Media structure

Liberal journalists and their for-profit employers

There is a lot of talk about how journalists are liberal. Think of the ones who are best known. Tom Brokaw. Peter Jennings. Katie Couric. Dan Rather. Bill O’Reilly. Okay, maybe not Bill O’Reilly, but the others are often seen as moderate to liberal in their views.

Sociological theory suggests that as people get more formal education, their views become more liberal. We’re talking probabilities here–this doesn’t mean that when you leave EOU you’ll be a card-carrying democrat. It just means that most people, given more education, tend toward more liberal views on issues. Social theory also suggests that as people age, their views get more liberal. Call it wisdom, experience, whatever. However, theory also suggests that as people’s incomes increase, their views become more conservative. Why? Well, maybe they would like to hang on to more of their money, but we don’t know for sure. BUT . . . we ALSO know that people’s incomes tend to increase over time.

Confused yet? Well, the point is that journalists generally have an above average level of formal education. Their views are likely to be more liberal than people with less than a college degree. However, some journalists get by, others do fabulously well. Research also suggests that journalists tend to be social liberals, but often fiscal conservatives (The research is based on a 1981 study, results from which you can see here. A more recent 1998 study by David Croteau shows journalists’ fiscally conservative streak). They do tend to vote more often for democrats in election. Does the way journalists vote mean they’re biased toward liberals in their presentation of the news?

What about their bosses?

Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum: ownership. The owners of the largest TV networks are all multinational corporations, with financial interests in a variety of media industries, such as cinema, radio, print, as well as telecommunications infrastructure (satellite services, cable TV, etc.). Here are some of the larger media corporations, and what they own (here’s a look at boards of directors of some major news corporations from Project Censored):

  • Time Warner (CNN, WB, TNT, TBS, HBO, Cinemax, Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Warner Brothers studios, Six Flags theme parks, Atlanta Hawks/Braves, part owner of PrimeStar satellite service)
  • Disney (Disney channel, ABC, ESPN, Disney/Miramax/BuenaVista studios, theme parks, cruise line, Anaheim Angels/Mighty Ducks, interactive TV)
  • Bertelsmann (European TV channels, originally bought Napster, Bantam/Doubleday publishers, Arista and RCA recording studios)–radio, publishing, and music
  • CBS–formerly owned by Viacom and before that Westinghouse, now is its own corporate entity
  • Viacom (MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Showtime, large U.S theatre company-United Cinemas Internat’l-Blockbuster, Simon and Schuster and Macmillan publishers, 5 theme parks)
  • News Corporation (heard of Rupert Murdoch?): Fox cable network, Fox News channel, major owner of satellite services, TV Guide, Harper Collins publishers, Los Angeles Dodgers, 132 newspapers, 20th Century Fox movie studios). Recently purchased the Dow Jones Stock Exchange (which includes the Wall Street Journal, one of the most influential financial news sources in the world)
  • General Electric (owner of NBC, CNBC, MSNBC)–a defense contractor, also heavily into insurance, appliances; Most everything
  • Sony (movie theatres, video games, owns vast library of films/music/TV [for digital services] owner of Columbia and TriStar Pictures and major recording interests), and
  • Seagram (yes, that Seagrams; owner of Universal film and music interests, formerly MCA, theme parks, USA/Sci-Fi Networks)-now Vivendi Universal
  • TCI (2nd cable TV, partial ownership of 10+ cable channels, QVC, Fox Sports, Discovery, E!, Home shopping network, BET)-now owned by AT&T
  • Washington Post Group (Newsweek, Frommers Travel Publishing, Washington Post, some local TV stations, cable network systems)

These are the corporations that those liberal journalists work for. The former CEO of General Electric, owner of NBC, once made sure the President of NBC knew who his boss was. Journalists who cross the line are likely to lose their jobs. This happened to reporter Peter Arnett in Baghdad (he had been a journalists’ hero in the 1991 Gulf War), and also to Geraldo Rivera. These corporations are worth tens and in some cases hundreds of billions of dollars. As the above shows, they each own various kinds of media outlets, and other types of firms as well. They have a broad range of economic interests that they certainly don’t want to endanger by reporting news that may threaten their bottom lines. And to top it off, even their news divisions are expected to make money, meaning they have to sell audiences and high ratings to advertisers, who aren’t likely to take kindly to stories that expose corporate scandal, excess, or that promote social change and justice. They benefit quite nicely from the status quo, thank you.

