Over the last year, the doings of the media have occupied center stage in the media themselves, an obsession that seems harmless if somewhat incestuous. There has been a tournament atmosphere surrounding the issue of whether the damsels CBS or ABC would fall to one or another suitor, and a sense of awe at the financial buccaneering that has produced some of the largest takeovers in history. After all, where’s the harm? Unlike (say) the O.J. Simpson case, this is a bloodless form of jousting in which the defeated lose nothing save honor, and perhaps the odd billion in cash or stocks. Nor is this type of media concentration historically new. Complaints about the excessive power of publishers and media barons date back to the earliest days of the popular press, and received a huge stimulus from the tumor-like growth of the Hearst chain from the turn of the century: Citizen Kane is the classic memorial to the megalomaniac publisher who wanted to be king, or at least to be loved. What, if anything, is different about the current trends that have made colossi out of multimedia concerns like Disney and Time-Warner?

Several major differences can be cited. In earlier years, news outlets could be easily distinguished from publishing or entertainment vehicles with which they might be loosely connected through common holding companies. Today, however, the “press” broadly defined is bound up with the same information technology that dominates an elaborate and booming entertainment industry. Concern about blatant partisanship in news or political coverage therefore gives way to subtler worries about pervasive social biases and the homogenization of culture. In addition, these concerns apply on the global scale, anywhere in fact that can be reached by the satellites transmitting the films or television programs manufactured in the United States. Finally, there is a critical difference in the concept of control and regulation. In the days of Hearst, it was feasible to imagine a government taking the relatively simple steps required to suppress the worst excesses of financial banditry and editorial irresponsibility, but this can scarcely be done when the forms of bias and influence are so relatively inconspicuous, if nonetheless potent.

In 1938, George Seldes’ classic book The Lords of the Press performed a hostile dissection of the American news media, a polemic that can still be read with immense profit. I cannot offhand think of a modern survey of this depth and insight, possibly because any recent parallel would certainly run the risk of libel suits: and who would publish it? As Seldes remarks, “The press publishes the news, true or false or halfway, about everything in the world except itself.” The veteran leftist exposed the political and antilabor biases of the newspapers and their affiliated radio stations, their visceral hostility to New Deal reforms and anything vaguely “pink.” He portrayed the publishers as a clandestine cartel, intimately bound up “with the power and paper trusts, with all the banks, and with all the powerful financial institutions which control the country.” While much of the book reflects the peculiar political circumstances of the age, Seldes is devastating on the constraints to free reporting that automatically arise from the commercial interests of the media magnates. He is equally revealing about the organized pressure groups that could not even be mentioned in print in anything other than a flattering tone, lest a boycott threaten sales and (above all) advertising: now that would make a good expose today. Even in 1938, decades before any Surgeon General’s warnings, Seldes was complaining that the press failed to report frightening research about the health damage caused by tobacco products, for fear of offending the industry. The central message was that “The matter of money is the chief obstacle to a free press.”

The matter of money was crucial to reducing choice in the press over the course of the century. While there never was a golden age of streetwise journalists and hardbitten independent editors, earlier decades were indeed marked by a striking diversity of active print media. Most major cities in the early 20th century had at least two or three daily newspapers, generally covering a variety of political viewpoints, and these outlets were supplemented by an active ethnic and political press. More significant, the different outlets were owned by several distinct proprietors. This relative cornucopia was already under threat by the 1950’s, with the absorption or destruction of local papers by great national chains like Hearst, Scripps Howard, Block, and Gannett. In the new regime, papers and radio stations began a long-term process of consolidation and rationalization that accelerated dramatically after the coming of television. By the 1970’s, the one-newspaper city was a common feature of the social landscape, and that newspaper was likely to belong to a national or international conglomerate. Though the chains were by no means monolithic in terms of ideology or partisan allegiance, they rarely strayed far outside a fairly narrow political consensus.

