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Stop Big Media . . . Before It Stops Itself

Why is Sam Zell the new whipping boy for crusaders who think corporate media still sucks?



I admire a gallant crusade as much as the next guy, but has the ring of an army raised to fight the last war. Why should anyone in Chicago take up arms against big media when big media's already falling apart on its own?

"Dear Friend," began the e-mail blast sent out in July. "When members of Congress from your state return home this summer, they need to hear why stopping further media consolidation must be a top priority. By acting now, you can ensure that there are thousands of petitions ready to be delivered when your U.S. representative sets foot back in your district for the summer congressional recess." wants the House to do in the fall what the Senate did in May: vote to overturn a 2007 Federal Communications Commission action ending the ban on common ownership of broadcast outlets and newspapers in a single market. The campaign calls the FCC's new policy "nothing more than a massive giveaway to Big Media."

And who's the new Big Media bogeyman? Despite the vastness of the News Corporation and its recent consumption of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch seems to have ceded the position to Chicago's own Sam Zell. Zell's new, he's fresh, he's a loose cannon, and he sounds dangerous. is run by Free Press, a Washington-based "national, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media." Rooting around its Web sites, and, I came across a video link to a speech Bill Moyers gave at the National Conference for Media Reform, presented by Free Press in June in Minneapolis. It was, as Free Press executive director Josh Silver puts it, "vintage Moyers." And Moyers couldn't resist going off on Zell.

"I believe more fervently than ever that as journalism goes, so goes democracy," said Moyers. "Yet as mergers and buyouts change both old and new media, bringing a frenzied focus on cost cutting while fattening the pockets of both the new owners and their investors, we are seeing journalism degraded through the layoffs and buyouts of legions of reporters and editors.... The new owner of the Tribune Company, real estate mogul Sam Zell, recently toured his new property, the Los Angeles Times newsroom, telling his new employees the challenge is, 'How do we get somebody 126 years old to get it up?' Well, said Zell, 'I'm your Viagra.'"

Given the flaccid state of the Tribune Company, I thought as I watched the video, a little Viagra might be just the thing. Maybe Moyers's listeners had the same thought. They tittered lightly—he would have to work harder for his laugh.

"I'm not making this up," he added. Adequately cued, the crowd chortled.

"He told his journalists that he didn't have an editorial agenda or a perspective 'about newspapers' roles as civic institutions,'" Moyers continued. "'I'm a businessman,' he said. 'All that matters in the end is the bottom line.' Just this week Zell told Wall Street analysts that to save money he intends to eliminate 500 pages of news a week across all of the company's 12 papers. That could mean eliminating some 82 pages a week just from the Los Angeles Times. What will he use to replace reporters and editors? He says, to the Wall Street analysts, 'I'll use maps, graphics, lists, rankings, and stats.' It sounds to me as if Sam has confused Viagra with Lunesta."

What is it about Zell? I asked Josh Silver. "He insults journalists and journalism at virtually every whistle stop on his tour," Silver replied, referring to Zell's visits to Tribune Company properties. "He says it's not about democracy—it's about profits. The American public and policy makers have to decide whether journalism is produced purely for the reaping of profit or if it's a central component to a functioning participatory democracy.

"And based on the answer to that question," Silver went on, "you make policy accordingly. There is no such thing as a deregulated media policy system. The only question is, will the media be regulated for the largest media corporations or regulated on behalf of the American public. That's what all of our anticonsolidation efforts are about."

If Zell would shut up, critics like Silver and Moyers might notice that he makes a lousy poster boy for big media. He took the Tribune Company private and made its employees nominal co-owners. He's not acquiring properties—he's selling them off. America has always had it both ways about that choice Silver thinks the nation needs to make: journalism for profit or journalism for democracy. Zell has loudly and rudely told his staffs that from where he sits the second is predicated on the first, and turning a profit is something he knows a little more about than they do.

