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General Electric



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Case-Study: General Electric

General Electric and NBC
GE's influence on NBC
Other Influence
GE's Environmental Record

General Electric and NBC

General Electric's ownership of NBC is a good example of the way a corporation can influence television content. NBC is a television network which broadcasts to over 200 affiliated stations in the US, several US television stations and cable stations, and shares in many others as well as media outlets in Europe including Super Channel, "Europeís largest general-programming service" offering programs to 70 million homes and 350,000 hotel rooms in 44 countries. It has a Spanish language news service reaching 21 countries in Latin America and an Asian Service (NBC 1996).

NBC is itself one of the handful of giant global media empires which dominate world media. These media corporations, including Time Warner, Disney, Bertelsmann, Sony and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, dominate films, television, cable channels, book and magazine publishing and music production-- that is most of the means of communication in the modern world (McChesney 1998). Most recently NBC joined with CNET and XOOM.com to form NBC Internet to offer "the seventh-largest Internet site based on user reach" (NBCi 1999).

With $10 billion in profit in 1999, General Electric (GE) is the one of the most profitable corporations in the world (the most profitable corporation in the USA in 1999). It has over $400 billion in assets, 2.1 million shareholders and almost 300,000 employees worldwide. It is also one of the world's most diverse corporations with interests in aircraft engines, appliances, lighting, plastics, power systems, transportation systems, medical systems, industrial systems, financial services and the NBC global media company (GE 2000a; Lobe 2000; Stewart 1999).

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General Electric's Influence on NBC

GE is by no means a hands off owner of NBC. Lee and Solomon in their book Unreliable Sources have detailed how GE insisted on the removal of references to itself in an NBC programme on substandard products. They also point out that NBC journalists have not been particularly keen to expose GE's environmental record and that TV commercials by a group called INFACT, urging a boycott of GE products, were banned by NBC as well as other television stations. NBC did however briefly report GE's indictment for cheating the Department of Defense which was reported more extensively in other media outlets. (Lee and Solomon 1990, pp. 77-81)

Former NBC News Chief, Lawrence Grossman, claims that the head of GE, Jack Welch made it clear to him that he worked for GE and told him not to use terms such as 'Black Monday' to describe the stock market crash in 1987 because it depressed share prices such as GE's (Cited in Naureckas 1995).

Todd Putnam, editor of National Boycott News, tells of how he was approached by the NBC's Today Show to do an interview about consumer boycotts. Their biggest boycott at the time was against General Electric and its nuclear defense contracts but the show wouldn't let him talk about that and was reluctant to have him mention boycotts against any large corporation preferring him to talk about "a boycott that was 'small,' 'local' and 'sexy'." (1991) Mark Gunther writing in American Journalism Review claims that references to General Electric's use of the bolts in an NBC Today Show on defective bolts in planes, bridges and nuclear plants, were edited out and only mentioned in a follow-up segment after criticism of the omission (1995, p. 40).

In 1990 NBC Nightly News ran 14 minutes of coverage over three days of a breast cancer detection machine produced by GE, without mentioning that it was made by NBC's owners. The other two major television networks didn't bother to cover it at all. (FAIR 1991) Helen Caldicott who had been featured on the Today Show previously found that when she wrote her book If You Love This Planet, which used GE as a case study of an environmentally damaging company, her scheduled appearance was mysteriously cancelled (Anon. 1992).

In 1987, one year after GE took over NBC, NBC broadcast a special documentary promoting nuclear power using France as a model. The promotion for the programme proclaimed that "French townspeople welcome each new reactor with open arms". The documentary won a Westinghouse sponsored prize for science journalism. (Westinghouse Electric Company also builds nuclear power stations.) Shortly after the documentary was screened, when there were a couple of accidents at French power stations and there was significant opposition to nuclear power amongst the French population (polls showed about one third opposed it), NBC did not report the story although some US newspapers did. (Lee and Solomon 1990, p. 78)

Karl Grossman documents in Extra! (1993) how the programme What Happened? broadcast on NBC in 1993 gave a one sided account of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and its aftermath. It showed local resident Debbie Baker saying that she was not as afraid of the nuclear plant as she used to be. However, according to Grossman, Baker, whose son was born with Down's syndrome 9 months after the accident and who has received $1.1 million in a settlement arising from the accident, was shocked at how the programme had been edited to imply her acceptance of the plant. She said she was still extremely uncomfortable with the plant and that what she had said was she felt safer since her groups set up a network of radiation monitors around the plant. Neither Baker's settlement nor the 200 or so others "made to families who have suffered injury, birth defects and death because of the 1979 accident" were mentioned. Instead a nuclear power industry expert was featured who said the plant's back-up safety systems worked successfully.

