The push by federal regulators to break up Microsoft is big news. Until
recently, the software giant seemed untouchable -- and few people demanded
effective antitrust efforts against monopoly power in the software
industry. These days, a similar lack of vision is routine in looking at the
Today, just six corporations have a forceful grip on America's mass media.
We should consider how to break the hammerlock that huge firms currently
maintain around the windpipe of the First Amendment. And we'd better hurry.
The trend lines of media ownership are steep and ominous in the United
States. 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. And 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."
I wonder what the chances are 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:
Not a good bet, especially since its merger with Viacom (one of the Big
Six) was announced last fall.
Quite unlikely. General Electric, a Big Six firm, has owned NBC since 1986.
Forget it. This network became the property of the Disney Co. five years
ago. Disney is now the country's second-largest media outfit.
The Fox network is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., currently number
four in the media oligarchy.
And then there's always cable television, with several networks devoted to
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.
Sixth-ranked General Electric owns this cable channel.
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.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."