Nov 1 2010

What’s ‘Public’ About Public TV’s News Flagship?

Publicly supported, corporately owned

Photo Credit: PBS

Photo Credit: PBS

On air and on its website, the PBS NewsHour acknowledges its funders. Along with PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the show gets money from some usual-suspect corporations, like Chevron and Bank of America, and a dozen or more foundations—in various amounts and arrangements worthy of examination in themselves. But who owns public TV’s flagship nightly news program? Hint: It’s not Viewers Like You.

It’s not PBS either, or any affiliate station. The program known as “public television’s nightly newscast” (New York Times, 3/21/84) is in fact owned by a private, for-profit conglomerate, Liberty Media, that bought 67 percent of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in 1994 (L.A. Times, 12/5/94).

Liberty Media is controlled by John Malone, who in 1994 was the owner of TCI, the country’s largest cable operator. (TCI was subsequently bought by AT&T.) Malone and TCI were infamous for “ruthless policy designed to muffle critics, smother competition and saddle local governments with huge legal bills” (Rocky Mountain News, 12/13/94), collecting the title of “worst discriminator in the telecommunications industry” from the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens along the way.

TCI provoked regulators’ interest by taking brazen advantage of its monopoly power—driving down the price of the Learning Channel with a threat to take it off its systems, then buying it at bargain price (New Yorker, 2/7/94); forcing GE to drop plans for an all-news cable channel that would compete with CNN, which it invests in (Extra! Update, 10/95); sending a memo telling cable operators to raise rates and “blame it on re-regulation and the government” (Extra! Update, 2/95).

Just a year before acquiring a majority stake in the NewsHour, Malone declared (ABC World News Tonight, 9/30/93): “Nobody wants to go out and invent something and invest hundreds of millions of dollars of risk capital for the public interest, you know. I mean, one would be fired as an executive of a profit-making company if he took that stance.”

A few observers (Variety, 12/5/94) noted that “for Malone, M/L Prods. is a prestige buy that is likely to earn him some goodwill in Washington; TCI has been a frequent target of lawmakers.” As Verne Gay (Newsday, 12/5/94) put it, “The new Republican-controlled Congress may be less willing to bash Malone, even less so now that he owns NewsHour. Washington types, you see, adore NewsHour.”

But most found nothing troubling in an industry bigfoot gaining controlling interest in a politically influential news program (not to mention one on a network meant to serve public over corporate interests).

New PBS president Ervin Duggan issued a release (12/2/94) celebrating the “welcome infusion of capital,” but transcripts suggest the NewsHour didn’t announce their new ownership on air. Having praised the private takeover of its flagship program, Duggan (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/24/95) was nevertheless in high dudgeon a month later when Senate Republicans suggested that public broadcasting might be privatized wholesale. “Will the American people be happy with the transmogrification of nonprofit television into just another TV channel, driven by ratings, the lowest common denominator of public taste and the appetite of advertisers?”

One of those reportedly interested in moves to privatize the whole network? John Malone.

Less than a year after the takeover, MacNeil hosted a roundtable (9/22/95) on Time Warner’s merger with Turner Broadcasting. Well into things, a guest brought up the often adversarial relationship between major players Ted Turner, Time Warner’s Gerald Levin and John Malone, leading to this exchange:

Robert Goldberg (Wall Street Journal): One of the great stories, if I can just jump in, is that when Levin and Malone came on board Ted Turner’s board in 1987, they became partners.

Robert MacNeil: Malone, John Malone, is the head of TCI, Telecommunications Inc.

Richard Clurman (author): The third leg of the stool.

MacNeil: The third leg of the stool whose Liberty subsidiary is the big shareholder in Turner and had to be consulted on this deal.

Goldberg: That’s right.

MacNeil: We should also declare our own interest here. MacNeil/ Lehrer Productions in its other activities outside the NewsHour has a partnership with Liberty Media.

Goldberg: That’s interesting.

MacNeil: But outside the scope of this program. But, anyway, you were about to say—

Liberty, though, doesn’t think the News-Hour is outside its scope. Liberty had clear knowledge of what it was buying from the outset, with then-president Peter Barton telling the Washington Post (12/5/94), “These guys have established a reputation for solid, fair, serious journalism, and we want our cable viewers to share their approach.”

PBS’s claims that it’s lost nothing are gainsaid by Liberty’s obvious belief that they’ve gained something—something valuable. At the 2008 stockholder meeting, Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei (Malone still chairs the group’s board) broke away momentarily from “incremental liquidity” and the pursuit of “tax efficient, hopefully tax free, restructuring” to say (Fair Disclosure Wire, 9/26/08):

I’d like to talk about one very small business in the context of Liberty that doesn’t get a lot of play in our financials. But certainly, it’s getting a lot of play in the market. There is scheduled to be a presidential debate tonight…. That’ll be hosted by NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer…. And then Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent of NewsHour, will moderate the only VP debate, which is scheduled for October 2.If you ask around—and I was recently at a very interesting panel which had Tom Brokaw and Brit Hume and Katy Kay of BBC, and they’re all saying, well, the media is biased either left or right. Pretty much uniformly, both on that panel and in the audience, the only thing that came forward was the view that the most unbiased, clearest place for news today is the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. So we’re very proud to be a part of that.That’s being recognized in the marketplace. They won an Emmy on Tuesday for best coverage of a breaking news story and news magazine for their reports on the turmoil in Pakistan. Their national convention coverage drew the only prime time broadcast news, and attracted an average of 3 million viewers over three nights. So, I–while it’s not our largest holding, it’s not our largest business, I think it’s one we’re very proud of, that it’s getting so much viewership, so much attention and so much respect.

Why, after all, would a company run by a guy who thinks the public interest is a joke buy a “public TV” show, if not for influence, and the patina of elevated disinterest it adds to what is in fact a deeply interested enterprise? Duggan (12/2/94) swore that the NewsHour is “ours and ours alone,” but what if the NewsHour began fulfilling public broadcasting’s mandate–airing views that corporations were not interested in promoting? How would Maffei’s shareholder meeting go then?

That the private ownership of “public broadcasting’s nightly newscast” provokes little media interest perhaps is testament to the acceptance of public media as a failed project: Private ownership just goes along with commercials, corporate sponsorships, and the surfeit of “business” shows that we’ve come to see as the best we can do. But public broadcasting was not intended to reproduce, in calmer, “classier” form, the practices and priorities of commercial media, and in no area is its unfulfilled mandate more pressing than in news and public affairs.

This article was originally published with a sidebar: Who Owns Public TV’s Nightly Business Report?