When the story about Viacom and CBS broke, 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.
"Analysts 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."
"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," Christopher Dixon explained. "You need to have a global presence."
Dixon showed up again the next morning (Sept. 8) 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."
In 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 edgewise.
The 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."
But overall, big media outlets — getting bigger all the time — offered only narrow and cheery perspectives on the meaning of the humongous merger.
Hours after the Sept. 7 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.
Barely 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 stones.
News 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.
"The $37.3 billion deal joins not just two enormous media companies," a New York Times article declared on Sept. 8, "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?)
Perhaps worst of all is the evasive tone that now pervades so many news stories about media consolidation. "The merger impulse," one Times article concluded, "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."
Translation: With the federal government serving more and more as enabler rather than regulator of rapacious conglomerates, the media business knows few bounds.
Today, 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.
With 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.