The lessons of Jessica Lynch on media monopoly

June 30, 2003

The affair of Jessica Lynch, the U.S. Army private who was injured in Iraq and rescued in a commando raid, seems unrelated to monopoly control of the media. But the handling of her story offers good reason to cheer Senate elders for moving to reverse the ideologically besotted Federal Communications Commission decision to trash safeguards against deepening concentration of media ownership.

In the latest development of the Lynch story, CBS News, desperate to get the 19-year-old West Virginia girl for an exclusive on-camera, sweetened the pot dramatically.

CBS can do this. As fans of monopolistic excess know, CBS belongs to Viacom, which also owns all things Paramount, 39 TV stations, MTV, VH1, Showtime, Comedy Central, The Movie Channel, Sundance, Nickelodeon, Simon & Schuster and the huge Infinity radio network, plus such trifles as Blockbuster Video and several big movie and TV producers.

So in wooing young Jessica, CBS News wasn’t confined to offering flowers for Mom, a limo to the studio and a backstage tour. Viacom’s honchos dangled a two-hour CBS News documentary, a TV movie produced by CBS Entertainment, the possibility of co-hosting an MTV special and a book deal with the venerable Simon & Schuster.

This was denounced by other media heavyweights. They were probably chewing their cheeks that they hadn’t thought of it first, but they were also concerned that by bidding high, Viacom might make it hard for everybody to get the “exclusives” that the ravenous flock of TV news magazines believe their ratings depend on.

Under the ethics of big time news, it’s cool that top-flight anchors make seven figures for reading a Teleprompter and marquee correspondents get $10,000 for addressing business conventioneers. But the schlubs whose misfortunes constitute the news TV journalists are paid a fortune to report cannot get a nickel. That would be unethical. (Also expensive.) Hence the dismay over CBS’ reported offerings to Jessica.

But that’s not the most vexing ethical quandary with the Jessica affair. The real problem is that nobody knows what the facts of the story really are. So what exactly is Viacom buying?

Initial accounts were based on unnamed Pentagon sources. (They’re people we pay to tell us things that make us feel better.) Jessica was captured after her hapless supply convoy was ambushed. She was wounded blazing away at Iraqi troops. Shot and stabbed, she was maltreated by her captors, tortured, finally recovered in a nighttime raid in which special ops fought their way in and carried her home.

Some of that’s true. Subsequent reporting, prompted by a highly skeptical report on the BBC, suggested that her horrific injuries were from the crash as her vehicle maneuvered to evade the Iraqi ambush. She was likely too mangled to fight. Overstretched Iraqi doctors say they did their best, even tried to return her to American forces. Her rescue was unopposed; the Iraqi military had abandoned the hospital before the raid ever took place.

The point isn’t to denigrate Jessica Lynch’s service or the valor of those who brought her home.

But Viacom would hardly buy the story of a supply clerk whose superiors landed her in a fine mess, and who spent agonized days in a sparsely equipped enemy hospital, tended by kindly but ineffectual doctors until she was rescued in a needless display of videotaped bravado.

No, the parent of CBS News — one of the world’s great news organizations, the home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite — can only be falling over itself to invest in a different Jessica story, the one built by Pentagon propagandists around blinding courage and patriotism, the one that may well be make-believe.

Maybe Jessica isn’t a combat hero. No shame in that. But if she’s not what CBS Entertainment’s movie proposes to say she is, what is CBS News prepared to say? That’s the most disturbing element of the whole affair. Thanks to Viacom’s commercial ambitions, Jessica Lynch could never be a story on 60 Minutes. She becomes a no-go zone for CBS News.

It’s that compression of news and entertainment, and the abusive potential in consolidating control over both, that ought to be Congress’ concern as it reviews the FCC’s latest lunacy.

The Senate Commerce Committee, in a bipartisan vote, moved to roll back this month’s decisions liberalizing common ownership of newspapers and TV stations and raising the cap on how much of the population a single media company may reach. The committee even insisted that radio mega-giants like Clear Channel — which purportedly engineered the protest against the Dixie Chicks for opining against the Iraq invasion — actually sell some of their bloated holdings.

The senators may just be posturing. And they don’t directly address that melding of news and entertainment, and the potential — apparent every time Time puts Warner’s latest movie on the cover of a once great news magazine — to make news a marketing channel for the chieftains of popular culture.

But at least they keep the issue of monopoly control alive. And at a time when such things proceed invisibly, unremarked, that’s not a bad thing. Maybe it makes the truth of Jessica’s war more likely to unearth.

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