Conglomerates and the Media
by Erik Barnouw et al
New Press, 1997
... in 1920 ... when the Commerce Department began to offer broadcasting
licenses, it set off a stampede. By July 1922, over four hundred
stations were on the air, with more on the way. Many were prewar
amateur rigs upgraded for the new era transformed into broadcasting
stations. Many diverse interests were brought into play. More
than seventy of the stations, the largest group, were launched
by universities or colleges, inspired by visions of a new era
in adult education. Others were started by newspapers, hotels,
manufacturers, department stores, religious groups, and others.
All saw in broadcasting an extension of whatever they were already
doing; in other words, all had some promotional aspect. But none,
at this point, sold time for advertising. In fact, the mere suggestion
of doing so could bring rebuke. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover,
presiding proudly over this extraordinary eruption, said it was
"inconceivable that we should allow so great an opportunity
for service to be drowned in advertising chatter." It was
indeed an idealistic moment. Hoover, by the way, credited the
eruption to "the genius of the American boy."
During 1922, the fever generated an orgy
of prophecy, not unlike other such orgies. The Doubleday company
launched a new magazine, Radio Broadcast, to chronicle the coming
age. Broadcasting, said the magazine in its first issue
- will elicit a new national loyalty and
produce a more contented citizenry... the government will be a
living thing to its citizens instead of an abstract and unseen
- elected representatives will not be
able to evade their responsibilities to those who put them in
office... at last we may have covenants literally openly arrived
- the people's university of the air will
have a greater student body than all our universities put together.
Also in 1922, a former secretary of the
navy, Josephus Daniels, dedicating a station in North Carolina,
said: "Nobody now fears that a Japanese fleet could deal
an unexpected blow on our Pacific possessions.... Radio makes
... The exhilaration of 1922 brought more
and more stations to the air, and Hoover began to worry-for good
reason. The licenses had all been issued under a radio law of
1912, a very ambiguous document. Hoover, studying it, was sure
he had the right to issue licenses, but probably not to refuse
them-not to U.S. citizens, anyway. And the law did not explicitly
define regulatory powers. Hoover kept urging Congress to pass
a new law to clarify all this, but the uncertainties of the future
made this difficult and led to endless congressional debate, while
still more stations came on the air. Hoover invited radio leaders,
including those from Westinghouse, AT&T, and General Electric
- the titans of the era-to Washington to advise him about the
chaos. They urged him strongly to ignore his doubts about the
law, to issue firm regulations, and establish order. They promised
to support him. Hoover thought it might be the first time an American
industry had begged to be regulated.
Broadcasting had been described in 1922 as a unique opportunity
for service. By 1924, more thought of it as a likely chance for
a killing. So the rush to the air intensified, as did the spectrum
chaos. By 1924, Hoover, still waiting for Congress to pass a new
law, felt the chaos had become intolerable. He decided to act
as the advisers had urged. New requests for licenses began to
be handled with a form letter, saying "all available wavelengths"
were now in use, so the requests could not be granted. Meanwhile,
Hoover began a drastic realignment of existing stations, dividing
them into categories. Most, including almost all educational stations,
were dubbed "local" stations. They would be on the same
wavelength as a host of other local stations, so had to be limited
in power-100 watts or less-to avoid interference. Then there were
"regional" stations, on a different wavelength, which
they shared with other regional stations, all distant enough to
permit more power to be used. Finally there were "clear-channel"
stations, free of interference over most of the country, and therefore
allowed maximum power, eventually, in many cases, 50,000 watts
or even more. AT&T'S stations, and those of General Electric
and Westinghouse, which all "went commercial," were
in this favored group. Nonprofit broadcasters noted that Hoover
had created a hierarchy of stations, and that they, themselves,
were at the bottom of it. Bitterness developed.
