20/20 Hindsight

Pittsburgh, January 2, 2020

Although intended as a joke, the infoterrorist attack that interfered with last week’s White House Christmas special was no laughing matter. The old Flash Gordon sequence that kept interrupting the Defense Department’s beautiful “Ballet of Lasers” was an insult to our men and women under fire, while the laugh track that drowned out the presidential chaplain’s benediction made a mockery of everything this nation stands for. The president himself was right when he observed, at his annual press conference two days later, “Make no mistake: their antics were not funny, and they will not stand.” Carried out with chilling competence, the attack showed how capable our homegrown info-terrorists have become. According to Security Service officers, the Media Liberation Front (MLF) -- the group that claimed responsibility for the attack -- is a lethal new alliance of old enemies. Predictably, the MLF includes leftist groups that have opposed the Company™ since it was chartered thirteen years ago: Strike Two, the DuBoyz Club, the Sons of Ida Tarbell (SIT), and La Causa Nueva. Surprisingly, that network has been joined by anti-Company™ groups of the ultra-right -- outfits like the Liddites, Killbox, Southern Comfort, and the Zenger League. The merger worries law enforcement agencies throughout the administration. “We’ve got to squash them all like bugs,” Attorney General Ann Coulter said on Friday, “or they’ll chew right through the fabric of our great republic.”

Today, in short, we face the gravest challenge to our national security since the Cable Riots of 2009. But while we must crack down, we also have to win the hearts and minds of those who heed the info-terrorists out of ignorance. We must reach out especially to the young, who have no idea what life was like before the Company™ transformed it. To help them appreciate today’s advantages, all young Americans must learn the story of the Company™, and how it made “TV worth living for.”© Thus, this special historical report in the 2020 anniversary issue of Company™ Journalism Review by Tucker Ellis, the Silvio Berlusconi Professor of Commercial Policy at Carnegie Mellon Lockheed Martin University.


Too Much “News”
Not long ago, life in this great land of ours was often boring and depressing because the news was always bad and there was way too much of it. News was hard to understand, and, invariably, it was bad. Bad news overran TV and radio, and filled the nation’s major magazines and what were known as “newspapers.” After Microsoft absorbed most of the Internet in 2005, the online universe was filled with news, since any malcontent or cyber-terrorist could open his own site. (The president’s “Clean Screens”© initiative to fix that problem did not begin until 2006.) Before the Company’s™ reforms, all our media churned out much the same unhealthy diet -- economics, foreign affairs, “environmental” matters, politics, and other subjects that just don’t belong on television.

There were a few bright spots amid the gloom and doom -- expanding coverage of new movies and TV shows, big concerts and celebrities; a fair amount of useful product information; now and then a riveting sex scandal, such as we enjoy day after day on Company™ programs like Nightline with Matt Drudge™; and, whenever possible, the sort of thrilling footage that we now get on the six Disaster Channels. But such “news to use”© was the exception rather than the rule.

The bad news was as redundant as it was excessive -- a symptom of the anarchy that ruled before the Company™ cleaned up the nation’s act. Incredibly, the media had many owners prior to the new millennium. As recently as 1960, for instance, U.S. cities each had several “papers,” TV stations, and radio stations -- most of them owned locally, and all of them producing their own news! The national scene was just as inefficient, with no fewer than three separate TV networks, as well as three major national daily “newspapers,” and three national weekly “newsmagazines,” while radio was a continental hodge-podge of competing firms. Although the situation started to improve with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, by the first years of the twenty-first century the media were still absurdly balkanized. In 2002, for example, TV -- both terrestrial and cable -- was largely dominated by five different corporations, with various other interests owning major pieces of this network or that “station group.” The nation’s “newspapers,” meanwhile, were mostly owned by some half-dozen separate companies.

Only radio provided a sound model for the future. By 2002 two companies, Clear Channel and Viacom, controlled nearly a third of all revenue, and so could bring a little order to the national free-for-all of radio programming. (Those two corporations merged in 2003.) Otherwise, redundancy prevailed, although there were some hopeful portents of reform. In 2001, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to review those regulations that kept the system inefficient. In 2003, the FCC got rid of them, and then, in 2004, Congress got rid of the FCC – whose murky mission (“to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity”) had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Despite such helpful steps, the media remained in pretty sorry shape. In 2002, amazingly, there were still simultaneous nightly newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS, as there had been for decades. The drain on resources continued until 2004, when the networks finally dropped their evening newscasts altogether. That joint cancellation led directly to high-level talks about “the Final Merger”©, which would “make the news make some fiduciary sense for once,” as Michael Powell, president of the Ford Foundation, put it in the spring of 2006. The following year, the government allowed the last four remaining media corporations -- AOL/Time Warner/Sony/ Liberty/Vivendi, GE/Disney/Bertelsmann/Gannett, News Corp/AT&T/ Comcast/Knight Ridder/Viacom/Clear Channel, and Microsoft/The New York Times/Washington Post/Dow Jones -- to converge into the Company™, which absorbed the old TV and radio networks, “station groups,” “newspapers,” and “newsmagazines” (and every other magazine) -- as well as sports teams, cable systems, movie studios, record labels, Internet search engines, theater chains, and book publishers, among other cultural enterprises, including multiplexes, concert halls, arenas, stadiums, and ticket services (and, since just last year, advertising agencies).

The deal was universally applauded. “If anybody is against this move,” joked Company™ ceo Lachlan Murdoch, “it’s news to me!”

New Priorities
For years, the networks had been trying to put their news shows in the black by slashing budgets to the bone, while mixing in such popular material as serial murder, satanic cults, Bill Clinton’s crimes, and other topics of great interest to Americans. It was a smart approach, and would have worked if the networks hadn’t also felt obliged, sometimes, to cover “corporate crimes,” foreign news, and other money-losers.

