Take This Media…Please!

Take This Media…Please!

Cultural critics and producers sound off on Big Media.


After compiling our guide to the “Big Ten” media conglomerates, we shared it with cultural producers and critics in a range of fields: music, journalism, television, publishing. Following are their comments.
–The Editors

Al Franken

Al Franken is currently working on his fourth book, Oh, The Things I Know! (Dutton), due to be released in May 2002.

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to vent against something that happened about six years ago: the rescinding of something called fin-syn. Fin-syn, financial interest and syndication rules, used to prevent networks from owning more than a certain percentage of the shows they aired. For years the networks argued that they needed to own their shows in order to be profitable. Fin-syn proponents argued that if the networks were allowed to have a stake in their shows, they would abuse their power, strong-arming producers and giving favorable treatment to shows they had a financial interest in.

In 1995 the networks prevailed after years of fierce lobbying before Congress. And immediately the abuse began. At an American Bar Association dinner in 1997 I sat next to FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky and asked him if he was aware that the networks were doing exactly what they testified they wouldn’t do. He asked, “What did they say they wouldn’t do?”

“Oh, they said stuff like, ‘We’d never favor our own shows. That’d be insane. We need to put the best shows on in order to get ratings.'”

“Oh yeah,” said Pitofsky, “now I remember.” Then he surprised me. Turns out Pitofsky had represented NBC during its lobbying effort. He had been one of the people saying those things. Now he wanted to know what was happening.

What was happening was that the networks were extorting studios and independents. Give us a piece of your show, or we won’t air it. Give us a bigger piece and we’ll give you a better time slot. They went very quickly from doing it secretly to doing it right out in the open. After all, if you’re the buyer and seller of programming, it would practically be corporate malpractice not to exploit your position. The studios and independents resisted at first on principle, then caved.

Who cares? If you watch network television, you should. The same people who are scheduling the shows are making the shows, so what you see reflects the tastes of fewer and fewer people. Maybe you’ve noticed.

And, of course, the rescinding of fin-syn actually made this chart possible. Studios not only could buy networks, they essentially had to buy them in self-defense. Disney, Fox Studios and Paramount (Viacom) don’t have to compete with ABC, Fox and CBS. They are ABC, Fox and CBS.

The sad thing is all the members of Congress who were lied to during the fight over fin-syn. For some reason, it doesn’t seem to bother them. I don’t know. Maybe they want to make sure they can get on TV.


Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco is a singer, songwriter, guitarist and founder of the Buffalo, New York-based independent label Righteous Babe Records. Her latest album is the two-disc set Revelling/Reckoning.

For the longest time my only mainstream media coverage was the occasional local daily preview of an upcoming performance or, even more rarely, a local album review. Features were very few and far between because I had no major-label backing (read: corporate backing), and they were always the impetus of a genuine ally: a like-minded reporter with an ear to the underground. But by and large, I remember that back in the day, one story dominated Joe Newspaper’s portrayal of me as I putt-putted through town with my feminist songs and my incessant smile: I was an angry, angry girl.

My problem with the mainstream media is a personal one. They generally ignored me for seven years (save for the reactionary sexist stereotyping) until my audience was too big to ignore, and then finally, about five years ago, I sprang full-grown from the major media brow as the next great indie phenomenon.

“How did she get here without us?” the corporate media monolith asked itself. “Why, it must be her business savvy,” it answered.

Of course, we all know that in the political arena, anti-corporate sentiment is the first casualty of the corporate-controlled media. But what of the remaining fodder available to us? What about the dumb, easy stuff like music criticism or celebrity interviews? Where does the capitalist agenda end and personal interest begin? I don’t rightly know, but I have a personal interest in the intersection of culture, capitalism and media, because I am often standing at that crossroads with my guitar.

It’s daunting to have a force much bigger than yourself misshaping opinion about you at every turn, but it’s also instructive. I have learned the hard way about the fallacy of objectivity. Even a Q&A can be a funhouse mirror, as I have learned from one oversimplified, paraphrased, out-of-context interview after another: If you’re not asking the right questions, there are no right answers.

