Ominous warning

Norman Pearlstine is a lawyer and Time Inc’s editor-in-chief. His recent announcement to hand over documents revealing reporter Matt Cooper’s confidential sources to a grand jury over the Valerie Plame case is of major concern. I covered this case in a recent entry. Thankfully, the New York Times and its journalist Judith Miller are currently refusing to capitulate. Editor and Publisher reports that although Bush side-kick Karl Rove may be the prime suspect in the leaking of CIA agent Plame to the media, a journalist may actually be to blame.

This story goes to the heart of independent journalism in a free society. Pearlstone says the decision was a hard one (and went against Cooper’s own wishes), but Columbia Journalism Review succinctly explains the dangers of this move:

“But for a Pearlstine, straddling two worlds, a day at the office is more complicated than that. Time Inc. is a vast enterprise, publishing Time, Fortune, Money, Sports Illustrated, People, Entertainment Weekly and over 100 smaller magazines – yet, for all that, it is but one division of the megalith entertainment company Time Warner. As David Halberstam told the New York Times, Time Inc. “is a strange company and it’s a different company now, and it is really part of an entertainment complex. The journalism part is smaller and smaller. There is a great question out there: is this a journalistic company or an entertainment company?

“Once media companies become part of larger conglomerates like Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, General Electric, those companies and the journalists they employ have sharply diverging obligations. And the top editors among them find themselves with one foot in each camp. Was Pearlstine, for example, acting as a journalist, or as a corporate executive?”

A major news organisation needs to be stand up, and take the consequences, if the law is wrong, as it is in this case. Time Inc. should have done just that. Instead, the back pocket won the battle.

In a world where media diversity is lessening by the day, and cross media laws are likely to loosen in Australia in the coming months – last night’s ABC PM outlined the various manoeuvres of Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax, including Fairfax expressing interest in purchasing Channel 9 and News Ltd’s new and free Sydney daily, MX, threatening the Sydney Morning Herald’s already small, young readership – the mainstream media is simply attempting to protect its turf. Simply put, we cannot rely on the establishment media to behave in the interests of the community. Indeed, could we ever presume this to be the case?

Mark Scott, editor-in-chief of newspapers at John Fairfax, writes in the latest Walkley magazine – after telling media organisations that they must adapt to the new online environment – and ends with this telling flourish:

“As we want to protect our papers and secure their futures, an ideological resistance to scale and concentration in the media industry might be something that needs to be sacrificed for a greater good.”

A greater good? Australia already has the tightest concentration of media ownership in the Western world. Proposed changes will only make that situation worse, despite initial claims otherwise. The decision of Norman Pearlstine is an ominous warning that even the largest news organisation no longer sees itself as separate from governmental pressure.

Bring on the alternatives.

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