What’s Wrong With This Picture?

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

The rise of the media cartel has been a long time coming. The cultural effects are not new in kind, but the problem has become considerably larger.


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."

And so, unless there's some effective opposition, the several-headed vendor that now sells us nearly all our movies, TV, radio, magazines, books, music and web services will soon be selling us our daily papers, too–for the major dailies have, collectively, been lobbying energetically for that big waiver, which stands to make their owners even richer (an expectation that has no doubt had a sweetening effect on coverage of the Bush Administration). Thus the largest US newspaper conglomerates–the New York Times, the Washington Post, Gannett, Knight-Ridder and the Tribune Co.–will soon be formal partners with, say, GE, Murdoch, Disney and/or AT&T; and then the lesser nationwide chains (and the last few independents) will be ingested, too, going the way of most US radio stations. America's cities could turn into informational "company towns," with one behemoth owning all the local print organs–daily paper(s), alternative weekly, city magazine–as well as the TV and radio stations, the multiplexes and the cable system. (Recently a federal appeals court told the FCC to drop its rule preventing any one company from serving more than 30 percent of US cable subscribers; and in December, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.) While such a setup may make economic sense, as anticompetitive arrangements tend to do, it has no place in a democracy, where the people have to know more than their masters want to tell them.

That imperative demands reaffirmation at this risky moment, when much of what the media cartel purveys to us is propaganda, commercial or political, while no one in authority makes mention of "the public interest"–except to laugh it off. "I have no idea," Powell cheerily replied at his first press conference as chairman, when asked for his own definition of that crucial concept. "It's an empty vessel in which people pour in whatever their preconceived views or biases are." Such blithe obtuseness has marked all his public musings on the subject. In a speech before the American Bar Association in April 1998, Powell offered an ironic little riff about how thoroughly he doesn't get it: "The night after I was sworn in [as a commissioner], I waited for a visit from the angel of the public interest. I waited all night, but she did not come." On the other hand, Powell has never sounded glib about his sacred obligation to the corporate interest. Of his decision to move forward with the FCC vote just two days after 9/11, Powell spoke as if that sneaky move had been a gesture in the spirit of Patrick Henry: "The flame of the American ideal may flicker, but it will never be extinguished. We will do our small part and press on with our business, solemnly, but resolutely."

Certainly the FCC has never been a democratic force, whichever party has been dominant. Bill Clinton championed the disastrous Telecom Act of 1996 and otherwise did almost nothing to impede the drift toward oligopoly. (As Newsweek reported in 2000, Al Gore was Rupert Murdoch's personal choice for President. The mogul apparently sensed that Gore would happily play ball with him, and also thought–correctly–that the Democrat would win.)

What is unique to Michael Powell, however, is the showy superciliousness with which he treats his civic obligation to address the needs of people other than the very rich. That spirit has shone forth many times–as when the chairman genially compared the "digital divide" between the information haves and have-nots to a "Mercedes divide" between the lucky few who can afford great cars and those (like him) who can't. In the intensity of his pro-business bias, Powell recalls Mark Fowler, head of Reagan's FCC, who famously denied his social obligations by asserting that TV is merely "an appliance," "a toaster with pictures." And yet such Reaganite bons mots, fraught with the anti-Communist fanaticism of the late cold war, evinced a deadly earnestness that's less apparent in General Powell's son. He is a blithe, postmodern sort of ideologue, attuned to the complacent smirk of Bush the Younger–and, of course, just perfect for the cool and snickering culture of TV.

Although such flippancies are hard to take, they're also easy to refute, for there is no rationale for such an attitude. Take "the public interest"–an ideal that really isn't hard to understand. A media system that enlightens us, that tells us everything we need to know pertaining to our lives and liberty and happiness, would be a system dedicated to the public interest. Such a system would not be controlled by a cartel of giant corporations, because those entities are ultimately hostile to the welfare of the people. Whereas we need to know the truth about such corporations, they often have an interest in suppressing it (as do their advertisers). And while it takes much time and money to find out the truth, the parent companies prefer to cut the necessary costs of journalism, much preferring the sort of lurid fare that can drive endless hours of agitated jabbering. (Prior to 9/11, it was Monica, then Survivor and Chandra Levy, whereas, since the fatal day, we have had mostly anthrax, plus much heroic footage from the Pentagon.) The cartel's favored audience, moreover, is that stratum of the population most desirable to advertisers–which has meant the media's complete abandonment of working people and the poor. And while the press must help protect us against those who would abuse the powers of government, the oligopoly is far too cozy with the White House and the Pentagon, whose faults, and crimes, it is unwilling to expose. The media's big bosses want big favors from the state, while the reporters are afraid to risk annoying their best sources. Because of such politeness (and, of course, the current panic in the air), the US coverage of this government is just a bit more edifying than the local newscasts in Riyadh.

Against the daily combination of those corporate tendencies–conflict of interest, endless cutbacks, endless trivial pursuits, class bias, deference to the king and all his men–the public interest doesn't stand a chance. Despite the stubborn fiction of their "liberal" prejudice, the corporate media have helped deliver a stupendous one-two punch to this democracy. (That double whammy followed their uncritical participation in the long, irrelevant jihad against those moderate Republicans, the Clintons.) Last year, they helped subvert the presidential race, first by prematurely calling it for Bush, regardless of the vote–a move begun by Fox, then seconded by NBC, at the personal insistence of Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric. Since the coup, the corporate media have hidden or misrepresented the true story of the theft of that election.

And having justified Bush/Cheney's coup, the media continue to betray American democracy. Media devoted to the public interest would investigate the poor performance by the CIA, the FBI, the FAA and the CDC, so that those agencies might be improved for our protection–but the news teams (just like Congress) haven't bothered to look into it. So, too, in the public interest, should the media report on all the current threats to our security–including those far-rightists targeting abortion clinics and, apparently, conducting bioterrorism; but the telejournalists are unconcerned (just like John Ashcroft). So should the media highlight, not play down, this government's attack on civil liberties–the mass detentions, secret evidence, increased surveillance, suspension of attorney-client privilege, the encouragements to spy, the warnings not to disagree, the censored images, sequestered public papers, unexpected visits from the Secret Service and so on. And so should the media not parrot what the Pentagon says about the current war, because such prettified accounts make us complacent and preserve us in our fatal ignorance of what people really think of us–and why–beyond our borders. And there's much more–about the stunning exploitation of the tragedy, especially by the Republicans; about the links between the Bush and the bin Laden families; about the ongoing shenanigans in Florida–that the media would let the people know, if they were not (like Michael Powell) indifferent to the public interest.

In short, the news divisions of the media cartel appear to work against the public interest–and for their parent companies, their advertisers and the Bush Administration. The situation is completely un-American. It is the purpose of the press to help us run the state, and not the other way around. As citizens of a democracy, we have the right and obligation to be well aware of what is happening, both in "the homeland" and the wider world. Without such knowledge we cannot be both secure and free. We therefore must take steps to liberate the media from oligopoly, so as to make the government our own.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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