“Thank you, Dick Cheney.” So says Captain Danny Ross of the Major Case Squad when the massive data mining of credit card transactions provides him with a valuable lead in a terrorist investigation.
Ross is a fictional character speaking in the season finale of Law Order: Criminal Intent, and Eric Bogosian’s line reading is laced with inappropriate sarcasm. Still, the acknowledgment of Cheney’s role in protecting us rings true. “Yes — thank you, Dick Cheney.” You can almost hear the audience responding, without the irony.
It’s certainly a line you won’t hear on the news programs of the major networks or CNN unfortunately, amidst efforts to overturn the surveillance, interrogation, and counterterrorism policies proven so effective in the years after 9/11.
Brief glimpses of socio-political insight are startling on our TV networks, because they are so unexpected. The cheerful, optimistic, and traditional No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is a stranger in HBO’s strange land of sex-saturated cynicism and celebrated transgression. When an old Huell Howser documentary savaging Castro’s Cuba turns up in rerun on public broadcasting, the host’s astonishment at the madness he finds is no more than ours that the show somehow slipped past the goalie guarding the PBS net.
Must it be this way? Inclusion of conservative perspectives has made Fox News a significant profit engine for parent News Corp. Conservative voices have kept AM radio from landing next to the 8-track on the ash heap of media history. News Corp’s Wall Street Journal is one of the nation’s few profitable newspaper and online combinations. Wouldn’t it make good business sense for more media channels, especially news and information outlets, to follow their lead?
It certainly would make sense for conservatives and other free-market proponents to develop larger audiences independent of Murdoch (who is 78) and the whims of his future descendants. There’s certainly a niche for one more center-right Big Media entity. I’m not talking about another small, elite, subsidized magazine or another high-quality but second-tier radio group.
I’m talking Big Media.
Big Media is evolving. To News Corp., Time-Warner, NBC, CBS, and Disney, add Google (including YouTube) and Apple, whose iPhone apps and iTunes podcasts may become the equivalent of the AP wire of yesteryear. Big Media companies don’t just shape our entertainment choices. Many route the attention grabbing “story of the day” so crucial in political life.
Three hundred sixty-five stories of the day each year have a cumulative effect. Years of Big Media saturation bombing took an electoral toll on Republicans in this decade. The litany of media misery over Katrina, “torture,” and Iraq plus the daily vilification of Bush/Cheney’s second term all laid the foundation for political upheaval. Barack Obama’s superstar candidacy did the rest in the first election of the American Idol era — a time of limitless hope, instant celebrity, and voting on raw emotion.
As Republicans seek policy alternatives and electable candidates, a media reboot is also essential. When new leaders score political points, will the tally be registered? Let’s pick up our scorecards and assess the competition.
Begin with PBS and NPR, and imagine what it’s like to hear those sources and no other. Throw in the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine, and some ignore all the rest and consider themselves informed, educated voters in the media capital. Big Media doesn’t have to be huge if they’re positioned for influence. These particular outfits are well-defended from institutional adversaries, so don’t expect to compete on their home turf.
Jump the demographic spectrum and you’ll find college freshmen claiming to get their politics mostly from sly references on Comedy Central and HBO. Lots of talent is on display, despite the one-way street politics. What a waste.
Between those demographic extremes, you’ll find a vast chunk of mainstream, suburban, “white collar,” and professional Americans. Many work all day, so they don’t hear talk radio or read blogs. Think of the typical swing voter, who spends her day attending PowerPoint teleconferences, analyzing mammograms, or annotating spreadsheets.
She may read the Times because it shows up at work. Her media orbit includes glimpses of CNN, Time, and Today. She doesn’t watch much TV news but she liked seeing Diane Sawyer get the anchor chair. Since downloading the ABC News iPhone app, she makes less use of the Drudge shortcut on the family computer. She reads O magazine, not for its implicit political agenda, but because she enjoys the colorful layout and it speaks to her personal needs and ambitions.
