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The Satanic Love-Spawn of Rupert Murdoch and Zell Miller

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Anti-media consolidation activists, among their many, many complaints, have bristled at faceless corporate control of newspapers, at the cost-cutting pressures that come with being a publicly traded newspaper company, at the lack of local ownership (and concern with local affairs that comes with it); and, above all, at the trend of media companies gobbling up ever more media companies, thereby (allegedly ? and inaccurately) creating a "media monopoly."

So along comes a decidedly unfaceless individualist who buys a newspaper company anchored in his two hometowns ? Chicago and Los Angeles ? and promptly takes it off the stock exchange, even making employees his partners. Instead of expanding his new company's empire, he sells various pieces off, thus diluting whatever "opoly" we're on now. All the while mandating more local coverage.

Shall we try to guess how the StopBigMedia coalition has reacted to Sam Zell? The Chicago Reader's Michael Miner talks to various media grumpuses, including Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver, and discovers that Zell is the new, woefully inappropriate poster boy for anti-media consolidation.

"He insults journalists and journalism at virtually every whistle stop on his tour," Silver replied, referring to Zell's visits to Tribune Company properties. "He says it's not about democracy ? it's about profits. The American public and policy makers have to decide whether journalism is produced purely for the reaping of profit or if it's a central component to a functioning participatory democracy.

"And based on the answer to that question," Silver went on, "you make policy accordingly. There is no such thing as a deregulated media policy system. The only question is, will the media be regulated for the largest media corporations or regulated on behalf of the American public. That's what all of our anticonsolidation efforts are about."

I have long since come to the conclusion that "anticonsolidation" activists are ultimately just "anti-media activists," whose main goal is to have the local daily staffed like a state university, totally unprofitable, covering issues of most concern to … anticonsolidation activists.

As for the Sarb-Ox-hating Zell, who I came within an eyelash of working for, whatever his other sins and virtues, he has singlehandedly done something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime: Turn alternative weeklies ? institutions that, you'll recall, hate more than anybody else the flunkies working at the dominant local daily ? into his beleaguered newsrooms' biggest defenders. If nothing else, it's nice to see someone replace Rupert Murdoch as the media bete noire for a change.

Ben Compaine wrote the definitive "media monopoly"-debunking piece for reason in January 2004. I declared it time to save journalism from its saviors back in December 2002.

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  1. Josh Silver is an odious, blithering self-important nanny-boy.

    That’s what I learned from this.

  2. thereby (. . . inaccurately) creating a “media monopoly.”

    First, you could make the same complaint about the game “Monopoly” or thousands of other colloquial uses of the word monopoly. generally, people don’t make this complaint because it is a silly quibble. People understand that “monopoly” is used synonomously with “oligopoly” and “cartel” and trust that people can understand when the word is so used from context. I mean, duh.

    Second, if you want to go all hypercritical on language, then it should be noted that it is not being alleged that the companies are “inaccurately creating a monopoly” as you have written. The idea of inaccurately creating a monopoly is not even a coherent one. Rather, what you meant to say was that –the characterization as a monopoly is inaccurate–. Of course, we know what you meant, but if you are gonna be a nitpicker, then turnabout is fair play, Mr. Welch.

  3. Matt! 29 links? Are you serious? Even I, who makes time wasting an art form here at work, don’t have the time to sort through all those links. I’m re-naming you Art Linklitter.

  4. ‘splain the headline please

    I’m missing the connection between Sam Zell and Zell Miller. Other than the irrelevant obvious.

  5. The American public and policy makers have to decide whether journalism is produced purely for the reaping of profit or if it’s a central component to a functioning participatory democracy.

    Two questions:

    (a) why can’t it be both?

    (b) how exactly are “policy makers” supposed to implement their decision that journalism must not be for profit, but must instead function as a central component to a functioning participatory democracy, without gangraping the First Amendment?

  6. grumpuses

    Oh that is the word of the day. Only 190 hits on Google. We need to get this one into the lexicon.

  7. how exactly are “policy makers” supposed to implement their decision that journalism must not be for profit, but must instead function as a central component to a functioning participatory democracy, without gangraping the First Amendment?

    You imply that they are averse to gangraping the first amendment. I think the republican candidate for president has proven that assumption to be false.

  8. The First Amendment led us on.

  9. The idea of inaccurately creating a monopoly is not even a coherent one.

    That’s what the parentheses are for, Dave. It’s not hard to figure out. Did you accidentally ingest some HFCS or something?

