The New Communications Cartel
Preface to the Fifth Edition (1997)
of the book
The Media Monopoly
by Ben H. Bagdikian
published by Beacon Press, 1997
In the last 5 years, a small number of the country's largest
industrial corporations has acquired more public communications
power-including ownership of the news-than any private businesses
have ever before possessed in world history.
Nothing in earlier history matches this corporate group's
power to penetrate the social landscape. Using both old and new
technology, by owning each other's shares, engaging in joint ventures
as partners, and other forms of cooperation, this handful of giants
has created what is, in effect, a new communications cartel within
the United States.
At issue is not just a financial statistic, like production
numbers or ordinary industrial products like refrigerators or
clothing. At issue is the possession of power to surround almost
every man, woman, and child in the country with controlled images
and words, to socialize each new generation of Americans, to alter
the political agenda of the country. And with that power comes
the ability to exert influence that in many ways is greater than
that of schools, religion, parents, and even government itself.
Aided by the digital revolution and the acquisition of subsidiaries
that operate at every step in the mass communications process,
from the creation of content to its delivery into the home, the
communications cartel has exercised stunning influence over national
legislation and government agencies, an influence whose scope
and power would have been considered scandalous or illegal twenty
The new communications cartel has been made possible by the
withdrawal of earlier government intervention that once aspired
to protect consumers and move toward the ideal of diversity of
content and ownership in the mass media. Government's passivity
has emboldened the new giants to boast openly of monopoly and
their ability to project news, commercial messages, and graphic
images into the consciousness and subconscious of almost every
Strict control of public information is not new in the world,
but historical dictatorships lacked the late twentieth century's
digital multimedia and distribution technology. As the country
approaches the millennium, the new cartel exercises a more complex
and subtle kind of control.
Because each of the dominant firms has adopted a strategy
of creating its own closed system of control over every step in
the national media process, from creation of content to its delivery,
no content-news, entertainment, or other public messages-will
reach the public unless a handful of corporate decision-makers
decide that it will. Smaller independents have always helped provide
an alternative and still do, but they have become ever more vulnerable
to the power of the supergiants. As the size and financial power
of the new dominant firms have escalated, so has their coercive
power to offer a bothersome smaller competitor a choice of either
selling out at once or slowly facing ruin as the larger firm uses
its greater financial resources to undercut the independent competitor
on price and motion. In the process, consumers have become less
influential than ever.
Perhaps the most troubling power of the new cartel is its
control of the main body of news and public affairs information.
The reporting of news has always been a commercial enterprise
and this has always created conflicts of interest. But the behavior
of the new corporate controllers of public information has produced
a higher level of manipulation of news to pursue the owners' other
financial and political goals. In the process, there has been
a parallel shrinkage of any sense of obligation to serve the non-commercial
information needs of public citizenship.
The idea of government interceding to protect consumers is
contrary to the ideology of most of the media cartel's leaders,
who with few exceptions, pursue the conservative political and
economic notion of an uninhibited free market that operates without
social or moral obligations.
... earlier, it was possible to describe the dominant firms
in each separate medium-daily newspapers, magazines, radio, television,
books, and movies. With each passing year ... the number of controlling
firms in all these media has shrunk: from fifty corporations in
1984 to twenty-six in 1987, followed by twenty-three in l990,
and then, as the borders between the different media began to
blur, to less than twenty in 1993. In 1996 the number of media
corporations with dominant power in society is closer to ten.
In terms of media possessions and resources, the newest dominant
ten are Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation Limited
(Murdoch), Sony, Tele-Communications, Inc., Seagram (TV, movies,
cable, books, music), Westinghouse, Gannett, and General Electric.