The Company™ did not repeat that error. It dropped those subjects that had pulled low numbers in the focus groups -- what Bo Derek, head of the National Endowment for Democracy, called “news for losers.” And instead of merely


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cutting its news budgets further, the company got rid of them entirely, assigning news production to its Movie Wing™, whose employees possessed the skill to load the news with thrills, laughs, smart pacing, patriotic themes, hot babes, and satisfying endings. That step made perfect economic sense.

By now, of course, we’ve all come to expect excellent coverage of the things that really matter to us -- Hyper-Lotto, new food products, U.S. military victories, sex scandals, and the latest episodes of “Triage”™, “Thugs”™, or “Makeover”™. Most of us cannot recall the vast wasteland that was TV news, with its confusing and irrelevant accounts, its slow and talky style. In 2000, for example, the average sound-bite was 7.3 seconds -- long enough for a complex sentence or long jingle. Today’s average sound-bite is a pithy 1.3. Sometimes a simple grunt or snicker makes the point.

Those who bash the Company™ today should get a DVD of, say, ABC World News Tonight, and try to stay awake through half of it.

They should also get a look at whom the networks used to put before the cameras to report the news. How they expected normal people to keep tuning in to news programs back then is quite the mystery. Old guys like Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, fat guys, even women over forty -- it seems that anyone back then could qualify to be a journalist. This was before the Company’s™ wise decision to recruit anchors and reporters from entertainment spheres -- a policy that started when it hired L’il Kim, N’Sync, and Cameron Diaz as correspondents on the venerable newsmagazine show, Fifteen Minutes™.

Taking Care of Business
But thanks to the Company’s™ reforms, the news was more than just a lot of pretty faces. It was also a consistent money-maker, now that the people running it knew how to make the most of what they had. In the pre-Company™ era, some journalists thought that marketing and journalism were at

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odds. Some years went by before the news was properly commercialized.

Of course, interactivity helped. It is a blessing that the young do not appreciate, since they have no memory of the days when viewers couldn’t just click on the anchor’s necktie or nose-ring to find out where to go to purchase one just like it. The Company™ fully grasped the need for synergistic cross-promotion -- a practice that had been condemned by critics who did not appreciate its economic value. In 2000, for example, there was much purist carping when the pets.com sock puppet did some comic turns on certain ABC news programs (Disney then owned both that network and a piece of pets.com). Today there are no critics left to whine about such enlightened self-advertisement. Every news report, special documentary, candid interview, or positive review (they once ran negative reviews!) that helps sell any movie, TV show, CD, or DVD, or videotape, or book, or book-on-tape, etc., whether it’s online or off-, is one more boost for our economy. From such quiet teamwork everybody benefits.

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The Company™ collects for every minute of airtime, while advertisers can be sure of highly favorable coverage.

It is difficult to believe, but not too long ago this seamless system would have been impossible. Astoundingly, some journalists believed they were obliged to dig up news that might do damage to the very corporations that employed them. It was no easy task to change the negative culture of the newsrooms.

And so it was a great day for America when the Company™ and the administration started working hand in glove to show the diehards of the Fourth Estate exactly who was boss. In 2013 the government passed legislation making it a criminal offense to badmouth any corporate product. Starting with the Granny Smith Act, which outlawed the disparagement of any food or drink of any kind, the government moved on to do the same for oil tankers, oil wells, oil drilling equipment, oil pipelines, gas refineries, gas pipelines, nuclear reactors, automobiles (SUVs especially), buses, trucks, jet engines, motorcycles, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters (Apaches in particular), locomotives, train tracks, land mines, mining equipment, weapons systems, elevators, escalators, power mowers, rubber tires, handguns, rifles, shotguns, ammunition, patent medicines, prescription drugs, cosmetics, fertilizer, lead paint, plastics, pesticides, herbicides, cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco, cribs, toys, high chairs, infants’ car seats, kitchen appliances, gym equipment, clothing, shoes, and radioactive waste.

As useful as it was, such national legislation was moot the next year, when the administration managed to persuade the World Trade Organization to classify investigative journalism as an unfair trade practice. Thenceforth the Company™ and all its outside advertisers were finally freed from the old nuisance of “consumer news,” as the extremists called it, which was nearly dead anyway. “Make no mistake: The terrorists have lost!” said John Stossel, head of the Federal Trade Commission.

The same year, Congress passed the Sarcasm Act, which made it a high crime to ridicule, mock, deprecate, belittle, disrespect, defame, revile, damn with faint praise, or second-guess the president or any of his aides or officers in any way. (The president’s would-be critics had already been inhibited by the Copyright Extension Act of 2010, according to which all U.S. government officials are the legal owners of their own personas, and may therefore refuse permission to be quoted, mentioned, or described.) To make this work, the Bill of Rights was

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altered slightly to facilitate the war on terrorism, with the First Amendment qualified as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances; unless the president should deem it necessary.

To supervise the partnership between the Company™ and the Government™, the two agreed to the formation of the Office of Strategic Planning, housed in xxxxxxxxxx, and including among its top directors xxxxxxxxxx, with xxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxx, and xxxxxxxxxx on its staff. The OSP has been empowered to xxxxxxxxxx; xxxxxxxxxx. The xxxxxxxxxx, or even xxxxxxxxxx. xxxxxxxxxx because of the possibility of further info-terrorist attacks. Its mission xxxxxxxxxx the greatness of America.

Dr. Ellis's article is based on a strange premonition by Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at New York University and author of The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder.

A different version of this article appeared in the Columbia Journalism
Review.

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