Keith Olbermann’s sudden departure from MSNBC is illustrative of an overriding tenet that characterizes the media industry.
News organizations are businesses first – businesses that exist to make a profit. Providing news and information is secondary, just a means to bring in revenue.
In the world of big business, journalists are just tiny cogs in giant machines such as Viacom, Disney and NewsCorp. It doesn’t matter if you’re Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow or Glenn Beck. When your negatives for the corporation outweigh the positives, it’s time to go. That’s what happened to Keith.
Ironically, while the Olbermann story was in the headlines, far less attention was being focused on two other developments that also illustrate the power and influence that corporations wield.
The New York Times today reported that in 2010 media giant Viacom awarded about $84.5 million in total compensation to Philippe Dauman, its chief executive, and about $64.7 million to Thomas Dooley, its chief operating officer. Both figures were more than double what each executive received in 2009.
Compare that to the recent announcement from Gannett, which is reducing the newsroom staffs at three of its New Jersey newspapers, cutting the total number of news jobs from 99 to 53. The sum total of all 99 salaries combined pales in comparison — not only to Dauman’s annual compensation, but also to the huge increase he received from 2009.
The second story, also in today’s New York Times, relates how Toyota altered the content of one of its television ads in response to pressure from the NFL, which felt the ad unfairly singled out football as a cause of head injuries. According to The Times, the NFL threatened to limit and possibly prevent Toyota from advertising during games if it refused to alter the ad.
All of this reminds me of the words of former New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel, who in his 1999 memoir The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times wrote: “We could not decide whether The Times had to be a good newspaper to be profitable or profitable to produce a good newspaper.”
Some ten-plus years later, it is painfully clear which of those paths has been taken by the corporations that control the news industry.