The Media Big Six
by Norman Solomon
Z magazine, June 2000
The push by federal regulators to break up Microsoft is big
news. Until recently, the software giant seemed untouchable-and
few people demanded effective anti-trust efforts against monopoly
power in the software industry. These days, a similar lack of
vision is routine in looking at the media business.
Today, just six corporations have a forceful grip on America's
mass media. When The Media Monopoly first appeared on bookshelves
in 1983, author Ben Bagdikian explains, "50 corporations
dominated most of every mass medium." With each new edition,
that number kept dropping-to 29 media firms in 1987, 23 in 1990,
14 in 1992, and 10 in 1997.
Published this spring, the sixth edition of The Media Monopoly
documents that just a half-dozen corporations are now supplying
most of the nation's media fare. Bagdikian, a longtime journalist,
continues to sound the alarm. "It is the overwhelming collective
power of these firms, with their corporate interlocks and unified
cultural and political values, that raises troubling questions
about the individual's role in the American democracy."
What are the chances that Bagdikian-or anyone else-will be
invited onto major TV broadcast networks to discuss the need for
vigorous antitrust enforcement against the biggest media conglomerates?
* CBS: Not a good bet, especially since its merger with Viacom
(one of the Big Six) was announced last fall.
* NBC: Quite unlikely. General Electric, a Big Six firm, has
owned NBC since 1986.
* ABC: Forget it. This network became the property of the
Disney Co. five years ago. Disney is now the country's second-largest
* Fox: The Fox network is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.,
currently number four in the media oligarchy.
Then there's always cable television, with several networks
devoted to news:
* CNN: The world's biggest media conglomerate, Time Warner,
owns CNN-where antitrust talk about undue concentration of media
power is about as welcome as the Internationale sung at a baseball
game in Miami.
* CNBC: Sixth-ranked General Electric owns this cable channel.
* MSNBC: Spawned as a joint venture of GE and Microsoft, the
MSNBC network would see activism against media monopoly as double
* Fox News Channel: The Fox cable programming rarely wanders
far from the self-interest of News Corp. tycoon Murdoch.
Since all of those major TV news sources are owned by one
of the Big Six, the chances are mighty slim that you'll be able
to catch a discussion of media antitrust issues on national television.
Meanwhile, the only Big Sixer that doesn't possess a key U.S.
television outlet-the Bertelsmann firm based in Germany-is the
most powerful company in the book industry. It owns the mammoth
publisher Random House, and plenty more in the media universe.
Bertelsmann "is the world's third largest conglomerate,"
Bagdikian reports, "with substantial ownership of magazines,
newspapers, music, television, on-line trading, films, and radio
in 53 countries." Try pitching a book proposal to a Random
House editor about the dangers of global media consolidation.
Well, you might comfort yourself by thinking about cyberspace.
Think again. The dominant Internet service provider, America Online,
is combining with already-number-one Time Warner- and the new
firm AOL Time Warner would have more to lose than any other corporation
if a movement grew to demand antitrust action against media conglomerates.
Amid rampant overall commercialization of the most heavily
trafficked websites, AOL steers its 22 million subscribers in
many directions-and, in the future, Time Warner's offerings will
be most frequently highlighted. While seeming to be gateways to
a vast cybergalaxy, AOL's favorite links will remain overwhelmingly
corporate friendly within a virtual cul-de-sac.
Hype about the new media seems boundless, while insatiable
old hungers for maximum profits fill countless screens. Centralization
is the order of the media day. As Bagdikian points out: "The
power and influence of the dominant companies are understated
by counting them as 'six.' They are intertwined: they own stock
in each other, they cooperate in joint media ventures, and among
themselves they divide profits from some of the most widely viewed
programs on television, cable and movies. "
We may not like the nation's gigantic media firms, but right
now they don't care much what we think. A strong antitrust movement
aimed at the Big Six could change such indifference in a hurry.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book
is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.
Propaganda and Media Control