Why had Hoover done this? He had apparently
adopted a rationale used by AT&T in promoting its plan. All
those other stations, AT&T argued-educational or religious
or whatever-were "special-interest stations", whereas
an AT&T station was "for everybody." Anyone could
buy time on AT&T stations, so they would be the epitome of
democracy. They served the "public interest." AT&T
also argued that those it called "special interests,"
such as education, didn't really need stations; they could buy
time on AT&T stations, save money, and help clear the chaos.
It would not be the first or last time that creative use of language
played a part in media struggles. When the Federal Radio Commission
later took over the licensing function under the Radio Act of
1927, it used the same rationale, as it, too, began moving stations
around the dial. The Harvard Business Review, in a detailed study
of the commission, concluded: "While talking in terms of
the public interest, convenience, and necessity, the commission
actually chose to further the ends of the commercial broadcasters.
They form the substantive content of public interest as interpreted
by the commission."
I probably need not remind you that all
this was during the administration of Calvin Coolidge, who assured
us: "The chief business of the American people is business."
With licensing halted, would-be broadcasters
felt frustrated but found there was another way to get a channel.
You could buy one. A commercial applicant sometimes found a discouraged
nonproflt ready to give up, at a price, and then found that the
Commerce Department was ready to bless a transfer-channel and
all. This seemed at odds with the law, which gave a licensee the
use, not the ownership, of a channel. So how could he sell the
channel along with his equipment? However, the department took
the view, as its spokesman explained to a Senate committee, that
"the license ran to the apparatus." With this green
light, a traffic in licenses quickly develop A commercial applicant
found that it could petition the commission for the right to take
over, "in the public interest," a channel in use by
someone else, presumably in a less worthy manner. The commission
would set a "comparative hearing," and the nonprofit
would have to send a lawyer to Washington to defend its channel,
perhaps losing in the process. Nonprofits grew increasingly wary.
Meanwhile, their presence in the spectrum seemed to be resented.
Without profit to anyone, they were sitting on channels that could
earn someone a small fortune. Via purchase or pressure, many nonprofits
were now to be edged off the dial. Much effort and money went
The Federal Radio Commission was a body
drawn largely from businessmen. Taking office in 1927, it found
712 stations on the air and decided that was too many. Ninety
of them were operated by educators. The commission began a grand
new shuffle, from which most educational stations emerged with
part-time licenses, many confined to daytime hours, which were
generally considered of lesser value for adult education. In dismay
or disgust, eight educational stations left the air in 1927, twenty-three
in 1928, thirteen in 1929. A few years later, only about two dozen
... the traffic in licenses, which made licensing incidental to
buying and selling equipment, began during these years, with the
result that regulators virtually handed control of the spectrum
to private interests. This traffic-with occasional, gallant resistance
by individual commissioners-has thrived ever since, bringing a
constant escalation in prices, and excluding from the game all
but the very well-to-do. This has made our industry's structure
increasingly undemocratic, giving us such recent phenomena as
the transfer of NBC, along with RCA and all their licenses, to
General Electric. Thus, one of our major news sources became the
property of a company selling military equipment, collaborating
in the planning of Star Wars, and marketing nuclear plants at
home and abroad. Every NBC newsman went onto a payroll controlled
by GE, and was kept aware of it. From a standpoint of public policy,
it is hard to think of a sorrier linkage.
In 1934, Senator Wagner of New York, who
had similar feelings, proposed a measure by which all existing
licenses would be voided to prepare for a new deal in the spectrum,
in which a fourth of all assignments would go to nonprofits, and
these would be equal in power to commercial stations. This measure
escaped passage by a narrow margin, but the pressure helped to
produce a kind of radio renaissance in the late 1930s. Broadcasters
applying for license renewals were asked to list hours they had
devoted to public services. This period gave us the famous CBS
Workshop series, marked "not for sale" in CBS rate cards,
and offering such works as MacLeish's Fall of the City. The period
also gave us forums like America's Town Meeting of the Air, Edward
R. Murrow's World News Roundups, Orson Welles and his Mercury
Theater on the Air, and works of Norman Corwin, unofficial poet
laureate of the war years-all introduced as nonprofit items. Radio's
approval rating soared during these years.
