Hurrah for Big Media!

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2m 21sec

"Big Is Beautiful" by Jack Shafer, in Slate (Jan. 13, 2000),

When Time Warner (old media) and America Online (new) announced their merger this year, the usual suspects once again complained that media conglomeration is bad, bad, bad. "It is a business thing," critic Robert

A. McChesney said. "Good journalism is bad business and bad journalism is, regrettably, at times good business." Hogwash, says Shafer, deputy editor of the on-line magazine Slate.

"The McChesneyite critique of big media," he says, "misses the long-term trend that started with Gutenberg and is accelerating with the Internet: As information processing becomes cheaper, so does pluralism and decentralization, which comes at the expense of entrenched powers--government, the church, the guild, nobility, and the magazines and TV stations that Big Media God Henry Luce founded. Do McChesney and company think we were better off in 1970, when there were three TV news networks, than we are today, when there are six or eight? Better off before the New York Times and Wall Street Journal became national newspapers? Before FM radio and cable?"

In his 1999 book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, McChesney, who is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois, asserted that just nine major companies controlled much of the world’s media. But Shafer, citing a Columbia Journalism Review list, maintains that there are nearly three dozen big media companies in the United States alone.

As for the idea that "good journalism is bad business," Shafer points to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post as examples of editorial quality combined with financial success, and observes that "as USA Today has become a better paper, it has become more viable as a business."

Shafer (who notes that he draws his paycheck from Slate’s parent, Microsoft, which also co-owns MSNBC with General Electric) says that McChesney and his fellow critics of big media look back to a golden age that never was, and romanticize small independent newspapers. "For every Emporia Gazette edited by a William Allen White, there’s a Manchester Union Leader piloted by a William Loeb," he says. And small, independently owned newspapers "routinely pull punches when covering local car dealers, real estate, and industry, to whom they are in deep hock."

Despite their many shortcomings, only big media have "the means to consistently hold big business and big government accountable," Shafer observes. In the 1980s, when Exxon, upset at the Wall Street Journal’s coverage, threatened to pull its advertising, the paper stood firm and the threat proved hollow. "How would the Podunk Banner have fared against a similar threat from the area Chevrolet dealer?"


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