and the Homogeneity of the Media Elite

by Peter Phillips with research assistance from Bob Klose, Nicola Mazumdar, and Alix Jestron

excerpted from

1998 Censored News Stories

Project Censored


Images of the zealous censor or "public relations official" imply that censorship is an intentional act. However, contemporary analysis tends to stress that the structure of media organizations themselves are creating latent forms of censorship that can be just as damaging as intentional censorship.

The operation of latent censorship is analyzed in Manufacturing Consent (1988; and updated in Hennan, 1996). The authors Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky claim that because media is firmly imbedded in the market system, it reflects the class values and concerns of its owners and advertisers. They hold that the media maintains a corporate class bias though five systemic filters: concentrated private ownership; a strict bottom-line profit orientation; over-reliance on governmental and corporate sources for news; a primary tendency to avoid offending the powerful; and an almost religious worship of the market economy, devaluing alternative beliefs. These filters limit what will become news in society and set parameters on acceptable coverage of daily events.

The danger of these filters is that they produce subtle and indirect forms of censorship which are all the more difficult to combat. Owners and managers share class identity with the powerful and are motivated economically to please advertisers and viewers. Their conceptions of what is "newsworthy" are influenced by their social background, and their values seem, to themselves, only "common sense." Journalists and editors are not immune to the influence of owners and managers. Journalists want to see their stories approved for print or broadcast, and editors come to know the limits of their freedom to diverge from the "common sense" world view of owners and managers. The self-discipline which this structure induces in journalists and editors filters down as "common sense" to these employees as well. Self-discipline becomes self-censorship. Independence is restricted. And the filtering process is hidden and often denied, or rationalized away.

Media news organizations like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Time Warner are massive bureaucratic organizations that function like all other bureaucracies. Survival into perpetuity and ever-increasing profits are logical and necessary measures of their success. Corporations have evolved to work in exactly this way. Policies towards these ends are set through privately-owned hierarchical command structures whose number-one consideration is the bottom-line success of the corporation.

Management theorists use the term "corporate culture" to distinguish the internalization of "common sense" understandings that operate within the corporate environment. Employees who continually clash with the corporate culture are gradually weeded out.

In large media organizations, journalists and writers trained in critical thinking, analysis, research, and freedom of information values must become acculturated to the "common sense" understandings of the organizational structure in order to remain employed. Understandings regarding objective reporting, standards of critical inquiry, socio-political perspectives, conflict of interests, and other abstract values are organizationally created and interpreted to new employees as "the way we do things." These organizational values are understood by veteran news workers, and communicated to new employees through both word and action. At times a special mentor arrangement develops between a senior worker and new employee that will accelerate the assimilation of the organizational culture and the positive chances for the new employee's advancement and promotion.

The responsibility for development of a corporate culture lies with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). CEOs are selected by and receive direction from the corporation's board of directors. These directors are elected to the board by stockholders and hold the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the corporation. Consequently, CEOs are generally like-minded individuals similar to the corporate board of directors. CEOs, in turn, hire executives, who in turn hire staff who reflect the values and profit orientation of the CEO and board. That this happens is neither surprising nor unusual in the corporate world of international capitalism.

What has been surprising and unusual is how rapidly so many large media corporations have embarked on a massive merging and buy-out process that is realigning our information systems into global corporate structures (Bagdikian, 1997; Herman & McChesney, 1997). Again, there is nothing illogical about this process. Monetary capital seeks the most profitable return on investment, and media/information technology properties are seen as the future growth market of the world.

What changes within media organizations with conglomeration is that traditional core values having to do with freedom of information and a belief in the responsibility of keeping the public informed on critical issues give way to the "common sense" values of bottom-line oriented CEOs and boards of directors. Freedom of information is a value as long as it sells advertising and attracts viewers, readers, and listeners. But information or news that discourages advertising, offends or challenges the audience, or is contrary to the interests and values of the CEO/Executive Board is not deemed valuable information within the logical fiscal orientation of the organization.

Corporate fiscal concerns are changing our media systems. For example, in 1997, the new CEO of the Los Angeles Times found it necessary to assign a business manager to each section of the newspaper in order to insure that a proper profit-oriented product was developed and to help maintain a corporate climate that reflected the management desires of the board of directors.

Even the Columbia Journalism Review, a leading publication monitoring journalism, has, under the leadership of former Fortune editor Marshall Loeb, been steering itself towards "gossip and celebrity" in order to increase sales (Cohen, 1997). Similarly, book reviews that appear in The New York Times are now linked to a Barnes and Noble Web site so that if a book is sold, The Times gets a percentage of the sale (Stone, 1997).

With the changing structure of media organizations, an important focus for study of global media systems will be the values and biases of the boards of directors, and their corporate interests, connections, and understandings. Simply allowing the logic of private profit-taking to determine the outcome of access to information in our society puts democracy and freedom dangerously at risk. If the corporate media elite are to be the ultimate decision makers, policy formers, and corporate-culture determiners, then we must focus our research attention on them to determine the implications of their burgeoning power for democracy and freedom of information in the world.


Collectively ... 11 major broadcast and print media corporations represent a major portion of the news information systems, providing multiple links to most every household in the United States. For many people, this means that their entire source of news and information comes through the filters of these 11 corporations.

An analysis of the interconnectedness of the top 11 media organizations in the United States shows that they have 36 direct links ... creating a solid network of overlapping interests and affiliations. The 11 media corporations collectively have directorships interlocking with 144 of the Fortune 1,000 corporations. All 11 media corporations have direct links with at least two of the other top media organizations. General Electric, owner of NBC, has the highest rate of shared affiliations with 17 direct links to 9 of the 11 corporations. Time Warner Inc. came in second with ten links to seven of the other media corporations.

What becomes clear ... is the top media corporations in America are directly linked to 14 percent of the Fortune 1,000 corporations. Additionally, they receive advertising money from a significant portion of the other Fortune 1,000. Given this networking system, it is safe to say that the media in the United States effectively represents the interests of corporate America, and that the media elite are the watchdogs of what constitutes acceptable ideological messages, the parameters of news and information content, and the general use of media resources.

Do the media elite directly censor the news? Without being privy to insider conversations, it is difficult to prove direct censorship by management of particular stories in the news. But clearly there is a widespread tendency among media corporations to comply with the general corporate culture, and this culture is shored up by career-minded employees with "common sense" understandings. This combination tends to achieve what direct censorship cannot, that is a general compliance with the attitudes, wishes, and expectations of the media elite and, in turn, corporate America.

Project Censored