When EXTRA! pointed out that no scientists critical of nuclear power appeared in the program, Jaffe [executive producer of the show] responded, 'That is correct. Maybe there is some misunderstanding. That show is not a journalistic show but an entertainment show to look into and to find out the reason and cause of various accidents and incidents.' (Grossman 1993, p. 6)

NBC has not been alone in putting a positive spin on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. On the tenth anniversary of the accident, the New York Times ran an anniversary article opposite the editorial page headlined "Three Mile Island: The Good News" which argued that the accident had been good for the nuclear power industry prompting better management and emergency planning. The paper did not report the fact that 2000 residents living near the plant had filed claims for cancer and other health problems they blamed on the accident, nor the 280 personal-injury settlements paid out to such claimants, nor the unusual clusters of leukemia, birth defects and hypothyroidism around the plant. (Lee and Solomon 1990, p. 210)

This was not the first time Times reporting had fitted with General Electric's views. In 1986 the Times reported on the use of humans as subjects in tritium absorption experiments. Tritium is routinely handled by nuclear power plant workers. An early edition of the paper said: "The tritium study was financed by the Atomic Energy Commission and conducted by the General Electric Company at Richland, which abuts the Hanford [nuclear weapons] reservation." In the late edition the sentence ended after Commission and no longer named General Electric. (Tenenbaum 1990)

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Other Influence

General Electric influences other media outlets through its advertising and sponsorship. It ceased its multi-million dollar funding of World of Audubon TV specials when specials on ranching and logging prompted a Wise Use Movement generated fax and letter campaign threatening a boycott of GE products (Stapleton 1992, p. 34). Charles Cushman claims he organised 35,000 letters and faxes. General Electric says it did not renew its sponsorship of the series because of budget cutbacks (O'Callaghan 1992, p. 86).

The Public Broadcasting Service was a beneficiary of sponsorship by General Electric when it decided not to screen the Oscar award winning documentary Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment (Jacobson and Mazur 1995, pp. 51, 53). The reason given by PBS was that the film had been partly financed by INFACT which was boycotting GE: "We do not permit the producer of the programme to be the subject of the programme." (Quoted in Knoll 1993)

GE's interests, however, are not limited to nuclear power. In fact, given GE's many interests it would be hard to find many political subjects in which it doesn't have an interest. GE has a "permanent team of two dozen lobbyists with a large support staff" in Washington. It also hires lawyers and lobbyists for particular projects. In its lobbying GE claims to represent the interests of millions of people—its employees, suppliers and customers—not to mention the public interest. (Greider 1992, pp. 337, 340)

GE is a leading member of the Business Roundtable and supports a range of corporate front groups including the American Council on Science & Health, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Council for Energy Awareness (which promotes nuclear power).

GE's board is a conservative cross-section of the power elite—corporate executives, bankers, retired cabinet members and generals, an Ivy League president and several Ivy boardmembers. There are multiple ties with the Morgan bank, Citicorp, Manufacturers Hanover. GE boardmembers also serve on several media industry boards—Harper & Row, Reuters, the Washington Post. They are well-represented in the branches of the permanent government, too... (Kellner 1990, p. 83)

GE funds various conservative think tanks including the Institute for International Economics, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The conservative think tanks funded by GE provide 'independent' experts to give comment on media outlets owned and funded (through advertising and sponsorship) by GE. "Not surprisingly these well-paid sluggers go to bat for the big business and national security state, confirming biases already deeply ingrained in U.S. media." Nor is it surprising that think-tank experts are used so much by a media whose owners help to fund them. (Lee and Solomon 1990, p. 84)

Despite its control of the NBC network, its interlocking board of directors with other media outlets and its ownership of the cable channel CNBC, GE spends millions on commercials and sponsorship of television programmes on other networks including ABC, CNN and the Public Broadcasting Service, PBS to improve its image (Lee and Solomon 1990, pp. 82-3).

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GE's Environmental Record

In 1995 two environment groups, Ozone Action and the Environmental Law Foundation, sued several major refrigerator manufacturers and retailers, including General Electric for advertising refrigerators as 'ozone safe' or 'CFC free', although they use the ozone-depleting chemical hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) (Ozone Action 1995).

GE makes pollution control equipment but also creates its own pollution. Four of its factories are "on the EPA's list of the most dangerous industrial sources of toxic air pollution." It has been sued over past contamination of land and groundwater at a bomb-making plant in Washington. Toxic and radioactive wastes have also been found in the sewage system and nearby Bay at a plant in Florida where GE manufactured triggers for hydrogen bombs. In Alabama the state won an out of court settlement from GE for dumping PCBs in the Coosa River. New York state officials have been less successful in a fight over PCBs in the Hudson River, where fishing had to be banned, although they did get GE to pay for the clean up of ground water contaminated with organochlorines near one of GE's plants. (Greider 1992, pp. 351-2)

In 1992 state and federal authorities closed down a GE processing plant in Anaheim, California. The EPA had suspended its PCB-handling license because ongoing operations posed "an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment." The EPA later fined GE $353,000, "one of the highest PCB fines ever levied by the agency." In the meantime, an employee of the plant, Steve Sandberg, is suing GE, claiming he was told that PCBs were harmless by his employers when they knew otherwise. Sandberg was given the job of cleaning out exploded, burned-up PCB transformers and suffered health problems including chloracne, which is associated with dioxin contamination. Sandberg is one of many suing GE and other companies across the US for the effects of PCBs. (Coppolino and Rauber 1994)

Yet despite its environmental record, and perhaps because of its media clout, General Electric managed to be one of the top ten companies in terms of environmental reputation amongst consumers in 1991 according to a Roper Poll. However, it lost its position in 1993 and this may be due to its being identified as one of the most environmentally unsound companies in several magazines.

