from the book
The Media Monopoly
by Ben H. Bagdikian
published by Beacon Press, 1997
As the world prepares to deal with the twenty-first century,
United States society as a whole and the country's mass media
find themselves in the same conflict-between what is good for
business and what is good for the quality of life in society.
A robust economy and social equity have always been intertwined,
and government played an intricate role in the relationship. But
in the United States during the decades leading to the millennium,
both national politics and most of the country's commercial media
have created the notion that social and economic well-being are
in a state of conflict.
America's major media are crucial parties to the creation
of this artificial conflict. The media do not speak in total unison.
Some occasionally present arguments and proposals for a more balanced
view. But all are wedded to the ultimate need to satisfy the major
source of their income, corporate advertising.
Consequently, corporate decision making is the most powerful
single force in socializing and politicizing the American public.
Leading corporations own the leading news media and their advertisers
subsidize most of the rest. They decide what news and entertainment
will be made available to the country; they have direct influence
on the country's laws by making the majority of the massive campaign
contributions that go to favored politicians; their lobbyists
are permanent fixtures in legislatures.
This inevitably raises suspicions of overt conspiracy. But
there is none. Instead, there is something more insidious: a system
of shared values within contemporary American corporate culture
and corporations' power to extend that culture to the American
people, inappropriate as it may be.
It is no exaggeration to call the artificial conflict between
the need for social equity and a healthy economy, on the one hand,
and the corporate world's consistent attack on taxes, on the other,
a crisis in American democracy. Taxes are indispensable to support
the public institutions that are crucial to social equity, and
the corporate world's powerful opposition to such taxes lies at
the center of this crisis.
On the national social scene, for example, there is an urgent
need for increased funding for public education, including libraries
and all the supportive activities on which real education depends.
Schools need limits to class size, proper teaching of the arts,
and adequate pay for teachers. For a rich country that has the
lowest taxes among the industrialized nations but is forever telling
its youth that education is the key to success, that is both hypocrisy
and a self-imposed crisis.
There is a desperate need for universal decent housing and
neighborhoods. Inhabitants of deprived areas suffer high unemployment,
and wretched neglect of the governmental services that are required
even more than in affluent neighborhoods. Too many of the residents
are devastated by drugs and crime. The central solutions to these
problems are clear: good education, meaningful employment, and
proper housing. But those demonstrated remedies are sidetracked
by a national program to build more prisons. That is a crisis.
There is a similarly urgent need for universal health care.
The United States is the only developed country in the world without
it. A high proportion of the population-has no regular access
to doctors or clinics. The result is an enormous number of unhealthy
citizens, near-epidemic illnesses and malnourishment in the country's
poorest regions, and higher costs when some turn in desperation
to overburdened emergency rooms. That is a crisis.
Cities are smothering in air pollution, traffic jams, lavish
use of fuel resources and a measurable loss of both work and home
time because the auto and highway lobbies have successfully defeated
support for adequate urban mass transit. Among affluent urban
nations the United States is close to the bottom in readily available
mass transit. That is a crisis.
Congress once passed a law guaranteeing full employment, but
never did much about it. The human, social, and economic damage
caused by high levels of unemployment and jobs at poverty-level
wages is not a mystery. It is preventable. Yet the country skill
tolerates shameful rates of unemployment during long periods,
and endemic underemployment most of the time. At the same time,
the compensation of America's top corporate executives is the
highest in the world, and the income gap between executives and
their employees is the widest in the world. The corporate sector
speaks constantly about the need for U.S. workers to increase
productivity, but most citizens are not aware that American workers
are already the most productive among industrial countries. Unlike
their workers, the high compensation of executives has been proven
to have no relationship to the executives' productivity for their
corporations, as measured by the standard criteria of business
itself That is a crisis.
Politicians speak constancy of the importance of parents and
family in raising each generation of young Americans-and they
are correct. But the same politicians refuse to guarantee a living
wage for every worker. When both parents need to work outside
the home but have no access to affordable, reliable day care,
that is a crisis.
Because commercial television is such a powerful socializing
force in the country, it is sometimes a more potent influence
than parents, schools, and religions. It "educates"
each new generation of Americans. Stripped of its public relations
pretensions and constant trumpeting of a few benign programs,
television remains a national school for crime and aggression.
