This Communication Revolution Is Brought To You By U.S. Media at the Dawn of the 21st Century

by Robert W. McChesney

excerpted from

1998 Censored News Stories

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Over 40 years have passed since the publication of C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite, arguably one of the most insightful and prescient critiques of U.S. political culture written this century. In that book Mills discusses the paradox of the postwar United States. On the one hand, it is a nation abuzz with technology, celebrity, and commercialism, a radical society in which tradition is torn asunder and all that is solid melts into air. On the other hand, it is a highly depoliticized society-only formally democratic in key respects- where most important political decisions are made by the few for the few, with public relations to massage the rabble should they question their status. The commercial media system plays a major role in maintaining the social order. The final third or so of the book reveals the United States is a fundamentally conservative society and a deeply troubled one at that. In my mind, when one looks at the core argument, it could well have been written in 1998.

Mills also provides us with a useful schemata to make sense of what seem like revolutionary changes in our media system on the verge of the 21st century. The Internet and the broader developments in digital and satellite communication present us with a picture of staggering, almost incomprehensible, change in media and communication-indeed, in our entire social fabric- in the coming decade. Writers from Nicholas Negroponte and Douglas Rushkoff to George Gilder and even Newt Gingrich inform us that we are entering a period of fundamental social change the likes of which may occur once in a millennium, with the very essence of human social life and cognition undergoing qualitative change. It will be a future where individuals will have vastly greater power over their own lives. Yet, when one cuts through the rhetoric, the promises, and the projections, the digital revolution seems less a process about empowering the less powerful than it is a process that will further the corporate and commercial domination of life in the United States. Following Mills's analysis, the logical trajectory of the current patterns is to assist in the continued depoliticization, polarization, and demoralization of social life, unless the citizenry arises to demand that these technologies be employed in a different manner.


There are three striking features of the U.S. media system in the 1990s: concentration, conglomeration, and hyper-commercialism. Each of these is, in fact, a long-term phenomenon that has accelerated in the 1990s and each looks to continue for the visible future, well into the digital age. To some extent the astonishing degree of concentrated corporate control over the media is a response to the rapid increase in channels wrought by cable and satellite television. In this sense, the corporate media giants are having a trial run for how they might dominate the Internet when it converges with digital television.

The U.S. mass-media industries have been operated along non-competitive oligopolistic lines for much of the 20th century. In the 1940s, for example, broadcasting, film production, motion picture theaters, book publishing, newspaper publishing, magazine publishing, and recorded music were all distinct national oligopolistic markets, with each of them dominated by anywhere from a few to a dozen or more firms. In general, these were different firms dominating each of these industries, with a few exceptions. Throughout the 20th century there have been pressing concerns that these concentrated markets would inhibit the flow and range of ideas necessary for a meaningful democracy. Rarely, however, did these concerns spill over into public debate, for any number of reasons. In particular, the rise of the notion of professional journalism in the early 20th century attempted to disconnect the editorial process from the explicit supervision of the owners and advertisers of the mass media, hence making the editorial product more credible as a public service. To the extent this process was seen as successful, the corporate commercial domination of the media was a less pressing, perhaps even insignificant, matter.

In the final decades of the 20th century, the conglomeration of media ownership began. This was the process whereby media firms began to have major holdings in two or more distinct media sectors, such as book publishing, recorded music, and broadcasting. To some extent this was fueled by a desire to build the extremely lucrative vertical integration, meaning that media firms would not only produce content but also own distribution channels to guarantee having places to display their wares. In the current era, the classic form of vertical integration is the combining of film and television show production with the ownership of cable channels, broadcast networks and stations, and motion picture theaters. But it was also stimulated by something more profound in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s: the desire to increase market power by cross-promoting and cross-selling media properties or "brands" across numerous different media sectors that were not linked in the manner suggested by vertical integration. Hence, if a media conglomerate had a successful motion picture, it could promote the film on its broadcast properties and then use the film to spin off television programs, music CDs, books, merchandise, and much else. In the new world order of conglomerated media, the profit whole can be vastly greater than the sum of the profit parts. This process is often called synergy. And, ironically, the conversion of all media to digital format has the effect of not putting an "iceberg" before the corporate media giants but, rather, making it easier and more profitable for them to work in several media sectors at once.