In 1993 Fortune magazine listed General Electric as one of 10 most 'laggard' companies (out of 130 of America's largest manufacturing companies) in an article Who Scores Best on the Environment for the following reasons:

Admits being a potentially responsible party at more than 70 Superfund sites; a 1992 ruling by 32 state attorneys general forced a change in the efficiency claims for its Energy Choice light bulbs and imposed a hand-slapping $165,000 fine. Its fines for OSHA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration] violations were 150% higher than any other company's in the electronics industry. Though it has made progress in reducing total toxic chemical releases, GE consistently remains on most green groups' worst lists. (Rice 1993)

The Fortune article also noted General Electric's reluctance to adopt the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) principles (otherwise known as the Valdez principles), a voluntary code of conduct for environmental protection, despite shareholders' resolutions (Rice 1993).

Similarly General Electric was named one of the worst eight toxic polluters in America by the Council on Economic Priorities in 1992 and 1993. The reasons:

This Fairfield, Connecticut-based giant designed Mexico's only nuclear power plant, which has dumped 2.5 million gallons of radioactive waste water into the Gulf of Mexico. Several American utility companies have charged that GE sold them deficient nuclear-containment vessels. The EPA has named GE as a potentially responsible party at more Superfund sites than any other company. Over a thirty-year period, GE plants dumped 500,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River.... (Anon 1993)

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The way the environment is reported is clearly influenced by the corporate ownership of the media, especially when it comes to issues such as nuclear power which have such large and immediate financial ramifications for media owners like GE. Whilst the media is also influenced by news sources and advertisers, the corporate agenda of the large media moguls is not so different from that of their corporate advertisers. Bagdikian argues: "Since media owners are now so large and deeply involved in the highest levels of the economy, the news and other public information become heavily weighted in favor of all corporate values." (quoted in Lee and Solomon 1990, p. 75).

News is defined firstly by those who have privileged access to the media as sources and interpreters—public relations people, government officials, accredited experts. News is then shaped according to journalistic conventions, aimed at attracting and entertaining an audience for advertisers, and fitted into a general framework and approach that suits corporate owners. All these influences determine the news output that most people depend on for information about the world beyond personal experience.

Douglas Kellner in his book Television and the Crisis of Democracy argues:

Democracy presupposes the existence of a public sphere in which vigorous debate on issues of public importance takes place so that decisions can be made on complex and controversial issues. In a system of commercial broadcasting, however, profit imperatives limit the amount of time given to political debate......corporate control severely compromises the democratic functions of television and renders it, first and foremost, an instrument of social control and legitimation rather than a medium of information and democratic debate.

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Additional Material

Anon. 1992, 'General Electric: You have the right to remain silent', Extra! June.

Anon. 1993, 'America's worst toxic polluters; eight companies with poor environmental records', Business and Society Review, Vol. 84, No. Winter.

Coppolino, Eric F. and Paul Rauber, 1994, Pandora's Poison, Sierra, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 40-9.

FAIR 1991, 'GE Irrelevancies', Extra! January/February.

General Electric, 2000a, GE Fact Sheet.

General Electric, 2000b, GE Press Room.

Greider, William, 1992, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Gunther, Marc, 1995, All in the Family, American Journalism Review, October.

Jacobson, Michael F. and Laurie Ann Mazur, 1995, Marketing Madness (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press).

Kellner, Douglas, 1990, Television and the Crisis of Democracy (Boulder: Westview Press).

Knoll, Erwin, 1993, Conflict of Interest, The Progressive, Vol. 57, No. 3.

Lee, Martin A. and Norman Solomon, 1990, Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media (New York: Carol Publishing Group).

Lobe, J. 2000. USA: Trade Unionists from 20 Countries Challenge General Electric's Globalisation. (Corporate Watch).

McChesney, R. W. 1998. The Global Media Giants: The nine firms that dominate the world. (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).

Naureckas, Jim, 1995, Corporate Ownership Matters: The Case of NBC, Extra! November/December.

NBC. 1996. NBC and Microsoft Announce Joint Venture.

NBCi. 1999. NBCi Corporate - Press Room.

O'Callaghan, Kate, 1992, 'Whose Agenda For America?', Audubon September/October, pp. 80-91.

Ozone Action, 1995, 'Ozone Action and Environmental Law Foundation File Suit', Press Release, 19 October.

Putnam, Todd, 1991, The GE Boycott: A Story NBC Wouldn't Buy, Extra! Jan/Feb.

Rice, Faye, 1993, 'Who scores best on the environment', Fortune, Vol. 128, 26 July.

Stapleton, Richard, 1992, 'Green vs. green', National Parks November/December.

Stewart, T. S. 1999, See Jack. See Jack Run Europe. Fortune (27 September): 124+.

Tenenbaum, Brian, 1990, 'G.E. Farben?', Lies of Our Times, August.

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© 2003 Sharon Beder