True Confessions of a Media CEO

Now that the deadline has passed for hundreds of top corporate executives to certify the truthfulness of their financial books, we may expect more honest accounting in the future. But what if the heads of major firms were compelled to engage in other types of candor?

Let's imagine that the CEO of a leading media conglomerate felt the need to come clean about the firm's overall activities. The public statement might go something like this:

While revenues are down in our broadcasting division, we've done our best to wring every last dollar out of the airwaves that the parent company has been able to hijack from the public. Fortunately, these days, the FCC -- we call it the "Federal Complicity Cabal" around the office -- is giving us just about everything we demand.

In some urban areas, we now own at least half a dozen radio stations, plus a couple of TV outlets. And the restrictions against also owning local newspapers are on their way out, too.

On television, we've been able to flood the market with more junky old shows than ever. The newer sitcoms and dramas continue to push the boundaries of exploiting sexuality to spike ratings (in sync with like-minded commercials). Most of the movers and shakers on our board of directors are big supporters of conservative moralizers in Washington, but that's no conflict with their commitment to profitable sleaze. Whatever works!

Meanwhile, our TV news division is paring down to the essentials. (Rest assured there'll be no skimping on wardrobes and hair spray.) We've cut back on producers, researchers and those still eager to engage in actual journalism. And we've brought additional talent on board with reliable devotion to our corporate model. Prodded by management, boat-rockers have walked the plank.

After buying several hundred radio stations across the country since enactment of the bipartisan telecommunications law in 1996, we're able to clone our sound with just enough trickery to make most people think they're listening to a station with a local staff. For those who don't care for our daily offerings of Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura and various imitators, we provide the free-market choice of insipid oldies and present-day pop to help listeners while away their pitiful consumptive lives.

We're excited about the expanding revenue stream for product placements in our movies. Showing the brand on a can of beer or a pack of cigarettes can really help us meet our shooting budgets. Only half in jest, we're wondering if we might be able to get some marquee stars to temporarily adopt nicknames during a movie's release. There's no telling how much we might be able to fetch from a three-way deal with Julia "Marlboro" Roberts.

Speaking of cigarettes, our magazine division now does a better job of going light on smoking-and-health articles. The firm relies on many millions of ad dollars from tobacco companies, and it would be financially irresponsible to publish lots of stories about the horrors of lung cancer and emphysema due to smoking. In that spirit, during the past year, our print outlets have downplayed the strong new evidence of serious hazards from secondhand smoke.

On the Internet, while revenues are down, we've been filling people's screens with enough pop-up ads and other obnoxious features to partly compensate. Also, our search-engine department has been taking plenty of payoffs -- all perfectly legal -- from site owners who'd rather be in the top 10 listings instead of showing up as number 247. Ha ha.

Our book division is finding better ways to communicate with the biggest chains before we sign up new authors. If the key execs who place orders for Borders or Barnes & Noble stores aren't enthusiastic about particular manuscripts, we ought to think twice or three times about sinking our capital into publishing them. It's far smarter to fatten the advertising budget for the next blockbuster by Tom Clancy (or whoever the heck he hired to write "his" latest book) than to roll the dice for a dozen works of purported art by earnest nobodies.

At the media outlets owned by our conglomerate, quite a few employees are sincerely dedicated to the finest principles of journalism, artistic expression and public service. To be honest, such dedication can impede the maximization of profits that our shareholders have every right to expect. But, over time, clear rewards and tacit punishments are apt to result in wondrous transformations. As we move forward into a brave new multimedia world, surely the best is yet to come.

Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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