Common Media for an Uncommon Nation

excerpted from the book

The New Media Monopoly

by Ben Bagdikian

Beacon Press, 2004


Holders of great wealth, with minor exceptions, have always preferred political conservatives, who are the main proponents of lower income taxes (or none at all) and who favor reduced governmental social services for the general population.

By 2001, the richest 15 percent of families possessed more of the national household income than all of the remaining 85 percent of Americans.

Five global-dimension firms, operating with many of the characteristics of a cartel, own most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios, and radio and television stations in the United States. Each medium they own, whether magazines or broadcast stations, covers the entire country, and the owners prefer stories and programs that can be used everywhere and anywhere. Their media products reflect this. The programs broadcast in the six empty stations in Minot, N. Dak., were simultaneously being broadcast in New York City.

These five conglomerates are Time Warner, by 2003 the largest media firm in the world; The Walt Disney Company; Murdoch's News Corporation, based in Australia; Viacom; and Bertelsmann, based in Germany. Today, none of the dominant media companies bother with dominance merely in a single medium. Their strategy has been to have major holdings in all the media, from newspapers to movie studios. This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more comrnunications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history.

The media conglomerates are not the only "industry" whose owners have become monopolistic in the American economy. But media products are unique in one vital respect. They do not manufacture nuts and bolts: they manufacture a social and political world.

New technology has expanded the commercial mass media's unprecedented power over the knowledge and values of the country. In less than a generation, the five intertwined media corporations have enlarged the influence in the home, school, and work lives of every citizen. The concentrated influence exercises political and cultural forces reminiscent of the royal decrees of monarchs rejected by the revolutionists of 1776.

The Big Five have become major players in altering the politics of the country. They have been able to promote new laws that increase the corporate domination and that permit them to abolish regulations that inhibit the control. The major accomplishment is the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In the process, power of media firms, along with all corporate power in general, has diminished the place of individual citizens. In the history of the United States and in its Constitution, citizens are presumed to have the sole right to determine the shape of the democracy. But concentrated media power in news and commentary, together with corporate political contributions in general, have diminished the influence of voters over which issues and candidates will be offered on Election Day.

Media corporations have always possessed the power to affect politics. That is not new in history. But the five dominant corporations-Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann-have power that media in past history did not, power created by new technology and the near uniformity of the political goals. The political and social content projected by these media to the country's population has had real consequences: the United States has the most politically constricted voter choices among the world's developed democracies.

While Franklin Roosevelt, unlike his cousin Theodore, had no overwhelming media support before his election, the newspapers, which were the only medium that really counted at the time, had lost much of their credibility. They had glorified the failed policies that produced the shambles of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. By the time that Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, desperate unemployment and murmurings of popular revolt were ominous. Fear led many of the once-conservative or neutral newspapers and magazines to moderate their opposition to the election of Roosevelt.

There are multiple reasons for the politics of any country to change, but with growing force the major media play a central role in the United States. In the years after 1980, conservatives began the chant of "get the government off our backs" that accelerated the steady elimination of a genuinely progressive income tax. They adopted the goal of uninhibited corporate power. Political slogans advocating a shrinking government and arguments involving that idea filled the reportorial and commentary agendas of most of the country's major news outlets. It was the beginning of the end of government-as-protector-of-the-consumer and the start of government-as-the-protector-of-big-business. And the news industry, now a part of the five dominant corporations, reflected this new direction.

By the time Bush the Younger had become president, the most influential media were no longer the powerful Harper's, Century, and other influential national organs of one hundred years earlier that had helped to expose abuses and campaigned to limit the power of massive corporations. In sharp contrast to the major media that led to Theodore Roosevelt's reforms, the most adversarial media in 2000, both in size of audience and political influence, were the right-wing talk shows and a major broadcast network, the Murdoch News Corporations Fox network, with its overt conservatism. Murdoch went further and personally created the Weekly Standard, the intellectual Bible of contemporary American conservatism and of the administration of Bush the Younger. Murdochs magazine is delivered each week to top-level White House figures. The office of President Cheney alone receives a special delivery of thirty copies.'

It is not simply a random artifact in media politics that three of the largest broadcast outlets insistently promote bombastic far-right political positions. Murdoch's Fox radio and television have almost unwavering right-wing commentators. The two largest radio groups, Clear Channel and Cumulus, whose holdings dwarf the rest of radio, are committed to a daily flood of far-right propagandistic programming along with their automated music. Twenty-two percent of Americans polled say their main source of news is radio talk shows. In a little more than a decade, American radio has become a powerful organ of right-wing propaganda. The most widely distributed afternoon talk show is Rush Limbaugh's, whose opinions are not only right-wing but frequently based on untruths."

Dominant media owners have highly conservative politics and choose their talk show hosts accordingly. Editor Ron Rodriques of the trade magazine Radio & Records said, "I can't think of a single card-carrying, liberal talk show syndicated nationwide." The one clearly liberal talk show performer, Jim Hightower of ABC, was fired in 1995 by the head of Disney, Michael Eisner, the week after Eisner bought the Disney company, which owns ABC.

The political content of the remaining four of the Big Five is hardly a counter to Fox and the ultraconservatism and bad reporting of dominant talk shows. American television viewers have a choice of NBC (now owned by General Electric), CBS (now owned by one of the Big Five, Viacom), and ABC, now owned by another of the Big Five, Disney. Diversity among the tens of thousands of United States media outlets is no longer a government goal. In 2002, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, expressed the opinion that it would not be so bad if one broadcast giant owned every station in an entire metropolitan area.