  10. Dave W. — At the risk of defining deviancy down, I think a misordered sentence is in a different category altogether than an inaccurate noun or verb.

  11. sixstring — Think of all them, except for the Chicago Reader one, as footnotes.

  12. Except for the last two Reason links, of course.

  13. It is funny that the media consoladation people never seemed to have a problem 30 years ago when the only source of national news was the three evening network newscasts.

  14. He insults journalists and journalism at virtually every whistle stop on his tour

    Oh, horror!

  15. The problem with Zell — one of many problems, but this is the big one — is that he’s saddled Tribune with an enormous debt. The result was to speed up the trends that were already in place in the chain (and the industry as a whole), forcing papers to make quicker, deeper cuts. Dumber cuts, too — watching events at the Baltimore Sun close up, I’m amazed at the sort of things Zell’s crew thinks it makes sense to invest in while everything else is cut back. They certainly aren’t putting their resources into local coverage, unless you count b, the paper’s hopelessly awful attempt to imitate Red Eye. I think the Chicago HQ has actually given b more money. (Apparently, no one has bothered to tell Zell that a tabloid aimed at young professionals riding public transportation might have trouble catching on in a city where hardly any young professionals take public transportation. And that it might not be a good use of space to run mediocre single-sourced stories, or rambling personal essays that read like bad blogs.)

  16. I always knew Zig-Zag Zell was a closet Homer-Sexual.

  17. Jessee,

    And that it might not be a good use of space to run mediocre single-sourced stories, or rambling personal essays that read like bad blogs.

    Seems to work at TNR and CBS. Your industry seems to have a bigger tent than it lets on.

  18. Jesse’s right about the debt. The other problem with Zell is that he seems to be kind of a dick. His antics amused me at first, and I thought he was kind of a funny guy and a provocateur. Turns out he’s just a dick. And he might be “mandating” more local coverage, but he’s not doing anything to make it happen — in fact, he’s actually making it harder. Most of the layoffs I’ve read about haven’t been in Iraq. They’re local journalists.

  19. Also, the people Zell has brought in to fix his newspaper company are all radio guys. That’s an industry that’s even more fucked than newspapers. His COO is a former morning shock-jock, for Christ’s sake.

  20. His COO is a former morning shock-jock, for Christ’s sake.

    Is the for Christ’s sake show opposite WLS’ Roe Conn? Haven’t heard of it yet.

  21. “The only question is, will the media be regulated for the largest media corporations or regulated on behalf of the American public.”

    it’s been said but the idea of a regulated media sounds completely ridiculous to me. alien and sedition acts anyone? i don’t see how anyone could support both the constitution and regulation of the press. granted, i don’t see how anyone could support both the constitution and regulation of free speech either but several members of all three branches of government have found a way to do just that.

  22. the people Zell has brought in to fix his newspaper company are all radio guys

    Oh, yes. Lee “The Man Who Killed Freeform” Abrams keeps emailing inadvertently hilarious pensees on the future of the media to the Tribune papers’ employees. You can read a bunch of them on the Poynter site.

    In one message, he announced that newspapers should “own” editorial cartooning and that this should be one of the Tribune chain’s strengths. Somehow it escaped Abrams’ attention that his company had already fired all its cartoonists.

  23. And he might be “mandating” more local coverage, but he’s not doing anything to make it happen — in fact, he’s actually making it harder. Most of the layoffs I’ve read about haven’t been in Iraq. They’re local journalists.

    I suspect the layoffs were, in part, pour encourager les autres. A couple of people highly motivated to do local work can probably generate more local coverage than a roomful of people who would rather do something else, thanks for asking.

  24. I’m totally torn on Lee Abrams, though I suspect I wouldn’t be if he was showing up in my in-box (rather than via LA Observed). I mean, he’s a 100% assclown, but he’s also *right* sometimes, or at least barking up a tree that those who despise him have ruled off-limits.

    And yes, the cuts are largely dumb — buyouts are a get-out-of-jail-paid card for talented and/or mobile people, and I think hacking down product like Sports pages is not the best way to handle a bleeding audience share.

  25. I didn’t even mean Abrams, who seems like a harmless kook. He’s the “director of innovation” or something. I was talking about Randy Michaels, the actual COO, who’s a former shock jock.

  26. Sam Zell’s an idiot. Our local daily just had another 70 or so reporter positions cut; the paper is now resorting to filling its pages by re-printing stuff from local blogs (seriously; a local mall had a big ad saying “You print. We publish”), and leaning heavily on the same AP stories you can find anywhere on the Web.