Day and night it demonstrates to children and adults how to kill
and maim other human beings, creates an image of a world of ever-present
evil and danger, and glorifies violence as the conflict resolution
of choice. Alongside this televised curriculum is the teaching
of commercials and testimonials chat without the correct soft
drink, athletic shoes, and clothing, an American child is not
socially acceptable. That is a crisis.
Perhaps most dangerous of all are rising levels of cynicism
about our own democracy. Citizens are justified in their growing
assumption that individual voting means less and less, and chat
corporate money in politicians' pockets counts more. Buying votes
in the Congress and state legislatures is open and lavish. Most
voters are disgusted. An appalling number don't bother to vote.
That is a crisis.
These are not the issues considered compelling news in the
There is no need for our media to become a funereal chorus
of impending doom. A better organizing principle was symbolized
by the social essayist Life Jensen, in a cartoon of a robed and
bearded city prophet carrying a placard reading: "The world
is not coming to an end. We will have to learn to cope."
The propagation of unsupported ideas and the avoidance of
central issues are characteristic of many media. Some of the illusions
they foster also have historical roots. But the chief contemporary
culprit is the one most of the American population depends upon
for news and a sense of priorities in public life-commercial television.
Resistance to genuine reform in commercial television is rooted
in an item of sanctity in corporate life-the seemingly holy creed
of a born-again, uninhibited free-market ideology that emerged
triumphant in the 1980s and l990s. It claims that the profit motive
producing results every three months should be applied to as much
of society as possible. It preaches that the quest for profit
should never be restrained by government. The constant iteration
that the federal government has few legitimate roles beyond defense
has energized efforts to cut tax support for basic social institutions
like public schools, libraries, municipal and other governmental
services, like retraining the unemployed, and assisting the poor
and the elderly.
Sooner or later, the citizens of the country will have to
face the crises and make decisions. Unfortunately, based on past
performance they can expect little help from their most common
source of news and public affairs discussions, commercial television.
Instead, the industry continues to create its artificial world
designed by the advertising of large corporations.
Deeply involved in its pursuit of maximum profit making without
social obligation, commercial broadcasting has worked behind the
scenes with its corporate allies to keep non-commercial television
at a minimum, or to kill it completely.
There are democratic countries that have demonstrated that
business health and social justice need not be at war with each
other and that a healthy tax-supported non-commercial broadcasting
system can operate side by side with a healthy commercial one.
Britain and Germany are examples. But Congress regularly condemns
the idea as "socialism" and a heresy against some sacred
American business theology.
The desire for reform is not limited to a cultural elite.
There is a growing gap between what a majority of citizens have
said they want and what television gives them.
Media industry executives insist that their high profits prove
that they have met their obligation to the public. Commercial
television operators, for example, argue that if American audiences
didn't like what they saw, they could simply shut off their sets.
The majority of the public does not shut off its sets and the
industry continues to make high profits. Therefore, the argument
goes, no matter what surveys of public opinion may show, the public
is voting with their off-on switches.
It is not an argument that can be dismissed out of hand. The
data on audience habits do show massive continued listening and
watching. The majority of the audience continues to have television
sets in operation about seven hours a day. The difference between
what people say they want and what most actually do has the appearance
of a paradox. But it is not.
The level of violence on commercial television, for example,
remains invulnerable to change, yet the data show that nonviolent
programs have 33 percent more viewers than violent ones. A limes
Mirror poll in 1993 showed that 53 percent of Americans want less
violence and 80 percent agreed that TV violence is harmful to
society. Even the majority of local station managers have said
there is excessive violence in the programs networks and syndicators
send them-but the same managers make profits by passing on to
their local viewers the programs that they and their audience
say they do not prefer.
Why the broadcast industry behaves that way is not hard to
explain. The necessity of filling as many as fifty channels with
eighteen to twenty-four hours a day of programming favors easily
duplicated formulas. Though all operators provide the same general
content, imitative programming pays. An increase of one percent
in the number of households watching nationwide can give a program's
network more than $50 million in added profit a year. Total advertising
revenues remain so huge that even losers in the ratings race make
But that does not explain why the audience at home does not
turn off their sets in higher numbers.
The basic answer to the seeming paradox lies in the history
of television's original impact on society. When, by the mid-1950s,
television sets had become a near-universal appliance in the country's
living rooms, they changed more than national entertainment. Television
produced a radical transformation in the way American families
arranged their lives.
