Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
When Ben Bagdikian predicted in the first edition of The Media Monopoly (1983) that the future would see a half-dozen corporations controlling most of the media market, he was attacked as alarmist and paranoid. This month, when the Time and Warner communication giants announced their merger, making it the world’s biggest media corporation, Time executives asserted that there will eventually be about a half-dozen global powers in the media, and they vowed to make their company one of them (AP, Boston Globe, 3/5/89). Life imitates Ben.
Most of the press treated the merger as simply a business story. The only criticism of the merger came from representatives of media corporations worried about their ability to compete with Time-Warner—e.g., “Time Deal Worrying Competitors” (New York Times, 3/7/89), featuring the concerns of Robert Wright, the president of little ole NBC, owned by General Electric. Except for rare reports, like WNET-TV’s 11th Hour (3/9/89), coverage generally excluded public interest critics warning that a media controlled by a few huge firms constitutes a threat to democratic discourse.
Some have defended media mergers, arguing that bigness helps ward off external political pressures on news or publishing operations. Not true in the case of the well-reviewed book DuPont: Behind the Nylon Curtain, which in 1974 was to be distributed by Time, Inc.’s Fortune Book Club. After Du Pont threatened to withdraw its ads from Time, Life and Fortune magazines, the book club broke its contract and dropped the book (Media Monopoly, 1987, pp. 37—39).
Outside pressure isn’t needed when inside executives act as censors. In 1973, a subsidiary of Warner Communications was set to publish Counter-Revolutionary Violence by Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman, a book critical of US support for right-wing dictatorships in the Third World. As soon as a conservative corporate executive got wind of the ad campaign planned to promote the book, he canceled the book and had all 10,000 copies of it destroyed (Media Monopoly, pp. 32—34). Warner officials had financially supported Richard Nixon and his Committee to Reelect the President; after Nixon left office in disgrace, Warner paid him a then-unprecedented $2 million advance for his memoirs.
Are corporate media owners more concerned with profits than a vibrant First Amendment? Consider the fact that the two recent presidential candidates most overwhelmingly endorsed by newspaper publishers, Nixon and Reagan, were the same two who supervised the most intense attacks on freedom of the press and information. Not coincidentally, these were the two presidents who, in Bagdikian’s words, “made extraordinary moves to support corporate expansion in the media.” Recent weeks have shown that entrusting the First Amendment to big corporations can be risky business. The complaints of one suburban parent provoked several big corporations to withdraw their sponsorship from a “racy” TV sitcom. Threats over Salman Rushdie’s novel had two book chains rushing to remove books from their shelves.
Corporate domination of the media has worsened dramatically in the last two decades. In 1966, when CBS executives refused to air an important Senate hearing in lieu of an I Love Lucy rerun, the head of CBS News resigned in protest. That same year, ITT’s move to take over ABC was broken up by the Justice Department after a huge outcry that ITT’s vast holdings would “compromise ABC’s news coverage.” Two decades later, bottom-line precedence over news rarely sparks protest by journalists and General Electric’s takeover of NBC was hardly debated in Washington or the media.
Some journalists claim they pursue stories without fear or favor regarding their corporate parent or sponsors. On the other hand, many TV journalists admitted to freelancer Dennis Bernstein (Extra!, 9-10/88) that they’ve engaged in self-censorship after learning that certain stories were off-limits for airtime. It’s worth noting that when the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) surveyed editors working for newspaper chains if they felt free to run stories damaging to their parent firm, 33 percent said “No.” Years have passed since the ASNE survey; today the parent firms are bigger than ever.