    And don’t forget his “inches uber alles” ideas of how to decide which reporters to keep and which to cut: he’s basing that in part on the number of column inches each reporter produces, NOT on quality.

    So if you and I work for a daily, and I turn in lots of space-filler stories each day about local Red Cross blood drives and Veteran’s Club potluck dinners and rewritten police press releases, whereas you turn in only one story every two or three days, but they’re in-depth investigative pieces exposing some government shenanigans, *you* will likely be the one to lose your job.

    Dude should’ve gone into porn, not papers. Where else are standards so warped that Ron Jeremy is considered sexier than Brad Pitt?

  27. Sheesh, you guys are acting like there are no choices in newspapers in Los Angeles of Chicago. Bumfuck Texas maybe, but not those two cities. You don’t like Zell, don’t buy his newspapers. Duh.

  28. Matt is exactly right when he says that their “main goal is to have the local daily staffed like a state university, totally unprofitable, covering issues of most concern to … anticonsolidation activists.:

    The real agenda of the reformists (Slate’s Jack Shafer’s label for the anti-media activists) can be gleaned from the writings of Robert McChesney, the academic who mixes their Kool Aide. In his book “Rich Media, Poor Democracy” McChesney holds that you cannot have a democratic society so long as the media-no matter how many firms-are privately owned, profit-seeking and supported by American commercialism.

    What the hard core reformistas really want, it seems, is not diversity or an open debate but a media that promotes their own vision of society and the world.

  29. BC,

    So it is just like the anti-tobacco, anti oil and anti-everything else movement, they are really pissed off at others making money for something other than college research papers?

  30. Ah. Vernacular cosmopolitianism. As we become more worldly, we focus on more on local issues. Is that what the anti-consolidation activists are babbling about?

  31. The single issue of “media congolmeration” is the bellwether of liberalism’s fucking stupidity.
    That, and “hate crimes.” And “paying your fair share.” And …
    Never mind. Liberals are fucking stupid about almost everything.

  32. Zell sucks. But I’m still worried about media consolidation. If TV network “X” is part of giant conglomerate “Y” which does tons of business with the federal government, then “Y” has every reason to influence “X”.

    And remember when Clear Channel took the Dixie Chicks of every single radio station in their vast empire as punishment for a single sarcastic dig at the president? That’s not government censorship, but it’s the next best thing.

    At best, it has a chilling effect. At worst, like in China, it’s a private-public conspiracy where big companies trade favorable treatment for self-censorship. I don’t know what to do about it, but it sure doesn’t seem healthy for the nation.

  33. As long as Zell sells the Cubs to Mark Cuban, he’s OK by me.

  34. Most of the layoffs I’ve read about haven’t been in Iraq. They’re local journalists.

    Um, that’s because the layoffs aren’t being done by the Chicago people. They’re being done by the management of the papers themselves – i.e., the same people who were running the papers into the ground years before Sam Zell arrived. You can blame Zell’s boys for not keeping closer watch on how the layoffs are being done (and believe me, the L.A. Times should, and will, cut another 150. In fact, they should cut 250 more just to set an example); but the decisions are being made in all departments just they way they’ve always been made: A bunch of useless alter kockers lock themselves in a conference room and figure out how they can make the head count by eliminating support staff, entry-level kids, productive staffers who are actually adding value to Tribune Company, and anybody else under the age of 100.

    And “taking on too much debt” is just another way of saying “paid too much.” If Zell is dumb, it’s because he let Tribune mislead him about how much their diseased properties were worth. The L.A. Times is valued at about $700 million in today’s market. That’s half what David Geffen allegedly offered for it a year or so ago. It hasn’t declined in value that much in only a year; its very modest worth was disguised by its being part of the Tribune empire.

    How is any of this Sam Zell’s fault? You can blame him for not realizing what a hornet’s nest he was walking into; but since he made the original error of buying the property at all, his actions have been correct and necessary steps to try and save a bunch of businesses that don’t really want to be saved.

    And I say that as one of the “victims” of his cost-cutting genocide. It is infuriating to see how the people who destroyed the Tribune properties are deflecting blame to the one guy who is trying to save their sorry asses.

  35. And “taking on too much debt” is just another way of saying “paid too much.”

    It’s a way of saying “bought something he couldn’t afford.” And the force of his folly is compelling a bunch of sickly properties to make themselves worse. The newspaper strategy for survival in Zelltime can be boiled down to two words: “Flail harder!”

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