America’s Media Oligarch

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Ever since the framers of the constitution established the American government in 1789, it was understood by the first amendment that all Americans would have the right to access a free press. However, after recent deregulatory trends in governmental policy, major media conglomerates were given free rise to establish a system of media, which is not free but in actuality an oligopoly. Control over our vast and global media is now in the hands of a few select media conglomerates. Among these corporations are General Electric, Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom, and The Walt Disney Company (corporations.org). This centralization of media control has made it possible for these companies to heavily influence national discussion, culture, and public policy to further their monetary agenda. This growing trend in the organization of American media works against the public good in that the combined corporate drive to compete for ratings by amalgamating news and entertainment inherently misinforms and makes ignorant Americans of the events that affect our world.

Many would say there are three main categories of press in the world: state controlled press, partly free press, and a total free press. The best example of a state controlled press would be North Korea. Freedom House, which is basically an organization that monitors oppression throughout the world, describes the North Korean media as “the most repressive media environment in the world in 2008. The one-party regime owns all media, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of North Koreans to access information.” In this society all form of communication or expression is closely monitored or generated by the government. In fact the government oppression of the media is so inherent in North Korean society that in Diane Sawyer’s North Korea: Inside the Shadows, she asks North Korean school children about their favorite movies, and they all literally thought Kim Jong Ill made Toy Story.

Freedom House categorizes Bosnia as an example of a partly free state. A free press is part of their constitution and Internet access is unrestricted. However, there is a long history in the country of journalists being harassed, sometimes by government officials. “The number of threats and physical attacks against journalists increased substantially in 2008. In one incident, a member of parliament assaulted three journalists while attempting to bar them from covering an April press conference by his Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina (freedomhouse.org).” A partly free press is basically a government that claims to have freedom of speech but the second a journalist goes to far, the government will take under the radar measures in an attempt to prevent a story from getting out.

In United States, the Bill of Rights establishes an independent and free acting press for the benefit of the people. However, how can the press truly be independent and free when most of everything the citizenry watches, reads, listens too, or downloads is filtered through a very select few corporations? Take General Electric for instance. General Electric actually owns NBC, The History Channel, A & E, The Biography Channel, The Crime and Investigation Network, Bravo, USA Network, SyFy, Oxygen, Universal Studios, Telemundo, Sundance, Hallmark, Hulu, The Weather Channel as well as a whole slew of local television news programs and radio stations (ge.com). Time Warner owns CNN, HBO, Cinemax, Cartoon Network, TNT, TBS, TCM, TruTV, as well as many local news networks (timewarner.com) Viacom takes MTV, Vh1, Spike, Comedy Central, TV Land, Noggin, Nickelodeon, BET, Logo and The N to name a few (viacom.com). Walt Disney Company can boast ABC, ESPN, Lifetime, Jetix and most recently Marvel (corporate.disney.go.com). News Corporation own 20th Century Fox, 27 local news channels, Fox News, Fox, Fuel TV, FX, National Geographic, Speed, Stats, as well as 30 newspapers including the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones (newscorp.com). Clear Channel is the most extensive radio conglomerate in the US, owning a massive 1,100 radio stations (Campbell 137-38). In 1992, roughly twenty-four companies controlled 90% of the mass media in the United States, by 2000 that number has slumped to around 6 (Bagdikian).

Source: Understanding Media Professor Kumar

What all this means is that American media is essentially run by an oligopoly. An oligopoly is defined as “a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers” (Oxford). However it wasn’t always this way. Only since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, did media companies truly began to consolidate their power. Before the act, the Federal Communications Commissions, the governmental program that is required to regulate communications, capped the number of broadcast stations one media company could own to “seven AM, seven FM, and seven TV stations nationally, and only one radio station per market (Campbell 137-38).” After the Clinton Administration passed the 1996 Act, the media oligopoly the United States lives under was finally able to firmly establish and engrain itself into the inner workings of society. There were now no restrictions on how many radio or television stations a corporation could own (Campbell). One of the many consequences of this Act is the rise of Clear Channel Communications, the corporation that is now the largest radio conglomerate in the history of man. Clear Channel began in 1972 as the modest owner of a San Antonio station. But from the time the Telecommunications Act was passed to present day, Clear Channel managed to accumulate over 1,100 radio stations (Campbell 137-38). Currently, second to Clear Channel is CBS Radio, which only own a mere 140 stations (Campbell 137-38). As a result, during the years 1995 to 2005 the number of independently owned radio stations declined by 33% (Campbell 137-38).

