October 12, 2002

Perfecting Propaganda

The Aspen Institute, a non-profit organization that defines itself as "a global forum for leveraging the power of leaders to improve the human condition," recently held a conference on journalism and business that asked the question, "Is great journalism compatible with great business in the context of the current media marketplace?" (see The Sixth Annual Aspen Institute Conference on Journalism and Society.)

The conference was attended by "top-level executives from Advance Publications, AOL Time Warner, Associated Press, Belo Corp., CNHI, Inc., The Hearst Corporation, MediaNews Group, The Miami Herald, The New York Times Company, Public Broadcasting Service, The E.W. Scripps Company, Tribune Company, The Walt Disney Company and The Washington Post," according to the site. It was moderated by Jeff Greenfield of CNN.

Among possible initiatives to facilitate better coordination between the journalistic and business components of major media, were:

"Establishment of a ‘journalistic values’ committee on the board of directions of communication companies charged with overseeing the company’s journalistic standards," and

"Creation of a process or organization designed to facilitate improved communication between the editorial and business sides of the profession so that each better understands the concerns of the other and can mutually address industry issues."

Major media companies, who know nothing if not how to make money out of everything, are looking for ways to further twist and deform what they anachronistically call "journalism" even more than they already have to make it serve business interests.

The journalistic types who now find themselves reduced to the role of "creators of the content of news products" tend to be resistant to some of these changes. The report notes that news organizations are "unusually adverse to change." They may cling to old values like telling the truth, for example, rather than writing news for a desired effect. This resistance is interpreted by the "business leaders" as "resistance to innovation."

These old-time news people are sometimes stubborn about adapting to the zippy new formats, the scripted repartee, the fragmentary soundbites, the blow dried hair styles, or whatever else their brilliant CEOs are telling them to do. The report continues: "Intransigence manifests itself in such ways as imposing standardized ‘one size fits all’ formats on very different communities, adhering to traditional approaches to format and content even when they no longer engage audiences, incenting senior editors with compensation bonuses based on commercial considerations, and organizing companies along a ‘church/state’ divide so strict that little mutual understanding flows between the business and journalistic sides. Reappraising the fundamental tenants of journalism is vitally important lest the profession continue to rely on conventional practices that may be contributing to current problems."

The old "church and state" divisions that traditionally kept advertising sales considerations from controlling the news, are too strict, these execs are saying, and need to be loosened. When you see a big cover article on the new "Star Wars" movie on Entertainment magazine, for example, the parent company of both (AOL Time Warner) is "maximizing its synergies between business units. In other words, what looks like an article is really an ad.

These bottom-line growth experts see such "church-state" divisions as annoying and anachronistic impediments. But by obliterating the traditional standards of integrity, they continue to devalue their product by undermining the trust by putting their news organization in service to the advertising sales department. As the news becomes less credible, its value goes down and the process continues to escalate.

So if you think the major media is bad now, just wait. It's getting worse.

-- By David Cogswell

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