Back when I was in college, a sociology professor assigned our class Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality for reading and review. In this book, subtitled The Politics of News Media, Parenti, an unabashed Marxist, comes across as a pale imitation of media watchdog Ben Bagdikian. Anyone who owns a media outlet or holds a position of authority in the media is, by definition, a “conservative,” and, thus, any decision not to run a story that Parenti believes should have been run (or to leave out details that Parenti believes should have been in the story) amounts to “conservative censorship.”
In my review, I fairly easily disposed of the book by analyzing the footnotes, showing that Parenti cited the very same sources that he criticized to back up his version of events. If the Washington Post “censored” a story, Parenti’s discussion of what actually transpired would include a footnote to a New York Times story, and vice versa. In other words, Parenti’s analysis proceeded on a case-by-case basis, with each successive case undercutting the previous one.
To his credit, my professor—whose political views were only slightly to the right of Parenti’s—recognized that I had effectively dismantled Parenti’s claims of conservative bias in the media, and I received an “A” on the paper.
Still, something about the book continued to gnaw at my mind. Parenti might be a completely blinkered ideologue (he labels Reader’s Digest “ultraconservative”!), but he raises important issues, not of ideology, but of the concentration of power and resources. And so, a few years later, as a graduate assistant at The Catholic University of America, I relied heavily on the objective elements of Parenti’s book—who owns what and how much—for a lecture on the modern media. My argument was that centralization in the media has effectively destroyed local news coverage—chain papers and conglomerated television and radio stations receive much of their content from the corporate center. Readers, viewers, and listeners are regarded as “consumers” of news rather than local citizens, and the content of the product consumed is less important to the chain than the fact of consumption. Any questions of media bias—liberal or conservative—pale next to these structural problems of media centralization.
Afterward, one of the brighter and more conservative students in the class came up to me. “I didn’t realize you were a Marxist,” he said. His response is typical of conservatives and even more so of libertarians, who today place utopian hopes in the “unfettered marketplace of ideas” (many of them bad, or quite wrong) called the internet while simultaneously believing that media companies, like all corporations, should be able to evolve toward monopoly unchecked except by another corporation. Even those who oppose the war in Iraq refuse to acknowledge the role that media centralization—and not simply centralized media—played in selling this unmitigated disaster to the American people.
I delivered that lecture on the modern media 13 years ago. In the meantime, under the Bush-Clinton-Bush administrations, the situation has grown much worse. Today, the bulk of the major media in the United States is owned or controlled by the “Big Five”—Time Warner, News Corporation, the Walt Disney Company, Viacom, Vivendi Universal, and Sony. Throw General Electric into the mix, and you have a complete list of the owners of all of the major television networks, broadcast and cable. Add Gannett and Clear Channel Communications, and you have sewn up the newspaper and radio markets as well.
In other words, in a country of 50 states and 270 million people, a mere eight companies control the bulk of what we read, hear, and watch. And if Michael Powell’s FCC has its way and allows companies to purchase multiple forms of media in the same market (say, a newspaper, a television station, and a radio station), that centralization will only increase.
Trying to determine what any media company owns is an exercise in frustration. Both PBS’s Frontline and the Nation have conducted major investigations, and charts of the results are available on the web at pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/giants/ and thenation.com/special/bigten.html, respectively. Such charts, however, are no more than snapshots, because they become outdated almost as soon as they are constructed. The Columbia Journalism Review has responded by creating a constantly updated section on its website, cjr.org/tools/owners/, which provides lists of holdings by company as well as timelines of acquisitions for the largest companies. CJR also offers a search engine, so you can determine who owns what in your hometown.
I only have room to offer some highlights here. Time Warner, the biggest of the big, is also one of the most diversified. It owns America Online, Compuserve, ICQ, Netscape, and MapQuest.com (and has a partial ownership in Amazon.com); Time Warner Cable and Road Runner cable internet; Time Life Books; HBO, CNN (both television and radio), TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, and the Cartoon Network; Warner Bros. Studios, the WB Television Network, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, New Line Cinema, and Castle Rock Entertainment; 72 different magazines, including Time, Life, Fortune, Money, Sports Illustrated, People, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as the entire DC Comics line and Mad Magazine; 47 record labels; and several theme parks.
News Corporation, better known to Americans as Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, owns 34 television stations in major cities across the United States; Fox News Channel, FX, National Geographic Channel, and Fox Sports (both television and radio); 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox Television; the New York Post and 25 newspapers in the United Kingdom (including the Sun and the Times) and Australia (including the Telegraph and the Post-Courier); four magazines, including the Weekly Standard (it has a partial ownership in TV Guide); HarperCollins Publishers, which includes Christian publishing house Zondervan; and part or all of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kings, and Lakers and the New York Rangers and Knicks.
Disney, like Time Warner, is highly diversified, owning the ABC Television Network and 10 television stations in major cities; 64 radio stations, including multiple stations in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., and Radio Disney; ABC Family, the Disney Channel, and Toon Disney; Buena Vista, Touchstone, Walt Disney, and Miramax; the Go Network and numerous websites tied to its television and movie holdings; and, of course, over a dozen theme parks and resorts.
Viacom, too, is heavily diversified, with 34 CBS and UPN television stations, as well as five unbranded stations; MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, TV Land, VH1, Spike TV, Comedy Central, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Flix, and Sundance; Spelling Television and King World Productions; Infinity Broadcasting, which owns 176 radio stations (it owns multiple stations in every market it is in); Westwood One; Paramount; Simon & Schuster; and Blockbuster.
Clear Channel Communications—famous for supporting the war in Iraq by organizing mass burnings of Dixie Chicks albums—owns 39 television stations and almost 1,200 radio stations nationwide and has holdings in 65 countries around the world. In most markets, it owns multiple stations, often a half-dozen or more.
By contrast, General Electric, one of the largest companies in the United States, looks positively restrained in its media holdings, owning only the NBC Network, Paxson Communications, and Telemundo Communications Group; 14 television stations; and cable networks Bravo, CNBC, and MSNBC (which it operates in partnership with computer giant Microsoft).
More interesting, perhaps, than each company’s individual holdings are these joint partnerships, which point both to a high level of cooperation among supposed competitors and to convenient paths for further centralization. Disney, for instance, is co-owner of ESPN and Lifetime with Hearst Corporation; A&E and The History Channel with Hearst and GE; and E! Entertainment with Comcast and Liberty Media. Vivendi has partnered with Yahoo! and Sony in the Duet music-subscription service and owns 26.8 million shares in Time Warner. And Time Warner co-owns Court TV with Liberty Media and has partnered in multiple music ventures with Sony, EMI, Bertelsmann, and News Corp.
It appears the libertarians might realize half of their dream after all. With big media moving increasingly into cyberspace, however, their hopes for the continued free flow of information may well be dashed.
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