The Investor

Media and Medusa

War makes strange bedfellows, but Ted Turner and Madonna?

By 4.2.03

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If I'm reading the war stories correctly, this may be the time to buy into the broadcasting business. Certainly, the stocks of media giants like General Electric, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, and Disney are well off their highs. Even though people aren't going to amusement parks or buying airplane parts like they did in the halcyon days of the late Nineties, they're still watching the news.

But can you make money on the news? Traditionally, the news has been the loss leader for the mass media, a high-profile flash of integrity that made a network feel good about cashing all those big checks off fare like Charlie's Angels and Dynasty. The Gulf War changed that. Even if some of the war coverage was broadcast without commercials, good war reporting drew viewers who could be expected to watch the news even after the conflict. The latest wrinkle, propounded by this week's biggest mouths, is that the new business is making too much money. Say what you will, but after three years of losing money in the stock market, I'm ready to invest in a business denigrated by its employees as being too conscious of the bottom line. Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera are, in effect, providing a screaming "buy" signal for the broadcasting business.

I'm sure most of you aren't ready to trust the word of these men, but don't judge them hastily. You have to, for example, admire the courage of Peter Arnett's convictions. After Arnett signed on with the London Daily Mirror on March 31, he was quoted as declaring, "I report the truth of what is happening here in Baghdad and will not apologize for that." And if you can't admire his strength, at least admire his agility. Earlier that day, hehad told an American audience on the Today show, "I want to apologize to the American people for clearly making a misjudgment over the weekend by giving an interview to Iraqi Television."

Likewise, perhaps we are being too tough on Geraldo Rivera. His violation of the Pentagon's rules for reporting while being embedded among the troops was so obvious that I could imagine only two motives: (1) Geraldo is part of some complex counter-intelligence game, in which he leads the enemy down a blind alley, or (2) Combat is really scary and he found the easiest way possible to get away from it. Neither explanation is really unreasonable.

While we are evaluating the behavior of the in-front-of-the-camera crowd, we should take this opportunity to ratchet up our estimation of Madonna. Never have I been so proud to be a product of Seventies suburban Detroit. When you consider all the crap Madonna has peddled to the public over the last twenty years, usually reveling in whatever negative reaction she could get -- the woman is practically a billboard for the slogan that "all publicity is good publicity" -- she has postponed release of a video that could be perceived as anti-war. After a career of presenting controversial images, usually just to prove she could get away with it, she finally found a reason to hold her fire. Now, if we can just get her to promise not to make any more movies.

This whole situation has also given us a reason to re-evaluate our opinion of Ted Turner. (By the way, I'm predicting right now that Ted Turner will have some dramatic new business plan within a year.) Peter Arnett, between his apologies and refusals to apologize, took the time to say that the real problem was that CNN was jealous; after he'd made Ted Turner "billions of dollars," CNN was gone from Baghdad and Arnett was still there. All that really proves is that there are certain things Ted Turner won't do, even for billions of dollars, and Peter Arnett will do those things for a lot less. Ted Turner did not make billions of dollars from Peter Arnett. As a long-time investor, securities lawyer, and commentator on the markets, I'd say it is difficult for the market to attribute billions of dollars in value to an enterprise that depends on a nut like Ted Turner. But it is impossible to attribute even a fraction of that valuation to an enterprise if you assumed its driving force was a nut like Peter Arnett.

Apparently, biting the hand that feeds is part of every war reporter's menu. When Geraldo was first asked about whether he was being expelled from Iraq -- oops, the Pentagon didn't tell him right away; their bad -- he blamed the story, falsely, on rumors from MSNBC. "MSNBC is so pathetic a cable news network that they have to do anything they can to attract attention." That included, at one regrettable time, hiring Geraldo Rivera.

How did the U.S. make it through World War II? From what I read in the history books, we actually fought for more than three-and-a-half years. Could that be a typo? With the American attention span, I can't imagine our being able to handle a story without an outcome for three-and-a-half months.

The world gets smaller all the time and the current war coverage is a testament to how small it has become. We can, however, and will, win this war without winning it THIS INSTANT. Our objectives require that we take it slow: we have to kill or capture some very entrenched individuals; some enemy may be coerced into fighting us; we have to fight anti-U.S. propaganda, a difficult task when our open society encounters closed societies; our enemy will endanger its civilians, so we have to be even more careful. On top of that, we have to pay for anything we break, so it's not in our interest to bust up the joint.

I think we may need to demonstrate more, but not for peace. For quiet. Consider spending a week giving the war news just a passing glance. The war will still be there when you return.

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About the Author

Michael Craig is a writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.