Ever a slave to my mother’s smile-and-be-sweet upbringing, I spent years trying to assimilate myself to the interviewers’ culture long enough to answer their questions politely. And for years I was left feeling compromised and icky. For example, a semirhetorical icebreaker such as, “So, you’re on tour supporting your new record?” could stun me at the outset. “Uh…yeah,” I replied, until I developed the courage and composure to say things like, “Well, no. I am on tour…because that’s my job as a working musician. In contrast to the commonplace industry model of: make an album then go on tour to sell the album, I do not play live music for the purpose of marketing a commodity. I see touring as an end in itself, as all folksingers do. Live performance is activism, exorcism and music school for me. Albums are peripheral. In fact, the scheduling of my touring itineraries and my periodic documenting of songs on albums is so disconnected that I have repeatedly found myself touring right up to album release and then taking an unstrategic but much-needed vacation.”

You can see how this could make for some cumbersome conversations. Try this one on for size: “How is your life different now that you are successful?” A simple question, right? I answered it straight a few times, before a light went off in my head that helped illuminate why it made me so uncomfortable.

“What do you mean by ‘success’?” I replied on that day. “The fact that I am appearing in your magazine? Because I think I was successful when I was 19 years old and could sell twenty tapes in one night to an audience of fifty people. I was successful when I quit my last day job at age 21 and supported myself through music without starving. I felt successful when I would show up at some student-union cafeteria, stand under the fluorescent lights and give people songs that would make them cry and stomp their feet and laugh out loud. In fact, it was the very idea that neither fame nor fortune could make you a success in life, but something deeper, that gave me the patience to remain independent all those hard years and not reach for the corporate carrot.”

I have spent too much of my life accommodating the (often subtle) sexist or capitalist subtext of my dialogue with the mainstream media. I’ve since grown the will to amend that situation, but damn–if I think outside the box, does it mean that I have to spend my fifteen minutes pointing at the box? For a girl whose very nature compels her to speed headlong into a world of her own invention, these arduous attempts at questioning the question can feel like so many wheels spinning.

When writer and subject share an ideological or cultural perspective, the conversations can begin to stretch and sing in a way that is indigenous to the subject. Otherwise, most of the movement in an interview can feel like a slow, jostling journey to square one.

Engaging the major media sources and entering into hand-to-hand combat with my stereotype has had its effect, though, I must say. Twelve years and fifteen albums have gone by, and I’ve noted an improvement in the terms of the discussions and the level of understanding that surrounds little me and my work. My optimist’s heart insists that I am not an aberration, either, but an example of the possibilities that exist for radical subculture to trickle into the mainstream.

Even in this age of corporate mega-mergers and media hegemony I have to believe that slowly…slowly…the truth will out.


Phil Donahue

Phil Donahue’s early career included both radio and television news journalism experience. The Phil Donahue Show, which he founded in 1967, was the first audience-participation talk show in American history.

In 1959 I worked for WABJ in Adrian, Michigan. “The Voice of Lenawee County” was the proverbial small-wattage station in the Midwest, a dead-end place unless you were young and fearless enough to use it as a gateway to bigger things. When I was twenty-something I reported more than the weather on WABJ. I announced PTA and Rotary Club meetings, births at Bixby Hospital and the daily death report from the coroner’s office. I reported the local news of the day in southeast Michigan.

The Big Ten foldout chart in this issue of The Nation reveals the aftermath of the orgy of corporate cannibalism that has consumed the US broadcasting/entertainment industries since my barely noticed departure from Adrian.

It was the Adrian experience that turned me on to journalism. I was impressed with my own power–I could stop the mayor cold in his tracks just by approaching him with a microphone attached to a cumbersome Norelco tape recorder equipped with the vacuum tubes of yesteryear and a highly visible WABJ attached to the microphone. I also experienced the joy of being thrown out of an office. I had asked an unwelcome question and was promptly escorted to the door by an Adrian city commissioner. I played softball on the Police Department team, covered my first murder in nearby Hillsdale. The excitement and power of broadcast journalism were alive and well at this 250-watter in Smalltown, Michigan.

