Common Media for an Uncommon
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
New Media Monopoly