A look at Disney's recent operations shows how a media conglomerate attempts to employ synergy. Its Home Improvement show is a big hit on its ABC television network. So Disney then has Home Improvement star Tim Allen take roles in Disney movies and write books for Disney's book publishing firms. The other giant media conglomerates are increasingly emulating this pattern. In an another example, Disney takes it lucrative ESPN cable channel and uses the name to generate other properties. In 1998, Disney launched ESPN Magazine to compete directly with Time Warner's Sports Illustrated Likewise, Disney is launching a chain of ESPN Grill restaurants to appeal to those who wish to combine sports with a meal.

The degree and pace of market concentration and conglomeration over the past 20 years is little short of breathtaking. In 1983, the first edition of Ben Bagdikian's seminal The Media Monopoly was published. In that book, Bagdikian chronicled how some 50 firms dominated the entirety of U.S. mass media, ranging from newspapers, books, and magazines to film, radio, television, cable, and recorded music. In each of the subsequent four editions, mergers and acquisitions reduced the number of dominant firms, until the most recent edition in 1997 put the figure at around 10, with another dozen or so firms rounding out the system. Though few thought it possible, the 1990s has seen an acceleration of this process.

The largest U.S. (and global, for that matter) media firms like Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation have all doubled or tripled in size, due to major acquisitions of other media firms as well as internal growth of existing assets. This is due to relaxed regulatory standards in this era of "free market" capitalism, new technologies that make consolidation more feasible, and, especially, the immense profit potential that comes with size. Indeed, there is no longer the option of being a small- or middle-sized media firm anymore: a firm either gets larger through mergers and acquisitions or it gets swallowed by a more aggressive competitor.

If the early and middle 1990s were marked by huge media mergers, like Time Warner's purchase of Turner Broadcasting or Disney's purchase of ABC, the late 1990s has seen a more surgical addition of assets, and occasional prunings, all to improve market power. The overall trajectory, nonetheless, remains that of increasing concentration both within distinct media sectors, and in the number and size of the largest media conglomerates. In the newspaper industry, for example, the emerging trend is that of "clustering," whereby metropolitan monopoly daily newspapers purchase or otherwise link up with all the smaller dailies in the suburbs and surrounding region.

In cable television, six firms, divvying up the nation, have effective monopolistic control over more than 80 percent of the nation, and seven firms control nearly three-quarters of cable channels and programming. As Time Warner's Ted Turner puts it, "We do have just a few people controlling all the cable companies in this country." Variety notes that "mergers and consolidations have transformed the cable-network marketplace into a walled-off community controlled by a handful of media monoliths." At the retail end, concentration proceeds apace. In motion picture theaters, for example, the era of the independent or even small-chain theater company has gone the way of the Dodo Bird. Several colossal deals in 1997 left the industry dominated by a few huge multiplex chains, many of which connected to larger media conglomerates.

But concentrating upon specific media sectors fails to convey the extent of concentrated corporate control. This only comes when one addresses the holdings of the largest media corporations. For nearly all of the dominant firms in each of the major media sectors are owned outright or in part by the 20 largest U.S. media firms, and, among those firms the largest half-dozen rule the roost. Hence Time Warner, the world's largest media firm with 1997 sales of around $25 billion, has holdings that rank it among the top few firms in: film production, TV show production, cable systems, cable TV stations, broadcast TV networks, magazine publishing, book publishing, recorded music, amusement parks, and movie theaters. The other corporate media giants like Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, General Electric's NBC, TCI, Seagram's Universal Studios, CBS, and Sony all have or are in the process of building similar arsenals. NBC, for example, is known to be eager to acquire a film studio while even giant Time Warner is rumored to be in the market for a major television network. As one media analyst puts it, "consolidation among distribution and content players rages on" (Mermigas, Diane, "TCI Headed in the Right Direction," Electronic Media, September 1, 1997: 20).