Until the 1980s one company could legally own no more than seven AM and seven FM stations. In 2001, one company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,200. Profit at many stations is promoted by stripping staff to the bone; some of these places have barely any employees and no local programming. They are computerized corporate jukeboxes, reverse ATM machines. Their broadcast day is filled with the canned and the bland, a puree prepared at a place far away. Now we have hundreds of radio stations creating a profit with virtually no on-air personnel and no newsroom, no Associated Press wire, no birth announcements, no obits. And not least, no coverage of the police, the PTA or the Lions Club and no high school football scores.

Nothing but digital music, commercials and profit.

The radio of my youth, the place where we learned of the goings-on about town, the life stuff of a small community, is now a quaint memory replaced by computer hard drives that operate twenty-four hours, seven days without the touch of a human hand. These robotic installations also function without any pretense of “serving the public interest,” the long-forgotten mandate of the FCC. The Happy Days AM radio of the 1950s may have sounded like wall-to-wall Teresa Brewer, but at least a live person spoke with us between records, and my own drive-in, sock-hop crowd got a dose of the real world during hourly newscasts.

The brokers of America’s AM and FM stations argue that the reality of economics in today’s radio market mandates consolidation. Nonsense: Consolidation is mandated by the greed of the broadcast lobby. Speaking of mandates, we once believed that the great promise of broadcasting mandated diversity, an ideal that dissolved along with the rules of limited ownership, an idea that came, went and should come again. It’s the only way to provide a chance for brash young broadcasters who, equipped with an audio tape recorder, just might discover the power of journalism and practice the noble work of serving the public interest.

Otherwise we have abandoned, without a fight, the fabulous thing called radio. We have surrendered its promise to the large hard drive that hums relentlessly, day after day after day, in an empty room, displacing what was once a bugle of ideas and culture, a vast smorgasbord of programming, which taught us about birth and death in our hometown, and allowed a young and fearless person with a tape recorder to stop the mayor cold in his tracks.

Danny Goldberg

Danny Goldberg is the CEO and co-owner of the independent music company Artemis Records.

When I look at the vast web of companies clustered in gigantic international media corporations, I imagine hundreds of nervous division managers worrying about the next quarter’s profits, which are the main driver of share price, which is the primary “report card” for CEOs. An enormous proportion of the energy of most of the smartest people at these places is thus focused on an arc of ninety days or less.

Short-term thinking is not, in itself, necessarily bad for aesthetics and culture. Without such earnings pressure it seems unlikely that a group of white, middle-aged music executives would have empowered and enriched inner-city African-Americans in the rap business, producing music that is so reviled by the intellectual and political establishments. The fact that the radical political rock band Rage Against the Machine has recorded for Sony Music for its entire career further illustrates the quirkiness of the modern media corporation.

On the other hand, to have so little intellectual capital devoted to thinking years instead of months in advance creates weird distortions. Many forms of creativity are stifled or crushed in such environments. Brilliant artists with passionate audiences are cast adrift.

On the bright side, despite enormous efforts at consolidation, “independents” still have a 15-20 percent market share in the music business. Reactionaries, knaves and fools show up at indie companies as regularly as big ones, but independence does provide a more fertile environment for longer-term thinking and edgy creativity. It is no accident that rap as well as innovative rock artists such as Nirvana started on indies, nor that Ani DiFranco remains one. The rest of the media would be a lot healthier if they had equally large independent sectors, but the only way that will happen is if individuals, inspired by original and effective mavericks such as Michael Moore and Danny Schechter, take the wild and scary risk of working crazy hours against all odds and operate their own underfunded, fragile new endeavors.


James Fallows

James Fallows, the national correspondent of The Atlantic Monthly, published Breaking the News in 1996.

As a concept, pure free-marketism reached a high-water mark in January 1995. That was when the new Republican majority assumed control of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich was elected its Speaker and the technology-and-finance boom got under way in earnest.

The financial boom chugged ahead for several more years, but the romance of laissez-faire began to run into complications. The international version of this theory–“unregulated markets and increased global trade will bring democracy and harmony”–didn’t fit realities in Eastern Europe, in Southeast Asia, at World Trade Organization meetings or in much of the Islamic world. The domestic-policy version–“Let’s forget about regulations and safety nets, since the new economy has eliminated the business cycle”–has had its own problems: the NASDAQ collapse, the California energy disaster and the Enron shell-game, the sudden rise in unemployment and the dramatic shift of the federal budget from surplus to deficit. Newt Gingrich was gone as the symbol of the Republicans four years after his rise to glory, replaced by a man who at least campaigned as a “compassionate” conservative. And these past few months, no politician has pushed the atomized, Ayn Rand-style vision of ideal social life.

