The Multinational Monitor



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Concentrated economic power is a dangerous thing. It is dangerous in most sectors of the economy because it tends to limit competition and inevitably leads to more expensive, poorer quality, less safe consumer goods and an uneven distribution of wealth. But in a democracy, concentrated economic power poses special dangers when it occurs in the media.

If information is the currency of democracy, then by the year 2000, democracy in the United States may well be owned by six corporations and controlled by about 90 white middle-aged men. That sobering thought is raised in this month's issue on the media by Ben Bagdikian, the dean of the University of California School of Journalism. Bagdikian has spent the better part of the past 10 years documenting the accelerating pace of conglomeration within the media industry and the picture that emerges is grim. Today 29 corporations control most of the business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books and motion pictures. The movie industry is controlled by four firms. The nation's newspapers are dominated by 15 firms. Six control magazines, and a handful dominate the book publishing business. Three networks control the television airwaves.

The consequences of media concentration have yet to be fully realized. General Electric, one of the nation's major defense contractors, currently owns National Broadcasting Company, one of the dominant three television networks. Who at NBC can assure the public that news judgment about nuclear disarmament or the nuclear power industry will not be affected by NBC's new owners? Indeed, NBC's airing of a documentary on the French nuclear industry, perhaps the only country in the world which unwaveringly supports the expansion of nuclear power, confirmed the fears of many mediacritics that NBC's affiliation with GE would taint the network's coverage of issues reflecting poorly on its parent corporation.

In addition to the problem of concentration this special report on the media features:

  • Former Mother Jones Editor Michael Moore analyzing how politics and profits prevent the publication of books that challenge Corporate America. The shrinking number of independent publishing houses and the increase of corporate control in the publishing industry is already limiting the diversity and the perspective of books published.
  • Monitor labor columnist David Kusnet examining the way working people are portrayed by the media. Kusnet finds that workers, when they appear at all, are depicted in less than flattering ways.
  • Claire Riley and Harry Lewis detailing the Reagan administration assault on government information and the Fairness Doctrine.

This issue provides a "snapshot" of some of the disturbing trends media observers are noting. Questions about what is covered, where media resources are allocated, why certain beats are assigned, when an issue deserves attention, who can be used as a source and who owns the medium - need to be considered as the news becomes more homogenous and less competitive.

The influence of advertisers may soon be dwarfed by the influence of owners. Today, media outlets are owned more often than not by Fortune 500 corporations than by newspeople. Consequently, cutting the size of a news staff meets with less administrative resistance and may shape the news and increase profits for the parent company at same time.

The myth of "objectivity" also takes on greater significanceas the ownership of news organizations becomes more concentrated. In many ways claiming "objectivity" shelters the news business from being the subject of study and analysis. The nuances of what is emphasized as well as what is neglected are as important as the slant a news story takes. For example:

  • The New York Times and the Washington Post have more sports writers than labor reporters. This means that labor issues receive less attention then they should. News outlets would argue that business reporters can adequately cover the labor beat - unfortunately this isn't the case.
  • A demonstration takes place on the steps of the Capitol - if covered at all the crowd is too often described as small and fringe.
  • The amount of time women and minorities receive on the air and in the op-ed pages is still inadequate.
  • The op-ed pages of our major papers are filled with columnists who range from the middle-of-the-road to the far right. Rarely are the op-ed pages used to present an opinion that is as "left" as what is presented on the "right." And talk shows, with guests coming from a very narrow pool, often pit conservatives against the far right, ignoring the liberal or left perspective.
  • The "what's new phenomenon" - allows producers and editors to classify an environmental disaster or workplace ha7ard as old news - despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people continue to be affected.
  • U.S. news coverage may be technically advanced but is culturally narrow. The nightly network news in the United States has much less coverage of the world than the nightly news in England, Canada, or Australia. Greater coverage of more international issues would require a less simplistic analysis of economic systems and political situations.

The impact of all the individual decisions that go into what and how something is covered fundamentally shape the way readers and viewers perceive problems and options for solutions in society. Unfortunately, there are no easy remedies to counter the effects of media concentration. More competition, better application of antitrust laws, more complete disclosure of potential conflicts and re-instituting the Fairness Doctrine are, however, important first steps.

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