End the Broadcaster Bailout

NPR reported last week that General Motors had provided thousands of its white-collar employees with free cars and gas. And while this benefit has been around for decades, it’s being seen in a new light now that federal funds are propping up the automaker. GM’s story recalls the excesses of another company, AIG, which handed out millions of dollars in bonuses to executives as taxpayers were underwriting its failed business.

A fair question raised by the media in both of these instances is, “Should taxpayer dollars fund this kind of thing?”

Watching mainstream media pundits wag their fingers at these companies recalls the old saying about throwing stones from glass houses. If the media are so concerned with keeping a watchful eye on corporations getting government assistance, then they had better be prepared to turn that attention to themselves.

Big media have been on the receiving end of government handouts since the FCC first started issuing broadcast licenses. The airwaves that are used to broadcast TV and radio actually belong to the public, in the same way that your sidewalk or your local park does. By some estimates, these airwaves are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but Big Media get to use them free of charge. In return, they are required by law to serve the public interest.

So while we are taking a hard look at the behavior of companies that get wads of taxpayer money, let’s hold Big Media accountable as well.

Across the board, media conglomerates have failed to meet even the most basic standards of community service. Instead of producing the kind of local reporting we need, television stations repackage syndicated celebrity gossip and sensationalism and present it to viewers as news. Public interest programs usually air during the early morning hours when few people are watching.

Big media executives may not have flown on private jets to Washington, D.C. in search of a handout, but they are siphoning off your tax dollars just the same.

In recent weeks, we have heard a lot about incredible salaries, bonuses and perks for bankers and auto execs. Let’s put Big Media under the same spotlight. According to the ALF-CIO’s Executive PayWatch Database and the Securities Exchange Commission, AIG CEO Martin J. Sullivan and GM CEO G. Richard Wagoner each made roughly $14,000,000 in total compensation in 2007.

That same year, Viacom CEO Philippe P. Dauman raked in $20,597,090. Robert A. Iger, CEO of Walt Disney, brought home an astounding $27,699,201 in total compensation. And in 2008, News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch pulled in almost $28,000,000, according to the SEC.

Year after year, Big Media bosses sit atop the executive pay scale. And they have you – and your airwaves – to thank for it.

So, what are Americans getting in return for our investment in Big Media? And should we think about reinvesting that money to save journalism?

While Congress debates retroactive taxes on AIG bonuses, we should also discuss stricter broadcaster licensing requirements. Or we could just start charging Big Media for their use of our airwaves. Let’s reclaim those hundreds of billions of dollars from the broadcasters and use it to help put journalists back to work in our communities.

Let’s end the broadcaster bailout.

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