Who Controls the Media?

Image credit: Sollok29 / Wikimedia Commons

It may seem that we have a huge variety of news sources and media outlets to choose from. There are so many TV and radio stations, newspapers, streaming services, social media, and websites. Behind this illusion of variety, however, is a highly centralized system controlled by a powerful few. What is in common, for example, to Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, Pitchfork, Wired, Bon Appetit, and Reddit? They are all owned by a corporation most people haven’t even heard of, called Advance Publications. 

In 2012, six giant media corporations controlled 90% of the media in the United States. Today, it is five giants that dominate this industry: Comcast, Walt Disney, Time Warner, Fox/News Corp, and National Amusements. Comcast, for example, the most hated company in the U.S., is not only the largest cable-TV and internet provider, it also owns multiple news channels such as NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and Telemundo, as well as Universal Studios. National Amusements is not a household name, but it is a “holding company” that owns the more familiar ViacomCBS, which includes many TV networks and film studios (CBS, Showtime, Paramount) and even the book publisher Simon & Schuster. The handful of billionaires (about 15 of them) who own these corporations oversee the dissemination of information and culture to hundreds of millions of people. 

Economists call this market domination by a few companies “concentration.” This process was supported by both capitalist parties in the U.S., Democratic and Republican. In the early 1980s, 90% of the media was owned by 50 companies. The Carter and Reagan Administrations then initiated deregulation that ushered the growth of huge media conglomerates – for example by relaxing limits on how many commercials can be shown. (The media infrastructure in the U.S., such as cable, satellite, internet, and airwaves, is regulated by the Federal Government.) In 1996, Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, which was written by industry lobbyists. It removed the cap on the number of radio stations a single company can own, and as a result the iHeartMedia corporation (known as Clear Channel at the time), was able to acquire 1200 stations. It is now the largest radio station owner in the U.S. with 245 million listeners every month.

Although the government facilitated this concentration, its root cause is not politicians, but the capitalist system they work for. With its ruthless market competition, capitalism drives the growth of corporations, which then swallow up or destroy smaller businesses, until a monopoly or cartel dominates an entire industry. This is already the case for auto, energy and petrochemical, food, water, and the list goes on. 

The traditional value of independent journalism is based on the idea that journalists must be able to freely criticize the government, corporations, or any powerful entity, so that they can alert the public to abuses of power. Today, independent journalism barely survives in small media outlets that are funded by donations and have very limited exposure, while most people get their news from Big Media. Many of the mergers and acquisitions that create these media giants are orchestrated by banks, and so the need for profit increasingly overrides any commitment to the values of quality journalism. As one historian of journalism described the executives and bankers behind these maneuvers, “news was not their business; business was their business.” The result is that the huge variety of news stations is a sham, as their content is produced by big companies that dictate to the local stations. Dozens of news stations will often deliver the exact same content, and the job of making news has been replaced by that of parroting the corporate line.

As media became increasingly dominated by mammoth corporations, their ties to other industries strengthened. This is because the major shareholders of big companies are billionaires who also own large shares of other companies, creating a network of capitalists that protect each other. Thus, news stations and papers will avoid criticizing or exposing scandals associated with their owners’ other companies. Journalists of integrity are then excluded from mainstream media and marginalized, as conflicts of interests are built into the system that employs them. 

The New York Times Company, for example, is apparently independent as it is not owned by a larger holding company. However, its major shareholder is the billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, one of the richest capitalists in the world who owns many companies. This kind of bond between large corporations by way of common ownership is a common phenomenon. It creates interdependence not only between different media companies but across other sectors of the economy and the government. It is one of the ways that different capitalists operate in concert to protect their common interests as a ruling class. 

Another example of a paper that takes pride in upholding values of independent journalism is The Guardian. It claims to be principled about its sources of revenue by refusing money from companies that extract fossil fuels. It happily accepts money from other sections of the same ruling class, however, such as the Ford, Rockefeller (“old” oil money), and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations. This ostensibly ethical stance allows The Guardian to be more critical of the “excesses” of capitalism, such as environmental destruction, racism, and war, but not too critical of their root cause – the capitalist system itself. If it ventured too far in that direction, its funding from rich benefactors would disappear. (Indeed, the paper explicitly defended the Ford Foundation as being one of the few “good” capitalist foundations, while criticizing the “bad” ones.)

Another structural constraint on independent journalism is that most news outlets rely heavily on advertisement. This means that they must be careful not to upset the advertisers, who may pull their ads from the paper if their companies are put in a bad light. Today, many people get their news from social media, where advertising is a huge source of revenue. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, while seemingly providing a service to their users, are actually providing a service to other companies – the service of selling our attention to advertisers. In fact, these tech companies carefully tailor their algorithms to maximize addiction to their products so as to increase advertisement exposure. This is a digital version of the addiction-promoting techniques that the sugar industry uses to insert this highly addictive substance into so many food items, and that tobacco companies use to promote addiction to cigarettes and vapes. 

The internet was hailed in its early years as a great democratizing force for information and culture – a brilliant solution to the corroding effects of corporations on traditional media. Today, as the recent fights around “net neutrality” are being lost to the same old media giants that are eclipsing independent websites and apps, it is clear that even the internet is not immune to the logic of concentration – the logic of capitalism. 

The capitalist ruling class is driven by the pursuit of profit. To keep their profits up, their corporations must grow, and this requires increasing the exploitation of workers and the destruction of nature. It is for this reason that two themes are conspicuously absent or distorted in the corporate media – the struggles of workers against their bosses, and the environmental catastrophes that threaten humanity. Most working-class fights for better conditions (such as strikes) are not even deemed newsworthy and are totally absent from the mainstream media. On the rare occasion that they are represented, the opinion of the employers are highlighted and the voices of workers marginalized. For the same reason, the most urgent issues of our time – climate change, the destruction of agricultural land and water – are hardly represented or discussed. The book (and film) Merchants of Doubt documents how the petrochemical industry uses its enormous influence to sow doubt about climate change through the media. A recent study based on news from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today over the span of three decades concluded that “the messages opposing action to address climate change are about twice as likely to receive newspaper coverage as messages advocating for climate action.” 

Who controls the media? The same tiny class of capitalists who own the largest corporations that dominate all other industries. The concentration of power in the hands of a few billionaires over the dissemination of information and culture is just one of many examples of how their system operates. All attempts to carve out a “neutral” or benign pocket within this system – an industry, institution, or technological novelty not dominated by profit – are necessarily short-lived or pushed into the fringe. 

Exploitation is built into the economic foundations of capitalism, and it is only by replacing this foundation that we can rid ourselves of its disastrous effects. Just as we cannot “get big money out of politics” without getting rid of big money itself, we cannot do so for the media, for art, science, education, food, or any other domain of human society. This system has a little-known Achilles heel, however. “Big money” means the capitalist class, and all of their power, comes from the profits created every day by working people.