Before television, families typically used after-dinner time
to read newspapers, magazines and books, play games, do homework,
listen to the radio, gather around the piano to sing songs, or
socialize with their friends and neighbors. When they could, parents
took the family downtown to a restaurant and a movie.
Compared to the older pattern, mass television was stunningly
fascinating, convenient, and inexpensive. Social and after-dinner
habits changed rapidly. The downtowns of most cities became wastelands
after dark as movie houses and restaurants closed. Their former
customers were able to watch movies and live programs on their
own small screen in the living room without dressing up, leaving
the house, eating dinner in a downtown restaurant, or paying admission
to a theater.
It is worth noting, however, that in those formative years
that produced such a profound alteration of national habits, mass
television was essentially nonviolent. It carried far more pleasant,
unaggressive children's programs; it lacked today's endless staccato
of commercials, and it was almost entirely family oriented.
With that content, the electronic box became a permanent fixture
in the living room and the pattern was established of "free"
home entertainment. It is "free 'that is, if one does not
count the cost of commercials, which is added to the price of
products people buy (about $35 billion a year, or $350 a year
per household). It is free if one disregards the amount of money
spent on the goods television advertises most successfully-non-essential,
marginal goods promoted through short, emotionally-laden messages.
It is free if one ignores the loss of this national spending for
central social needs like education and health care.
Once the national habit of staying home to watch free news
and entertainment was established, a profound national social
pattern was set. But there was an ironic aftermath. As detailed
earlier, television emerged as the most powerful merchandising
tool in human experience. Progressively, more channels have been
added, and with each addition the competition for viewer attention
has increased proportionately.
The frantic competition was compounded by what seemed to be
an innocent, convenient and simple invention. The hand-held, portable
remote-control switch permitted viewers to remain comfortably
seated while changing channels. It increased the pressure on broadcasters
to fix the viewer's immediate attention by physical melodrama
and fast-moving actions. There are golden industry rewards when
viewers stop "to see what happens next."
Growing billions in advertising revenues were at stake in
keeping the audience transfixed by some compelling action. Imminent
murder, flaming car crashes, blazing gunfights, and sexual couplings
became money in the bank, or, more likely, in the quarterly earnings
on which Wall Street determines the success of broadcasters and
Government regulation of commercial broadcasting has become
an important part of the national debate on the role of government
in all of society. Most of the public gets most of its news from
commercial television; it is the most common form of entertainment
for children and adults. The country would benefit from national
news and discussions about the best way to use the airwaves, since
the public owns them.
But the record so far shows that the public cannot trust the
commercial media to raise the issue, let alone tell them the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
In recent years, the protests of parents and educators have
grown louder, asking for change in antisocial programming and
other inappropriate material for children. But they are faced
with new obstacles.
There has been increasing insistence by the corporate world
that the free market dogma must prevail with no governmental interference.
And the broadcast industry has taken to proclaiming its "First
The historic, legal and pragmatic truth is different.
In private, few in the corporate world want total fulfillment
of their public demand to "get the government out of the
way of business." And broadcasting, despite its constant
claim, does not have literal First Amendment rights.
Although the simple idea that business practices should be
left solely up to business firms is a commonly held one, "public
choice in a free market" is not in fact the undiluted goal
of all commerce. Few corporate leaders want to fly in an airplane
that has not been tested and approved by the government. They
do not want their families eating food unprotected from contamination
by toxic chemicals. They don't want their seriously ill children
taking powerful prescription medicines produced under the free
market mantra of "let the buyer beware." Nor would their
corporations accept checks drawn on banks that had never been
subjected to a government audit.
It is beyond argument that the First Amendment in the Bill
of Rights of the U.S. Constitution forbids government from abridgment
of freedom of the press and of expression. And it is beyond argument
that this freedom is crucially important in American democracy.
Under the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional for government
to require anyone to have a license in order to print or write
When it comes to broadcasting, however, neither law nor history
is so simple.
The First Amendment applied to print and speech is close to
absolute on grounds that speaking and writing are open to anyone.
Anyone can publish criticisms of government and the established
press; people and groups (and authors of books like this one)
do so constantly. Owning a press is a big advantage, but with
all its modern complications in both theory and practice, the
First Amendment gives Americans more freedom to speak and publish
than do laws and practice in any other major democracy.
