Control the news and you control the views

From a speech by Robert W McChesney, the US media critic and academic speaking at a Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom public meeting
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The Independent Online

We devour media at a staggering rate. The average American spent almost 12 hours a day with the various forms of media in 1999. We are also in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution - based around digital technologies, typified by the internet - that looks to weave media and electronic communication into nearly every waking moment of our working lives.

We devour media at a staggering rate. The average American spent almost 12 hours a day with the various forms of media in 1999. We are also in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution - based around digital technologies, typified by the internet - that looks to weave media and electronic communication into nearly every waking moment of our working lives.

In conventional parlance, these developments are presented as benign; they are all about liberating individuals, investors and consumers from the constraints of time and space, while offering a cornucopia of exciting new options and possibilities.

That, however, is a superficial and misleading perspective on what is happening. Indeed, when one lifts the hood, so to speak, to see what is driving the media revolution, a very different picture emerges. It is instead a world where highly concentrated corporate power is pulling the strings.

Yet the issue of the media barely registers. The structures of our media, the concentration of their ownership, the role that they play in shaping the lives of our children, in commercialising our culture and in warping our elections has been off-limits. When we examine the reality of the media in the year 2000, however, it becomes clear that this circumstance must shift.

In the year 2000, the US media system is dominated by fewer than 10 transnational conglomerates, such as Disney, AOL-TimeWarner, News Corporation, Viacom and Bertelsmann. Their media revenues range from roughly $8bn to $30bn per year, and they tend to have holdings in numerous media sectors.

AOL-TimeWarner, for example, ranks among the largest players in film production, recorded music, TV show production, cable TV channels, book publishing, magazine publishing and internet service provision.

The great profit in media today comes from making a movie or TV show and milking it for maximum return through spin-off books, CDs, video games and merchandise.

Another 12 to 15 firms, which do from $2bn or $3bn to $8bn per year in business, round out the system. These firms - such as Comcast, Hearst and Gannett - tend to be less developed conglomerates, focusing on only two or three media sectors. All in all, these two dozen or so firms control the overwhelming percentage of movies, TV shows, cable systems, cable channels, TV stations, radio stations, books, magazines, newspapers, billboards, music and TV networks that constitute the media culture of our lives. It is an extraordinary degree of economic and social power in a very few hands.

It has not always been this way. Much of this concentration has taken place in the past few decades, as technology and market imperatives made concentration and conglomeration far more attractive and necessary. Today it is impossible for the small independent firm to be anything but a marginal player in the industries mentioned above. In America, the flames of media concentration were fanned by government "deregulation", most notably the Telecommunications Act 1996.

Congressional approval of the Act, after only a stilted and disengaged debate, was a historic turning-point in media policy-making in the United States, as it permitted a consolidation of media and communication that had previously been unthinkable.

Such concentration of media ownership is clearly negative by any standard that cherishes free speech and diversity in the marketplace of ideas. As massive media corporations commercially carpet-bomb society, their ability to provide material with editorial and creative integrity declines.

It is not that the individuals who run these systems are bad people; but they do destructive things by rationally following the market cues they are given. We have a media system set up to serve private investors, first and foremost, not public citizens.

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