The following is one of the few "serious" and "idealistic" posts you will find here at my blog. This post is based on the premise that our democratic society could succeed if one of the many messed up things about it were fixed.
I recently viewed Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), a documentary showcasing both Mr. Murdoch's ridiculous amount of media assets and Fox News Channel's "conservative" take on the news. The film raised many questions in my mind. I wasn't so much bothered by the smothering of examples of Fox's biased news coverage: a collage of Bill O'Reilly "shut-ups," the anchor Brit Hume counting down the days until "Our President is Reelected," or the constant flashing of the "America's News Channel" graphic. To each his own, I say. Nay, I was more taken aback by the exorbitant expanse that is News Corporation itself. Being a student of the media, I have been thinking lately (!) about the modern concept of a free press.
AOL Time Warner is currently the world’s biggest entertainment and media company, with revenues of almost $32 Billion, but this is not a unique situation. Currently 25 companies own 50 percent of the U.S. media. That number is most likely to decrease in this new century, with the possibility of being reduced to a dozen or fewer. In light of this glaring fact and my recent arousal d'documentarre, I would argue that the gradual concentration of media ownership by a continually decreasing number of companies poses a threat to the ideal of a free press, and thus to our democracy itself.
What exactly is the ideal of a free press and is it crucial to democracy?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of the press…” One need not look any further than the fact that this right was included in the first amendment of the Constitution to realize its importance.
Indeed, while all of our constitutional freedoms are precious, this amendment's assurance of free speech and a free press, and practicing the freedoms thereof, are fundamental building blocks of a democracy.
The men who ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791 realized that placing these liberties outside of the reach of governmental restriction was crucial to ensuring a legitimate and free society. Only through a free press can there exist a “marketplace of ideas,” the product of which is the education of the citizenry—a fundamental principle in democracy.
If the guarantee of a free press is a “building block” of democracy, then what can be construed as being a threat to that guarantee?
There are two possible threats. The obvious one would be government intrusion, i.e., censorship or governmental ownership of the media. But the trickier and less obvious is a possible corporate monopoly. This is no stranger to the American free-market economy. We have seen industries such as oil, agriculture, railroads and telephone services be monopolized through mergers or other business deals. The Supreme Court has recognized these conglomerations as threats to the very system that let them become monopolies in the first place. In his opinion for the majority in the case Standard Oil Co. v. U.S., then-Chief Justice White stated that the monopoly undermines the idea of a free marketplace:
"We think no disinterested mind can survey the period in question without being irresistibly driven to the conclusion that…an intent and purpose to exclude others was frequently manifested by acts and dealings wholly inconsistent with the theory that they were made with the single conception of advancing the development of business power by usual methods, but which, on the contrary, necessarily involved the intent to drive others from the field and to exclude them from their right to trade, and thus accomplish the mastery which was the end in view." (221 U.S. 1, 1911)
Thus it has been asserted by our own Supreme Court that a free marketplace is fundamental to our society. And that marketplace should not be limited to its purely economic definition, but also be extended to the more abstract concept of the marketplace of ideas—a marketplace with equal importance. Once that is taken hostage by monopolization, our democracy is in jeopardy.
The concentration of media ownership is a reality.
It is a fact that practically nine companies control the world’s media: GE, AT&T/Liberty Media, AOL Time Warner, Disney, News Corp., Sony, Seagram, Bertelsmann and Viacom. This concentration is not limited to broadcast. Of the 1,500-or-so daily newspapers in the country, 99 percent are the only daily in their cities. As FCC Chairman Michael Powell has pointed out, “Nobody can intellectually defend the proposition that the marketplace has not changed dramatically.”
How are these concepts related?
Finally, after noting that free speech begets free media, and that free media is key to a democratic society, and furthermore, that there is a concentration of media ownership, then if the marketplace of ideas is fundamental to a democracy, the concentration of media ownership undermines democracy. A bold claim? Yes. Ridiculous? No.
“Obviously, today there are some similarities between the role of a press constricted by an authoritarian government and that of a press constrained by a profit-driven corporation. In both cases, content and participation are narrowly constructed, albeit more by thought-manipulation than by daily brutality. Regardless, such systems both serve the ends of those who control. Corporate authoritarianism is no more appealing than any other form of tyranny.” (Where Has the Free Press Gone? Article by Mercedes De Uriate)
The current situation should make people worry. How are we to make informed decisions if the potential for being informed is threatened by who owns the media we consume? This is not paranoia; there are specific examples of media ownership conflicting with news content.
In 1987, the then-president of NBC News, Larry Grossman, was told by GE boss Jack Welch not to use the phrase “Black Monday” to describe the year’s stock market crash on NBC News. He said it was depressing the value of GE stock.
In 1990 NBC’s Today expressed interest to Todd Putnam, editor of National Boycott News, that it wanted to do a story on boycotts. Amy Rosenberg of NBC Today asked Putnam for the “biggest boycott going on right now.” Putnam did the research and told Today that the biggest boycott was actually against GE light bulbs. Unsurprisingly, Rosenberg scrapped the idea.
A more recent example: On 9/11 terrorists used airplanes built by GE to crash into buildings partially owned/operated by GE, the events of which were then covered by a network news channel owned by GE.
But it is not just NBC. Small examples add up, too: In 1998, ABC News decided not to do a story on pedophiles who worked at the Magic Kindom Park. Both ABC and Magic Kindom Park are owned by Disney.
Something is wrong with this picture. When companies who own the media become so large that they own numerous other good and services, there is a pervasive conflict of interest. Once the conflict of interest becomes so great that the media’s parent corporations decide not to report stories then information is withheld from the public. This continuing concentration of media ownership in a decreasing amount of parent companies, whose ownership includes, but is not limited to, media and various other industries, is a threat to a free press and thus democracy as a whole.
I'll go ahead and let James Madison finish it up for me:
“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.”
This being said, I am not proposing that everyone become another NPR, or that we implement a more British-like system (which is publically funded through an annual fee incurred by the citizens, but which is still kept separate from government). Rather, I mean to point out a pretty obvious flaw in our current system and would like to see more restrictions. Simply, prohibiting one from owning too much stuff! Is it really that difficult?