Originally created 06/30/03

TV news in an age of big media: Just viewer come-ons?

NEW YORK -- For TV news programmers, Laci Peterson is big business.

During open-ended coverage, correspondents and pundits hash out the case against Scott Peterson, who's accused of killing his wife and their unborn son. No detail of the murders is too gruesome to dwell on, no legal twist too arcane to debate.

The Peterson saga is tragic, it's lurid, it expands to fill any volume of time. But one news story can't do it all.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch to the rescue!

Recovering in a Washington hospital, the 20-year-old Army supply clerk has yet to share her account of her capture and serious injury while on patrol in Iraq three months ago and of her rescue by Marines a week later. Multiple, often conflicting versions of her ordeal have arisen from other sources in the meantime.

But the audience doesn't quibble over fine points. A war hero whose mystique has grown with her continued seclusion, Lynch is, by proxy, America's unwitting sweetheart.

As her untold story takes on a life of its own (including an NBC biopic, unauthorized thus far, scheduled to start filming in August), media outlets are in rabid pursuit of her services. Lynch is a hot property, the latest A-level "get" whose avid suitors are seemingly untroubled that, according to her doctor, she can't remember what happened to her.

There's a certain irony to this journalistic gold rush, considering the recent death of David Brinkley at age 82.

A founding father of TV journalism, Brinkley was memorialized by every news outlet for embodying the highest standards of the profession he helped invent.

But then, tributes over, it was back to business, and the business of TV news, of course, is ratings. A few days later, The New York Times published a report on CBS News' campaign to land the Lynch exclusive that will surely be a ratings blockbuster.

In a letter to Lynch's family obtained by the Times, CBS News sought her participation in a two-hour documentary.

But the pitch also mentioned cross-marketing opportunities at other units of corporate parent Viacom, including CBS Entertainment (eager to produce its own Lynch-approved movie), Simon & Schuster publishers and MTV networks, which, among other things, envisioned a special edition of "Total Request Live" airing from Lynch's hometown of Palestine, W.Va., in her honor.

The letter from Betsy West, a CBS News senior vice president, touted a potential "unique combination of projects that will do justice to Jessica's inspiring story."

CBS News has defended its aggressive play for Lynch while declaring its "well-established separation from other parts of Viacom."

But the pitch letter, and the strategy it outlined, is symptomatic of the "multiplatform," synergistic focus of media conglomerates. It approached Lynch not as an interview subject, but a budding star. It characterized CBS News to her not so much as a news resource with a public trust, but as one piece of a full-scale media assault.

In short, the letter was a jolting reminder of Big Media's might at a time when the Federal Communications Commission, led by Chairman Michael Powell, has given Big Media a green light for business as usual - but on an even grander scale.

"In a broad sense, the erosion of a sense of public obligation contributes to the breakdown in news ethics and the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, which links that erosion to "ever-greater consolidation in the media."

Indeed, media conglomerates such as Viacom, Walt Disney Co. and News Corp. lobbied hard for the latest FCC deregulation, which, among other provisions, would allow individual companies to own TV stations reaching nearly half the nation's viewers and combinations of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city.

But the 3-2 commission vote on June 2 flew in the face of heated opposition from the public, members of Congress from both parties, and a wide spectrum of organizations including the National Organization for Women and the National Rifle Association.

Late last week, the Senate Commerce Committee gave bipartisan approval for proposed legislation to reverse that FCC decision.

The bill's future is uncertain in the full Senate and looks dim in the House.

What happens next? It may not command the attention being lavished on the Peterson case. But the fate of the media will always be big news.

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