The long dominance of print media was challenged in the 1950’s by the rise of television, but even this change was minor compared to the explosive growth of other forms of electronic media in later decades. Today, the dissemination of news is inextricably bound up with other activities collectively bracketed as “entertainment.” This includes books, magazines, and newspapers as well as records, tapes, and compact discs, in addition to films, television programs, video games, and CDROM, and the vastly profitable “spinoffs” available from merchandising. The profitability of the latter is apparent to any parent subjected to blackmail for the purchase of items bearing the name or likeness of Pocahontas, Casper, or the Flintstones. Today, Americans spend some $400 billion on “entertainment,” a category which also includes cable fees and gambling. The combined industries employ 2.5 million people, a 66 percent increase since 1988 alone, and the resulting jobs and investment have been critical in preventing regions like California from collapsing utterly with the decline of Gold War military spending.

Changing technology has brought together the realms of print, electronic media, and recorded music, a point obvious to any one sitting at a computer that is simultaneously playing a compact disc, or using the Web to access a video clip. Within a decade, the distinctions between traditional media. computers, and communication networks will have faded to vanishing point, a symbiosis that is already foreshadowed by the current convergence of the corporations presently active in these diverse fields. Technology also overwhelms traditional national boundaries, so that new media empires are desperately anxious to preserve and promote their interests in such lucrative regions as Europe and the Pacific Rim. Internationally, the American balance of payments would look far grimmer without the profits from entertainment, a product avidly consumed by a global market with no great taste for American-made cars or electronics. American makers of film, video, and music already earn 40 percent of their revenues overseas.

By the 1980’s, media enterprises were seeking to control activities in several types of activity, venturing into print publishing and music, both making and distributing films and television programs, and running their own television stations and cable networks. For decades, federal authorities attempted to regulate this sort of crossover for fear of permitting monopolies that could stifle free expression, but such qualms were overridden by the free market atmosphere of the Reagan, Bush, and Gingrich years. When the history of the American media comes to be written, the year 1995 might well be regarded as a turning point, in which Congress and the Federal Communications Commission finally abolished or significantly reduced many of the restrictions which had limited the growth of the conglomerates, permitting, for example, a single company to own two television stations in the same market, or to hold newspapers in a market where it already owned radio or television concerns. A company could now own television stations broadcasting to over a third of the American market, while national television networks are allowed to compete freely in the syndicated television market. Limitations on foreign ownership of media corporations have been de facto suspended by the administration’s failure to check the activities of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian-based News Corporation, with its wide holdings in American newspapers and its Fox Broadcasting system.

Deregulation was accompanied by a sharp growth in the size and power of the media giants, and their integration into multi-industry concerns. This trend originated in the 1980’s with General Electric’s acquisition of RCA, which included the NBC network, while ABC was purchased by the Capital Cities syndicate, and Time merged with Warner. Even these enormous mergers were dwarfed by the developments of last summer, when CBS was absorbed into a Westinghouse empire that also included such nonmedia enterprises as nuclear power, defense electronics, office furniture, and even refrigerated trucking. In media terms, Westinghouse now found itself in charge of 15 television stations and 39 radio stations, with several hundred radio and television affiliates.

Another 1995 venture combined Disney and Capital Cities/ABC, which together earned revenues of some 17 billion dollars and had a total market value in excess of 40 billion. The second largest merger in American history, this deal created a huge conglomerate with 85,000 employees, about the same strength as Westinghouse. The overweening Mouse controls 11 television stations and over 220 affiliates, in addition to 21 radio stations, and newspapers in 13 states. It also operates several of the best-known cable channels, including Lifetime, Arts and Entertainment, the Disney Channel, and the sports network ESPN, which enjoys international popularity. Disney is an example of the oligarchic control prevailing in the seemingly freewheeling world of broadcast cable, in the arena of “500 channels and nothing on.” Though the dial appears to offer a bewildering range of choices, actual control and direction is vested in very few hands.

Finally (and the largest such marriage to date), Time-Warner allied with Ted Turner’s media empire to create a powerhouse controlling magazines, books, records and compact discs, sports franchises, film production, and a cable complex that includes Turner Broadcasting, CNN, and a huge and profitable collection of classic movies. Leading shareholders in the new giant included Turner himself as well as the Seagram company, dominated by the hugely wealthy Canadian Bronfman family, and the TCI cable network. Together, the cable enterprises of Time-Warner-Turner and TCI reach over a half of American households. Though Time-Warner, Disney, and Westinghouse represent the Goliaths of the American media, there are several other major powers also susceptible to absorption into still bigger agglomerations. These include News Corporation, TCI, Gannett, and Viacom, the last with holdings in Paramount and the Blockbuster video store chain.

