Q: LET'S START WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE AT NBC. DID YOU FIND YOURSELF WELL
PROTECTED BY FIREWALLS FROM THE CORPORATE SIDE OF THE NETWORK?
Grossman: When I was in charge of the news division at NBC which was in
the days before G.E. took over and Grant Tinker ran NBC, there's no question
that we had - were totally free to do whatever we wanted to do as long as we
did it responsibly. And indeed, even when G.E. came in and there were issues
such as a major lawsuit involving a libel action, in Las Vegas where we had
lost in the initial trial and got a 20 something million dollar verdict against
us, G.E. fought very hard and was determined to fight it through to the end and
in the end it was overturned. So there was - I can say unequivocally, before
G.E. came in there was no interference, no editorial sense of control or limit
as long as you acted reasonably and responsibly. In the beginning at G.E. we
had some rough patches because they had no real experience with broadcast but
they learned very quickly to keep their hands off.
Grossman is the former president of NBC News and PBS as well as the author of "The Electronic Democracy: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age."
Q: HOW DO YOU THINK THAT ASSURANCE THAT PEOPLE WOULD GO TO THE MAT FOR THE
NEWS DEPARTMENT AFFECTED PEOPLE WHO WERE REPORTING AND RUNNING THE DEPARTMENT?
Grossman: Well clearly it meant there was always a love-hate
relationship between news and the entertainment side and the sales side because
news people tend to be kind of arrogant. They never apologize, they never admit
they're wrong and they have a sense of having a higher calling than those who
merely make money or entertain. And it's resented, by the way, often and
understandably, on the part of those who run the network. But there was also a
sense that they would be protected if they acted responsibly and somebody came
after them, either with a lawsuit or some political pressure.
Q: WOULD IT BE FAIR TO SAY IN THOSE DAYS THE DIVISION WAS BETWEEN THE
NETWORK AS A WHOLE IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD WHETHER IT WAS THE GOVERNMENT OR
CORPORATE PRESSURES RATHER THAN BETWEEN THE NEWS DEPARTMENT AND THE CORPORATE
SIDE OF A NETWORK?
Grossman: Oh yes. I mean to the outside world it was a unified
enterprise and the network and the people in charge of the network felt an
obligation to protect the news division against attack by and large. Now there
have been notable periods, Fred Friendly's resignation at CBS because CBS
refused to run deliberations on Vietnam at the time when they were running I
Love Lucy and various other episodes. But by and large there was a sense
that news was central to the enterprise and they had to protect the news
Q: HAVE THINGS CHANGED?
Grossman: Well I've been out of it myself so I can't speak firsthand.
But clearly things have changed in the sense that news is no longer a
centerpiece of most of these large owners. It is a fringe operation. In many
ways it's changed for the better because there's more news, there's more focus
on news. It serves many of the major multi-media corporations to have a news
division. They come for their other communications projects then. News becomes
an adornment to them. You now they're not just business moguls seeking
privileges in China or Europe and licenses. They become important news moguls
and so they can have access to prime ministers and foreign ministers and
commerce ministers and license givers. But the whole atmosphere has changed
and I think many of the news people have changed. They no longer fight as hard
for their integrity, if you will, as they might. And I think that may be part
of the problem both on the ABC and particularly on the CBS side that the heads
of the news division did not fight for the story at CBS.
Q: AND WHY DO YOU THINK THAT WAS THE CASE?
Grossman: I think there was some concern about the story itself and how
good it was, how strong it was. There's no question that there was some
pressures by the company. But what struck me in the CBS case particularly was
that Don Hewitt himself in a press club speech said they were going to get out
of the way. He tipped his hand instead of really saying we want to see what the
judgment of the lawyers is. Lawyers are paid to put up question flags and say
what risks are and managers are paid to say, okay we're going to take those
risks or we're not going to take the risks. And it was very clear that neither
the executive producer of 60 Minutes nor the then-president of CBS News
put up much of a fight when questions were raised about running the tobacco
Q: THERE ARE ALWAYS RISKS OF SUIT. WE ALL LIVE UNDER THIS SORT OF A THREAT
AT ANY MOMENT OF OUR LIVES. IF IN FACT YOU'RE GOING TO ANTICIPATE EVERY
CONCEIVABLE, POSSIBLE THREAT OF A LAWSUIT, NOTHING WOULD EVER GET DONE IN THE
NEWS, WOULD IT?
