The unprecedented consolidation of the modern media industry has severe consequences • Helen Johnson

Source: Miscellany News

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term “military-industrial complex” in his Farewell Address to the nation on Jan. 17, 1961, he did more than warn against the “acquisition of unwarranted influence” and the “disastrous rise of misplaced power.” In fact, he alluded to how we might avoid such a dangerous threat: “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower was right to emphasize the importance of an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Without this key aspect of democracy, the people are unable to hold their government accountable or influence its decision-making—including, and perhaps especially, decision-making regarding war. In the United States, our free press is entrusted with keeping us “alert and knowledgeable.” The freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy.

The First Amendment is meant to serve as a check against government control over the marketplace of ideas and dissemination of information. The American press prides itself on being independent and unbiased, which is meant to ensure that the public gets fairly neutral reporting and a truthful account of the news regardless of who may be involved. Justice Brennan summarizes this notion in the majority opinion of New York Times Company v. Sullivan: “[D]ebate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and [this] may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The concept of free media is intrinsically tied to democracy. The United States was founded on the principle of government by consent of the governed; a free press that keeps the citizenry informed of the happenings in government is what allows the “governed” to give their consent and make informed decisions when voting for elected officials.

For debate on public issues to be uninhibited and the marketplace of political ideas to be free, the logical conclusion is the more the better—more newspapers, more television stations, more editors, more writers and more independent, local media owners. This ensures that as many people’s voices as possible are heard, and that those in charge of media outlets are more likely to be locally based and familiar with their areas and communities. However, the consolidation of media conglomerates over recent history has moved us in the opposite direction.

In 1983 there were 50 dominant media corporations. Today there are five. These five conglomerates own about 90 percent of the media in the United States, including newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios and radio and television stations. As of 2020, the five media giants are AT&T (Time Warner, CNN, HBO), Comcast (NBC Universal, Telemundo, Universal Pictures), Disney (ABC, ESPN, Pixar, Marvel Studios), News Corp (Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Post) and ViacomCBS (CBS, Paramount Pictures).

Many of the mergers that allowed for the consolidation within the media industry happened after winning antitrust approval from the Justice Department. An extreme lack of regulation regarding media companies has resulted in the media giants managing to secure major holdings in all forms of media, including newspapers, radio and television stations and movie studios. In his book “The New Media Monopoly,” Ben Bagdikian writes that “[t]his gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history.” The benefits of consolidation for company owners and shareholders are clear: the fewer the owners, the larger each one’s share of the billion-dollar media industry. Additionally, the larger the media giants grow, the more impossible it is for smaller, independent outlets to stay afloat.

The consolidation of media power extends beyond just mergers and monopolies. The big media giants oftentimes have interlocking directorates—which is when the same people serve on the board of directors of more than one company. According to a study by Aaron Moore in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2003, News Corporation, Disney, Viacom and Time Warner had 45 interlocking directors. The dominant five media conglomerates in 2004 had a total of 141 joint ventures. Although there is no recent compilation of data for the interlocking directorates of the big five media conglomerates today, Moore’s study is indicative of a constant pattern within the industry.

No analysis of the concentration of media power and the corporations that control today’s messaging would be complete without a close look at big tech and the internet. The huge tech companies of today have produced another form of power concentration and broadened the reach of major media conglomerates. Because of the internet, today’s news media reaches more Americans than ever before, while being controlled by the smallest number of owners in history.

The rise of the internet has also led to the tech giants accumulating an obscene amount of power over which media we consume. Unlike the conglomerates like AT&T, Comcast, Disney, etc. (and the news outlets they control), tech companies don’t produce the content we see—they control what we view. The market power of platforms like Google and Facebook is obscene: Facebook and Google combined account for over 70 percent of users directed to the websites of major news publishers. On its own this may seem trivial, but the rise of fake news, intense polarization and increased acceptance of conspiracy theories imply otherwise. The power held by huge tech giants only serves to magnify the impact that media conglomerates have over messaging.