Concentration of media ownership

Now, let’s consider corporate concentration of media over time:

  • In 1983, 50 corporations dominated most of every mass medium; the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal. …
  • In 1987, 29 corporations dominated mass media markets.
  • By 1990, this was down to 23 corporations.
  • By 1997, 10 corporations dominated; the biggest merger involved the $19 billion Disney-ABC deal, at the time the biggest media merger ever.
  • In 2000, AOL Time Warner’s merger-$350 billion-more than 1,000 times larger than the biggest deal of 1983. (Bagdikian, 2000)
  • From a study by the Center for Public Integrity:
    • The three largest local phone companies control 83 percent of home telephone lines.
    • The top two long distance carriers control 67 percent of that market.
    • The four biggest cellular phone companies have 64 percent of the wireless market.
    • The five largest cable companies pipe programming to 74 percent of the cable subscribers nationwide.

It’s no coincidence that much of the recent media concentration occurred after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed, which relaxed restrictions on ownership. For instance, before 1996, no company could own more than 40 radio stations in the country. Now Clear Channel alone owns 1,225. Does ownership affect what we see, hear, read? With respect to conservative and liberal politicians, republicans and democrats, who are media corporations likely to support, or least likely to criticize, if they have their eyes on deregulation of their industry?

Here are a couple of telling quotes:

“The New York Times (considered a liberal newspaper) is a corporation and sells a product. The product is audiences. They don’t make money when you buy the newspaper. They are happy to put it on the worldwide web for free. They actually lose money when you buy the newspaper. But the audience is the product. … You have to sell a product to a market, and the market is, of course, advertisers (that is, other businesses). Whether it is television or newspapers, or whatever, they are selling audiences. Corporations sell audiences to other corporations.”
— Noam Chomsky, What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream, Z Magazine, June 1997.
“There is some strategy to it (bashing the ‘liberal’ media). I’m a coach of kids’ basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one”
-Republican party chair Rich Bond (Washington Post, 8/20/92)

As for concentration of ownership:

“Corporations have multimillion-dollar budgets to dissect and attack news reports they dislike. But with each passing year they have yet another power: They are not only hostile to independent journalists. They are their employers.”
-Ben Bagdikian. 2000. The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press.

No one is saying there aren’t liberal journalists. In fact, most studies show that a majority of journalists tend to vote democratic at election time–over 70% in some studies. But there are conservative journalists, too (check out cybercast news service, run by L. Brent Bozell III), and they both work for large profit-making enterprises, often vertically integrated, and multinational in scope. These corporations would benefit from the status quo, wouldn’t they? Do these companies seem likely to be forces for social change? Do we really think Dan Rather called the shots at CBS, or Peter Jennings ran the show at ABC? Katie Couric is a power-hungry bleeding heart liberal orchestrating NBC’s news division (and CBS is trying to steal her away for its nightly news)?

Take the example of Bill Maher. After 9/11 he said that it was difficult for him to understand how the terrorists could be called cowards. After all, they hijacked planes with box cutters, and flew them into the pentagon and world trade towers. This took months if not years of planning, and quite a bit of courage. We may not agree with it or even understand it, but to call it cowardice is missing the point, said Maher. He went further stating that the U.S. military were cowards when they dropped bombs on people from thousands of miles away. And anyway, aren’t these the kinds of discussions we should have, especially in the media, if we’re to understand why this happened?

Apparently not on ABC, who fired Maher shortly thereafter. Why did they fire him? After all, it was a talk show, and that’s what talk shows do–drum up controversy. In this case, ABC no doubt was worried about the bottom line–what if the White House criticized the network for airing such anti-American views? What if groups around the country initiated a boycott against the network as being unpatriotic? People were pretty hypersensitive at the time. ABC could have lost viewers, and valuable advertising revenues had it not done something. So it made the decision to support the bottom line, rather than free speech. And stockholders were no doubt relieved. Maher now works for cable company HBO, and has more latitude to say what he thinks.

As Noam Chomsky has said, the idea that the important question is whether the media is biased toward liberals is ridiculous on its face. Multibillion dollar companies are not liberal, don’t espouse liberal views, generally don’t support liberal political candidates any more than they have to, and can use massive marketing and public relations budgets–which amount to a great deal of power–to influence public opinion. No, says Chomsky, the real question to ask is:

Are the media free to report the news as they see fit?

What would prevent the Media from reporting news that might jeopardize a corporation or its stock value? There is a project, Project Censored, that each year attempts to uncover the 25 most underreported news stories that corporate outlets didn’t cover. Check out their website and you’re sure to be surprised by some of the things our government and others are doing that apparently the corporate news media didn’t think would boost their ratings.

