RANCE CRAIN;CONTROVERSIAL REPORTING NO LONGER WORTH RISK

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I don't think we should expect the big media conglomerates that have arisen (and are arising) as a phenomenon of the 1990s to become fierce defenders of the First Amendment. They've bigger-and more lucrative-fish to fry. And besides, the First Amendment might be irrelevant.

When the pursuit of journalistic truth, or at least clarity, becomes almost incidental to the other multimedia activities of these new far-flung media companies, defending themselves over pesky freedom of the press issues seems hardly worth the effort.

Why offend a company you might end up making a co-marketing partner some day? Or a company with deep pockets that can cause you to pay a lot of money to defend yourself?

What's more, a questionable article or broadcast segment can provide reams of unfavorable publicity that could have an adverse effect on the rest of your business. If the offended party sues you, and you don't really want to spend the millions of dollars to defend yourself (or you don't think you can successfully defend yourself), you might have to issue an embarrassing apology that the aggrieved party can rub in your face.

That, in turn, could drive down the price of your stock by hundreds of millions of dollars, making it more costly to do stock deals for other media properties. Worse yet, the stock options granted to your prized executives will sink under water, making them more vulnerable to counteroffers from your competitors.

Is one lousy story worth all that aggravation?

It might be risky to rely on First Amendment protection for your courageous article anyway. The whole First Amendment question is on shaky ground under the best of circumstances. If the media force a test, it could very well backfire, leaving them with less protection than they have now.

The First Amendment certainly didn't protect Business Week. A federal judge in Cincinnati prohibited the magazine from running an article on derivatives securities Bankers Trust bought for Procter & Gamble. The judge ruled that the article was based on a sealed court document, and held it up for three weeks before he reluctantly allowed it to be published. Steve Shepard, BW's editor in chief, called the court action, "in plain English, government censorship." Speaking to a group of magazine publishers, he said, "Your reporters have a lot less protection than you think they do."

But it's not only the huge media conglomerates that have little incentive to publish or air hard-hitting news reports. Today's newspapers are in a weakened state due to the high cost of newsprint and declining circulation.

"Across the country," the Washington Post reported in October, "layoffs, budget cuts and a changing approach to journalism have cast a pall over America's newsrooms." Our country's newspapers, in other words, are not in any financial shape to bet the ranch on a controversial story.

Maybe traditional journalism isn't completely dead and buried, but it sure isn't displaying many vital signs.

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