Media Juggernaut
Rolls Into 21st Century

by Gumisai Mutume

Inter Press Service (news agency), Rome, Nov. 30,1999

(World Press Review, March 2000)


The world faces the spectrum of a global commercial media sector swamping the traditional national press and promoting the commercial values of international capital, according to media analysts. They warn that the development of such a juggernaut hardly augurs well for any diversity of opinion and freedom of expression, and threatens to muffle the voices of the world's poor majority in a continually globalizing world.

Some nine super-corporations already virtually control the industry and, together with 40 or so smaller players, produce the bulk of the world's newspapers, magazines, books, films, and television and radio programs. "In some ways, the emerging global commercial media system is not an entirely negative proposition," notes Robert McChesney, professor at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois. "Occasionally it promotes anti-racist, anti-sexist, or anti-authoritarian messages that can be welcome in some of the more repressive corners of the world. But on balance, the system has minimal interest in journalism or public affairs-except for that which serves the business and upper-middle classes and provides privileges for the few lucrative genres that it can do quite well, such as sports, light entertainment, and action movies."

In his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, McChesney says even at its best the entire system is saturated with hyper-commercialism. Consumerism, class inequality, and individualism are taken as natural while political activity, civic values, and anti-market activities are marginalized. As trade liberalization pries open global markets, the same few multinationals are bound to further consolidate their hold-from Argentina to South Africa, Australia to India, and just about any other liberalizing economy.

In the capital cities of the world, very few people have never heard about CNN, Walt Disney, or Sony. They enter the living rooms of the world on a daily basis and are among the media groups owned by the nine largest conglomerates -General Electric, Sony, AT&T/Liberty Media, Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom and Seagram, and the German-based Bertelsmann.

The world's first global TV news channel, CNN International, beams its signal to more than 200 nations by satellite technology. It broadcasts in Spanish and aims to expand to Hindi, French, Japanese, and Arabic on its way to becoming a truly global commodity. It now is owned by Time Warner, which was rated [in 1998] the largest media corporation in the world with nearly $30 billion in earnings.

Before the media explosion of the late 1980s, national media generally were characterized by locally or state-owned radio, television, and newspapers, especially in developing countries. When a flurry of mergers, takeovers, and cross-ownerships began, some sections believed that the advent of the Internet would eliminate the monopoly of these media giants as a new democratic medium was being established, notes McChesney. Subsequent developments, however, have seen the same corporations also colonizing the Internet.

In September 1998 came the world's biggest media merger with one of the world's largest entertainment companies, Viacom, amalgamating with another big player, CBS. Viacom owns or holds interests in Blockbuster, MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures, 19 TV stations including UPN, and National Amusements Incorporated, a company that operates approximately 1,300 movie screens in the United States, the United Kingdom, and South America.

On the other hand, the CBS Corporation owns CBS Television and Infinity Broadcasting Corporation. Seven of its 15 TV stations are in the top-10 markets while Infinity Broadcasting Corporation operates 163 radio stations. "This exciting merger creates the industry-leading media company for today and a dynamic growth vehicle that will benefit shareholders well into the future," said Sumner Redstone, chairman and chief executive of Viacom. "We will be global leaders in every facet of the media and entertainment industry, financially strong from day one, with an enviable stable of global brands. Indeed, the creation of this formidable media giant marks the beginning of a new era of explosive growth domestically and around the world."

But critics fear the influence of the market on the news values of such media organizations, driven by the profit motive. For instance, how will poor African, Asian, and Latin American countries be covered and portrayed on the media outlets owned by these corporations? The world has shrugged off the idealistic notions of the 1970s, when there was an attempt to introduce a "New World Information and Communication Order" to pay more attention to the nations of the South.

Missing in today's unipolar, commercially driven world, however, is any international debate on the implications of such mergers and monopolies for media pluralism, democracy, and accountability, especially for developing nations. "The financial markets have certainly spoken. They have richly rewarded some media-company mergers and made stockholders-including journalists-happy folks," writes Tom Goldstein, dean of the Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in an essay for Columbia Journalism Review's Web site. "Walk into the lobby of a big newspaper these days, and you might be confronted with the latest stock price of the paper's parent company," says Goldstein. "If journalism is just another business, then the primary scorecard of success is justifiably the verdict of the financial markets." These media powers are not only based in developed countries. Clarin in Argentina, Globo of Brazil, Televisa in Mexico, and Venezuela's Cisneros Group are among the world's 70 largest media groups and, like their bigger rivals, are also expanding into their regional markets, McChesney observes.

Nonetheless, amid mounting pressure to open up the global market, some countries are resisting. The Nordic states, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea-as well as a host of others-continue to subsidize their small movie industries. They were among 20 countries that met last year in Ottawa, Canada, to work out ways to keep the power of Hollywood from destroying their film industries. One of the proposals adopted at that conference was to ensure that the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is promoting free trade and opening up the world to international capital, be kept out of the cultural arena. Yet it may only be a matter of time before the WTO frees up all areas of trade in order to promote what it calls efficient markets.

Propaganda and Media Control