“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
When journalist A.J. Liebling made this now oft-cited statement, he likely never could have predicted just how much media ownership would impact U.S. democracy in the 21st century.
As per Liebling’s quote, concerns about the conflict of interest between media owners and journalism’s wider mission of encouraging an informed citizenry are not new. However, there has been a dramatic shift in media ownership over the last few decades. Considering just how staggering its impact, it’s surprising that most aren’t even aware of the phenomenon.
In his landmark book The Media Monopoly, noted journalist and media critic Ben Bagdikian set off alarm bells over what he saw to be a dangerous trend in media ownership back in 1983. At the time, 50 corporations owned the majority of media outlets in the United States. Bagdikian thought it was dangerous that the corporate voice was becoming so prominent given that a pluralistic democracy requires diverse and antagonistic perspectives to be represented in its media, so that the people can make the most informed decisions possible on Election Day. Despite his warnings, the trend only continued, and by the 2004 edition of his text, now called The New Media Monopoly, those 50 corporations had been reduced to five. Bagdikian refers to them as The Big Five, which were the following conglomerates at the time: Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann.
At present, six corporations own 90 percent of the media outlets in the United States. Business Insider recently shared an infographic from 2011, which although missing the recent transaction of Comcast becoming the majority owner of NBCUniversal, succinctly demonstrates the disproportionate voice that just a handful of media conglomerates have in the nation. So even though the names might change slightly from year to year, the usual suspects from Bagdikian’s Big Five are still present, and the corporate bottom-line mentality has remained the same. Conglomerates generally do not concern themselves with the mission of journalism—their primary function is to ensure the maximum amount of profits for their shareholders. This push for profits is often at the expense of quality reporting, and as news content becomes increasingly debased, so does the mainstream political discourse.
Corporate consolidation of media ownership happened fast, and it was demonstrative of the larger economic trend of neoliberalism, in which corporations strongly pushed for the deregulation of industry. As the gatekeeper for news and information, the corporate-owned mainstream media then solidified their ability to dominate the political discourse with an unwaveringly pro-corporate agenda. In terms of media bias, it’s obvious that despite whatever differences there are on the political spectrum between the large conglomerates, there has been wide concurrence among them regarding the elimination of any perceived threats to corporate power. In other words, the notable absence of the voice of working people has increasingly become the norm, along with framing stories pertaining to labor or workers with a strong anti-union bent. (We can see this clearly through the MSM’s coverage of the Chicago teachers strike.) As the title of one of the chapters in media critic Eric Alterman’s famous book What Liberal Media? indicates, “You’re Only As Liberal As the Man Who Owns You.”
One of the milestone pieces of legislation for media deregulation was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The media conglomerates’ primary lobbying front group, The National Association of Broadcasters, positions itself as the dominant force for pushing this type of legislation through Congress. Bagdikian summarizes its significance:
The Big Five have become major players in altering the politics of the country. They have been able to promote new laws that increase their corporate domination and that permit them to abolish regulations that inhibit their control. Their major accomplishment is the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In the process, the power of media firms, along with all corporate power in general, has diminished the place of individual citizens.
Especially since the controversial Citizens United decision in 2010, money, not voters, seems to have the most influence over who wins elections. Again, this was always true to some extent, but with these key developments, there is no question that corporate interests are unmercifully trouncing the interests of the public.
Clearly there has never been a greater need for an independent media uncompromised by corporate influence. Given the complexity and severity of the problems in our increasingly interconnected, globalized world, this is something that truly cannot wait. It’s our last chance for the people to become informed and empowered enough to ensure their interests are being represented.