In 1952, as television began its first
great boom, the idea of reserved channels for education took hold.
Congress legislated the needed channels, but not the necessary
funds. So there was delay as educators tackled the fund-raising
problem. Meanwhile commercial applicants ceaselessly pressured
the FCC to release the channels for commercial use. Broadcasting
magazine, backing them, warned: "One day the FCC must take
another look at the Communications Act in relation to these socialistic
When the FCC ignored this advice, the
magazine predicted that there would soon be a cleanout at the
commission, beginning with a probe by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy
of Wisconsin. The magazine considered the members of the FCC "stooges
to the communists."
But perhaps the most dangerous triumph of advertising is its gradual
takeover of our election procedures, the central process of democracy.
Whenever I visit my native land, the Netherlands, my cousins and
nephews like to ask me how we can endure such an undemocratic
system. Most leading democracies forbid the sale of time for political
appeals. In most, free television time is, by law, allotted to
opposing parties on some statistical basis such as: the size of
a party's membership, or its representation in a legislature,
or votes in a previous election. There is no reason why our broadcasting
systems, enriched from publicly owned channels, should not yield
time for something of such "public" importance ...
TV has no agenda, except to be profitable. Toward that end, TV
news is supportive of establishments ...
TV news doesn't serve the public interest. Corporate ownership
of the networks and local stations is destroying the integrity
of news ... The real crisis in television news today is about
corporate control and the emerging corporate culture.
In a TV universe where every rating point represents close to
a million dollars in advertising revenue every day, competition
is intense. With network viewership declining precipitously-and
that includes the evening news-survival depends on hanging onto
viewers. That desperate objective produces ratings-driven news,
designed to soothe and please more than to inform and challenge.
What is the purpose of news in America today? To enlighten? ...
No. The purpose of news is to make money, to generate corporate
In 1987, Laurence Tisch fired hundreds of employees. A lot of
good journalists got their walking papers. Over two hundred were
executed in one bloodletting alone. The other networks made similar
moves, though with fewer casualties and less attention.
News was now to be packaged in London
or Tokyo, with footage fed in and edited in those cities, far
from many of the stories. Reporters who were not even at the scene
now write the scripts. Eyes and ears on the ground, Murrow on
the rooftops of London during the blitzkrieg was the great reportorial
tradition at CBS. No more. The networks reported Bosnia from London
for a long time, when they reported it at all.
Martha Teichner reported Bosnia from London,
it seemed, forever. I know Martha. She would have been on a plane
to the region in a flash if CBS had been willing to pay for the
ticket. Eventually, when the body count got high enough in Bosnia,
the networks did go in for firsthand reporting.
When ABC News doesn't bother reporting
a story from the story, it's obvious. A viewer just has to listen
to the sign off. It will say, "So-and-so, ABC News."
Period. There is no dateline offered, no city. That invariably
means the reporter is in New York. It's not always obvious. News
consumers have to watch carefully and think, if it matters to
them at all.
At CBS, some of us in the newsroom began
to joke that we had studied at the Columbia Graduate School of
Packaging. That is what we were doing. Packaging.
You are citizens and news consumers, and you need that nightly
portrait of reality. You are in charge of your lives and have
to act in national elections in alternating Novembers, more frequently
at the local level.
Here's your problem: television news doesn't
like Washington. Doesn't like stories about government. They are
presumed boring. Van Sauter hated Washington. He demagogued and
railed against it the way his idol, Ronald Reagan, did. In the
old days, there probably had been too great a reliance on the
nation's capital, too many stories about Congressional hearings.
Now we couldn't get anything from D.C. on the air.
