Wall Street Ascendant
Every Nook and Cranny: The Dangerous Spread of Commercialized Culture
Profits of War: The Fruits of the Permanent Military-Industrial Complex
Wal-Mart: Rise of the Goliath
Do We Not Bleed? Flower Workers and the Struggle for Justice
Grand Theft: The Conglomeratization of Media and the Degradation of Culture
For 25 years, a handful of large corporations that specialize in every mass medium of any consequence has dominated what the majority of people in the United States see about the world beyond their personal experience. These giant media firms, unlike any in the past, thanks to the hands-off attitude of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) majority, are unhampered by laws and regulation. In the process, they have been major agents of change in the social values and politics of the United States.
They have, in my opinion, damaged our democracy. Given that the majority of Americans say they get their news, commentary and daily entertainment from this handful of conglomerates, the conglomerates fail the needs of democracy every day.
Our modern democracy depends not just on laws and the Constitution, but a vision of the real nature of the United States and its people. It is only humane philosophy that holds together the country’s extraordinary diversity of ethnicity, race, vastly varied geography and a wide range of cultures. There are imperfections within every individual and community. But underneath it, we expect the generality of our population to retain a basic sense of decency and kindness in real life.
We also depend on our voters to approach each election with some knowledge of the variety of ideas and proposals at stake. This variety and richness of issues and ideas were once reflected by competing newspapers whose news and editorial principles covered the entire political spectrum. Every city of any size was exposed to the early Hearst and E. W. Scripps newspapers that were the champions of working people and critics of the rich who exploited workers and used their power to evade taxes. There were middle-of-the-road papers, and a sizeable number of pro-business papers (like the old New York Sun). They were, of course, a mixed bag. Not a few tabloids screamed daily headlines of blood and guts.
With all of that, the major papers represented the needs and demands of the mass of ordinary people and kept badgering politicians who ignored them.
Today, there is no such broad political spectrum and little or no competition among media. There is only a handful of exceptions to the rule of one daily paper per city. On radio and television, Americans see limited ideas and the largest media groups spreading ever-more extreme right-wing politics, and nightly use of violence and sex that tell parents and their children that they live in a cruel country. They have made sex a crude commodity as an inexpensive attention getter. They have made sex, of all things, boring.
Instead of newsboys earlier in the nineteenth century hawking a variety of papers to the people leaving their downtown factories and offices for home, we have cars commuting between suburbs with radio turned to news of traffic and crime. At home, TV is the major home appliance. What it displays day and night is controlled by a handful of giant media conglomerates, heavily tilted to the political right. And all of them have substantial control of every medium — newspapers, magazines, books, radio, television and movies.
The giant conglomerates with this kind of control are Time Warner, the largest media company in the world; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns the Fox networks, a steady source of conservative commentary; Viacom, the old CBS with similarly heavy holdings in all the other important media; Bertelsmann, the German company with masses of U.S. publications, book houses, and partnerships with the other giant media companies; Disney, which has come a long way from concentrating on Mickey Mouse and now, in the pattern of its fellow giants, owns 164 separate media properties from radio and TV stations to magazines and a multitude of other outlets in print and motion picture companies; and General Electric, owner of NBC and its multiple subsidiaries.
One radio firm, ClearChannel, the sponsor of Rush Limbaugh and other exclusively right-wing commentators, owns 2,400 stations, dwarfing all other radio outlets in size and audience.
In their control of most of our newspapers, the great majority of our radio and television, of our most widely distributed books, magazines and motion pictures, these conglomerates have cheapened what once was a civilized mix of programming.
We have large cadres of talented screen writers who periodically complain that they have exciting and touching material that the networks reject in favor of repetitious junk. These writers do it for the money and could quit, as some of them have. But they once got paid for writing original dramas like those of Paddy Chayevsky and other playwrights whose work was heard in earlier days of television.
Programs appealing to the variety of our national tastes and variations in politics are so rare they approach extinction. The choices for the majority of Americans are the prime-time network shows that range from the relatively harmless petty jokes and dating games typified by “Seinfeld” to the unrelieved sex and violence of Murdoch’s Fox network and “reality” shows in which “real people” — that is, non-professional amateurs — are willingly subjected to contests in sexual seduction, deceit and violation of friendships. Most TV drama is an avalanche of violence.
This is not an appeal for broadcasting devoted solely to the nostalgia of “Andy Hardy” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Nor is this an appeal for solely serious classics designed for elite audiences (though surely more of such programs would be good). It is an appeal for a richer variety to meet the range of tastes, regional interests, ethnic documentaries and dramas for the millions of Americans who embrace memories of “the old country,” as well as other appeals, like of soap operas, popular music and classical music, lectures.
Here and there, at later hours of the evening, there are occasional book-and-author, actors-and-producers interviews, as well as talented performers of the contemporary pop forms. But they are rare gems glimpsed through the masses of stereotyped nightly trash.
A basic root of the problem is two-fold. One is the domination of our broadcasting by a handful of giant media conglomerates whose performance is measured not just by Nielsen or Arbitron ratings, but what these create on the stock market, whose major investors’ standards are, “I don’t care how you do it, but if your program doesn’t raise your stock market prices, your president and CEO will be out of their jobs.”
The other is a Federal Communications Commission which, for the last 30 years, has forgotten its mandated task of making certain that broadcasters serve “the public interest.” Instead, the present majority members believe that, contrary to broadcast law, the free market of maximized profits is what constitutes the standard for what is in “the public interest.”
More than 40 years ago, a Commission member, Newt Minow, electrified the industry and most of the listening and viewing public by describing television programming as a “vast wasteland.” It was a measure of the standards of that day. It is a measure of today’s standard that this would be ignored as the whining of a crank; and defense of today’s far more bleak “wasteland” lets the broadcast industry sneer all the way to the bank.
The media giants argue that they are only giving people what they want. But that lost much of its democratic gloss when the two Democratic minority members of the FCC at the start of the decade held hearings in major cities across the country to hear what citizens felt about current broadcasting. The hearings were packed with people who testified with seriously documented complaints that they are not getting what they want, and that more concentration would only make the problem worse.
Behind these country-wide complaints is the bitter knowledge that, in effect, “The media giants have stolen our property.”
It is Grand Theft.
“Stolen our property” is not just a figure of speech. Communications law established that the American people are the owners of the radio and television frequencies, not the commercial broadcasters.
The theft is not just of the electromagnetic frequencies on which the giants broadcast. The theft is also of the inherent and varied needs and wants of the country’s real families and individuals, citizens in the real country.
That loss tells us that we are in danger of losing some part of what we call “America.”
Ben Bagdikian is the author of The New Media Monopoly and other books on the media.