The magnitude of the new media cartel's power is reflected
m the simple dollar size of recent transactions that produced
At the time of the first edition of this book, in 1983, the
biggest media merger in history was a $340-million matter, when
the Gannett Company, a newspaper chain, bought Combined Communications
Corporation, an owner of billboards, newspapers, and broadcast
stations. In 1996, when Disney merged with ABC/Cap Cities, it
was a $19-billion deal-fifty-six times larger. This union produced
a conglomerate that is powerful in every major mass medium: newspapers,
magazines, books, radio, broadcast television, cable systems and
programming, movies, recordings, video cassettes, and, through
alliances and joint ventures, growing control of the golden wires
into the American home-telephone and cable.
But the quantity of money involved is the least disturbing
measure of events. More ominous is how this degree of concentrated
control translates into the power to shape the country's political
and economic agendas, to create models of behavior for each generation,
and to achieve ever more aggressive, self-serving access to every
level of government.
A prime exhibit of the cartel's new political power is the
Telecommunications Act of 1996. This act was billed as a transformation
of sixty-two years of federal communications law for the purpose
of "increasing competition." It was, with some exceptions,
largely described as such by most of the major news media. But
its most dramatic immediate result has been to reduce competition
and open the path to cooperation among the giants.
The new law opened the media field to new competitors, like
the large regional telephone companies, on the theory that cable
and telephone companies would compete for customers within the
same community. In practice, the power of one company in television
was enlarged to permit a single firm to reach 35 percent of all
American households. The act made it possible, for the first time,
for a single company to own more than one radio station in the
same market. A single owner was now permitted to own both TV stations
and cable systems in the same market. License periods for broadcasters
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 swept away even the minimal
consumer and diversity protections of the 1934 act that preceded
it. Though this was an intricate bill of 280 pages that would
transform the American media landscape, its preparation and passage
did not meet the standards of study and public participation that
ordinarily would precede an historic transformation of a major
influence on society.
... Of the 1,500 daily newspapers in the country, 99 percent
are the only daily in their cities. Of the 11,800 cable systems,
all but a handful are monopolies in their cities. Of the 11,000
commercial radio stations, six or eight formats (all-talk, all-news,
variations of rock music, rap, adult contemporary, etc.), with
an all but uniform content within each format, dominate programming
in every city. The four commercial television networks and their
local affiliates carry programs of essentially the same type,
with only the meagerly financed public stations offering a genuine
alternative. Thus, most of the media meet the tongue-twisting
argot of Wall Street in J being oligopolies that are collections
of local monopolies. This means few choices for citizens looking
for genuine differences.
Almost all of the media leaders, possibly excepting Ted Turner
of Turner Broadcasting, are political conservatives, a factor
in the drastic shift in the entire spectrum of national politics
to a brand of conservatism once thought of as "extreme."
... most conservatives consider news bias to be any news that
departs from the promotion of conservatism and corporate values.
Domination of corporate values lies behind another profound
imbalance in the news. Almost every metropolitan paper in the
country has a whole section devoted to "Business," which,
with rare exceptions, combines service to financiers and investors
with presentation of corporate leaders as heroes or exciting combatants.
There is no such systematic section for consumers, though most
of the country's readers are not investors but consumers. When
Time Warner and Turner merged, the New York Times devoted a full
page to the story, but not one sentence was devoted to what the
merger might mean to the national audience of viewers and listeners.
"The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," broadcasting's centerpiece
of non-commercial news, also ran a major segment on the merger
with no mention of its probable impact on the audience.
The daily, even hourly, pursuit of corporate and stock market
information by the standard news outlets is in stark contrast
to their faint concern with the finances and economics of the
majority of American families. From 1987 to 1994, the purchasing
power of the minimum wage dropped 35 percent. Only years later
when a political battle erupted over a move to increase the minimum
wage was there any reporting in the standard news that noted the
hardship this represented for the most needful American workers.
If the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 35 percent in
seven years it would have been an ongoing and urgent issue in
newscasts and on page one in newspapers, with insistence that
official action be taken.
Another zone of near silence has led to ominous signs in the
economy and a threat to social peace. In the United States, maldistribution
of income-the growing gap between rich and non-rich-is among the
worst among developed countries. Years of systematic silence on
the matter in the news media has permitted an accumulation of
public distrust, anger, and frustration.
