What's Wrong With This Picture?
For all their economic clout and cultural sway, the ten great multinationals profiled in our latest chart--AOL Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, Sony, Bertelsmann, AT&T and Liberty Media--rule the cosmos only at the moment. The media cartel that keeps us fully entertained and permanently half-informed is always growing here and shriveling there, with certain of its members bulking up while others slowly fall apart or get digested whole. But while the players tend to come and go--always with a few exceptions--the overall Leviathan itself keeps getting bigger, louder, brighter, forever taking up more time and space, in every street, in countless homes, in every other head.
The rise of the cartel has been a long time coming (and it still has some way to go). It represents the grand convergence of the previously disparate US culture industries--many of them vertically monopolized already--into one global superindustry providing most of our imaginary "content." The movie business had been largely dominated by the major studios in Hollywood; TV, like radio before it, by the triune axis of the networks headquartered in New York; magazines, primarily by Henry Luce (with many independent others on the scene); and music, from the 1960s, mostly by the major record labels. Now all those separate fields are one, the whole terrain divided up among the giants--which, in league with Barnes & Noble, Borders and the big distributors, also control the book business. (Even with its leading houses, book publishing was once a cottage industry at both the editorial and retail levels.) For all the democratic promise of the Internet, moreover, much of cyberspace has now been occupied, its erstwhile wildernesses swiftly paved and lighted over by the same colossi. The only industry not yet absorbed into this new world order is the newsprint sector of the Fourth Estate--a business that was heavily shadowed to begin with by the likes of Hearst and other, regional grandees, flush with the ill-gotten gains of oil, mining and utilities--and such absorption is, as we shall see, about to happen.
Thus what we have today is not a problem wholly new in kind but rather the disastrous upshot of an evolutionary process whereby that old problem has become considerably larger--and that great quantitative change, with just a few huge players now co-directing all the nation's media, has brought about enormous qualitative changes. For one thing, the cartel's rise has made extremely rare the sort of marvelous exception that has always popped up, unexpectedly, to startle and revivify the culture--the genuine independents among record labels, radio stations, movie theaters, newspapers, book publishers and so on. Those that don't fail nowadays are so remarkable that they inspire not emulation but amazement. Otherwise, the monoculture, endlessly and noisily triumphant, offers, by and large, a lot of nothing, whether packaged as "the news" or "entertainment."
Of all the cartel's dangerous consequences for American society and culture, the worst is its corrosive influence on journalism. Under AOL Time Warner, GE, Viacom et al., the news is, with a few exceptions, yet another version of the entertainment that the cartel also vends nonstop. This is also nothing new--consider the newsreels of yesteryear--but the gigantic scale and thoroughness of the corporate concentration has made a world of difference, and so has made this world a very different place.
Let us start to grasp the situation by comparing this new centerfold with our first outline of the National Entertainment State, published in the spring of 1996. Back then, the national TV news appeared to be a tidy tetrarchy: two network news divisions owned by large appliance makers/weapons manufacturers (CBS by Westinghouse, NBC by General Electric), and the other two bought lately by the nation's top purveyors of Big Fun (ABC by Disney, CNN by Time Warner). Cable was still relatively immature, so that, of its many enterprises, only CNN competed with the broadcast networks' short-staffed newsrooms; and its buccaneering founder, Ted Turner, still seemed to call the shots from his new aerie at Time Warner headquarters.
Today the telejournalistic firmament includes the meteoric Fox News Channel, as well as twenty-six television stations owned outright by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (which holds majority ownership in a further seven). Although ultimately thwarted in his bid to buy DirecTV and thereby dominate the US satellite television market, Murdoch wields a pervasive influence on the news--and not just in New York, where he has two TV stations, a major daily (the faltering New York Post) and the Fox News Channel, whose inexhaustible platoons of shouting heads attracts a fierce plurality of cable-viewers. Meanwhile, Time Warner has now merged with AOL--so as to own the cyberworks through which to market its floodtide of movies, ball games, TV shows, rock videos, cartoons, standup routines and (not least) bits from CNN, CNN Headline News, CNNfn (devised to counter GE's CNBC) and CNN/Sports Illustrated (a would-be rival to Disney's ESPN franchise). While busily cloning CNN, the parent company has also taken quiet steps to make it more like Fox, with Walter Isaacson, the new head honcho, even visiting the Capitol to seek advice from certain rightist pols on how, presumably, to make the network even shallower and more obnoxious. (He also courted Rush Himself.) All this has occurred since the abrupt defenestration of Ted Turner, who now belatedly laments the overconcentration of the cable business: "It's sad we're losing so much diversity of thought," he confesses, sounding vaguely like a writer for this magazine.
Whereas five years ago the clueless Westinghouse owned CBS, today the network is a property of the voracious Viacom--matchless cable occupier (UPN, MTV, MTV2, VH1, Nickelodeon, the Movie Channel, TNN, CMT, BET, 50 percent of Comedy Central, etc.), radio colossus (its Infinity Broadcasting--home to Howard Stern and Don Imus--owns 184 stations), movie titan (Paramount Pictures), copious publisher (Simon & Schuster, Free Press, Scribner), a big deal on the web and one of the largest US outdoor advertising firms. Under Viacom, CBS News has been obliged to help sell Viacom's product--in 2000, for example, devoting epic stretches of The Early Show to what lately happened on Survivor (CBS). Of course, such synergistic bilge is commonplace, as is the tendency to dummy up on any topic that the parent company (or any of its advertisers) might want stifled. These journalistic sins have been as frequent under "longtime" owners Disney and GE as under Viacom and Fox [see Janine Jaquet, "The Sins of Synergy," page 20]. They may also abound beneath Vivendi, whose recent purchase of the film and TV units of USA Networks and new stake in the satellite TV giant EchoStar--moves too recent for inclusion in our chart--could soon mean lots of oblique self-promotion on USAM News, in L'Express and L'Expansion, and through whatever other news-machines the parent buys.
Such is the telejournalistic landscape at the moment--and soon it will mutate again, if Bush's FCC delivers for its giant clients. On September 13, when the minds of the American people were on something else, the commission's GOP majority voted to "review" the last few rules preventing perfect oligopoly. They thus prepared the ground for allowing a single outfit to own both a daily paper and a TV station in the same market--an advantage that was outlawed in 1975. (Even then, pre-existing cases of such ownership were grandfathered in, and any would-be owner could get that rule waived.) That furtive FCC "review" also portended the elimination of the cap on the percentage of US households that a single owner might reach through its TV stations. Since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the limit had been 35 percent. Although that most indulgent bill was dictated by the media giants themselves, its restrictions are too heavy for this FCC, whose chairman, Michael Powell, has called regulation per se "the oppressor."