Proud to be a member of the Disney family?


Nantucket, Mass -- AS THE NEWS about the mergers that are reshaping the television news industry continues to tumble out, public affairs journalism seems to have been swept away by America's new mania for corporate bigness.

Few of the early accounts of Disney's deal with Capital Cities/ABC and the sale of CBS to Westinghouse Electric have made more than passing references to the implications latent in these mergers for the future of independent news gathering.

But there are dangers. Among them is the degree to which the emerging corporate structures will smother what remains of a passion for public affairs coverage in the corporate news divisions.

There was a breathtaking glimpse of the future on Monday when Charles Gibson, co-host of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," interviewed Thomas S. Murphy, the chairman of Capital Cities/ABC, and Michael D. Eisner, the Walt Disney chairman -- his present and future bosses.

Mr. Gibson tried to raise the question of the impact of the merger with the entertainment giant on the high-quality journalism at ABC-TV.

Mr. Murphy, without missing a beat, asked Mr. Gibson if he wasn't proud to be a member of the Disney family. Mr. Gibson struggled to keep the conversation on an objective level that might be of some real value to the viewers.

Mr. Murphy noticed his discomfort with the question and joked about it with Eisner. Mr. Gibson may have thought his role was that of an objective journalist. His bosses made it clear that their interest tended more toward entertainment than information.

The trend is not new. For the past decade and a half, journalism has been slowly squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner of the expanding corporations that make up the communications industry.

The values and norms of journalism have been steadily eroded as corporate managers order news divisions to produce more "infotainment" programs.

This leads to programs like the recent Diane Sawyer interview on ABC's "PrimeTime Live" with Michael Jackson that was tied to the release of a new video with which the network hoped to be associated in the minds of the elusive youth market.

Such programming increasingly draws resources away from the discovery and pursuit of in-depth stories for evening news broadcasts.

With the Disney-ABC merger the threat to a form of journalism that serves the interests of a self-governing people crosses a new threshold.

Even with the best of intentions, owners and managers are influenced by the fact that they now preside over a corporation that, by the simple act of merger, has drastically reduced the proportionate importance of the news department.

An already diluted pool from which the values of journalism will be drawn has been reduced to peripheral importance in corporate decisions. ABC's news division will now have to compete with the enormous energy of Disney's entertainment productions in a company in which ABC's value as an outlet for entertainment is paramount.

One important advantage that TV news departments have had is the relatively low cost of production of news compared with entertainment shows. But the marriage of Disney's entertainment production company with ABC's worldwide transmission system changes that relative position.

Because of the opportunity to cycle and recycle Disney's cartoons and movies worldwide, the per unit production costs of these entertainment packages will be substantially lowered.

And there is another force at work, best represented by the proposed merger of CBS and Westinghouse, that should cause worry.

This rush to merge mainly entertainment organizations that have news operations with companies deeply involved in doing business with the government raises ominous questions about the future of watchdog journalism.

Communications companies make up the fastest growing industry in the United States. They have now almost completely ingested the country's news organizations.

Because these new communications corporations are so dependent on government decisions, they are actively involved in lobbying for and buying government favors.

According to the Center for Responsive Government, the communications industry was the sixth largest contributor to the candidates in the 1994 elections. The industry contributed nearly $10 million directly to political action committees.

As they seek to buy favorable treatment in law, rules and regulations and to win government contracts for their manufacturing divisions, these companies have become supplicants of the very institutions whose behavior they must objectively monitor if their work is to be of value to the public.

There is a basic fact about the free-market system. The market is governed by the logic of economic self-interest. Public affairs journalism is by definition concerned with the broader interests of a society.

These latest mergers will drive two more press organizations deeper into a world dependent for its well-being upon the decisions of governments here and abroad. A passion for good old-fashioned journalism could hardly find a more discouraging atmosphere within which to try to survive.

But in the end, the most important factor that can warm the

passion for journalism is the commitment from the top of the news media corporations.

The owners of the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe risked federal prosecution to provide readers with the analysis of the Vietnam War contained in the Pentagon Papers. And there is the example of a few Southern newspaper owners who, at great economic cost, encouraged full and objective coverage of the civil rights movement.

That is certainly not the sort of message Mr. Gibson got when he tried to interview the men at the top of America's biggest new media conglomerate.

Bill Kovach, a former newspaper editor, is head of the Neiman Foundation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He wrote this for the New York Times.

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