ONE CLEAR BY-PRODUCT of this totally screwed up election is that people have become even more cynical about the media, and with good reason.We’ve learned that all the networks were basing their voter projections on the same pathetic puddle of data. We’ve learned that the bozo who first called the election for Bush on the Fox News Channel was essentially working for the Bush campaign. We’ve read that the networks promise they’ll do things differently next time, but no one quite believes that either. It’s healthy in a democracy when voters don’t believe their politicians, but unhealthy when disbelief rubs off on the supposedly free press. Yet consider the sorry record of the past couple of years. From the Lewinsky affair to the railroading of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist, the press has seemed at once arbitrary and arrogant. As news organizations increasingly become the toys of global mega-companies, there are ever more signs of bogus synergies and cross-plugging that bolster this pervasive cynicism. As evidence, tune in an ABC show called “The View” starring Barbara Walters, a veritable cathedral of product placement. Campbell Soup employees roam the audience with the show’s co-hosts, who are veteran news reporters, cajoling the audience to talk about their favorite flavors and soup-sipping techniques, even demanding renditions of that mawkish ditty “M’m, M’m Good.” “The shocking thing is that nobody is trying to disguise it,” Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and film at Syracuse U. told Shelly Branch of the Wall Street Journal. “It’s absolutely shameless.” Under the new rules of TV, advertisers like Campbell Soup increasingly are being allowed to infiltrate the content of the shows. Product placement has given way to product tyranny. Walters’ flacks are quick to point out that “The View” falls under the auspices of ABC’s entertainment division; this sort of thing would not be allowed were the news division in charge. Nonetheless, reporters from established news shows appear with Walters, thus compromising their credibility. Cozy arrangements like this exemplify the synergistic subterfuge emerging from the mega-companies. They are all about announcing brave new initiatives, while cutting costs that undermine those initiatives. THE MONUMENTAL HEADACHE of integrating the corporate cultures of Time, AOL and CNN entered another phase last week with the elevation of Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time magazine, to a new role as the prime link between these entities. Isaacson is a shrewd corporate player who well remembers his company’s previous synergistic forays, ranging from the disastrous Operation Tailwind documentary on CNN to the tepid CNN-Entertainment Weekly “NewsStand” series. Initiatives such as these will be dwarfed once the AOL powerhouse gains momentum, so he must face some urgent questions: What will be the “value added” for the consumer once corporate cultures converge? Will there be credible material out there to edify or entertain, or will it come down to yet another celebration of cross-plugging? To be sure, mega-companies don’t discuss their secret synergies, but the networks at least have to be more open about Election Night gaffes. Roger Ailes, the ideologue who runs Fox News, now insists the networks should no longer rely on one exit polling service. He’s also examining whether John Ellis, a Bush cousin who manned the Fox news election desk, violated rules by exchanging exit poll data with his relatives on the Bush campaign. Meanwhile, media gadfly Steven Brill added his voice to those suggesting the networks should have their own exit polling services rather than sharing one. And Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) wants to bring the principal newsies before his House Commerce Committee to explain their missteps — not to mention their “liberal bias.” Voters would be more motivated to go to their polling places, he suggests, if they believed their votes would be fairly counted and reported. Otherwise we’d all do well to drop by Barbara Walters’ show and share our soup-sipping experiences. I always felt their black bean tasted like one of those hot mud baths — do you think Barbara would want to hear about that?
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