The corporate ties between insurers and media companies

By Kate Murphy for FAIR

How often are employees allowed to work on projects that might put some of the people they work for out of business? That’s the conflict of interest that journalists reporting on the healthcare reform debate are often put in by the boards of media corporations they work for, which frequently include representatives of the insurance industry.

While a recent New York Times/CBS poll (6/20/09) has found yet again that the majority of Americans believe the government would both provide better coverage and keep costs lower than private insurance companies, a single-payer plan as an option for healthcare reform continues to be underrepresented in the media (Extra!, 6/09). A single-payer plan would allow the delivery of healthcare to remain private, but the government would pay for it out of a single federal health insurance fund. Like Medicare or Canada’s healthcare program, it would cut out the middleman by bypassing private health insurance companies. But such companies are well-represented on the boards of directors of media conglomerates—a factor that may help explain the blackout of such a popular possibility for reform.

When a director from one company sits on the board of directors of another company, that’s known as an interlocking directorate. For example, directors of the New York Times Co. also sit on the boards of several other large companies, including Chevron, Verizon and Ticketmaster. These directors are expected to act in the best interest of each company they direct; when one of the corporations in question is a media company, this can pose a conflict. Would someone who sits on a media company’s board object to coverage that damages another company that board member directs? Extra! has pointed out this conflict in the past (e.g., 9–10/01), noting that “even if these board members do not attempt to influence coverage of their businesses, their presence likely suffices to make media executives think twice about covering certain stories.”

A recent FAIR study of nine major media corporations and their major outlets, Disney (ABC), General Electric (NBC), CBS, Time Warner (CNN, Time), News Corporation (Fox), New York Times Co., Washington Post Co. (Newsweek), Tribune Co. (Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times) and Gannett (USA Today) found connections to six different insurance companies. Five out of the nine media corporations studied shared a director with an insurance company; two insurance companies—Chubb and Berkshire Hathaway—were represented by more than one media corporation director.

The study also found crossover between these media corporations and several large pharmaceutical companies, such as Eli Lilly, Merck and Novartis, whose profits would also likely be negatively impacted by a single-payer system. Out of the nine media corporations studied, six had directors who also represented the interests of at least one pharmaceutical company. In fact, save for CBS, every media corporation had board connections to either an insurance or pharmaceutical company.

For example, the board of directors of the Chubb Corporation, whose accident and health division has offered health insurance for over 30 years, shares directors with two major media companies: Gannett and General Electric. A search of the Nexis database from January 1 through June 30, 2009, found just six articles mentioning single-payer in USA Today, Gannett’s major outlet. Out of those, only one (6/12/09) is from an advocate—a reprinted block quote from Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) originally published in the Huffington Post (6/8/09). On NBC News, GE’s major outlet, single-payer was mentioned on only two occasions in the past six months. Of those two occasions, one was on Meet the Press (6/28/09), in which both Republican strategist Mike Murphy and former Governor Mitt Romney asserted that a public option would lead to a single-payer plan. The other NBC News mention of single-payer was favorable, but very brief—PBS’s Tavis Smiley named Obama’s move away from the plan as one of his concerns after Obama’s first 100 days (4/25/09).

At the Washington Post Co., two directors are on the board of insurance conglomerate Berkshire-Hathaway, whose subsidiary General Re sells health reinsurance. In fact, Washington Post director Warren Buffet not only chairs Berkshire-Hathaway’s board, he is the company’s CEO. (Berkshire-Hathaway is also one of the 10 biggest U.S. advertisers, along with pharmaceutical company Abbott Labor-atories—Ad Age, 6/22/09.) Another Washington Post director, Thomas Gaynor, is the vice president of insurance company Markel Corporation. In the past six months, the Washington Post has published hundreds of articles on the subject of healthcare reform, fewer than 25 of which mention single-payer. Fewer than 30 percent of the sources who spoke about single-payer in these articles were advocates of the plan.

In all, though healthcare reform has been mentioned thousands of times in the output of these media corporations’ major outlets, single-payer was mentioned in only 164 articles or news segments from January 1 through June 30, 2009; over 70 percent of these mentions did not include the voice of a single-payer advocate. Over 45 percent of the pieces that did include a single-payer advocate were episodes of the Ed Show, an MSNBC program whose host, Ed Shultz, frequently advocates for single-payer healthcare. Without the Ed Show, just 19 percent of articles or news segments that mentioned single-payer would have included an actual advocate of the plan.

While it should go without saying that correlation is not causation—and MSNBC’s example proves that interlocking directorates are hardly the only factor in media coverage—this study indicates that, at the very least, corporate media and the insurance and pharmaceutical industries’ interests are fundamentally aligned.

2 Comments

  1. Laurel C B Stranaghan on August 8, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Greetings All,

    Here’s a little message I’d like to get circulating, kind of like Health Care Reform 101.
    I have found lack of knowledge about Single Payer is an obstacle to understanding health care reform issues.
    If you find it has worth, please use it any way you’d like.
    It could become a letter to a legislator or editor, letter to Aunt Polly, a “Comment” response or a handout.
    THANKS for looking:

    NEWSFLASH

    I do not need to tell you that healthcare has been leading news for months. Forget all those healthcare ads and all that smoke and mirrors Washington posturing stuff. Healthcare reform is way too important to play around, it is as serious as a heart attack.

    If there were a story about an affordable healthcare plan that provided quality medical care, dental, vision, medications, zero co-pays and included every every single person in our country, would that not be HEADLINE NEWS?

    Well, have I got a SCOOP for you! Just look at healthcare reform Bill HR 676. It’s an easy read at only about 17 pages. You can do it! Next, because you may have questions, visit pnhp.org for access to all the due diligence material you want. Bill Moyers’ interview with Cigna’s VP, Wendell Potter (recently retired), is available for viewing or text reading on the webat PBS, and will provide first class background material – and we aren’t talkin’ B Roll. Bill Moyers Journal . Watch & Listen | PBS, your link to a 59 minute bullseye.

    Next, for goodness sake, get this amazing story on YOUR Front Page.

    Let’s STOP letting “them” chew up meaningful healthcare reform through our ignorance, BYTE by BYTE. Do the “Texas Two-Step”, Health Care Reform 101. If you find Single Payer has merit, EDIT, COPY, CUT, PASTE, FWD and FAX, at will and without delay. Giddy-up. Do it for yourself, and all of us.
    Copy this, save this, then share this.



  2. Paul Schmidt on August 16, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Why would anyone want a monopoly payer plan? Monopolies give us lower quality at a higher cost. And why would we want the government, which is known for being inefficient, run such a plan?