What is left, as a kind of geologic artifact of that bygone era, is the radical free-marketism of policy toward the media. Until the 1990s, the idea had been that news organizations in particular, and the communications business in general, were logically similar to transportation, higher education and medical care. In fields like these, private enterprises did most of the work, often as profit-making businesses. But the broad social effects of such businesses were so great that the standards and service were not left wholly to the market. An airline couldn’t decide to fly defective planes for lower fares and let the market reveal its risk preference. (As it turned out, airlines did lowball their security-screener contracts, which illustrates the point.)

The Nation‘s chart shows the result of letting the communications business operate strictly as a business. With the end of limits on concentration and chain ownership, the media biz has sorted out into a few big conglomerates, as has happened in the automobile and apparel industries. The Gap is allied with Old Navy and Banana Republic; similarly, CNN touts stories from Time publications, with links on the AOL home page. The idea of the mid-1990s has been discredited; its effects live on.

Nancy Kranich

Nancy Kranich is the immediate past president of the American Library Association and was formerly associate dean of libraries at New York University.

Within hours of the terrorist attacks on September 11, people rushed to libraries and cleared the shelves of materials about the Taliban, Islam, Afghanistan and terrorism. The most obscure books on these topics had close to 100 holds pending at just one small branch library in downtown Manhattan. Most remarkable, few of these titles were produced by any of the Big Ten media corporations. In fact, most were published by university presses, the federal government or small independents. During such a crisis, the public sought background materials, not bestsellers, to foster understanding and cope with this horrific event by leaning on a trustworthy, reliable source–the library.

Democracy needs not only an abundance but also a diversity of information to thrive, particularly when facing economic and security crises. Public discourse during this time of trial depends upon sources outside the mainstream–sources unlikely to return the level of profit needed to satisfy the mass-market strategies of multinational conglomerates.

The Nation‘s 2001 “Big Ten” chart dramatizes the extent of media consolidation and conglomeration, but it does not depict all the ways in which the public is denied access to information essential to global understanding, economic well-being and participation in democratic processes. Organizations supporting the production of specialized information–organizations like libraries–are among the first cut in an economic downturn. When library budgets get slashed, small media companies suffer most. Without the market created by libraries, these independent and scholarly producers face downsizing or even extinction.

The spiral of declining library budgets and disappearing small-media producers carries with it more than the loss of esoteric titles. Democracy itself suffers. The debates yet to come–on the Taliban, on Afghanistan, on terrorism and on any new order to emerge–will thrive or founder on the quality of the ideas brought into the arena. As fewer conglomerates dominate the mainstream media market, we cannot assume that libraries will be able to continue offering alternatives. Robust public debate depends upon the survival and symbiosis of libraries with small-media producers. Without the ideas from these sources, public discourse will languish in conventionality and ignorance.


Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux (www.juliannemalveaux.com) is a Washington, DC-based economist and syndicated columnist. Her most recent book, Wall Street, Main Street and the Side Street: A Mad Economist Takes a Stroll (Pines One), is a collection of her columns.

How do the independent media survive and maintain integrity in light of massive agglomeration? Some don’t–Ms. magazine was recently sold to a nonprofit organization that can absorb losses in a way that the magazine couldn’t. When I look at the chart I see a concentration of media power, a seamless connection between radio, television, newspapers, books, the Internet, movies and magazines in a manner that bolsters a corporate position and squelches a diversity of voices.

When I say diversity, I don’t mean race, ethnicity or class–though those things very much matter. I speak of a diversity in view and vision, something that becomes increasingly important as the current climate encourages a patriotic hegemony and discourages honest dissent with the President, whether it is about his war tactics or economic stimulus. The rush to uniform thinking has muted the voices of many who oppose corporate givebacks such as repeal of the alternative minimum tax, while making those who express their opinion especially vulnerable to attack. In his December 8 radio address, criticizing the Senate for not passing the House’s corporation-favoring stimulus package, President Bush said, “Now is not the time for partisan politics. Now is the time for leadership. It’s time to act.” But the Senate should not act on a proposal that includes billions in corporate giveaways. Instead, it should offer a stimulus package targeted to those who have felt the brunt of recession. In our living rooms and at our lunch tables, Americans are talking about stimulus, about public-works possibilities and about other ways those at the bottom can get a break. In the media, though, such voices aren’t heard.

