrutinizing the private opinions and voting habits of reporters rarely talk about the personal views and political activities of the CEOs who run the corporations those reporters work for. This omission is somewhat puzzling: If anyone’s biases are manifested in news coverage, it’s more likely to be the person who has the power to hire and fire, not the underlings whose paychecks are dependent on their superiors’ approval. Let’s take a look at where the heads of the four major broadcast networks stand politically:

  • Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric (NBC‘s corporate parent), is a conservative who has been mentioned as a long-shot Republican presidential candidate (Rocky Mountain News, 10/9/97). He agreed to bankroll the right-slanted McLaughlin Group at the urging of fellow conservatives Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston.

    Known as “Neutron Jack” for his job-slashing zeal, he wrote a business how-to book that advised managers: “Downsize before it’s too late.” He isn’t shy about telling his subordinates how to do their jobs, commanding NBC News chief Larry Grossman not to use the expression “Black Monday” for the 1987 stock market crash–because such expressions might depress the price of GE stock (The Electronic Republic, p. 84).

  • Michael Jordan, the head of CBS (that is to say, Westinghouse, which changed its name to that of the network it swallowed), is a conservative former nuclear engineer. He told the New York Times in 1996 (10/20/96) that maintaining Republican control of Congress was “important in terms of preventing any super-regulatory zeal.”

    When conservative CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote a tendentious piece for the Wall Street Journal editorial page (2/13/96), accusing colleagues of having a liberal bias and citing a report on Steve Forbes’ flat tax as evidence, Jordan was supportive. “I think his criticism is fair,” Jordan told USAir Magazine (5/96).

    Goldberg’s account was inspired not so much by the content as by the patronizing tone of the coverage. That’s very typical when somebody criticizes something like the flat tax. I think it’s wrong, because a high percentage of the American public has been lectured to since the early ’60s and is a little bit fed up with it.
  • Michael Eisner of Disney, which owns ABC, is the networks’ one Democratic Party-identified CEO. But his attraction is to the party’s centrist camp: His candidate of choice is former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a pro-Contra Democrat who won media praise for his “courageous” pronouncements on race: “You rob a store, rape a jogger, shoot a tourist, and when they catch you, if they catch you…you cry racism.” (See Extra!, 7-8/92.)

    “Mike thinks Bill is one of the best, most decent people he’s ever met in politics,” a friend of both men told the London Guardian (8/26/95). “Eisner admires Bradley so much that he objects whenever anyone else in the movie industry tries to throw a fundraiser for the New Jersey senator,” the Los Angeles Times reported (7/30/90).

    Aside from this ardent admiration for Bradley, there’s little evidence of Eisner’s political commitment. He’s boasted of the apolitical nature of his company’s products: “There are many places in the world, like China, India and other places, that do not want to accept programming that has political content,” he said at the time of Disney‘s merger with ABC. “But they have no problem with sports and they have no problem with the Disney kind of programming.”

  • Rupert Murdoch, who heads News Corp. (which owns Fox Television), is well-known for his conservative politics, and is much more aggressive in promoting those politics than any of the other three network heads. The reporting in his New York Post crusades in a partisan fashion for or against politicians. (Typical headline: “Clinton Pulls a Fast One,” 6/2/98.) He bankrolls the Weekly Standard so that the right can have a flagship magazine to replace the tired National Review and the half-baked American Spectator. Journalists interviewing for jobs with Fox News Channel were reportedly quizzed on whether they were registered Republicans or not (Village Voice, 10/15/96). During the ’96 campaign, Murdoch personally donated $1 million to the California GOP.

    Murdoch “is far more right-wing than is generally thought,” according to Andrew Neil, who used to edit Murdoch’s London Sunday Times. “In the 1988 American presidential election his favorite for the Republican nomination was Pat Robertson,” Neil wrote in his book Full Disclosure. “Dole is far too moderate a conservative for his tastes.”

    But Neil also notes that Murdoch “will curb his ideology for commercial reasons,” realizing that “a Sunday Times which entirely reflected his far-right politics, especially on social issues, would lose readers.” And Murdoch tolerates the sometimes subversive messages of shows like The Simpsons and The X-Files, which are major money-makers for Fox.

    As ideologically committed as he is, if Murdoch gave the impression that promoting the right wing was more important to him than making money, the price of his company’s stock would likely drop. Luckily for him, the main source of revenue for his TV network is corporate advertising–and few corporations will object to the conservative messages that Murdoch is most intent on conveying.