Feb 1 1995

MacNeil/Lehrer Sells Out

The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, public television’s flagship news program, is being bought out by a private, for-profit media conglomerate. Liberty Media, a subsidiary of TCI, the nation’s largest cable systems operator, is buying two-thirds of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, the show’s producer.

The mere fact that the NewsHour can be absorbed by a corporate media conglomerate illustrates how little difference remains between so-called public and commercial media. MacNeil/Lehrer have long been funded by corporate giants like AT&T, Pepsi and ADM; now they’re going to be owned by one.

And TCI is not just your run-of-the-mill oligopoly. It’s run by John Malone, an entrepreneur with a well-earned reputation for Machiavellian business tactics. “Regulators, independent cable industry consultants, consumer groups and lawyers representing cities for years have complained that TCI employs a ruthless policy designed to muffle critics, smother competition and saddle local governments with huge legal bills,” wrote John Accola in the Rocky Mountain News (12/13/94), saying that Malone has been described as “a predator with the compassion of a great white shark.”

“We know where you live, where your office is, and who you owe money to,” a TCI vice president reportedly told a consultant to a city that wouldn’t accept the cable monopoly’s terms. “We are having your house watched, and we are going to use this information to destroy you. You made a big mistake messing with TCI.” (Malone later said that his executive’s threats were “neither authorized nor condoned”–Rocky Mountain News, 12/13/94.)

TCI has used its monopoly power to manipulate the information industry. It drove down the price of the Learning Channel by threatening to take it off its systems–then bought the channel at a bargain price (New York Times,5/30/93). With the same leverage, TCI forced GE to drop plans for an all-news cable channel that would compete with CNN–which TCI has a major investment in (Extra! Update, 12/93).

TCI has been called “the worst discriminator in the telecommunications industry” by the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens (Rocky Mountain News, 12/13/94). Known for his hostility to government regulation, he has joked about shooting the head of the FCC (Wired, 6/94). His company sent out a memo instructing cable operators to raise cable rates and “blame it on re-regulation and the government” (Washington Post, 11/16/93).

Malone praises Rush Limbaugh for his willingness “to say politically incorrect things” (New Yorker, 2/7/94). He recently announced that the right-wing cable channel National Empowerment Television access to TCI cable systems, giving shows hosted by the likes of Accuracy In Media and Newt Gingrich the opportunity to reach 13 million new viewers (USA Today, 12/6/94).

“Nobody wants to go out and invent something and invest hundreds of millions of dollars of risk capital for the public interest, you know,” Malone has declared (ABC World News Tonight, 9/30/93). “I mean, one would be fired as an executive of a profit-making company if he took that stance.” If no executive would invest money in the public interest, why is Malone investing in a money-losing show like MacNeil/Lehrer?

In a word: influence. “For TCI, the investment into a well-respected journalism outfit may actually help better its image with Washington insiders,” the New York Daily News reported on December 5. As a major player in designing the information superhighway, TCI has much to gain by buying an outlet like MacNeil/Lehrer that can affect Washington’sdecisions. The fact that the FCC is looking seriously at anti-trust complaints against TCI makes it all the more useful for the company to own a powerful inside-the-Beltway voice.

None of this seems to bother PBS, however, which greeted the corporate takeover of its flagship with enthusiasm. “A welcome infusion of capital into the NewsHour,” PBS president Ervin Duggan called it. These days, PBS doesn’t seem to have any higher goal than that.


If you don’t want the main source for news on public television to be owned by a for-profit media conglomerate known for it ruthless and unethical business practices, write to PBS:

1320 Braddock Place

Alexandria, VA 22314

Fax: 703-739-0775