Reaching her on a daily basis is not easy. The tone of talk radio, however suitable for a “hot” medium and inspiring to the converted, turns her off. She has matured beyond tabloid news and flips past Greta when she gets home from work. So how do you reach her? The answer is a larger, more expansive, and perhaps less politically explicit footprint in Big Media.
Suppose General Electric’s board, pilloried by Wall Street for the failure of GE Capital, finally cans Jeffrey Immelt and brings back Jack Welch as interim CEO. What if Welch then sells most of NBC to a new partnership including, for example, Clarity Media Group, Koch Industries, and a private equity firm?
First there would be hearings. The new owners could argue that the goal is to give Fox News some much needed competition from the center, an easier shot than firing from the far left wing. Washington would sign off on the deal.
Former NBC/Universal CEO Jeff Zucker would depart, perhaps to fulfill his long-term ambition of handling press relations for a Democrat president. The newly appointed president of NBC News, Bernard Goldberg, would forcefully push NBC News and MSNBC to the center, while insuring that NBC’s Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish language network in the U.S. behind Univision, was open to diverse editorial perspectives. During the next presidential election cycle, NBC’s approved debate moderator would be Larry Kudlow of CNBC.
If that sounds like a crazy right-wing fantasy, it shouldn’t. Ronald Reagan built his political identity giving speeches for GE, and Jack Welch is a strong opponent of Barack Obama’s socialistic designs. But if NBC isn’t ready to right itself, there is no shortage of other options.
CBS’ low stock price could tempt investors, especially if controlling owner Sumner Redstone requires liquidity and prefers to keep Viacom, which is closer to his roots as a theater owner. If Redstone kept Clinton pal Leslie Moonves around to run Viacom, the new CBS owners would have broad discretion to update a very traditional network with strong heartland affiliates.
CBS owns major market newsradio channels, a video news archive, local news production facilities around the country, and the underdeveloped website News.com. Some such web news feed could very well eat up the AP, a non-profit owned by 1,500 economically depressed daily newspapers.
Distressed and underachieving media assets abound, but I wouldn’t advise investors to start grabbing up newspapers. Only those which have expanded into broader media (Hearst, Scripps, Gannett) would be worth a second glance. Newspapers are dinosaurs. Wireless devices like the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, or the Plastic Logic eReader will battle Netbooks to succeed them.
Even without an NBC or CBS, a well-rounded Big Media portfolio could be pieced together with spare parts and new tools. Underachieving, underfunded, or timidly programmed networks from among Starz/Encore, AMC/WE, AETN, TLC, Hallmark, and others could be aggregated into a new powerhouse with prudent investment in content. Besides a 24/7 video news component, it should include a headline service like Drudge with a presence in podcasting, wireless, and news search. Restoring Time magazine to its Republican origins would symbolize a media rebalancing, but that prize may go to whoever places wireless readers in medical waiting rooms.
Are there enough reporters out there with an impartial or center-right perspective to staff a new Big Media news competitor?
Some argue that new talent is rising from the blogosphere. Bloggers do break news, often reactively, but their skill set is different from the trained journalist. Reporters are by nature reductive and screed-averse. A top news producer is someone who would rather book a dynamic guest than quote de Tocqueville.
Professional journalists hit the streets, work sources, and service the informational demands of an exacting audience. Brevity is as important as expertise. Expect to find tomorrow’s top reporter working in a video news gathering operation in a major market, telling stories through pictures as well as words. Several Big Media CEO’s and at least one bold, fresh, humble correspondent began their careers in local news.
When leaders with Murdoch-deep pockets surface to invest in more informative, broad-based reporting, swing voters will be its early adopters. The center-right needs audience expanding strategies to make our media presence more accessible and sustainable. Many of the answers are in the technology itself and in anticipating the preferences of the next generation of news consumers.
Fundamental, enduring change in our media will require both leaders in position to wield industrial power and skilled communicators ready to supplant the present mainstream media infrastructure.