25 Years Ago in Utne: The Information Monopoly

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Corporate media ownership is every bit as serious today as it was in 1988.

In 1988, media ownership and consolidation was a new concept for many Americans. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent had just appeared in print, and Extra!, by now perhaps the most important source of media criticism in the country, was barely a year old. Yet corporate ownership of local and national media was just ramping up—it just wasn’t front page news.

Maybe that’s why Lynette Lamb’s story about media ownership topped Project Censored’s list of the “Top 12 Censored Stories” that year (reprinted in Utne’s Sept./Oct. 1988 issue). “The rapidly increasing concentration of media ownership in the U.S. raises critical questions about whether the public has access to diverse opinion,” wrote Lamb. “And not surprisingly, the impact of this information monopoly continues to be ignored by the mass media.”

“Just 29 corporations control half or more of all media (including book publishers, TV, radio, newspapers, and movie production companies),” she wrote. “Six months later… the number was down to 26.” Exacerbating the problem, Lamb added, was the interlocking boards of directors between media giants and major corporations. Top executives at the New York Times, she said, also sat on boards for American Express, IBM, Merck, and several other large companies.

“A shrinking number of large media corporations now regard monopoly and historic levels of profit as not only normal, but as their earned right,” she added, quoting media expert Ben Bagdikian. “In the process the usual democratic expectations for the media—diversity of ownership and ideas—have disappeared.”

Bagdikian’s warning was nothing if not prophetic. Within a decade, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a sort of Citizens United for corporate media, had lifted the floodgates of cross-ownership and corporate mergers, especially in local radio markets. By 2001, more than 10,000 radio stations had been bought and sold, leaving just two companies, Clear Channel and Infinity, to dominate commercial airwaves in most U.S. cities.

Six years later, just eight companies held sway over America’s mass media universe, from TV to publishing to the World Wide Web. This nifty timeline from Mother Jones shows just how much the ownership landscape has changed over the past two or three decades (note the dramatic increase in mergers after 1996). What’s more, the problem of interlocking corporate leadership has not gone away, and has resulted in conflicts of interest. A 2009 FAIR study in 2009 found that seven major media corporations share directors with health insurers and pharmaceutical companies—a fact that helps explain those sources’ overwhelming hostility to single-payer proposals during the health care debate. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interlocking ownership.

Then as now, what it all boils down to is less critical debate, more conflict of interest, and a narrower picture of the world. “Although this will undoubtedly prove profitable for the shrinking number of media moguls,” wrote Lamb, once again quoting Bagdikian, “it is highly dangerous to freedom of the press.”  

Other top censored stories in Utne that year included biowarfare research at American universities, government secrecy during the Reagan years, and corporate cover-ups on nuclear safety.

Lynette Lamb’s original story appeared in Utne’s Jan/Feb 1988 issue.

Image by Edkohler, licensed under Creative Commons.

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