Like most institutions in the United States, the American news media is driven solely by profit motive, thus forgoing the obligation to report credible, balanced news that serves the best interest of the public. Instead they are heavily more focused on their ratings, thus instead of bringing factual, and worthy information into the living rooms of millions of Americans every night, they are broadcasting a plethora of celebrity gossip, political theatre, and as Jon Stewart would say, “partisan hackery.” An inevitable result of this, is crucial disinformation or out right lies being broadcasted as truth throughout the nation. A great example of this is when CNN news anchor Lou Dobbs repeatedly made claims that Obama has not produced significant proof of his American birth, even after the fact that a birth certificate was posted online (mediamatters.org). FactCheck.org investigated and concluded that the birth certificate met:

[“all of the requirements from the State Department for proving U.S. citizenship. Claims that the document lacks a raised seal or a signature are false. We have posted high-resolution photographs of the document as “supporting documents” to this article. Our conclusion: Obama was born in the U.S.A. just as he has always said (factcheck.org).”]

Yet Lou Dobbs and other conservative media pundits still continued to deny Obama’s citizenship, even after the fact that it has been proven. A poll done by Research 2000 for Daily Kos concluded that 33% of Americans don’t believe or are not sure if Obama is actually an American citizen (politico.com). This belief was perpetuated by mainstream American media as possible fact.

Now picture an outdoor town hall. A lonely old senator nervously faces an absurdly angry crowd of middle-aged, white republicans who were most likely sent their by local conservative talk radio hosts to disrupt the senator carrying out his educational mission. The crowd shouts catch phrases like, “Obama is a socialist” or “we are afraid of Obama!”

Finally the Senator gets an opening. “Why are you afraid of Obama?” he asks the crowd.

One answer can be heard, “JUST WATCH GLENN BECK! (The Daily Show).”  In fact, the Fox News anchor has a segment on his show called “The Road to Socialism” where he has repeatedly made statements geared towards convincing America that Obama is determined to lead the United States on a path towards a socialist state. Statements such as “Every policy he (Obama) happens to support just, dumb, stupid luck, brings us toward socialism (glennbeck.com),” is made regularly by Glenn Beck on his news program. This would all be fine genuine reporting if Obama actually was a socialist, however real socialist Bill Wharton said this about Obama, “The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat — one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies (washingtonpost.com).”

Now it is apparent that two major rival news agencies, CNN and Fox News, have both been exposed using news programs as a pulpit to engage in serious disinformation regarding our nation’s highest officials. The falsities that are being broadcast could potentially derail crucial policy or even national elections. Lou Dobbs insinuating that The President is not an American citizen and Glenn Beck reporting that he is a socialist, under normal capitalistic competitive circumstances it would make sense that rival companies would attempt to expose the other, thus proving to be more credible and demonstrating to the American consumer that they have a better service, one that will expose untruths and report facts like the news is supposed to do. However this doesn’t happen because major news networks have come to accept their oligopical sharing of the market. They have all simultaneously realized that they attract more viewers broadcasting half-truths and lies in a successful attempt to pander to the largest demographic of their audience rather than conduct any credible investigative journalism. It is in this way that the profit motives that drive major media conglomerates work completely against the public good and only serve to manipulate the masses into the continual watching of their distorted programs.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a new revelation in the way news networks are behaving. In 1995 the New York Times reported that, “For the past decade and a half, journalism has been slowly squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner of the expanding corporations that make up the communications industry. The values and norms of journalism have been steadily eroded as corporate managers order news divisions to produce more “infotainment” programs (nytimes.com).” In fact as early as 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson realized that one of the best ways he can serve to educate and inform the public was to have the government establish an independent nonprofit organization that does just that. And so the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 was passed, thus creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which today also funds National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service (cpb.org).