Economist Lester Thurow has said of the widening gap, "Probably
no country has ever had as large a shift in the distribution of
wealth without having gone through a revolution or losing a major
war." But the minimal appearance in the news during the years
when this maldistribution was clearly developing has kept both
its cause and possible solutions largely invisible - and therefore
out of the political arena. As always, the public's lack of good
information during a time of duress has led to finding scapegoats,
and to increasing domestic right-wing terrorism of a sort once
thought limited to the Third World.
In an era of headlines on cutting welfare to the poor, there
has been no counterpoint emphasis on the $86 billion a year in
taxpayers' subsidies (welfare) to American corporations, some
of which help support the relocation of their operations to other
countries, resulting in massive employee layoffs within the United
Commercial television broadcasting's treatment of children
and their needs continues to be a national disgrace. In 1951,
when far fewer television channels existed, there were twenty-seven
hours a week of children's programming. By the l990s, with far
more channels, there were only three or four hours a week on all
The role of children in modern commercial television is that
of targets-targets for commercials that sell snacks, soft drinks,
fashionable clothes, and toys. The idea of the child as future
responsible citizen seems not to exist on commercial TV. That
role seems to be left to public television, whose appropriations
conservatives and commercial interests have done their best to
kill, and which in response has itself become dependent upon corporate
In the reign of the new media cartel, the integrity of much
of the country's professional news has become more ambiguous than
ever. The role of journalists within news companies has always
been an inherent dilemma for reporters and editors. Reporters
are expected by the public and by reportorial standards to act
like independent, fair-minded professionals. But reporters are
also employees of corporations that control their hiring, firing,
and daily management- what stories they will cover and what part
of their coverage will be used or discarded. It is a harsh newsroom
reality that never seems to cause conservative critics to speculate
why their corporate colleagues who own the news and have total
control over both their reporters' careers and the news that gets
into their papers would somehow delight in producing "liberal
The new media conglomerates have exacerbated the traditional
problems of professional news. The cartel includes some industries
that have never before owned important news outlets. Some of the
new owners find it bizarre that anyone would question the propriety
of ordering their employee-journalists to produce news coverage
designed to promote the owner's corporation.
Seeing their journalists as obedient workers on an assembly
line has produced a growing incidence of news corporations
| demanding unethical acts. There are more instances than ever
of management contempt and cruelty toward their journalists.
the daily newspaper business ... remains one of the most profitable
in the country. Profit level of daily newspapers is two to three
times higher than average profits of the Fortune 500 top corporations,
according to John Morton of Morton Research, an authoritative
source on newspaper economics. According to Standard and Poor's
Media Industry Survey, in 1994, not a banner year in the news
industry, the average profit for publicly traded news companies
was 20 percent.
Letting advertisers influence the news is no novelty in less
respected papers, but in the past it was usually done by innuendo,
or quiet editing, reassignment, or firing. It has seldom before
been so boldly stated and practiced in ways that typify the new
contempt that some news companies feel for the professional independence
of their journalists-and for the news audience. The trend typifies
a growing attitude that reporting the news is just another business.
Local alternative news weeklies have always been publications
that monitor their local dailies and broadcast stations and provide
alternative information and opinion. They still do. But even this
field has seen the growth of chains, the franchising of weekly
papers, and the creeping influence of impersonal corporate management.
Only fifteen years ago, it was possible to cite specific corporations
dominant in one communications medium, with only a minority of
those corporations similarly dominant in a second medium. Today,
as noted, the largest media firms have an aggressive strategy
of acquiring dominant positions across every medium of any current
or expected future consequence. Known and admired on Wall Street
as "synergy," the policy calls for one company subsidiary
to be used to complement and promote another. The process has
helped produce a quantum leap in the power of a dominant media
corporation to create and manipulate popular culture and models
of behavior (or misbehavior) - and to use this power for narrow
commercial and political purposes.
