One of the best-kept secrets in this country is the degree to which a handful of huge corporations own and control the flow of information in the United States. Whether it is television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books or the internet, fewer and fewer giant conglomerates are determining what we see, hear and read. And, as a result of radical deregulation efforts by President Bushâ€™s FCC and some horrendous court decisions, the situation is likely to become much worse.
Television is the means by which most Americans get their “news.” Without exception, every major network is owned by a huge conglomerate that has enormous conflicts of interest. Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch, an extreme right-wing Australian who already owns a significant portion of the worldâ€™s media. His network has close ties to the Republican Party, and among his “fair and balanced” commentators is Newt Gingrich.
NBC is owned by General Electric, one of the largest corporations in the world â€“ and one with a long history of anti-union activity. GE, a major contributor to the Republican Party, has substantial financial interests in weapons manufacturing, finance, nuclear power and many other industries. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, was one of the leaders in shutting down American plants and moving them to low-wage countries like China and Mexico.
ABC is owned by the Disney Corporation, which produces many of their toys and products in developing countries where they provide their workers atrocious wages and working conditions. CBS is owned by Viacom, another huge media conglomerate that owns, among other entities, MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon, VH1, TNN, CMT, 39 broadcast television stations, 184 radio stations, Paramount Pictures and Blockbuster, Inc.
The essential problem with television is not just the general right wing bent in the news and programming, or the transformation of politics and government into entertainment and sensationalism. It is not just the constant bombardment of advertising, much of it directed to children. Perhaps the greatest concern is that the most important issues facing the middle class and working people of our country are rarely discussed. Frighteningly, to a very large degree the average American does not see his or her reality reflected on the television screen, and certainly receives little understanding of how that reality can be improved.
The United States is the only industrialized nation on earth that does not have a national health care program that guarantees health care to all. Yet, despite 41 million people having no health insurance and many more being under-insured, we spend far more per capita on health care than any other nation. Why? Seen any good programs on television lately, in between the prescription drug advertisements, discussing how we can provide quality health care for all at far lower per capita costs than we presently spend?
Despite the great “economic boom” of the 1990s, the average American worker is now working longer hours for lower wages than 30 years ago, and we have lost millions of decent-paying manufacturing jobs. Where are the TV programs addressing our $360 billion trade deficit, or what our disastrous trade policy has done to depress wages in this country? And while weâ€™re on economics, workers who are in unions earn 30% more than non-union people doing the same work. There are a lot of programs on television about how to get rich by investing in the stock market. Seen any good “specials” on how to go about forming a union?
The United States has the most unfair distribution of wealth and income in the industrialized world, and the highest rate of childhood poverty. Thereâ€™s a lot of television promoting greed and self-interest, but how many programs speak to the “justice” of the richest one percent owning more wealth than the bottom ninety-five percent? Or of the CEOs of major corporations earning 500 times what their employees make?
If television largely ignores the reality of life for the majority of Americans, corporate radio is just plain overt in its right-wing bias. In a nation that cast a few million more votes for Al Gore and Ralph Nader than for George Bush and Pat Buchanan, there are dozens of extreme right wing talk show programs. Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Bob Grant, Sean Hannity, Alan Keyes, Armstrong Williams, Howie Carr, Oliver North, Michael Savage, Michael Reagan, Pat Robertson, Laura Schlessinger – these are only a few of the voices that day after day pound a right wing drumbeat into the heartland of this country. And from a left perspective there is â€“ well, no one. The Republican Party, corporate owners and advertisers have their point of view well represented on radio. Unfortunately, the rest of America has almost nothing.
As bad as the current media situation is, it is likely to be made much worse by a recent decision in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that responded to a suit by Fox, AOL Time Warner, NBC and Viacom. That decision struck down a federal regulation limiting companies from owning television stations and cable franchises in the same local markets. The court also ordered that the FCC either justify or rewrite the federal rule that limits any one company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of American households.
The bottom line is that fewer and fewer huge conglomerates are controlling virtually everything that the ordinary American sees, hears and reads. This is an issue that Congress can no longer ignore.