Moreover, the smart money is betting on a further thinning in the ranks of the giant media corporations. Gordon Crawford, who manages the Capital Research mutual fund that has significant stakes in nearly all of the media giants forecasts that the eventual outcome will be a global media oligopoly dominated by six firms: Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, Sony, and Seagram. Crawford is more than a silent investor; he works quietly but persistently to coordinate deals among the media giants to increase all of their profitability.

But this barely begins to indicate how noncompetitive the media market is becoming. In addition to an oligopolistic market structure and overlapping ownership, the media giants each employ equity joint ventures with their "competitors" to an extraordinary extent. These are media projects where two or more media giants share the ownership between them. They are ideal because they spread the risk of a venture and eliminate the threat of competition by teaming up with potential adversaries. Each of the eight largest U.S. media firms averages having joint ventures (often more than one) with five of the other seven media giants. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. has at least one joint venture with every single one of them. Viewed this way, the U.S. media market has cartel-like tendencies. While competition can be and is ferocious in specific markets, the overall thrust is to reduce competition and carve up the media pie to the benefit of the handful of giants. By any known theory of market performance, this degree of collaboration can only have negative effects for consumers.

If synergy is the principle that makes becoming a media conglomerate more profitable and, indeed, mandatory, the other side of the coin is branding. All media firms are racing to give their media properties distinct brand identities. Although the media system has fewer and fewer owners, it nonetheless has a plethora of channels competing for attention and branding is the primary means of attracting and keeping audiences while also offering new commercial possibilities. Cable channels and even broadcast networks each strive to be regarded as brands especially desirable to specific demographic groups desired by advertisers. Hence Viacom's Nickelodeon cable network battles its new competition from News Corp.'s Fox Kids Network and the Disney Channel by hammering home the Nickelodeon brand name incessantly on Nickelodeon, and in its other film, television, and publishing holdings. Branding also opens up for the media giants the entire world of selling retail products based on their branded properties to the media giants, and it is a course they have been pursuing with a vengeance. Disney now has 590 retail stores to sell its branded products while Time Warner has 160 stores. Viacom has entered the market too and some of the other media giants are moving in this direction as well.


The other side of the coin of commercialization is the decline and effective elimination of any public service values from the media, placing the status of non-market public service in jeopardy across society. It is often assumed that the United States has always been a business society where commercial values have reigned supreme, and there is a strong element of truth to this. But this assertion must be qualified: there is an enormous, difference between the degree and nature of commercialism in the United States in, say, 1830 or 1880 or 1950 and what is emerging today. Those were commercial societies, but nonprofit and non-commercial institutions and values also played notable roles. Today's hyper-commercialized society is such a sharp, quantitative change that it is also producing a qualitative change. In this environment, the commercial values of profit maximization and sales have overwhelmed the main vestiges of public service in media. The areas in marked retreat to the point of extinction are public service broadcasting, the regulations that require commercial broadcasting to serve some public service values, and journalism. I will concentrate here upon journalism, because that is clearly the most important vestige of public service in U.S. media.

Indeed, journalism has been regarded as a public service by all of the commercial media throughout this century. It is something that newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, and journalism schools regarded as an activity directed to non-commercial aims fundamental to a democracy that could not be bought and sold by powerful interests. Professional journalism was predicated on the notion that its content should not be shaped by the dictates of owners and advertisers, or by the biases of the editors and reporters, but rather by core public service values. For much of the 20th century the media corporations have brandished their commitment to journalism as their main explanation for why they deserve First Amendment protection and a special place in the political economy. Professional journalism has never enjoyed the independence from corporate or commercial pressure suggested by its rhetoric, and indeed in some respects has been a mixed blessing if not detrimental to democracy, but whatever autonomy journalism has enjoyed is presently under sustained attack by the corporate media giants and commercial values. Whatever the limitations of professional journalism, it shines in comparison to much of what is called "news" today.