In 1987, cancellation of the Fairness Doctrine made another
new antidemocratic phenomenon almost predictable. Talk radio has
become an overwhelming ultraconservative political propaganda
- machine. The most influential propagandist, Rush Limbaugh, has
nineteen million listeners, and there is no right of reply to
his extra- I ordinary record of lies, libels, and damaging fantasies.
Almost from the start, national communications law has been
based on the concept that the public owns the airwaves. For their
part, broadcasters insist on government policing and penalties
to prevent unlicensed operators from willingly or unwillingly
jamming the frequencies of established stations; otherwise there
would be a chaos of static on radio and screens full of "snow"
on television. But federal law also mandates that those who hold
licenses must maintain local studios and operate "in the
public interest ' which, given the local nature of studios, has
meant significant access to the airwaves by community groups.
Holders of broadcast licenses have no right to licenses beyond
their term limits and presumably may renew them only if they have
fulfilled their community obligations.
Despite the law, in recent years both the major media operators
and the Congress have acted as though its "public ownership"
phrases are not there or can be safely ignored. The Congress,
the White House, and the Federal Communications Commission have
steadily relaxed standards to permit the growing exclusion of
community voices on the country's 11,000 local commercial radio
stations, I 1,500 television stations, and 11,800 local cable
There are basic measures to be taken if the public is to regain
\ access to its own media and guarantee choices that have some
relationship to the varying needs and tastes of the population.
Many of these will require mandatory actions: the broadcast industry
has an almost unrelieved history of cynicism and evasion in its
promises of self-reform.
* It is time for a new, nonpartisan, nongovernmental commission
I to study the present and desired future status of the country's
media. In 1947, Henry Luce donated the money for the influential
Commission on Freedom of the Press, headed by Robert Maynard Hutchins.
It dealt with the printed press and gave the country a fresh look
at modern needs of news and public information in a democracy.
It was important following, as it did, the catastrophes of pre-war
dictatorships' controlled media. These were still live memories
at a time when most of American news was still strikingly narrow
We need a modern commission to examine the more complex and
compelling contemporary need-to remind the American public and
the media industry itself of the new power of modern media technology
and is obligations to democratic life. Such a commission must
avoid the flaws of other important study commissions in which
industry influence resulted in a final report that was either
vague generalities or a watery support of the status quo.
* The National News Council that existed from 1973 to 1984
is needed today more than ever. Supported by foundations, the
Council heard serious complaints about specific cases of national
news media performance, studied the known facts with all parties
free to be heard, and issued a report in each case. While none
of is recommendations were mandatory, it provided the public with
a voice and the news media with a forum for the recognition, admitted
or not, of existing weaknesses. But when the foundations, after
having created the Council and proved is feasibility and need,
said it was time for the industry itself to support the idea,
as is done in some other democracies, no major media organizations
came forward to support the effort, and the Council died. It is
worth trying again, now that the public is more aware of problems
in the media than it was twenty years ago.
* The Telecommunications Act of 1996 needs to be replaced
by a new law that can begin to break up the most egregious conglomerates,
reinstate mandatory local community access, and put teeth in the
requirement that stations demonstrate their record of public interest
programming when they apply for renewal of their licenses. License
challenge procedures have to be made more accessible to civic
groups dissatisfied with their local radio and TV broadcast stations.
(Networks are not regulated, but their local affiliates are.)
* Public broadcasting must be financed through a new, nonpolitical
system, as is done for the best systems in other democracies.
Today, non-commercial broadcasting depends on appropriations by
federal and state legislatures that themselves are heavily beholden
to corporate interests. A small surtax on all consumer electronic
equipment-computers, VCRs, TV and radio sets, and the like-is
minuscule at the individual retail level but could provide funding
for a full-fledged multi-channel radio and TV non-commercial system,
and for a substantial national broadcast news and documentary
Ignored for so long that they now sound radical and remote
are earlier proposals for funding public, non-commercial broadcasting.