And TV really doesn't like presidential
or any other form of politics. Management wisdom says they are
all a turnoff. Literally. Choosing the president of the United
States is arguably the most ~ important story in the world. It
matters. Can you imagine news executives pressuring the evening
news to go easy on presidential politics? I saw it happen at CBS
News. My friends at other networks went through the same thing.
My demise at CBS News came after Dan Rather's
celebrated interview with then Vice President George Bush on the
facts about the Iran-Contra escapade. What had Bush known? The
interview disintegrated into a shouting match between Rather and
the vice president, who claimed we had misled him about the subject
of the interview.
We hadn't. I set up and choreographed
the video battle. Whatever one thought about Bush or what we did,
CBS, Inc., was furious with us. Station managers were complaining
loudly to the network. They said we had made viewers angry at
CBS, and they feared TV watchers would tune CBS out. That would
be death by the dial.
The corporation didn't care about the
journalism involved. They only cared that station managers and,
ostensibly, viewers were not happy. Vice President Bush had been
Iying when he claimed to be "out of the loop" on Iran-Contra.
But the televised confrontation was simply bad for business. CBS
News was kind enough to allow me to leave by the door.
When TV does grudgingly tackle politics
and elections, television news usually takes the path of pleasing
viewers, or displeasing them least. TV portrays campaigns as horse
races, reducing important elections to sporting events. So, it's
who's up, who's down. And let's do our own poll, manufacture our
The civic problem with polls as news,
of course, is that these public opinion samplings are but a snapshot
of the moment, and are likely to change mercurially. Perceptions
about specific candidates as winners or losers, however, are set
in cement in the public mind too early in the process.
News organizations' polls are frequently
self-promotional and have little use as news, especially months,
even weeks, before the voting, and they can provide self-fulfilling
prophecies. Whose interest does that serve? The real issues are
invariably important but stay on some tiny back burner. News executives
think issues are boring.
So, if you are wondering why presidential
elections are shallow and seem hardly worth following, you should
decide who is at fault. Point your finger at the politicians,
then step back and point it directly at the television cameras.
Campaigns are run for those cameras. From
candidate schedules to soundbites, the whole operation revolves
around TV. TV's deadlines and its hunger for pictures are what
campaigns are all about. It's too easy to simply blame the candidates
for the low common denominator of politics.
It's not just politics that suffers from
inadequate coverage. TV doesn't deal with international stories
very well. Television news does not have a strong commitment to
foreign news. It's a turnoff. Who should pop up with that message
last autumn but Andy Rooney. Rooney said on 60 Minutes that network
news is not doing its job. Rooney cited the shortage of foreign
news as evidence.
So, here we are in this electronic era,
with diminished personnel and news gathering capabilities and
definite ideas about diluting content. Producers are forced to
second-guess what kind of news, what sorts of stories will hold
an audience. Our jobs depend on it. We are caught between standing
for something and surviving.
CNN holds about five hundred thousand viewers at any given moment
on a good day.
News is supposed to tell people what they need to know, not just
show them what they want to see... They can spend their money
and go to the movies for that.
The press used to frequently lead the political community in raising
questions and doubts. We wanted to bask in the glow of patriotism,
and we quickly got on board. We had alienated the citizenry with
tough reports from Vietnam through Grenada, and then Panama. Now
we were not going to make that mistake again. It's bad for business.
Broadcast news cheered our boys on. We
ignored suggestions by military analysts that Iraqi soldiers had
actually turned their backs to the Saudi border and were digging
in defensively. No. This would be like WW2. We got behind it.
WCBS all-news radio organized a letter-writing campaign to keep
morale high over there. NBC News began showing grinning U.S. soldiers
at their stations, waving to the cameras. They'd yell out their
names and where they were from. Sometimes they threw in a positive,
patriotic comment. These became NBC's news bumpers. Bumpers are
the pictures or graphics leading into commercials.
This is not journalism. It's jingoism,
market-driven and thoughtless. It's just that pleasing viewers
comes first; profits come before citizen responsibility. Don't
tell me ownership, with its pressure for those profits, is not
the cutting issue with news.
