Big Media And The Big Story

One of Dwight D. Eisenhower's most enduring acts as president was his warning about the dangers of the 'military industrial complex'--the cozy ties between a weapons-hungry Pentagon and the nation's business-hungry defense contractors. Is the relationship between big media and big government the 21st century version of this--what international relations expert James Der Derian has dubbed the "military-industrial-media-entertainment network?"

On Wednesday, Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, asked the major networks to refrain from showing unedited video messages taped by Osama bin Laden. All but one are controlled by major conglomerates that have important pending business with the government. All of them readily acceded to her concerns. At the request of the FBI and White House, "America's Most Wanted," the crime-fighting reality show on the Fox network, which is owned by media conglomerate News Corp., produced a Friday night television special on the list of "Most Wanted Terrorists." After the World Trade Center was attacked, Disney shot down a request for help from its ABC News division, according to a top executive. News employees had asked Disney's Washington office for help in regaining access to air space for its news helicopter. Disney bosses called such a request "ridiculous" and admonished its news unit to "recognize we are in a state of emergency."

From newsrooms in New York to studios in Hollywood, media and entertainment companies are overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of global behemoths. Among them: News Corp. (the Fox movie and television empire; Fox News on cable; BSkyB satellite-TV in Europe and Star TV in Asia); AOL Time Warner (CNN, Warner Bros., Time Inc., AOL, WB, TNT, HBO); Viacom (CBS, UPN, MTV, Paramount and Simon and Schuster) and Disney (ABC and Walt Disney studio).

The conglomerates all have pivotal business pending in Washington. AOL Time Warner has been in talks with AT&T about combining cable operations, a proposal that would require government approval. News Corp. would need an okay to acquire satellite-TV giant DirecTV-if the two can ever negotiate a deal. On several occasions, Viacom's second-in-command has publicly mused about acquiring NBC to add to its CBS and other television holdings--a transaction that could only happen with Washington's lifting bans against such a combination.

In the past, critics have argued that the megadeals are dangerous--leading to a risky concentration of the nation's communications assets and a gutting of the news divisions. Now, the conglomerates and their Wall St. supporters argue that Sept. 11 proves such concerns are way off base.

In the hours and days after the attack, the networks provided round-the-clock, commercial-free news coverage. By some accounts, that cost them as much as a combined $500 million. And the bill continues to rise. "There is in place now a large effective communications and information systems," Gerald Levin, CEO of AOL Time Warner, the world's largest media and entertainment company, tells NEWSWEEK. "On a worldwide basis, we have the resources to be able to report on what happened on an instantaneous basis, which is critical to our society." He adds: "In this new world of ours, we have to make sure to tap into our large companies that have the resources, skills and social commitment to make a difference." Levin and his counterparts at rival conglomerates have pledged to continue spending big on news. "Our costs are going up, and we will spend whatever it takes on newsgathering, journalism and security," Levin says. "If shareholders can't understand that it's in the national interest...."

At Disney's ABC News, executives say the same is true. "We've been told by [Disney executives] to spend the money we need to spend," says David Westin, president of the news division. Terrorism coverage is swelling costs by millions more than originally budgeted, says Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News, the cable network of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. "But that's the news business," he says. "Rupert understands the news business better than anyone." At CBS News, president Andrew Heyward says the network has heard "not a whimper" from corporate bosses at Viacom about the necessary heavy spending. "We are committed to covering the story well, and won't make any choices that shortchanges the public," he adds. NBC believes its multiple products give it a cost advantage. "We have three networks--NBC, CNBC and MSNBC--over which to spread costs," says Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News.

But does covering the story well also mean cooperating with the government in the interest of national security? AOL's Levin says the sprawling company's Internet division has already helped terror investigators, apparently providing access to e-mail traffic. And he indicates that the company isn't likely to oppose any of the new and controversial anti-terrorism powers being sought by the Justice Department from Congress. "The President has said we are on a wartime footing," Levin says. "There will be a legal check on what the government can do. Appropriate voices will be raised. I'm concerned about safety, security and the psychological health of our people."

Critics of big media are wary of wartime coziness. "I'm not saying that everything is a horrible paranoid fantasy, but my sense is there's an implicit quid pro quo here," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "The industry seems to be saying to the administration, 'we're patriotic, we're supporting the war, we lost all of this advertising, now free us from constraints.'" Some on Wall Street think the broadcasters helped their parent companies' political agendas with their extensive, costly coverage. They "passed a critical test of their good faith as trustees of the public airwaves," Leland Westerfield, an analyst at UBS Paine Webber, wrote a week after the binge of coverage. "The media emerged with an enhanced public-service reputation... In a consolidating sector that seeks regulatory relief, almost any short-term forfeit of advertising revenue pales in contrast to the benefits of favorable public opinion."

Wartime logrolling at times has been slightly surreal. To defend against future attacks, the Pentagon in the days after the Sept. 11 assault put out a mayday call to filmmakers skilled at imagining potential terrorist acts, including "Die Hard" screenwriter Steven E. De Souza and Joseph Zito, who directed "Delta Force One." The generals asked the creative types to engage in apocalyptic brainstorming of the kind that has yielded acts of cinematic terrorism. The war gaming, presumably, continues.