But I don't want to suggest Free Press can't see beyond Sam Zell. In his welcoming address at the Minneapolis conference, Silver hailed the "movement" and said it stands "on the brink of the greatest opportunity in generations to break the corporate media stranglehold on democracy." He explained, "The future will go down one of two paths. The first is the righteous path. It's of openness—a new media world that treats all content equally.... The second path is a closed Internet—an Internet that looks like radio, TV, or cable, an Internet where giant phone and cable companies decide what's on, how much it costs, and how fast it downloads, an Internet that is no longer a vibrant town square for all of us but a cash cow for a few."

And so "we dedicate ourselves here today to the proposition that our fight for a democratic, open Internet and independent media will end the historic pattern of monopoly that suffocates freedom, dissent, and creativity."

Those are Silver's concerns, and though I might put them a little less grandiosely, I share them. The Free Press Web sites are a handy gateway to media analysis, some of it more soberly phrased. On I came upon a link to a transcript of a July 29 panel discussion on Democracy Now! on the sorry state of the newspaper industry. This time Zell got a sliver of sympathy. Bernard Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild, said there's "a lot of fear, almost a sense of panic," at American papers as stocks tumble and staffs are slashed. Part of the problem is that the companies were "addicted" to huge profit margins, Lunzer said, but he allowed that in Zell's case and some others "they paid too much, they're overleveraged, there's too much debt."

Lunzer said he understands that newspapers must reinvent themselves. "There has to be innovation," he said. "We've been willing to bargain concessions where necessary, but we think the biggest mistake is that the owners and the publishers have not been talking to the frontline workers about that kind of innovation. So, what we're trying to do, where we have to do concessions, we want to trade that for real involvement, real committees that are able to work on a better business model, on the future of the product. We still believe that there's a place for quality journalism, that people will want it."

(To which Lee Abrams, who's Zell's "innovation" czar, might reply: We believe that too and we've formed those committees. We're not only asking the frontline workers for innovative ideas, we're begging them.)

Lunzer hopes Zell, who's already sold Newsday, will unload more papers to get them out from under that crushing debt. "We're hearing that Tribune Company is going to save journalism through all these cuts," he said. "That's not what we're seeing. That's not what we're feeling. We're feeling that basically it's just a self-fulfilling cycle of a downward spiral."

Josh Silver focuses on mainstream media because that's where both the money and the serious journalism still are. "The overwhelming majority of stories are broken by professional journalists, not by bloggers or armchair amateurs," he told me. But the Internet is irresistible, and Moyers in his speech warned that the "clock is ticking." He said, "Advertisers have already aggressively seized the new online world to go back into the programming business themselves, creating what's called 'branded content.' Imagine the Camel News Caravan revived, but this time as a sponsored YouTube channel. Can you imagine advertisers going for stories with key words such as 'health care reform,' 'environmental degradation,' 'Iraqi casualties.'... I don't think so. So what will happen to news in the future, as the already tattered boundary between journalism and advertising is dispensed with entirely, and as content, programming, commerce, and online communities are rolled into one profitably attractive package?"

But how alarmed should we be by this? Why shouldn't advertisers exploit key words? They've always directed their ad dollars at the programs and publications that best deliver the specific audiences they covet. What degree of specificity turns that into a sin?

We need to pick and choose among our worrywarts. I'm more in tune with Chris Hedges, a former New York Times reporter and another of the Democracy Now! panelists. Hedges said dourly that "the large newspapers are dying, and the Internet is not going to replace them." He said Times stock has dropped and it's gone through its own rounds of layoffs and buyouts, and although "part of it is ownership, part of it is just the antiquated nature of newsprint as a conveyor of information."

Hedges repeated himself for emphasis. "It's not totally about ownership; it is about the medium itself. The average reader of the paper copy of the New York Times spends 45 minutes reading the paper. The average viewer of the New York Times Web site spends about 7 minutes. The Internet is not designed for a literate society. We are moving into a postliterate society.", anyone?v

For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at

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