The decline, even collapse, of journalism as a public service is apparent all across the media. For network and national cable television, news has gone from being a loss-leader to enhance prestige to being a major producer of profit. NBC at present enjoys what is regarded as "the most profitable broadcast news division in the history of television," with annual advertising revenues topping $100 million. NBC is renowned not for the quality of its news as much as for the extraordinary manner it squeezes profit from it. NBC uses QNBC, a high-tech statistical service, to analyze its news reports to see exactly how its desired target audience is reacting to the different news stories and to the ads. Its goal is to have a "boundaryless" flow across the program so as to satisfy those paying the bills. In 1996, the news story that NBC gave the most time to was the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. That story did not even rank on the top 10 list of most covered stories for CBS, ABC, or CNN. What explains NBC's devotion to this story? NBC had the television rights to the Olympics and it used its nightly news to pump up the ratings for its primetime coverage.

Beside using the news to promote corporate fare, the main way to make journalism profitable is to have fewer reporters, therefore concentrating upon inexpensive and easy stories to cover, like celebrity lifestyle pieces, court cases, and visually compelling stories like crashes and shoot-outs. It is also good business. This caliber of journalism rarely offends people in power- since serious investigative work is far too expensive to be conducted-and therefore does not get the parent corporation enmeshed in controversy.

Examples of these trends abound. The annual number of crime stories on network TV news programs tripled from 1990-92 to 1993-1996. In the summer of 1997, CNN addressed a decline in ratings by broadcasting a much publicized interview with O.J. Simpson. One almost had to feel sympathy for the CNN correspondent who was reprimanded after he did a television commercial as a spokesperson for Visa USA; his role in the commercial had been originally cleared by CNN and it certainly seemed in keeping with the commercial thrust of television journalism. His crime, it would appear, was being caught. As bad as this seems, local television news is considerably worse. One recent detailed content analysis of local TV news in 55 markets in 35 states concludes that the news tended to feature crime and violence, triviality, and celebrity, and that some programs aired more commercials than news (Kite, Paul, Robert A. Bardwell, and Jason Salzman, Baaad News: Local TV News in America, February 26,1997 [Denver: Rocky Mountain Media Watch, 1997]; see also Bannon, Lisa, "In TV Chopper War, News Is Sometimes A Trivial Pursuit," The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 1997: A1, A10).

The attack on journalism is every bit as pronounced in the nation's newspapers. The concentration of ownership into local monopolies that are part of large national chains gives the media corporations considerable power to reduce the resource commitment to journalism so as to fatten the bottom line. Gannett showed the genius of this approach as it built its empire over the past 35 years. Since purchasing the once highly acclaimed Des Moines Register in the 1980s, for example, it has slashed that paper's once extraordinary coverage of state affairs down to the bone. These corporate giants are also increasingly using temporary labor to fill reporters' and photographers' jobs. In addition, there is implicit pressure on editors and reporters to accept marketing principles and be "more reader friendly." This means an emphasis upon lifestyle and consumption issues that strongly appeal to desired readers and advertisers alike. "Marketing," one reporter stated in 1997, "these days means spending more time focusing on the things that concern the people who have all the money and who live in the suburbs." In a bold new measure, the Los Angeles Times in 1997 appointed a business manager to be "general manager for news," and directly oversee the editorial product to see that it conform to the best commercial interests of the newspaper.

What is happening at the prestigious Los Angeles Times in fact only makes explicit what had been increasingly implicit in journalism over recent years: to serve commercial needs first and foremost. Magazine journalism has had less concern on balance with keeping a formal separation between advertising and editorial content for years; in 1997 The Wall Street Journal reported that some major national advertisers demanded to know the contents of specific issues of magazines before they would agree to place ads in them. This caused a public outcry, with magazine editors and publishers formally denouncing the practice. But even if advertisers are not officially vetoing magazine contents, the message has been underlined and boldfaced, again, for publishers and editors, that what they do will affect their commercial fortunes directly.

There are some who argue that this shift to trivia and fluff masquerading as news is going to ultimately harm the media corporation's profitability, as people realize they no longer have any particular need to read or watch news, and news is competing with the entire world of entertainment for attention. Whether that is true or false is impossible to say, but the media corporations by their actions have made it clear that they prefer to take their profits now rather than spend and make a lot less money now for the chance at pie-in-the-sky profits far down the road. "Our big corporate owners, infected with the greed that marks the end of the 20th century, stretch constantly for ever-increasing profit, condemning quality to take the hindmost," Walter Cronkite observes. They are "compromising journalistic integrity in the mad scramble for ratings and circulation."