The implications of the extreme consolidation of media power are extensive. First, the largest source of political money comes from corporations, and the media conglomerates are some of the largest corporations in the world. In the Forbes 2020 ranking of the world’s largest public companies, AT&T came in 11th, Comcast 27th, and Disney 36th. ViacomCBS and News Corp trailed the top three, at 472nd and 1737th, respectively. The tech companies are also at the top of the list. Alphabet (Google’s parent company) comes in 13th in the world and Facebook sits at a comfortable 39th. The market values of these companies range from $5.8 to $919 billion.

These billions upon billions equal more influence in political discourse and elections. Money determines the winning issues and candidates in American politics, so the larger the corporation, the stronger the influence. But no other industry is as directly linked to voting patterns as the media industry. Their product is the messaging that dictates the issues and candidates that dominate the national arena.

What this means is that not only do the media giants contribute money to campaigns, they also cover them. They report, record, narrate, document and broadcast them. Consequently, the political power of media conglomerates grows exponentially with their size and wealth; the larger the corporation, the greater its political influence through both monetary power and messaging. The greater the political power of the media giants, the more easily they lobby and influence the government to slash regulations, grant antitrust approvals and pass laws that increase their corporate domination.

One such law is the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The Telecommunications Act amended the Communications Act of 1934 and was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in over 60 years. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the goal of the law was to “[l]et anyone enter any communications business––to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.” In effect, the legislation deregulated the broadcasting and telecommunications markets. The media giants benefited immensely from the Telecommunications Act and lobbied extensively for its passage—which is why it should come as no surprise that major news outlets completely failed to cover the legislation.

Concentrated media power not only affects which issues take the spotlight in the news, but their power in the entire realm of politics. Political parties and elected officials are keenly aware of the almost-absolute control of media giants in the news. Big money in other industries already holds gross power over elected officials due to campaign financing—add to that the fear of unfavorable news coverage, and it is no surprise that bills like the Telecommunications Act are passed easily.

The consequences of concentrated political influence among the media conglomerates is more far-reaching still. Media giants have the power to not only shape public debate, ensure the passage of favorable legislation and bend elected officials to their will, but also to bolster entire ideologies. One must look no further than Fox News. The American cable news television channel was spawned by Australian-American Rupert Murdoch, i.e. media mogul and creator of the empire that includes News Corp and Fox Corporation.

Fox News was launched on Oct. 7, 1996, as a conservative news network and is now the dominant cable news network in the United States. At the end of 2019, it averaged 2.5 million primetime viewers and was the top-rated network in all of cable for the fourth year in a row. According to a study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, there was a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000, and Republicans gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns that broadcast Fox News. Fox News exemplifies the dramatic effect the news media has on the electorate and what happens when one media mogul with a political agenda builds an empire that becomes one of the largest media corporations in the world.

With the consolidation of media power, the pool of people that control the vast majority of the industry is ever shrinking. The smaller the pool that controls the news media, the narrower the information reported. Not only is the news oftentimes duplicative and always bound to the outlet’s parent corporation, but the media giants’ cartel-like relationships mean that the differences in reporting between each conglomerate are minor as well. These narrowed choices will themselves be biased by corporate interests. As noted, the political power held by the dominant media firms is readily used to make conditions more favorable for their growth and profit; likewise, they use their messaging power to enhance the social and economic values that are favorable to the corporate world.

Additionally, media giants are not only global corporations themselves, but are invested in other million- and billion-dollar industries. They are not stand-alone companies with isolated interests. Media conglomerates make money off of advertising, which holds influence over reporting and broadcasting. Beyond even this, however, the media giants have physical and financial ties to other industries. Interlocking directorates, revolving doors of personnel and financial stakes and holdings connect the corporate media to the state, the Pentagon, defense and arms manufacturers and the oil industry. Our free press, which assures “government by consent of the governed,” is in bed with the captains of industry and profiteers of war.

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