The 50, 26, 20... Corporations That Own Our Media

By Ben Bagdikian

Experimenters have discovered that you can turn a cat into an alcoholic. The normal cat doesn't expect it, but keep adding vodka to the dish and the cat will soon demand spiked milk as an absolute necessity.

The fat cats of the American mass media have lost their taste for the mother's milk of normal free enterprise: real competition for a reasonable profit. Thanks to addictive doses of sympathetic governmental policies and two decades of a drive for power, a shrinking number of large media corporations now regard monopoly, oligopoly and historic levels of profit as not only normal, but as their earned right.

In the process, the usual democratic expectation for the media -- diversity of ownership and ideas -- has disappeared as the goal of official policy and, worse, as a daily experience of a generation of American readers and viewers.

In 1982, when I completed research for my book, The Media Monopoly, 50 corporations controlled half or more of the media business. By December 1986, when I finished a revision for a second edition, the 50 had shrunk to 29. The last time I counted, it was down to 26. [When the latest edition of The Media Monopoly was published in 1993, the number was down to 20. -ed.] A number of serious Wall Street media analysts are predicting that by the 1990s, a half-dozen giant firms will control most of our media.

Of the 1,700 daily papers, 98 percent are local monopolies and fewer than 15 corporations control most of the country's daily circulation. A handful of firms have most of the magazine business, with Time, Inc. alone accounting for about 40 percent of that industry's revenues.

The three networks, Capital Cities/ABC, CBS and GE/NBC, still have majority access to the television audience, and most of the book business is controlled by fewer than a dozen companies, with major categories like paperback and trade books dominated by still fewer firms.

The safest way to ensure diversity of opinion is diverse ownership. But this ideal has been sacrificed by government devotion to the mythical doctrine of free market economics. The myth rests on the bizarre assumption that the modern American corporate scene is actually like Adam Smith's rural country market, in which all the farmers came to town to compete for the business of sharp-eyed customers.

If there's any truly free market in modern corporate affairs, there is none in through-the-air broadcasting. According to the Federal Communications Act, the airwaves belong to the public (something the Reaganites have ignored). The airwaves are a limited resource, and there are a small number of available channels. The Federal Communications Commission, by law, is supposed to resist monopoly and concentrated ownership, and to grant licenses on the basis of "public interest, convenience and necessity."

During the 1980s, the FCC, under Mark Fowler, has used the country's broadcasting system as an experiment in so-called free market economics. The FCC has expanded the number of stations one corporation may own and suspended the demand that stations do any public service, like news and community issues programming. It has let big operators (Murdoch, Capital Cities, Cox, etc.) buy competitors. And it has made it almost impossible to challenge a license if the public doesn't like what it sees.

The FCC is not bailing out a sick industry. The three networks, even with their takeover debts, are still making money. Affiliated television stations are earning annual pre-tax profits of 40 percent or more. As a result, stations that used to sell for tens of millions now sell for prices in the half-billion-dollar range. Where else can you get a business based on a license issued and protected by the U.S. government, make 40 percent profit or more a year, and not be expected to be held to some standard of public service?

 (At last count Gannett had 92, Thomson 99.)

Whole magazine "divisions" of corporations are now bought and sold, as are book companies, by the same giant firms that dominate other media. Rupert Murdoch, already a major owner in newspapers, magazines, broadcasting and movie production, recently became a big player in books by purchasing the last of the large independent publishers, Harper & Row. (Like some other dominant owners in the U.S. media -- Thomson, a Canadian, and Bertelsmann, a German -- Murdoch is also a major owner in other countries, such as Australia and England.)

All of this has proceeded without serious question by government; under the Reagan administration, the Justice Department's antitrust division has been under heavy sedation.

By now, the corporations that dominate our media, like the alcoholic cats, treat this situation as theirs by right. For them, economic competition means dividing the major markets among the giants, while pretending that the field is still a fair one because the one-book-a-year publisher is free to battle it out with Gulf & Western (owner of Simon & Schuster and Paramount Pictures). Their concept of a diversity of views is the full range of politics and social values from center to far right. The American audience, having been exposed to a narrowing range of ideas over the decades, often assumes that what it sees and hears in the major media is all there is.

It is no way to maintain a lively marketplace of ideas, which is to say that it is no way to maintain a democracy.