The CBS-Viacom Merger: Impact on Journalism
Parker, Jim, Federal Communications Law Journal
Society of Professional Journalists
"There exists in America a control of news and of current comment more absolute than any monopoly in any other industry."(1)
With the September 7, 1999, announcement by Viacom Inc. and CBS Corporation that their respective boards of directors unanimously approved a definitive agreement to merge the two companies in the largest media transaction ever, it reignited a decades' old debate in America's journalistic community.(2)
Critics of these megamergers argue that the implications for journalism are enormous. They warn of a growing media-industrial complex potentially threatening to democracy. Others would characterize those views as nothing more than alarmist positions that have been proven wrong in the past.
The one indisputable fact: the eighty-billion-dollar Viacom-CBS merger would make the new Viacom the world's leading company in the production and distribution of news. Viacom proclaims that "the merger should also serve the public interest by helping to sustain the continued vitality of free and universal broadcasting."(3)
It is that claim of preserving the vitality of "free and universal broadcasting" that is at the heart of this and every other public debate over the power of big media. Although mass media in America has and will make continual evolutions, the fears expressed as a result of recent media conglomerate transactions are reminiscent of the debate ignited by Upton Sinclair over eighty years ago when he suggested moneyed interests were crippling journalism in U.S. newspapers and magazines.
Tom Goldstein, Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, recently observed: "Too often, commentary on media concentration has been fragmentary or anecdotal. We need to recast the debate, which shows signs of stagnating. We need to add new perspectives. That is why we should welcome fresh efforts at understanding media concentration."(4)
While I would not even begin to suggest that an essay of this nature could or would provide the answers to the questions of media consolidation and its effect on the practice of journalism in America, it is my hope that examinations of this kind will provide an outlet for the dissemination of information and discussion of relevant issues.
II. THE CASE AGAINST THE MERGER
The arguments against the proposed Viacom-CBS merger are no different than those advanced by opponents to other recent media mergers.
Perhaps the two biggest merger critics are Ben Bagdikian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Dean of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, and Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies and director of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University.
Both men warn of a growing and "unprecedented media concentration" and contend that "the effect on journalism and society is going to be profoundly negative."(5)
Bagdikian, Miller, and others seem to cite three reoccuring and compelling rationales for their fears of media consolidation and megacorporate journalism: financial pressures, stifling of free discourse, and news content manipulation.
A. Financial Pressures
Opponents argue the financial pressures are the result of Wall Street's push for profit at the expense of good journalism. The late Edwin Diamond, a veteran reporter and professor at the NYU School of Journalism, observed:
TV news has become too money-making to be left to news people. More and more, Wall Street sits in the executive producer's chair ... when news went public and had to answer to stockholders with higher profits, the picture changed and newsroom budgets began to be squeezed to increase profits.... The result is often passive news, soft news, personality news, crime news, and news as entertainment.(6)
More specifically, Medill School of Journalism Dean Ken Bode predicts cuts in the CBS news division if the merger goes through. …