Saturday, January 10, 2009

Refuting a theory

As journalism students, we learn that corporate ownership of media is detrimental to objective reporting ethics. Corporate owners, in theory, will impress their business goals upon the reporters and editors who write for their publications, thereby influencing which subjects get covered and which subjects do not.

For example, ABC decided not to run a story a few years ago that would have cast Disney World's hiring practices in a negative light. Allegedly, Disney - ABC's corporate owner - told the station to drop the coverage and save a public-relations headache.

In an ideal world, journalists - not businesspeople - decide which stories deserve coverage. A particular subject's newsworthiness is not subject to the whims of profiteering owners looking to avoid negative press.

In the real world, however, most news publications need corporate dollars to keep running. So, journalists prepare themselves for some degree of interference from the big men upstairs.

That's why Bill Bastone's answer to my question was so surprising.

I asked the founder and editor of The Smoking Gun, an investigative reporting Web site owned by media conglomerate Time Warner, if Time Warner had ever asked them not to cover something because it might hurt the company's image or profits.

He couldn't believe I had brought it up. Not only would he refuse to consider dropping a story at Time Warner's bidding, he said, but the subject had never even come up. In fact, he welcomed the opportunity to run negative coverage at ownership.

"We want people to know that we're owned by this monstrosity, but we want to be the first to poke them in the eye," he said.

He and the other two journalists at the Gun were walking the talk.

As we met with Bastone, the rest of his crew was working on obtaining an audio file of Charles Barkley's recent arrest in Gilbert, Ariz., in which he was supposed to have said some damaging things. Barkley is a co-host on TNT's "Inside the NBA." TNT is an affiliate of Ted Turner's network, which is owned by - here it comes - Time Warner. You can bet his inflammatory statements would reflect poorly on the media giant.

Still, Bastone and his coworkers pressed on. He said he hadn't heart from Time Warner on the subject.

Maybe Time Warner hadn't had the chance to deal with the story yet. Maybe they thought if The Smoking Gun didn't break it, someone else would within the hour. Or maybe this whole owners-versus-editors scandal all journalism students despise is just a tad overblown.

I don't think Bastone's words are the final blow to the theory, but it's nice to know that maybe ownership doesn't have quite as much say in the editor's room as I thought.

-James Spung


  1. This is a bit of an unprecedent trip for many of us. Out of 12 students on the trip, I think there are, well, only two that have ever been to the Big Apple. And I speak on behalf of many of them when I say that we are equal parts overwhelmed and excited by everything we've seen so far. From the Empire State Building to Times Square, from the New York Public Library to Central Park, from the Chrysler Building to Broadway, New York is such a different world for most of us. Spokane's largest building would be dwarfed here. It's such an exciting and overbearing town.

  2. The previous comment was by James Spung.


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