SOLOMON: Media Lobby Gets Bad Grades

I've just read a stunning new report titled "Off the Record: What Media Corporations Don't Tell You About Their Legislative Agendas." Unfortunately, the information in it will not be coming to a television set near you.

In the hours after release of the report, the big cable TV networks were devoting lots of live coverage to breathless stories about tragic deaths that occurred years ago. Yet again, mighty news operations focused on JonBenet Ramsey and Princess Diana. And none of the outlets were more transfixed with those stories than CNN -- owned by Time Warner, the largest media conglomerate.

As it happens, Time Warner figures prominently in "Off the Record," a carefully researched document from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. "No media corporation lavishes more money on lobbyists or political campaigns than Time Warner," the report explains. "The media giant spent nearly $4.1 million for lobbying last year, and since 1993 has contributed $4.6 million to congressional and presidential candidates and the two political parties."

For Time Warner, which has shelled out $15.77 million for lobbying since 1996, the stakes are high along Pennsylvania Avenue. Right now, the company is awaiting federal approval of its merger with America Online. Many other media firms are also accustomed to finding gratification in Washington as regulators decline to regulate.

In theory, broadcasters hold licenses to use the public airwaves in the public interest -- but despite all the profit-driven junk on TV and radio, the Federal Communications Commission doesn't hesitate to renew those licenses. Meanwhile, under the guise of protecting "intellectual property," huge multimedia companies have developed legal mechanisms to tighten their grip on what passes for popular culture. And sometimes, the lobbying goals of media corporations extend into areas that might surprise us.

"Last June, the Senate joined the House in passing legislation to repeal estate taxes," the center's report noted. "The measure was strongly supported by some well-known family-owned publishers." Such maneuvers usually take place behind the scenes. Powerful media outfits fight "against restrictions on tobacco advertising in print and alcohol advertising on the air, for eliminating the FCC's rules designed to prevent the concentration of the public airwaves and the press in too few hands, and to block any attempt to give candidates free air time, a move that could reduce the cost of political campaigns."

What's up with the FCC while all this frenetic lobbying is underway? Well, it seems that many of the staffers at this watchdog agency are all too happy to keep rubbing up against the legs of media titans. According to the center, "Federal Communications Commission employees were taken on 1,460 all-expenses-paid trips sponsored by media corporations and associations since 1995, costing a total of $1.5 million."

Elected officials and media outlets are apt to seem independent of each other, but the ties that bind are sturdy and longstanding. Politicians crave positive media coverage, and the corporate parents of news organizations are determined to prevent government actions that would crimp the flow of mega-profits. Compared to the riches gained by media firms, the money paid to sway decision-makers in Washington adds up to little more than peanuts.

So, in context, the influence-buying pattern documented by the Center for Public Integrity should not be surprising: "Since 1996, the 50 largest media companies and four of their trade associations have spent $111.3 million to lobby Congress and the executive branch of the government." And media conglomerates can look forward to the next presidency. Al Gore and George W. Bush each received "more than a million dollars in political donations from media interests" during the past seven and a half years, $1.16 million for Gore and $1.07 million for Bush.

"Off the Record" includes plenty of important revelations that will not be televised. But the whole sordid story is available to those who go to www.publicintegrity.org and click on "Center Reports." It will make a lot of people mad.

Among those who already sound angry about the emerging media monopoly is former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, whose comment provides a fitting epigraph to the report: "Our big corporate owners, infected with the greed that marks the end of the 20th century, stretch constantly for ever-increasing profit, condemning quality to the hindmost ... compromising journalistic integrity in the mad scramble for ratings and circulation."

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