Electric and NBC
influence on 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;
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
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)
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 peopleits employees,
suppliers and customersnot 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
GE's board is a conservative
cross-section of the power elitecorporate 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 boardsHarper &
Row, Reuters, the Washington Post. They are well-represented in
the branches of the permanent government, too... (Kellner 1990,
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).
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
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)
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 interpreterspublic
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:
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.
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.
Eric F. and Paul Rauber, 1994, Pandora's
Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 40-9.
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General Electric, 2000a, GE
General Electric, 2000b, GE
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Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (New
York: Simon & Schuster).
Marc, 1995, All
in the Family, American
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Jacobson, Michael F. and Laurie
Ann Mazur, 1995, Marketing Madness (Boulder, Colorado:
Kellner, Douglas, 1990, Television
and the Crisis of Democracy (Boulder: Westview Press).
Erwin, 1993, Conflict
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Lee, Martin A. and Norman Solomon,
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Lobe, J. 2000. USA:
Trade Unionists from 20 Countries Challenge General Electric's
McChesney, R. W. 1998. The
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Agenda For America?', Audubon September/October, pp. 80-91.
Ozone Action, 1995, 'Ozone Action
and Environmental Law Foundation File Suit', Press Release, 19
Putnam, Todd, 1991, The
GE Boycott: A Story NBC Wouldn't Buy,
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best on the environment', Fortune, Vol. 128, 26 July.
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vs. green', National Parks November/December.
T. S. 1999, See
Jack. See Jack Run Europe.
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Farben?', Lies of Our Times, August.