But broadcasters do not have the "First amendment rights"
that forbid government regulation of writing and printing. In
their private and more honest moments, broadcasters know this;
it is the commercial broadcasters themselves who insist on government
regulation and with good reason.
... in early, unregulated radio after World War I, commercial
and amateur operators sent out signals on any frequency they wished.
Some poached on the frequency of popular broadcasters, or sent
out such powerful signals that they interfered with distant transmitters.
The result was a chaos of jamming and static that threatened the
entire enterprise and satisfied no one.
It was the broadcasters themselves who demanded that government
regulate the industry by granting each operator a monopoly on
a particular frequency, and who insisted that-government punish
anyone who intruded into their channel monopoly. As previously
cited, the government has in fact imprisoned and fined citizens
who have broadcast without a government license.
In return for this monopoly protection of their frequencies,
the Congress insisted that the licensed stations must operate
"in the public interest." The government wisely did
not define "public interest," but said that during the
license period a broadcaster should provide ample news and educational
programming, and access to religious and other civic groups. When
time came to renew the station's license, the overall record of
that broadcaster could be reviewed in a process open to public
comment. While public participation in license renewals exists
more on paper than in actual practice, it is there for citizens
who want to pay the costs of exerting their right.
Even-the new Telecommunications Act of 1996, which granted
the telecommunications industry most of what it desired, requires
operation "in the public interest," but broadcasters
have successfully narrowed the meaning of that phrase. ... the
Fairness Doctrine once required broadcasters to devote a reasonable
time to discussion of controversial public issues, and to permit
reasonable opportunities for opposing views to be heard if an
adversarial position was presented. Broadcasters pushed for repeal
of these provisions and, with their special power within government,
Since the 1980s, the federal government has largely ignored
the legal "public interest" requirement and has increasingly
adopted for broadcasting the dogma of the free market, endorsing
whatever pays the most profit.
... the refusal of the major media properly to address central
public concerns has created a crisis in democracy. A public inadequately
informed about the substance of the arguments that affect its
most important social policies has lost the substance of citizenship
rights. If voters do not have easy access to central facts and
ideas concerning public issues, voting becomes meaningless. Increasing
numbers of voters understand this and are becoming cynical. Cynicism
poisons free societies.
That is why when citizens are inundated with frivolous or
minuscule fragments of public debate, there are social consequences
that go beyond "merely business" or "what pays
the quickest cash profit." The most common broadcast news
today is either a litany of crime or happy talk about private
lives of "personalities," in which the media decide
how a "person" becomes a "personality." Or
"discussions" of public issues become insult-slinging
contests by paid gladiators of the air.
One side effect of this vulgarization of national discourse
has been an artificial limitation of choice in the discussion
of what roles broadcasting should have in American society. The
false limitation can be characterized as The Fallacy of the Two-Model
One mode of broadcasting is presented as undiluted government
propaganda if any tax support is involved. In the rhetoric of
commercial broadcasters and their supporters in politics, using
taxes to help finance non-commercial broadcasting is equated with
dictatorial "government propaganda" and "socialism."
The rhetoric offers the examples of broadcasting under Hitler
The alternative model, in the "two-model fallacy:' is
presented as the only one acceptable for the United States. In
this model, broadcasting is totally commercial and therefore automatically
"free and democratic"; there is a minimal place, or
no place at all, for non-commercial broadcasting-which leaves
the field open solely to corporate control.
The reality, of course, is that there are many other free
and democratic models of broadcasting in the world. These exist
in minimal degree even in the United States, and they flourish
in vigorous fashion elsewhere today. In many democracies, tax-supported
broadcasting is not authoritarian, and usually there is a strong
parallel commercial system. There are such systems all over the
world, many of which provide creative, open access to a wide range
of citizens and citizen groups.
In United States congressional and media discussions of how
best to use the new and powerful methods of mass communication,
however, there is almost total silence about existing alternative
systems and continued propagation of the false image of "the
Forgotten except to historians of the media, and sometimes
even by some of them, is the irony that in the 1920s, during the
early years of widespread broadcasting in the United States, the
most common and popular stations were non-commercial ones operated
by municipalities, universities, and state public agencies.
Today, the closest the United States has come to a departure
from the two-model image is the public broadcasting network and
other nonprofit stations. But they live on the knife-edge of unstable
political appropriations and conservative attacks. Most stay alive
by endless efforts to raise their own money from subscribers,
and are forced to run commercials that duplicate those on the
commercial stations. As a result, a real spectrum of non-commercial
radio and television in the United States has remained skeletal.