In 1967, a Carnegie Commission proposed a tax on television sets
to finance non-commercial television. That year the Ford Foundation
financed the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, which paid for an
historic and popular one-hour program every Sunday that awakened
for many Americans the possibilities that commercial broadcasting
* The Federal Communications Commission has succumbed to what
seems to be the natural history of too many consumer protection
agencies, which over time has been to shift from their original
purpose of protecting consumers against unfair or dangerous industry
behavior to an opposite role of protecting industries from their
consumers. The agency needs to be reconstituted to include specified
representatives from nonpartisan groups like the Parent Teachers
Association, as well as presidential appointees. It has been a
generation since 1961 when the new chairman of the FCC, Newton
Minow, startled the convention of the National Association of
Broadcasters with the statement that they operated "a vast
wasteland" and were "squandering the public airwaves,"
and warned, "There's nothing permanent or sacred in a broadcast
* The Fairness Doctrine and equal time provisions desperately
need to be restored. In 1987 broadcasters promised that their
repeal would increase serious public affairs programming. In fact,
that kind of programming has been largely abandoned in favor of
more advertising and violence. The answer to the Rush Limbaughs
is not censorship but a restoration of the public right of timely
reply on the stations and at the times the Limbaughs and others
From the inception of commercially licensed broadcasting in
1927, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote a
reasonable amount of time to discussion of controversial issues
of public importance, and to permit reasonable opportunities for
opposing views to be heard. It included special provisions to
oblige stations to provide reasonable time for response by those
attacked in discussions. Beginning in 1979 and continuing through
the deregulation campaign of President Reagan in the early 1980s,
broadcasters pushed for repeal of these regulations, and for all
practical purposes the broadcasters won. An equal time provision
in essence said that in the forty-five days before an election,
stations must make time available to opposing candidates on roughly
the same basis, whether for paid time or public service campaign
* End auctioning of broadcast frequencies to stations. The
process implies license ownership. The public still owns the airwaves
and frequencies should be granted as in the past-on credible promises
made and kept of public service. Restore local voting on monopoly
cable franchises instead of the present backroom deals. Let the
FCC or its replacement do what basic public ownership of the airwaves
implies-give stations licenses for a limited time, conditional
on their general performance as good citizens in their communities.
Make it routine to notify all citizens of local market broadcast
license renewals-all stations in a state have their renewal come
up in the same year. As that date approaches, existing holders
of licenses asking for renewal should be required to show public
evidence of what they have done in the past.
* The country needs easy, inexpensive licensing of low-power,
city- and neighborhood-range radio and TV stations. Japan has
them and so can the United States. As it is, local communities
and ordinary local businesses have been effectively excluded from
the air by national broadcasters and advertisers.
* Paid political advertising should be banned from American
broadcasting, as it is in most democracies. In the two months
before elections, every station should be required to provide
prime time hours for local and national candidates, with fifteen-minute
minimums for presentations to avoid the slick sound biter without
content that now dominate broadcast election campaigns.
* Teach serious media literacy in the schools, using independently
created curricula. Some already are available and others are being
developed. The average American child will spend more time in
front of a TV set than in front of a teacher. The young are targets
for slick materialism. They need to know how this important element
in their lives operates and how it can be analyzed.
* More citizens need to join and contribute to the various
media reform groups like the Cultural Environment Movement, the
Center for Media Education, FAIR, and the Institute for Alternative
Journalism. There are other groups, but these can lead interested
citizens to specific action and to other action groups.
The domination of private money in public politics, which
has subverted so much public policy, also prevents legal solutions
to problems in the mass media. Most media proprietors show little
or no evidence in their programming of any sense of obligation
to treat the American audience as citizens of a democracy. Campaign
finance reform and media reform are directed at the same societal
sickness- the influence of private money that improperly negates
civic need and public choice. Linked to the same problem, they
have become linked in the ultimate remedy. At stake is the-accountability
of politics and with it the media's socialization of American
children and the nation's culture.