Still other critical players are not yet fully identified in the “media/entertainment” category, but their full participation cannot be far away. The telephone companies are waiting in the wings to play their full role in the exploitation of fiber optic technology, and already TCI has attempted unsuccessfully to arrange a merger with Bell Atlantic. Presumably, the only reason why a giant like Microsoft has not yet ventured deeper into entertainment is for fear of exciting still greater nightmares about its corporate hegemony, and possibly new antitrust suits. To see the future, take a look at the interactive movies already available on CD-ROM, and featuring major stars: now imagine how these might be transmitted in another decade, presumably by means that altogether bypass traditional movie or television technology. If computer and telecommunication companies distribute these items, how long will it be before they also produce them? In addition to entertainment, computer and telephone concerns will soon diversify into other fields closely related to their expertise, including financial services and banking. The corporate world of the new century should see an even closer integration of the “three C’s”: cable, computers, and communications. Buried somewhere in there are the organs that gather, interpret, and disseminate news.

Media empires have indeed increased dramatically in scale and complexity, but this trend has been apparent in every other sector of the economy, from food processing to the manufacture of aircraft or widgets. So does it matter? That there is a fundamental difference here has long been recognized by legislators, who know from bitter experience that control of the media has political consequences: for most of the present century, the first targets of coup plotters were usually radio stations and telephone exchanges. In terms of news and political commentary, the new lords of the press wield a potential power that must exercise an enormous temptation, even if this has not to date directly attracted magnates like Michael Eisner or Gerald Levin. Even Ted Turner has been content to influence affairs beyond American shores, as suggested by his bizarre claim that his CNN brought down the Berlin Wall, and the far more substantial boast that his network was responsible for deciding Western policy in Bosnia.

To see the full potential of the political press-lord, we would have to look back in American history to the days of William Randolph Hearst, Seldes’ “Public Enemy Number One,” or overseas to the staggering power of Rupert Murdoch in the party affairs of Australia or Great Britain. In Italy, television magnate Silvio Berlusconi made himself Prime Minister of a nation utterly disaffected with the sterility of party conflict, a precedent which must make us rejoice that our own Tribune of the People, Ross Perot, made his fortune in computers rather than television. To understand the mind of the media titan, we might consider Evelyn Waugh’s magnificent portrait of “Lord Copper,” based on the Harmsworth family who were the British equivalents of the American Hearsts. Though talentless in his own right, the lordship demanded the fealty of any aspiring politician and brooked no contradiction: when agreeing with him, one responded “Absolutely, Lord Copper,” while negation had to be phrased “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” The word “no” was as impermissible as it presumably would be today for a Murdoch or a Beriusconi.

News media have always been commercially driven operations that seek to maximize profit, but the emerging complexes are new in their annihilation of the distinctions between news and entertainment, and simultaneously between commercial and political interests. The news/entertainment nexus is a familiar complaint, but the exploitation of news media for other purposes is a phenomenon that still requires analysis. Last year, we witnessed the media fervor over the introduction of Microsoft’s software package Windows ’95, an outburst that can best be understood in the context of the commercial interests at work. Among the cheerleaders was Gannett’s USA Today, which coincidentally is available on the “Microsoft Network,” as is NBC. As the Washington Post noted, the fawning attention paid by CNN and other Turner outlets may have been tied to the fact that Turner was at that time courting Microsoft’s Bill Gates as a partner in a merger attempt. In Britain, Gates bought up the day’s issue of the once-august Times and distributed it free, complete with Windows ’95 advertising materials. Concepts like journalistic independence acquire a rather humorous tone in this environment.

The diversity of media conglomerates raises policy issues that are quite intractable for regulators, not least in detecting potential conflicts of interest. When a television network is an integral part of a corporate “family” (more or less in the Corleone sense), there will be pressures, however subtle, to discourage journalists from pursuing given stories too aggressively, and the defense and nuclear interests of firms like Westinghouse and GE raise obvious problems in this regard. These internal considerations far exceed even the advertising concerns that were so critical in Seldes’ day.

