The National Entertainment Chart demonstrates, again, how enormous the media conglomerates are and how much of our core media are under their control. Although concentration has not increased especially over the past few years, the damage has been done. Democracy is premised on a free press, and freedom of the press is premised on the absence of public or private gatekeepers with monopolistic power. It is why the Supreme Court ruled in 1945 that antitrust was probably more appropriate in the realm of media than in any other area. Looking at this chart, we can see that A.J. Liebling’s adage that “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one” is frightfully accurate, with all that it says about the state of our core freedoms and our democracy. The Supreme Court was sixty-one years ahead of its time.
This concentrated, conglomerated and profit-driven media system is hardly the result of “free enterprise.” These giant companies are the recipients of enormous direct and indirect subsidies and/or government-granted monopoly franchises. They include: monopoly licenses to radio and TV frequencies, cable and satellite TV monopoly franchises, magazine postal subsidies and copyright, to mention a few. For these firms the most important competition may well be in Washington, getting the cushy subsidies and licenses. These policies, worth tens of billions annually, are generally made in our name but without our informed consent. That is the heart of the problem, and it points us to the solution: informed public participation on media policy-making.
Case in point: This summer will see the FCC’s review of the ban on cross-ownership, that is, preventing firms from owning both daily newspapers and broadcasting stations in the same community. If the Bush Administration gets its way, the rule will be scrapped, local media monopolization will explode and this chart may someday be regarded as mapping a veritable golden age of competitive media. Company-town media, with one or maybe two conglomerate-owned McNewsrooms serving an entire community, will be the order of the day. In 2003 a massive public outcry prevented the elimination of the cross-ownership rule, and if the public speaks we will stop the Bush Administration again this year. A broad bipartisan coalition has taken shape at www.stopbigmedia.com to organize the fight.
For many, the Internet was going to be a technological solution to the problem of media concentration, blasting open the system and slaying monopoly media power. Despite the Internet’s truly revolutionary implications, in itself it cannot address the core crises of our media: the collapse of journalism and the rise of hypercommercialism. As this chart shows, the media giants are using their immense market power to convert the Internet into a psychedelic commercial medium, where these problems will persist.
They also use their considerable political power. The myth of the Internet is that it is a magic technology unaffected by policies. Not true. The genius of the Internet has been a series of policies and subsidies that nurtured it, especially “network neutrality,” meaning all users and websites have had equal access to the Internet without discrimination by the Internet service providers. This is now under direct attack by the (government-created) cable and telephone monopolies, which want effectively to privatize control (in their hands) over who is allowed to have a website and who is not. You can learn about the battle to preserve network neutrality, to defend the genius of the Internet, at www.savetheinternet.com, the website of the coalition leading the fight to see that the First Amendment endures in the digital age.
Freedom of the press is something we must continually fight for, or we stand to lose it. If we contest corrupt and secretive policy-making, if we draw citizens into the debate, as we have learned in recent years, we can and will win. It is why the media reform movement is exploding across the nation.