Big Media Companies, “What Are They Afraid Of?”

For Halloween I’m reminded of a book reading I attended in San Francisco where I asked Matt Taibbi what companies like Goldman Sachs were afraid of. His answer was, “Not journalists!” then he laughed. Next he said, “They are worried about a few left over SEC regulations that they haven’t bought off yet.”

Yesterday I read that Matt Taibbi has left First Look Media before the launch of the Racket, the digital magazine he was hired to create seven months ago. The Intercept did a story about what they say happened.  Of course I’m waiting for the Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz to comment on this so I can hear from the disgraced other side. I’ll bet “the truth lies somewhere in the middle” and he will “leave it there.”

As I read the Intercept story I wondered if people at various companies that were to be the subject of the Racket are breathing a sigh of relief. Are they laughing? It appears that Taibbi leaving was a combination of a personality misfit with “the corporate form” and the need of Silicon Valley folks to always be thinking about ROI.

The damage control people at these companies might want to hold off on the champagne popping. Taibbi will find an outlet to write for and the Racket isn’t dead, but it has serious labor pains.  These things happen. Remember the News Corp iPad Online venture The Daily?  Murdoch dropped $60 million on it and it was shuttered after two years. 

If ROI is in Omid’s Silicon Valley start-up DNA he should have thought outside the box (or law) like Rupert Murdoch. He could have used his knowledge of the upcoming stories on companies to short their stock before the story dropped. Hmmm, would that be illegal? Not if he told his congressperson about it and he makes a trade on the info. It’s good to have happy congress people as your allies.

If only Omid understood that to mold national attitudes, topple dynasties and pressure politicians you have to lose lots of money for a long, long time. If you want to have your parent corporate entity make money, use other sub-entities known to create revenue like cartoon shows, test prep companies or a businesses that sells stuff on-line. But Murdoch’s goals aren’t the goals of everyone who gets into the media business.

The Public Interest, RIP

Expecting the media to “serve the public interest, convenience and necessity” is out. The marketplace rules are in.  The TV and radio spectrum, as well as the Internet we created, aren’t considered under the trusteeship model anymore because the lobbyists argued a broadcaster’s commercial success would be indicative of the public’s satisfaction with what they are delivering. 

Under that model First Look Media should be using their news reporting and constitutionally granted 1st Amendment power to generate revenue for shareholders, just like Roone Arledge taught ABC and the rest of the networks to do. Suddenly news divisions weren’t a cost center anymore, but a profit center. Everyone loves profit generators, and by everyone I mean Wall Street and corp execs whose bonuses are tied to revenue or stock price.

If you look at what the big media companies are afraid of it hasn’t been getting busted for failing to serve the public interest for decades. They know they aren’t going to lose an FCC license. They might get a fine, but it’s just a Cost of Doing Business in the short term and something the lobbyists will fix in the long term. FTC problems might cramp their style when it comes to ad revenue, so they pay attention to that.  SEC regs could be a problem, if anyone at the SEC actually started prosecuting people. It’s hard to believe that the SEC would go after someone who buys their pixels by the barrel and hires lawyers by the trainload, but maybe someone at the SEC will notice some problems they need to be addressed.

What makes the parent companies nervous is if the people working in the news divisions start thinking they have to actually follow left over rules and regulations. Or that they are journalists who have to ‘serve the public interest’ vs. make money on their specific programming.  Murdoch can explain to the media entities parts of the bigger companies that a parent company loosing 100’s of millions on something like the New York Post is a smart business move because of his big picture. Because of that, they don’t worry about generating standalone revenue.

They are also afraid that the big investors might think the parent company doesn’t have their journalists and news divisions under control.  If the parent company gets a whiff that someone in the media group is trying to dig too hard or isn’t playing ball, they will get a Arthur Jensen to Howard Beale call where it is explained how the world really works.  

For example, if your biggest sponsor makes cars, you really shouldn’t be doing stories that make them look bad, even if the cars kill people. But sometimes you can’t ignore the truth, so you wait for an excuse like a settlement lawsuit where someone else makes the case. “Hey I wasn’t the one calling them “killer cars” I’m just reading the court transcript!” 

Luckily during that period of reporting the hard truth, before the pull back into the quest for profit, some sunlight can shine through the cracks. There are still good people in the media who believe in a better “Big Picture” than Murdoch’s. It takes courage and support from others who also see the problems and want to help. Other times journalists “embedded” in the MSM need an excuse to do a good job in the face of the howls for quarterly profits or fear of offending advertisers.

After talking to Taibbi I started asking a similar question of people who have been covering corporate corruption and personal mendacious acts that hurt Americans. “What are they afraid of, and how can we make those fears come true?”

I’m sorry for these media labor pains, but I look forward to future sunlight from Taibbi, First Look Media and the Racket, because we all know what sunlight does to vampire(squid)s.

Happy Halloween!

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