The Media Big Six

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? Let’s see:

    • 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

    • ABC: Forget it. This network became the property of the Disney Co. five
      years ago. Disney is now the country’s second-largest media outfit.

    • 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

    • 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

    • MSNBC: Spawned as a joint venture of GE and Microsoft, the MSNBC network
      would see activism against media monopoly as double trouble.

    • 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.                                Z

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is
Habits of Highly Deceptive Media