The machinery of contemporary media is not a minor mechanism. The 28o million Americans are served, along with assorted other small local and national media, by 1,468 daily newspapers, 6,000 different magazines, 10,000 radio stations, 2,700 television and cable stations, and 2,600 book publishers. The Internet gave birth to a new and still unpredictable force, as later portions of this book will describe. Though today's media reach more Americans than ever before, they are controlled by the smallest number of owners than ever before. In 1983 there were fifty dominant media corporations; today there are five. These five corporations decide what most citizens will or will not learn.

It may not be coincidental that during these years of consolidation of mass media ownership the country's political spectrum, as reflected in its news, shifted. As noted, what was once liberal is now depicted as radical and even unpatriotic. The shift does not reflect the political and social values of the American public as a whole. A recent Harris poll showed that 42 percent of Americans say they are politically moderate, middle-of-the-road, slightly liberal, liberal, or extremely liberal, compared to 33 percent for the same categories of conservatives, with 25 percent saying "Don't know or haven't thought about it"

Dollars versus Votes

One force creating the spectrum change has been, to put it simply, money-the quantities of cash used to gain office. Spontaneous national and world events and the accidents of new personalities inevitably play a part in determining a country's legislation and policies. But in American politics, beyond any other single force, money has determined which issues and candidates will dominate the national discourse that, in turn, selects the issues and choices available to voters on Election Day.

The largest source of political money has come from corporations eager to protect their expanded power and treasure. The country's massive media conglomerates are no different - with the crucial exception that they are directly related to voting patterns because their product happens to be a social-political one. It is, tragically, a self-feeding process: the larger the media corporation, the greater its political influence, which produces a still larger media corporation with still greater political power.

The cost of running for office has risen in parallel with the enlarged size of American industries and the size of their political contributions to preferred candidates and parties.

In 1952, the money spent by all candidates and parties for all federal election campaigns -House, Senate, and presidency-was $140 million (sic). In 2000, the races spent in excess Of $5 billion. Spending in the 2000 presidential campaign alone was $1 billion.

The growth of money in politics is multiplied by what it pays for-the growth of consultants skilled in, among other things, the arts of guile and deception that have been enhanced by use of new technology in discovering the tastes and income of the public.

Television political ads are the most common and expensive campaign instrument and the largest single expenditure in American political campaigns. Typically, the commercials are brief, from a few seconds to five minutes, during which most of the content consists of slogans and symbols (waving Americans flags are almost obligatory), useless as sources of relevant information. Television stations and networks are, of course, the recipients of most of the money that buys air time. This is why the country's political spectrum is heavily influenced by which candidate has the most money.

incumbents always have an advantage in attracting money from all sources because even conservative business leaders want influence with whoever happens to vote for legislation, even if it is a liberal. Nevertheless, if one eliminates incumbents, the big spenders have almost always been the winners. Beginning in 1976, candidates who spent more than $500,000 were increasingly Republicans. Conservatives perpetually accuse Democrats of bowing to special interests. In the conservative lexicon, these are code words for labor unions. And, indeed, labor unions in 2000, for example, gave Democrats $90 million and Republicans only $5 million. But in the 1990s, corporate and trade association political action committees gave Republicans twice as much money as they gave to Democrats and in quantities many multiples larger than labor union political contributions? In the crucial midterm 2002 elections, when control of the Senate depended on a few votes, Democrats spent $44 million and Republicans $8o million. Republicans gained control of Congress, undoubtedly helped by President Bush, who, two months before the election, suddenly declared that the country would go to war against Iraq and that opponents would be seen as supporters of Saddam Husseins tyranny. That alone took domestic economic troubles off the front pages and out of TV news programs.

Increasingly, House and Senate candidates have spent their own money on campaigns, a choice available only to multimillionaires. Thus, the money both of the wealthy and of corporate interests has come to dominate American politics in the single generation during which the country's political spectrum has shifted far to the right.

The major news media fail to deal systematically with the variety of compelling social needs of the entire population. Those needs remain hidden crises, obscured in the daily flood of other kinds of news. Yet the weight of most reputable surveys shows that, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, most Americans were deeply concerned with systematic lack of funds for their children's education, access to health care, the growing crises in unemployment, homelessness, and steady deterioration of city and state finances.

But these issues are not high priorities among the most lavish contributors to political candidates and parties. Corporations have other high-priority issues.

The imbalance between issues important to corporate hierarchies and those most urgent to the population at large is obscured by the neutralist tone of modem news. The rightward impact of modem news is not in the celebrated inflamed language that once characterized nineteenth century sensationalist headlines and language. Today the imbalance is in what is chosen-or not chosen-for print or broadcast. Media politics are reflected in the selection of commentators and talk show hosts. It is exercised powerfully in what their corporations privately lobby for in legislation and regulations, and in the contributions they and their leaders make to political parties and candidates. It is the inevitable desire of most large corporations to have a political environment that is friendly to weakening minimum standards for public service and safety in order to produce maximum corporate profit levels and lower the corporate share of city, state, and federal taxes. But these seldom provide comparable benefits for the common good, like health care, safe environments, and properly funded public education.

The New Media Monopoly

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