Commentary

Leave It to the Professionals

Brian Roberts, chairman/CEO of Comcast, not only knows a thing or two about cable business issues, but also how to soften the tough turf known as journalism.

For the last two weeks, he has been the subject of a two-part interview by Stephen Unger, an executive recruiter, who is penning a column for Daily Variety, called "Working The Town."

Many issues have been covered including one interesting story about Microsoft's Bill Gates who ended up investing over $1 billion in Comcast in 1997 - all with very little strings attached - no board seat, no voting securities. Roberts convinced Gates that broadband was the way for cable companies to succeed.

Gates was shocked back then that two-thirds of the cable homes were already wired with fiber optic cable. He gave Comcast the money to make this business happen, which has proven to make Comcast - and other cable companies - competitive with now stronger competition from satellite distributors. Roberts says Gates' investment is now worth $4 billion.

While some information is interesting, none of this comes from a reporter or editor -- at least in the Web item. A disclaimer was not present in the column, nor was there a reason or a note about why this executive was interviewing this other executive.

And thus the morphing of journalism continues. Public relations companies produce video news packages for local TV newscasts, and the Bush Administration pays radio commentators to push their agenda. Viewers and listeners don't know what's what.

But in the Variety story, we at least have a hint. And then we can ask other questions, speculating about Unger's intentions. Might Unger be hired by Roberts one day to help out at his company?

I don't mind hearing from business executives when taking an opinionated crack at any pressing TV business news. But for reporting, I'd rather leave it to the journalist professionals. At least we have a shot at impartially.

There were other questions to ask. We'd really like to ask Roberts what he thinks of Walt Disney Co. now that it is in the hands of Bob Iger. And, in retrospect to last year's ill-fated move to acquire Disney, how he views the company today. We'd like to ask him about other potential programming acquisitions - and what he thinks about rising subscriber rates from cable networks.

No, that's not what this interview was about. The questions here were about how Comcast makes decisions, how big is too big, and could Comcast still be a Darth Vader -- a la John Malone?

Are we all a bit naïve these days when it comes to journalism - and its now ugly stepsister, the bloggers? With that in mind, why shouldn't everyone - even other executives -- play journalists?

I don't know. Perhaps for the same reason the media business reporters at The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal don't get to run Time Warner for a week.

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