Fifty years ago the Chinese people "stood up," in Mao Zedong's ringing description of freshly found revolutionary pride. In Shanghai the other day some of America's top media bosses knelt down, eager to pursue one more pot of gold by kissing the ring of Mao's revolutionary heirs.
Corporate bosses from Time Warner, Viacom and other media firms disgraced themselves in Shanghai. They sullied the journalistic profession to which they are loosely attached. Their actions were redolent of corporate greed and self-abasement. Their deeds and words could only confuse the Chinese about the nature and integrity of the media companies they now head or covet.
Sumner Redstone, whose Viacom seeks to take over CBS, used a press conference in Shanghai to call on journalists to avoid being "unnecessarily offensive" to countries they cover, according to news reports.
Gerald Levin, the top executive at Time Warner, cosponsored with the Communist municipal authorities of Shanghai the gathering of 300 of the world's leading capitalists. The Sept. 28 conference was part of China's 50th anniversary celebrations of Mao's revolution, marked annually on Oct. 1.
Levin lavished praise on President Jiang Zemin so fulsome that it might have choked even Bill Clinton or Madeleine Albright. Levin presented a statue of Abraham Lincoln--to whom Jiang likes to compare himself for no obvious reason--to a ruler ultimately responsible for the jailing or exile of tens of thousands of Chinese citizens for the simple expression of a desire to have the right to join a democratic political party.
When I first went into Washington journalism, publishers worried about young reporters being seduced by the romantic haze surrounding Maoists, the Viet Cong, Sandinistas, Fidel Castro and other Marxist revolutionary movements. Today it is aging CEOs, network presidents and publishers who seem most vulnerable to the flattery implied by high-level access, the sadistic toughness of authoritarian regimes and of course the smell of money.
Why worry about that? Because of the public trust that is the core and lifeblood of American journalism. Anything that brings confusion to or undermines that trust should be anathema to those who work in my profession. The First Amendment awards duties as well as rights, even to CEOs.
I have criticized Clinton for whitewashing the Chinese regime and offering Jiang an unjustified aura of political legitimacy. To ignore some of the most powerful figures in the information industry such as Levin or Rupert Murdoch doing exactly the same thing would be unconscionable.
Especially right now.
The Internet, cable TV news and the breakneck growth of the U.S. entertainment industry into a giant global economic force are reshaping the contours of journalism as it is practiced here and abroad. Journalism is increasingly co-opted into the promotion of these technologies, and of the bottom lines, egos and talents of the swashbucklers who have gained early control of them.
Relentless, unabashed self-promotion has become the essential art of the amorphous but pervasive reach of the new technologies, contaminating both journalism and its most essential raw material, politics. Truth becomes just one element in the mix of values presented to audiences and potential buyers of newly issued dot-com stock. In Bill Clinton's Washington, truth is not always an important element.
In a moment of sweeping change and wavering standards it is vital for corporate and political leaders to show the same integrity and good judgment they say they demand of those who work for them.
China is not just a value-free market for media companies, as Levin's Shanghai speech seemed to imply. And information is not just a commodity, or a political tool. It deserves the protection and commitment that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution. If information is not treated as sacrosanct by the industry's leaders, it will certainly not be treated that way by a government that freedom of the press is intended to balance.
The Clinton administration has just folded the United States Information Agency into the State Department and is launching a harebrained scheme called International Public Information that would award control of the flow of public information about foreign affairs to national security and intelligence types. The dangers of partisanship creeping in under the guise of centralization should be ringing alarm bells across Washington.
The advance of technology demands enormous changes in the information business. It also demands a continuity in values and standards that should not come under even indirect attack from those in positions of leadership.