Few defend the new journalism, except to say half-heartedly that the media are now "giving the people what they want," as if the people have had any particular choice or as if what generates the best market for advertisers was ever a satisfactory determinant for journalism. This defense stinks of apologia. And there are still many dedicated journalists working under existing conditions to produce as high quality fare as possible; but the trajectory is unmistakable. A recent examination of TV news concludes that consumption of this "distorted diet of information has profound side effects, contributing to public cynicism, desensitization, alienation, ignorance, and the American culture of violence" (Klite, Paul, Robert A. Bardwell, and Jason Salzman, "Local TV News: Getting Away with Murder," Harvard Journal of Press/Politics 2(2): 102-112). What is clear is that this is a journalism that makes perfect sense for media corporation shareholders and for advertisers- and it makes perfect sense for those who prefer a depoliticized and quiescent public-but it is absurd and indefensible for citizens in a democracy.

The decline of journalism as a public service independent of commercial values also has clear implications for preserving and extending social inequality. As the notion of journalistic autonomy from owners and advertisers weakens, the journalistic product will increasingly reflect the interests of the wealthy few that own and advertise in the news media. This is the main reason why U.S. conservatives are so obsessed with taming the "liberal" news media; what they desire is for journalism to more closely reflect the political agenda of the business class. As Newt Gingrich informed a meeting of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce in 1997, business and advertisers need to take more direct command of the newsroom. Some of the corporate media owners maintain their journalism holdings not merely to make profit, but to promote their pro-business, anti-labor view of the world. Rupert Murdoch, for example, is an outspoken proponent of the view that the main problems with the world are the prevalence of taxation on business and the wealthy; regulation of business; government bureaucrats; and labor unions. As TCI CEO John Malone stated, Murdoch would be willing to keep his Fox News Channel on the air even if it was not profitable because Murdoch wants "the political leverage he can get out of being a major network." "It is curious," the famous graphic designer Milton Glaser wrote in 1997, "that after the triumph of capitalism, American business is embracing the politburo practice of censoring ideas it deems unacceptable."


Even among those who acknowledge corporate concentration, conglomeration, and hyper-commercialism as main trends in U.S. media today, and who regard the social and political implications of these trends as extremely negative, there is a fatalistic sense that this is the way it must be, because the United States is a business-run society. In fact, the nature of the U.S. media system is the result of a series of political decisions, not natural law or holy mandate. Even when media are regulated preponderantly by markets, it is in the end a political decision to turn them over to a relative handful of individuals and corporations to maximize profit. The U.S. media system of the late 20th century looks substantially different from the media system of the late 19th century and is diametrically opposed to the press system of the Republic's first two generations. All modern U.S. media as well as advertising are affected directly and indirectly by government policies, regulation, and subsidies. Specifically, the development of radio and television broadcasting has been and is the direct province of the political system. If at any time the U.S. people had elected to establish a fully nonprofit and non-commercial radio and television system, for example, it has been within their constitutional rights to do so. The seminal law for U.S. broadcasting was the Communications Act of 1934; it was only superseded recently with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

What is most notable about media policy making in the United States is not that it is important and that it exists, but, rather, that virtually the entire American population has no idea that it exists and that they have a right to participate in it. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had virtually no public participation or general news media coverage, despite the fact that it will probably set the terms for the development of the media for the coming generations. It is a stunning testament to how undemocratic U.S. society is on basic issues of resource allocation.

The effects of the Telecommunications Act on media were evident in the discussion of the contemporary media market earlier in the chapter. The one media sector most thoroughly overturned by the Telecommunications Act has been radio broadcasting. The Telecommunications Act relaxed ownership restrictions so that a single firm can own up to eight stations in a single market. In the 20 months following the law's passage there has been the equivalent of an Oklahoma land rush as small chains have been acquired by middle-sized chains, and middle-sized chains have been gobbled up by the few massive giants who have come to dominate the national industry. In that time 4,000 of the nation's 11,000 radio stations changed hands and there were over 1,000 radio firm mergers. The deregulation now made it possible for giant radio firms to control enough of a market to compete with television and newspapers for advertisers. This sort of consolidation also permits the giant chains to reduce labor costs as redundant editorial and sales staffs can be "downsized," and programming can be coordinated from national headquarters. According to Advertising Age, by September 1997 in each of the 50 largest markets, three firms controlled over 50 percent of the radio ad revenues. And in 23 of the top 50, three companies controlled more than 80 percent of the ad revenues. CBS, formerly Westinghouse, ranks as the national leader with 175 stations, predominately in the 15 largest markets, where it has "maxed out" to the new legal limit. As The Wall Street Journal puts it, these deals "have given a handful of companies a lock on the airwaves in the nation's big cities."