Grossman: No that's right. And interesting, Bob Wright at NBC, came to
understand that and gave a ringing speech at the Columbia Journalism School
saying it's the job of the corporate owners to fight very hard. Otherwise you
have an emasculated news division that has no clout, no power. But there have
been many changes in the environment as well. There's a sense that much of news
is irresponsibly done, much of it is no longer done under the auspices of
network news with its guidelines and its traditions. It's done through
syndicated news magazine shows that are not done by news departments. People
don't trust a lot of it any more and there is continuing kind of arrogance and
simple-mindedness in the tabloid wars of television news. So that the
atmosphere has changed a good deal too.
Q: DO YOU THINK THAT WE HAVE ENTERED AN ERA WHERE THE MAJOR THREAT IN TERMS
OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN THE WORLD OF JOURNALISM IS NOT SO MUCH FROM THE
STATE BUT FROM CORPORATE POWER?
Grossman: I think there's a real problem there yes. It's clearly huge
concentrations of corporate power. News and information are sideline
undertakings. They're not in the mainstream of their - even Time Warner and
CNN, the merger with Time Warner and Turner, news is a small piece of the pie
which - where there are much more important elements. The animation channel and
the movie channel and sports. When Eisner, the head of Disney took over the
merger with ABC, he was asked at the press conference what prompted it. And I
thought his initial remark was very revealing when he said it's tremendously
increasing global appetite for non-political entertainment and sports. It's
the non-political side. So news is important but it's no longer the centerpiece
as it used to be.
Q: THAT'S INTERESTING. I TALKED TO A GUY IN HONG KONG WHO'S A BIG SINGAPORE
MEDIA MOGUL AND WHO HAS BEEN MOST SUCCESSFUL IN CHINA. AND HIS UNABASHED MOTTO
IS: NO SEX, NO VIOLENCE, NO POLITICS. THIS IS ALMOST ON HIS LETTERHEAD. I THINK
IT'S EMBLEMATIC OF A -
Grossman: Well you had the well publicized incident of Rupert Murdoch
pulling the BBC off of his satellite channel in China because the Chinese were
upset about having BBC news on there. And in the end, that is a big danger.
But I also do not want to under-estimate the need for news people, the
journalists themselves and certainly the news management to fight or what is
important to them and what is important to the nation. And I think one of the
most serious problems is that there is no longer as much of a tradition of
holding out for that kind of integrity by the news people as there used to be,
as the news people themselves become part of this corporate establishment.
Q: DO YOU VIEW THAT AS BEING A REAL CONTRADICTION BETWEEN THAT IMPERATIVE
AND THE NEED FOR A LARGE COMPANY OR A NETWORK TO MAKE MONEY?
Grossman: Not necessarily. There are certain areas though where there
are conflicts. When news people get paid huge amounts of money and become part
of the corporate establishment as opposed to the rebels, traditionally the role
they play, then they tend to think like everybody else thinks on the corporate
side. It's very rare in my experience when anybody who is a corporate leader
would call up anybody from news and say, you can't talk about that or you don't
dare take that point of view. On the other hand, the whole atmosphere, the
whole environment is such that idiosyncratic people, people with strange ideas
do not tend to thrive in a corporate world and do not tend to rise to
leadership. So it becomes sort of a greater obligation of the news people to
stand up for what they think is important and what they think is right. And
when they do, they usually win, in my experience.
Q: LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE ABC STORY. WHAT DO YOU THINK WENT AWRY
Grossman: Well as with many of these, they're complicated stories, and I think
we are too ready to find simple bad guy-good guy kind of motives, you know. The
management sold out because ABC was on the verge of merging with Disney, or
they were afraid, as a massive telecommunications bill was coming down, I've
heard somebody assert that they were afraid of offending a key congressman who
was the chairman of the committee that oversaw the bill who was very concerned
with tobacco, Congressman Wiley. I think it was a complicated story.
There was legitimate concern on the part of Tom Murphy, the then-head of ABC
and his counsel that some mistake was made. It was a fringe mistake if it was a
mistake in the report about whether more nicotine was added rather than less
nicotine being added. And they made a terrible misjudgment I think in using
that to settle the lawsuit and in agreeing to paying $15 million and more to
settle the lawsuit. IF a mistake was made, it should have been apologized for.
I think that's one thing that news people are guilty of is they rarely admit
that they're wrong even when they are wrong and then pursue the lawsuit as
aggressively - defense of the lawsuit as aggressively as possible. I don't
believe that the management sold out the news division. That's not in Tom
Murphy's character to do that. Or sold it out even for the sake of preserving
the merger. I think he genuinely felt that there was a mistake made in the