On Sept. 1, the Idaho Statesman ran a fascinating exposé of local CEO salaries. The amounts of money, stock options and the all-encompassing "bonuses" lavished on these public company executives were staggering and obscene. Not to mention, according to Statesman reporter Julie Howard, "generous severance, salary, pension and retirement packages."
Many of the companies the chief executive
officers represented had lost money in the last year. Yet,
according to Howard, "Out of 15 Idaho public companies examined, 11
paid their CEOs more even as company earnings fell." Indeed, Howard
reports, in fiscal year 2001 George J. Harad, CEO of publicly
traded Boise Cascade, brought in a total compensation package of
around $1.6 million "- a half million dollar raise from the year
before. This reward came after he led the company to a loss of
almost a dollar a share during the same year.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the Idaho
Statesman story was that it ran the piece at all. After all,
corporate names are everywhere in Boise, a city that will give away
naming rights for just about any corporate donation. (Down
Interstate 94 in Caldwell is Albertsons College. The joke is that
Albertsons has an express checkout line at its admissions office:
12 credits or less.)
Not known for hard-hitting
investigative journalism, the Statesman itself is a corporate-owned
paper, part of the large publicly traded (its New York Stock
Exchange symbol is "GCI") Gannett media empire that, in addition to
the Statesman, owns major dailies in many of the state capitals in
the West. In the western United States, all but Alaska, New Mexico
and Wyoming have Gannett-owned properties. Those properties also
include television stations.
The selling-off of
independent, family-owned newspapers to corporations in just the
last decade is startling. Currently, of the 1,500 daily newspapers
in the United States, only around 250 are family-owned. Ten years
ago that number was 358.
The demise of the
independent newspaper and the concentration of media ownership were
two main topics discussed at a symposium I attended in September at
the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, titled "The
Independent Family Newspaper in America: Its Future and Relevance."
One keynote speaker was the western dean of family-owned
newspapers, Seattle Times' publisher Frank Blethen. He warned of
impending regulations before the Federal Communications Commission
that would weaken existing cross-ownership laws "- one company
owning a newspaper and television station in the same area "- and
lead to additional sell-offs among family-owned newspapers.
>A similar eroding of ownership laws came
courtesy of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This led to a
single company, Clear Channel Communications, gobbling up some
1,225 radio stations. As Salon's Eric Boehlert wrote last June
2001, the Telecom Act "unleashed unprecedented deregulation and
media consolidation, among the most pronounced in American
The result is that Clear Channel
stations often feature regional "ghost" disc jockeys. That is, the
"local" voice you hear in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, may be
talking to you from Seattle. This centralization of resources has,
in turn, led to the death of local radio news staffs and, more
importantly, to one less watchdog at city hall.
Blethen, a fourth-generation Seattle Times
owner, believes a lack of public scrutiny erodes democracy "- the
people's right to know "- and he doesn't want that the same
consolidation to happen to newspapers. In addition to preserving
the FCC's bans on cross-ownership, Blethen also called for an end
to the estate tax and for the federal government to create tougher
"Our democracy is far more
fragile than we'd like to admit," Blethen said in his symposium
keynote. "The concentration of our media in large public companies
is posing one of the greatest threats ever to its survival."
Blethen said when the corporate bottom line is
at stake newspaper editors are not as likely to invest in expensive
investigative journalism pieces that may attack key advertisers or
expose government malfeasance.
"Where is the
watchdog?" Blethen asked. "Right now, it's a lapdog." Is this true?
Have reporters become stenographers, dutifully writing down what
press secretaries and public relations flacks feed them, instead of
challenging those statements?
reporters are dedicated professionals, as witnessed by the Idaho
Statesman's story on excessive corporate salaries. But it gets
harder every day for those same reporters to do their jobs in a
corporate culture that pays more attention to its quarterly
earnings than to its public obligation of sorting out truths from
"Can American democracy survive the loss
of the independent press and diversity of voices?" Blethen asked.
"The answer is no."