Upon signing the act into law President Johnson said, “The Corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music, in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity. It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting (cpb.org).” LBJ was right. Since the establishment of NPR and PBS the organizations have received a surfeit of some of the most prestigious awards in journalistic integrity. NPR alone has won 39 Peabody awards (npr.org), and PBS “received a total of 47 (emmy) nominations in 2009 — more nominations than NBC, CBS and all cable networks (pbs.org).” PBS won 6 news and Documentary Emmys, beating all competitors for the ninth consecutive year (pbs.org). Due to the fact that they are nonprofit organizations, NPR and PBS act outside the media oligopoly, and their prestige makes clear that they are far superior when it comes to promoting the general welfare and educating, informing and serving the public good.

It is very dangerous when an industry that is as vital to the general public as news and media fall prey to the control of very few individuals who have no public obligations. When an oligopoly forms, profit motive replaces the drive for public good. This is why the government recognized that a non-profit corporation could be the only suitable back up to ensure that every American has access to credible and reliable programming. Sometimes the knowledge that you have served the good of your country can be just as powerful an incentive as billions of dollars. There is no greater testament to that fact than the many dedicated employees of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting.

Bill Kovach, former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times said in 1995, “This rush to merge mainly entertainment organizations that have news operations with companies deeply involved in doing business with the Government raises ominous questions about the future of watchdog journalism.” The ownership of the news media by few major entertainment organizations has created a climate that defeats the purpose of a free press. It has created a conflict of interest so massive that critical information fails to get reported accurately, if at all. Mainstream news is now about pandering to an audience and keeping them amused and entertained for as long as possible. This conflict of interest forces parent companies to sacrifice the general welfare of the nation for a colossal profit and directly contradicts how the founding fathers envisioned the role a free press would play in America. Despite the stronghold this oligopoly has, Americans can still receive information from nonprofit organizations such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting who have still not lost the sprit of public service and journalistic integrity.

Works Cited

Bagdikian, Ben H. New Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon, 2004. Print.

Beck, Glenn. “March to Socialism – Fuzzy math.” Glenn Beck Program. News Corporation, 23 Mar. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Billy, Wharton. “Obama’s No Socialist. I Should Know.” The Washington Post 15 Mar. 2009. Web.

Brand, Steve, prod. “North Korea: Inside the Shadows.” Primetime Live. ABC. 8 Dec. 2006. Television.

Campbell, Richard, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos. Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Media. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/ST. Martin;s, 2009. Print.

“Freedom of the Press.” Freedomhouse.org. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

General Electric. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

H., E. H. “Dobbs repeatedly makes Obama birth certificate claims his CNN colleagues call “total bull” |.” Media Matters for America. 17 July 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

Henig, Jess .., and Joe Miller. “Born in the U.S.A.” FactCheck.org. Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 21 Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

Johnson, Lyndon B. “CPB: Remarks of President Lyndon B. Johnson Upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.” CPB: Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Kovach, Bill. “Big Deals, With Journalism Thrown In.” The New York Times 3 Aug. 1995. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

“Media Reform Information Center.” Corporate Accountability Project. ActionPA. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

National Public Radio. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

News Corporation. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

“Oligopoly.” New Oxford American Dictionary. Web.

Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

Stewart, Jon. The Daily Show. Comedy Central. New York, New York, 10 Aug. 2009. Television.

Thrush, Glenn. “58 percent of GOP not sure/doubt Obama born in US.” Politico.com. Robert L. Allbritton, 31 July 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

Time Warner. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

Viacom. Web. 11 Nov. 2009.

The Walt Disney Company and Affiliated Companies – Corporate Information. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.

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