Dissent leading up to the Gulf War was
absent and overdue. Democrats on Capitol Hill, already a timid
lot, remained silent. By the time the loyal opposition turned
off their TVs and wandered outdoors, wondering aloud what the
hell we were doing, bombs were falling on Baghdad.
Many argue that little was accomplished
in that war. The Clinton administration is fighting the same beast
that Bush fought before. We propped up Kuwait, a feudal fiefdom,
but Sadam remained in power and continues to work his magic, especially
on the Kurds.
I argue the press is partly to blame for
the whole mess. Where 1 were we when the tough questions needed
to be asked? Busy demonizing the demon Sadam. We, the press, were
The question becomes: What, if anything, can be done? I have my
doubts that anything will be done to improve television news,
but something could be done. Consider two words, which represent
two different approaches: Reregulation-recasting the Reagan tide
as low tide; and AntiTrust-convincing the Justice Department and
Federal Communications Commission to represent people, not industries.
That, probably, can be said of most of government. Remember that
quaint notion, to serve the public interest?
Broadcasting was deregulated by President
Reagan on the assumption that responsible corporate behavior is
good for business. Right. For decades, government had told broadcasting,
you are the "guardians of the public airwaves." You
have a public obligation. The Fairness Doctrine, though somewhat
flawed, required broadcast licensees to deal with "controversial
issues of public importance."
License renewal procedures were taken
seriously by the FCC. News prospered and Americans may have had
half an idea what was going on. Then President Reagan said, just
kidding, to broadcasting. These are your airwaves. Go where the
marketplace takes you.
The federal government could reregulate
TV and put a gun to the bastards' heads. Broadcast executives
need to relearn the concept of public responsibility. It has been
There is the antitrust action that is
long overdue, not to mention monopoly and anticompetitive practices
prohibitions which are not enforced and have not been enforced
for decades. Too few interests own too many VHF licenses. Twenty-five
years ago, no single company, and that means no network, could
own more than five stations. Now, there is no limit, and according
to the August 19, 1996, New York Times, TV stations are hotter
properties than ever. According to the Times, those acquiring
the most stations now are corporations with the largest stake
in television already.
One objective that is written into communications
law is "a robust marketplace." That is what the Fairness
Doctrine was intended to create. Another way of saying that, as
the June 3, 1996 issue of The Nation, devoted to media monopolies
points out, is the ideal of pluralism. If pluralism is to be an
objective in broadcasting, there can't be five companies owning
most of the airwaves.
American news consumers, just another way of saying citizens,
are qualitatively under informed. Available political solutions
to this problem would involve crossing swords with some of the
wealthiest, most powerful corporate forces in America. President
Clinton and Republican leaders)receive huge campaign contributions
from the PACs of corporate America. There is no political incentive
for them to rock the boat by challenging the status quo.
In cynical moments, one could believe
the political establishment has a stake in keeping the citizenry
uninformed. That allows the political class freedom and keeps
the citizenry down on the farm.
So, what are we going to do? Ralph Nader
taught all of us the power of consumer movements when he and his
disciples forced corporate responsibility on the giant U.S. auto
industry. Everyone in America is a news consumer and, remember,
everyone's a critic. We can insist on better and vote with the
dial on our TVs.
There ought to be a well-organized, nonpartisan,
indeed, apolitical movement to force quality back into news. I
doubt that's going to happen. Americans seem to have little enough
consciousness of corporate control of their entire lives and no
concerns about news.
We live in the shadow of that corporate
monolith extending ever upward into the sky. Corporations have
been called private governments, and they are becoming the state.
The financial power of companies explodes around us. The small
issue of news quality is probably not even on the corporate radar
screen. Conglomerates only grow greedier and fatter for their
... the public interest in communication is served by the permitting
and encouraging of spaces and behaviors that promote public interaction
and expression, autonomous from industry and government.
Media's Threat to Democracy