Non-commercial broadcast operations in this country consist
mostly of National Public Radio, television's Corporation for
Public Broadcasting, the Pacifica radio stations (a small set
of Alternative radio stations), and a variety of stations operating
at low power on tiny budgets, usually by a school or other educational
The objection of conservatives to public broadcasting is ideological.
There is no practical impact on tax rates or the federal budget.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting obtains less than 14 percent
of its money from the federal government, a negligible tiny fraction
of one percent of the federal budget. The rest of its funds comes
from states, municipalities, commercial support, and voluntary
When the conservative Congress of 1994 proposed to kill public
broadcasting by law, politicians were surprised by a poll commissioned
by the Public Broadcasting Service, which found that of those
surveyed-Republicans, Democrats, and Independents - 84 percent
wanted Congress to increase funding for public television or maintain
it at current levels. The response was not limited to people with
high levels of education or "high culture" tastes. The
congressional budget-cutters discovered that the children's television
program "Sesame Street:' for example, is such a beloved American
household presence that parents of every political coloration
rose up in angry protest at the thought of its loss. Other public
programs and documentaries had similar strong support at many
levels of society.
In Britain, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, pressing
the conservative ideological drive for maximum privatization,
made a similar suggestion for the BBC, there, too, public protest
prevented a total turnover to private operators. (Without use
of BBC programs, American television would be even more deficient
in serious drama than it is today.)
The general public in the United States has received little
information either from political debates over broadcasting or
from their major media about differing broadcast models in Canada,
Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany,
Japan, and other developed democracies. None of these foreign
systems is exactly the same, but they all have stable, copious
financing through a variety of plans that provide public access
to civic groups with large memberships, and they are usually operated
by quasi-trusteeships, supported by financing from fixed taxes.
In Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, civic and other
organizations, including 'listener associations:' have guaranteed
access to broadcast time based on the size of their memberships.
Within the United States, major foundations, consumer advocates
like Ralph Nader, and others have suggested alternatives to the
two-model illusion of choice. They have demonstrated, often with
carefully evolved plans, that there are tax-supported alternatives
appropriate to the United States.
The struggling alternative stations (and the illegal pirate
ones) remain lonely voices against the national silence on the
many ways broadcasting could develop if we do not have to limit
ourselves to choosing between broadcasting that is governmental
propaganda and broadcasting as a product designed for maximized
corporate profit making.
In the 1995 and 1996 congressional debates and in most major
media reporting on the future of American telecommunications,
mention of any successful, established, foreign democratic systems
was notably absent. Yet ironically, Japan's Nippon Hoso Kyokai
(NHK), which is one of the world's largest non-commercial broadcasting
systems, is a United States creation.
Today NHK is a leader in broadcast technology (it was the
first to develop high-definition television and direct broadcasting
from satellite), and, with the BBC, it is one of two remaining
public systems financed by license fees charged like taxes to
the public. NHK has multiple channels, with more than 6,000 television
stations (some of neighborhood range); 3,000 of these stations
are general in content and 3,000 are devoted to education. It
operates alongside commercial networks and stations.
NHK was born with a resounding declaration by the American
government on the need for non-commercial broadcasting with tax
support. After the United States defeated imperial Japan in World
War II and reconstituted a new, democratic political system, U.S.
authorities insisted that no modern democracy should be without
a well-financed, nonpolitical and non-commercial public broadcasting
system. But ever since, similar suggestions for the United States
itself have been met with hostility in Congress, in commercial
broadcasting, and in most mainstream American news.
One result is that American commercial television, which started
as inexpensive, nonviolent home entertainment, has become focused
almost entirely on merchandising and on catching viewer attention
with antisocial violence and indiscriminate, gratuitous sex. ...
As the communications medium the public most depends on, television
has become the nation's baby-sitter, chief news source, and ever-present
entertainer. When broadcasters and their corporate sponsors fail
to deal seriously, fairly, and regularly with the country's urgent
issues, in a very real way they are using the nation's own property
to rob its citizens of the knowledge necessary to cope with their
most urgent needs and challenges.
The public needs a constant reminder:
The airwaves do not belong to the broadcasters. They do not
belong to the advertisers. The owners, by law, are the people
of the United States.