When one ponders these developments in radio, the implications of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for media become more stark. Relative to television and other media technologies, radio is inexpensive for both broadcasters and consumers. It is ideally suited for local community service and control. Yet it has been transformed into a profit engine for a handful of firms, so that they can convert radio broadcasting into the most efficient conduit possible for advertising. Across the nation these giant chains use their market power to slash costs, providing the same handful of formats with only a token nod to the actual localities in which the stations broadcast. On Wall Street, the corporate consolidation of radio is praised as a smash success, but by any other standard this "brave new world" is an abject failure.

The ultimate importance of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, however, was to establish that the private sector would determine the future of U.S. electronic media and digital communication. Since the market is presumed infallible and competitive, there are minimal or nonexistent public service requirements. What the law established, therefore, was that Congress, and, by extension, the public, had formally passed the matter along to the corporate community, and to the FCC, which is in charge of coordinating the "deregulation." And so it is that from the World Wide Web to digital television, the corporate sector has taken the lead in the United States, with little discussion or opposition.


Following the vision of Mills, the U.S. media at the dawn of the 21st century present an apparent paradox. On the one hand, there is a mind-boggling technological explosion, seemingly scripted in the pages of science fiction novels, that promises unprecedented consumer choice. On the other hand, the clear tendencies of our media and communication world are those of corporate concentration, media conglomeration, and hyper-commercialism. Notions of public service that there should be some motives for media other than profit-are in rapid retreat if not total collapse. The implications for democracy are entirely negative. Moreover, public debate over the future of media and communication has been effectively eliminated by the corporate media sector, which metaphorically flosses its teeth with politicians' underpants in both major parties. But as Mills understood, this is no paradox at all: the illusion of consumer choice and individual freedom provide the ideological oxygen necessary to cement a media (and broader social) system that serves the few, making it appear accountable and democratic.

But that could change. Indeed, the missing character throughout this chapter has been the public, relegated to its proverbial couch and commanded to shut up and shop. Yet public enthusiasm for commercial media, arguably never as great as the PR industry proclaimed, may be beginning to fray under the hyper-commercialism and semi-monopolistic corporate rule that typifies the l990s. Some municipalities are beginning to provide city-owned cable services, reminiscent of the great public ownership movement of the Progressive Era. Other activists have taken new developments in radio technology to begin providing unlicensed microradio channels on the parts of the dial unused by the commercial broadcasters. Moreover, local media watch organizations have sprouted across the nation in the l990s, determined to improve the quality of news and entertainment in their communities, and to oppose the commercialization of public broadcasting, schools, and neighborhoods. At the national level, too, media reform organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and the Cultural Environment Movement have blossomed, with clear mandates not merely to get the best of what is currently possible, but to extend the range of what can be possible in the way of media reform. In all of these activities, reformers find significant public support in addition to apathy and disinterest, but very little public hostility on the grounds that the current media system is a success. There is seemingly the climate for the building of a viable public media reform movement for the first time in generations.

Although in certain respects the media system and the handful of firms that sit atop it appear politically and ideologically all-powerful, the system is simultaneously producing considerable disenchantment across society. Should citizens become active in media reform-a prospect the corporate media are doing everything in their power to prevent-all bets would be off concerning the future of U.S. media and society writ large. In the end, the nature of our media system will be determined by people and social activity, not technology.


ROBERT McCHESNEY is an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author, with Edward S. Herman, of The Global Media: The New Missionaries Of Corporate Capitalism (Cassell, 1997) and Corporate Media And The Threat To Democracy (Seven Stories Press, 1997).

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