One of the nastier political scandals to erupt from the recent wave of media mergers involved Rupert Murdoch’s desire to secure favorable treatment from the Congress and administration, a prospect that would be greatly enhanced by the favor of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Following meetings between the two men, Gingrich received a very generous book contract from HarperCollins, a subsidiary of News Corporation, which was the instrument of Rupert Murdoch. While Gingrich strenuously denied wrongdoing, the deal showed the potential for surreptitiously rewarding an ally with nothing as vulgar as a paper bag stuffed with used bills: But why should a hypothetical friend not be remunerated with special terms for his magazine articles or his memoirs, or even with favorable puffery neatly timed to coincide with a difficult primary? Though this particular corporate affiliation is easy to trace, other links are often as lengthy and contorted as an Old Testament genealogy, where several lines of text may be required to determine who ultimately begat which subsidiary.

This does not mean that legislatures need only concern themselves with regulating the content and control of news and overtly political media, while they can be left unchecked in such harmless and nonpolitical areas as video games, music, or sport. When a single conglomerate like Disney dominates such a vast section of popular culture, it is able to dictate some of the basic assumptions of everyday life and social relationships. This point was illustrated by Time-Warner’s postmerger decision to slough off a music subsidiary that had earned political obloquy by producing the more extreme “gangsta rap” groups. Though one may sympathize with this decision and condemn the “music” in question for its violence and misogyny, it is possible to argue that rappers are urban poets expressing (however crudely) an authentic vision of urban America. Whichever stance one takes, it is repugnant to see an aspect of culture regulated solely by a corporate desire to avoid offending Republican politicians who suddenly decide to reinforce their rightist credentials. Couldn’t the company have made a decision on the grounds that it appeared right to them, rather than bowing to politico-commercial expediency?

If the instance of rap seems dubious, we might also consider the homogenization of attitudes in other potentially delicate areas. A filmmaker or film producer might wish for artistic reasons to depict a story in which (for example) a woman falls in love with a man who has raped or beaten her, or a man becomes homosexual because he has been abused by a pedophile, or a career is destroyed through the workings of affirmative action, or Israeli settlers maltreat and exploit Palestinian Arabs, or any one of 1,000 other instances of political incorrectness. Maybe the director wants an ending that is unhappy, unsettling, or merely confused. Any one of these circumstances might arguably produce a film far more complex and interesting than most of the pabulum available on the screens of television or the Multiplex, but the power of corporate concerns makes it virtually impossible that such risky ventures would ever be produced. Apart from natural corporate timidity about cultural matters, conglomerates are sensitive about offending any interest group that might invoke a boycott, or mobilize friendly legislators to penalize the corporate parents of an offending production company. Why strike at a company that produces rap music or commits thoughtcrime in matters like rape or homosexuality, when one can deny its corporate ally a defense contract or a license to build a power plant? And if the choice is phrased in these terms, any sane executive will sacrifice the culturally daring for the orthodox, bland, and boring.

Corporate giganticism promotes cultural spinelessness and (however unconsciously) propagates the social norms of particular interest groups. This enforces political orthodoxy just as clearly as if the news programs allotted only favorable coverage to one party or candidate. Worse, the globalization of media corporations means that consumers in one country no longer have the option of viewing cultural experimentation in another society with different norms and laws. France, Italy, Japan, and Russia are also watching the latest treasure from Stallone or Whoopi Goldberg, and so, probably, are the residents of China and Mali. Domestic producers in these other nations have the option of either withering or adapting until they can pander to global markets.

The construction boom on the “information superhighway” may make this an odd moment to be worried about issues like monopoly and homogeneity: Has it ever been easier for a group or individual to disseminate views worldwide, with the minimum of censorship? While the electronic frontier still has a certain Wild West quality, it is very much open to question how long this freedom will survive both the regulatory endeavors of politicians and commercial pressures from the handful of giant networks like America Online and CompuServe that channel the vast majority of traffic. The only good feature in all this might be that the American party system has never been as vulnerable to the manipulation of media barons as its European counterparts, which serve far more united societies and compact ruling elites. For all the cultural damage they can wreak, they are rarely kingmakers. American democracy survived William Randolph Hearst, and it might outlast Michael Eisner and even Ted Turner.