When “the media” reflect a corporate bottom line, the breadth and depth of coverage suffer. Three decades ago, there were labor reporters in the United States–people who covered a comprehensive labor beat. They weren’t “general interest” economic reporters who wrote one or two pieces a year on an AFL-CIO convention; they knew the players and understood the issues. Today, one in seven workers belongs to a union, but labor reporters are few and far between. So are consumer-affairs reporters, the ones who can spend half a year busting a predatory retailer. And so are foreign correspondents, even though they may be experiencing little unemployment in the wake of 9/11. None of us should be surprised at the trend toward quick and dirty news, low-cost, talking-head-driven programming. When a media outlet is a cog in a wheel that must help maximize corporate profits, not part of an information-gathering entity, then containing costs, not providing information, is a priority.

The current organization of the nation’s media increases my respect and appreciation for independent voices that struggle to put diverse views out there, people like Farai Chideya at popandpolitics.com, Don Rojas at The Black World Today, The Progressive, The Nation and others who are passionate about their need to get the word out there independently.

Danny Schechter

Danny Schechter is the executive editor of Globalvision’s Mediachannel.org and author of News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics (Akashic Books and Electronpress.com).

Ownership charts are at once a sign of the times and the sign that points to who controls the ways we understand our times. They are welcome, but as road maps to relationships that need fleshing out. In the real world, these entities function like amoebas, intersecting and collaborating with their competitors. It is their cumulative impact in framing issues and filtering out opinions that challenge their worldview that is more insidious. As Benjamin Barber of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland explains: “A year from now the mergers and alliances will have again shifted and some successful owners will be some other corporation’s prey. The players will not have changed, however, only the line score on their current game.”

How do ownership patterns affect journalism? Broadcasters were into cloning well before scientists. Board rooms don’t fax the newsroom–they don’t have to. The ideological uniformity and homogeneity of their multichannel environment is, in Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “pervasively invisible.” The many channels and choices are more apparent to the public than the narrow range of voices. Newscasters say the world changed “forever” after September 11, but media haven’t changed all that much. Regular programming and commercials were briefly interrupted, but it was soon back to business. Coverage of the world has increased only because Washington is more engaged in certain parts of it. While there is certainly more “serious news” than in recent years, it is still largely marching in lockstep with government policies. A post-9/11 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism notes that “while the news has gotten more serious, almost all of the change is focused on the war, which suggests that the networks may have simply changed subjects rather than changed their approach to the news.” Their sameness of approach and style is blatant; no wonder CBS and ABC are now considering joint newsgathering.

As a media maker as well as a critic, I can report that independent companies like ours are having a harder time than ever in this über-merged environment. That’s because most networks tend to produce in-house or acquire product from other divisions in their conglomerates. Our work is rarely rejected on grounds of irrelevance or incompetence. What we hear instead from both commercial outlets and commercializing public broadcasters is that critically edged work is “worthy” but NFU–“Not For Us.” When documentaries of a kind routinely aired elsewhere in the world become programmas-non-grata, we have to recognize that we are up against a largely closed system (i.e., as represented by the chart’s colored boxes). Entertainment-oriented formats and formulas rule in a blatantly top-down, corporate-friendly climate, with little interest in dissenting ideas or bottom-up global reporting. This was always true; only it is getting worse.

You have to get outside the box to see what’s missing–other boxes offering diverse perspectives, or public-service channels about the environment (not just wildlife), labor issues and forums for citizen debate. They are missing not because the audience isn’t interested–most viewers blast major media whenever asked. No, it’s because the power concentrated in this maze has, over time, replaced democracy with its own self-referencing mediocracy.


Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

By demonstrating the extraordinary concentration of media power in the hands of a few massive corporations, this chart goes a long way toward explaining the persistent pattern of distortions in both the news and entertainment industries and the dearth of alternative voices and ideas. This is, in fact, the schematic of what Adorno called “The Great Wurlitzer,” the loosely coordinated light and sound show that entertains and confounds the American public.

In terms of news coverage, it explains the homogeneity of the concerns and perspectives reflected in reportage and commentary, the exclusion of alternative perspectives and the propagation of a worldview determined by various forms of official rhetoric. Such power is jealously guarded against both domestic and international challenges, as demonstrated by the campaign of vilification against the Arabic-language newschannel Al Jazeera, which rose to prominence during the bombing of Afghanistan. This attack on Al Jazeera culminated in the deliberate bombing of its Kabul headquarters by the US military in the hours before the Northern Alliance entered the city.

For Arab-Americans, this concentrated media power means an almost complete lack of interest or understanding on the part of major American news organizations of the experiences and concerns of the Arab peoples, and a general tone of condescension, hostility and bias. In its most egregious form, regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it means a persistent pattern of privileging Israeli lives, security and concerns over those of Palestinians, against whom unparalleled levels of racist vitriol from commentators is considered legitimate.

The key industries of American mass culture, Hollywood and television, for decades have been bastions of anti-Arab stereotyping, and have consistently resisted positive or realistic representations of Arabs and Arab-Americans. Negative representations in popular culture reinforce, and are reinforced by, hostile journalism, confrontational academic polemics and government policies that are informed by anti-Arab bias and at times even act out stereotypes received from popular culture.

The result is a self-perpetuating vicious circle of negativity about Arabs, Arab-Americans and Muslims, who have been all-too-successfully represented as “the enemy” in contemporary American culture. Such generalized negativity is what allowed so many Americans to conclude that the September 11 attacks were somehow representative of Arab culture and/or Islam, leading to a massive backlash of hate crimes and discrimination. The corporate monopoly on media power represented in this chart helps insure that such negative images dominate the popular culture and cannot be easily challenged by alternatives.


Nicholas Johnson

Nicholas Johnson, an FCC commissioner from 1966 to 1973, now teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City.

Some thirty-five years ago ITT’s attempted takeover of ABC provided my baptism into the sea of media-concentration issues. That case, including my lengthy dissents to the FCC’s approval, continued through my first year as FCC commissioner. An expanded discussion for The Atlantic Monthly, “The Media Barons and the Public Interest,” became a centerpiece of my book How to Talk Back to Your Television Set.

Where I live the Big Ten is an athletic conference. The Nation‘s “Big Ten” chart depicts far more serious stuff. What seemed evil and outrageous in the late 1960s now looks like America’s Golden Age of media diversity. Media concentration is a dagger in America’s heart–the First Amendment. There are at least four consequences:

First, there are fewer owners of dominant media. Fewer cities with meaningful competition. Fewer owners within each medium. Owners have ultimate control over content. So there’s potentially, and actually, less diversity of information and opinion.

Second, profit pressures produce a dumbing down of journalism. News junkies must turn to the Internet, foreign press and BBC. Product placement and program-length TV commercials used to violate FCC rules. No longer. We have twenty-four-hour shopping channels. The media choose content not to educate or inform but to pander to the consumers advertisers most desire.

Third, multimedia conglomerates are a publicist’s dream. Global hype of manufactured blockbusters and superstars can, and does, replace diversity, quality and new talent. A single conglomerate can orchestrate subsidiaries from magazines to books, screenwriters, film studios, movie theaters, print and broadcast critics, television networks, videotape production and rental, new TV series, cable systems and program originators.

Finally, the Supreme Court considers such conglomerates the First Amendment equivalent of a soapbox orator or tract writer 200 years ago. The only Americans with meaningful First Amendment rights today are those who own the media; The Nation‘s “Big Ten.”

Editors and journalists don’t have First Amendment rights. Freelance writers sure don’t. Unless you have billions in spare pocket change and buy one of the Big Ten for yourself, you’re out of the game. Silenced.

The Court says with a First Amendment right to speak goes the right to censor all others. It’s OK to own the only conduit in town and also censor its content.

Think about that for a moment–and then take another look at The Nation‘s chart.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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