Who Owns the Media?
Ben Bagdikian is back with another assessment of who controls the news, but at least one critic thinks he has it wrong.
“The Media Monotony” by Jack Shafer, in Slate (Aug. 4, 2004), slate.msn.com.
Ben H. Bagdikian is at it again. In Media Monopoly (1983), the eminent media critic—a former Washington Post ombudsman and emeritus dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley—maintained that 50 companies dominated the newspaper, broadcast, magazine, book, and movie industries. Updated five times, the book is still required reading in many college journalism and sociology courses. Now Bagdikian has published a seventh edition, with a new title, The New Media Monopoly, and a new thesis. The number of companies is down to five: Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, Disney, and Bertelsmann. “These five corporations decide what most citizens will—or will not—learn,” Bagdikian writes.
That’s largely hogwash, says Shafer, who writes the “Press Box” column for Slate (which, significantly for the conspiracy-minded, is owned by Microsoft). Yes, Bagdikian’s Big Five own or control four major movie studios, nearly 60 cable channels, five broadcast TV networks, a satellite TV operation, book publishers, and magazines, though only Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns major newspapers. Says Shafer: “The Big Five determine what the majority learns only in those places where the newsstand sells only The New York Post and Time and where TV receivers have been doctored to accept signals only from CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Fox News Channel.”
“If anybody decides what most citizens learn,” asserts Shafer, “it’s the agenda-setting editors at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times. The TV news would go dark if it couldn’t crib from the Big Four Newspapers. NPR’s Morning Edition would fall mute. The newsweeklies would have to run more cover stories on ice cream, dreams, and guides to colleges.”
Hard as it may be for Bagdikian to admit, the news media’s quality and variety “have never been better,” says Shafer. “Who longs for the days of William Randolph Hearst? Of three broadcast networks? Of the days before the Internet?”