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Letter from the Editor: The mouse is making me feel queasy

Opinion

Between the time I first began working for a daily newspaper and today, we’ve seen media ownership become much more concentrated.

Back then when 50 or 60 mostly family corporations owned most of the media outlets in the country, most journalists who worked for them were troubled even by that concentration for the families generated so much cash but shared so little of it in salaries with we scribes.

With names like Scripps, Ridder, Newhouse, Cox and Cowles, it was not unusual for these media companies to report quarterly returns on investment of more than 20 percent. The oil companies did not do as well during the gas shortage.

The families could be intensely competitive and entirely cooperative. When they wanted exemption from the Sherman Anit-Trust Act, the whole gang went to Dick Nixon and came away with the facetiously-named Newspaper Preservation Act.

The first and second generations were, however, mostly real news people with ink stains on their fingers and a couple of scars from working around hot lead. They kept people around to make sure libel lawsuits never got out of control.

Media concentration today makes that earlier era look tame by comparison. The third and fourth generations of the newspaper families preferred leisure to work, and they sold out. Today, Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner and National Amusements are the five giants that today own and control 90 percent of the media.

We learned last week that one of the five wrote a check for $177 million in partial settlement of a libel and defamation lawsuit. That one was The Walt Disney Co., with annual revenues of more than $52 billion.

Now the $177 million was for the amount of the settlement that exceeded the insurance coverage of the Disney-owned ABC Television Network. How much was covered by ABC’s insurance carrier?

We do not know.

The settlement agreement between ABC and Dakota Dunes, SD-based Beef Products Inc. remains confidential. Disney had to report its payment to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), so we know that much.

The merits of BPI’s win aside, journalists always feel a little queasy about libel lawsuits. I’ve never heard of one that topped $177 million let alone $177 million plus the amount of the insurance payment.  It’s a payout that makes future libel and defamation lawsuits more likely.

Funny thing though. Disney writing a $177 million to a South Dakota beef company got scant attention. It was not even the day’s top story involving Disney. Two  stories got more play — one about the future of Netflix with Disney planning to stream movies on its own, and the other over a children’s lawsuit against the company.

The news is out there, of course. It received coverage in the consumer food and agriculture press and the by the various news services. But, it sure was short and and not so sweet.

What are the ramifications for others now that one of the Big 5 has so calmly settled a libel/defamation case for multi-millions of dollars? Nobody seems interested.

We journalists have felt pretty safe since New York Times v. Sullivan came down from the Supreme Court. Just about anyone we’d want to write about will get classified as a public figure. And none of us have a “reckless disregard for the truth,” do we?

We went nuts when candidate Trump said he might change libel law. Did this settlement change anything?

We have an unfinished feeling about BPI v. ABC because of the way it was settled. Each side had some of the best lawyers in the country, and there’s no doubt they were doing what was best for their clients.

It’s just we heard most of the BPI case, and we were anticipating hearing ABC tell the media side of the story in the second half of jury trial. But it was like going to a football game where only one side was ever on offense.

Feelings aside, it’s more important to know what this settled case means. When you look at Disney or others in the Top 5, you see some news, but you also see lot’s of entertainment, sports and media tech.

For as many warts as the families had a generation ago, they also had news values. I am not sure how the vast conglomerate that is Disney makes its decisions. It just does not feel like there was much thinking about news values or anything close to that. That’s probably why I still feel queasy about how this one went down.

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