Some other concerns about ownership concentration:

  • It is likely to lead to less diverse views in the media (biased in any direction?)
  • There is greater potential for control by politicians-interlocking interests, less ‘loose cannons’ or independent journalists to worry about
  • More power among fewer individuals, corporations
  • Increasing commercialism
  • Vertical integration is one goal–what is it?
    • It means controlling the whole process of bringing a medium to consumers–from the satellite service, even the manufacture of fiber optic cables, to the boxes in your house and the shows on your TV and in your theatres.
  • Horizontal integration
    • This means owning different kinds of media
      • Horizontal integration allows cross-advertising (movies, TV, merchandising, theme parks, concessions at stadiums, etc.). In other words, Time Magazine (AOL Time Warner) might turn into a news magazine that serves mainly as advertising for other media companies owned by AOL Time Warner, disguised as a weekly news magazine. See how cheaply you can get a subscription to it these days. Who owns Newsweek? General Electric (NBC, MSNBC, etc.)
      • Interlocking interests–all those different companies, often sharing board members (on the board of directors)
  • Monopolies–keep in mind, we as a society have allowed some utilities to control large parts of the market, but the trade-off was that they would be regulated by public entities, so that they could not enjoy monopoly control over their rates. How’s your cable bill been lately? Going down??
  • What can we do?
    • be informed–know who owns the news networks you frequent, or newspapers. Are they commercial, public, non-profit? Follow the money to understand forces that might influence their news broadcasts. And remember–it isn’t just what makes it into the news, but what is left out that’s important.
    • be skeptical–you can’t assume that just because it’s on the news, that it’s gospel truth. Hopefully your media assignment is showing you that news casts can differ greatly. One PR professional has said that by the time viewers watch the news on TV, it’s mostly a public relations product, what someone else wants us to believe is important news. This is especially easy to see with local network affiliate broadcasts.
    • Support public access to the airwaves. Most cable companies are required to support channels that the public can use. Do you ever watch them? Not even out of a perverse interest in what’s going on locally? We are used to high-tech entertainment, and you won’t find much of that on the public access stations.
    • What about the Internet? Much of the anti-war protest of recent vintage was made possible via the Internet. It is less driven by commercial interests and advertising. So news sites may have biases, but they aren’t going to be the same kinds of profit-driven biases.
    • Check out different sources of news. Here’s a page of some sites I’ve put together–from across the political spectrum.

Why is ownership important?

  • Media deregulation-corporations want the right to own more outlets, and different kinds of outlets. At some point this is likely to reduce competition (think of your monthly cable bill, and how it’s been steadily going down, down, down as a result of more competition since 1996 … )
  • Cross advertising–owning different kinds of outlets allows companies to advertise from one to another (for instance, Disney can advertise for ABC’s programs, CBS for MTV’s, Time Magazine on CNN, etc.)
  • Less tax burdens–corporations can lobby for tax breaks from politicians, who it just so happens need lots of money to pay for TV advertising for their re-election campaigns.
  • Large media corproations are usually for profit, working for their shareholders to increase their stocks’ value. This has little if anything to do with ensuring freedom of the press. They’re not in the business of informing the public, in other words. A well-informed public might disagree with some of the things that large media corporations believe will increase their profits and keep shareholders happy.
  • Don’t forget how commercial media make most of their money–through advertising. TV ratings are assessed, viewership determined, and networks use this information to determine advertising rates. Advertisers look at the ‘demographics’–who’s watching what shows, where their advertising will be most effective, etc. So as viewership declines, revenue declines because networks can’t charge as much for advertising. Anything that negatively affects viewership is dangerous (to a corporation) in such a climate.
  • A limited number of sources will mean a limited number of perspectives–a lack of diversity in programming on television, for instance. Concentration decreases that diversity. Radio has probably been an even bigger victim of corporate consolidation.
  • If you’ve been paying attention to the liberal/conservative debate, you should have a pretty good handle on which side of the spectrum corporations generally fall. Think about their relationship to the government, their tax obligations, how closely their industries are regulated, etc. Corporations and industries spend millions of dollars to lobby Congress for relaxed regulations, maybe the right to own more media outlets, etc.

On Saving Private Lynch

Maybe you followed the daring rescue of U.S. Private Jessica Lynch from a hospital in Iraq in 2003, where she was apparently being held prisoner, during the early stages of the war. Or maybe you were about 10 years old. Anyway, to give you a sense of how ‘news’ sometimes works, here’s how the story played out in the press (from the BBC):

The above is a good example of how the truth can be, well, squirmy. And how propaganda can take on a life of its own. Later the story of former NFL football player Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan was used by the Pentagon as a media event.

Ben H. Bagdikian. 2000. The Media Monopoly (Sixth Edition). Boston: Beacon Press.