Media corporations have always possessed the power to affect politics. That is not new in history. But the five dominant corporations—Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann—have power that media in past history did not, power created by new technology and the near uniformity of their political goals. The political and social content projected by these media to the country's population has had real consequences: the United States has the most politically constricted voter choices among the world's developed democracies. That raises fundamental questions about how and by whom the nature of democracy shall be determined.
The magnitude of the change may be more readily understood by looking back from today's 21st century. In retrospect, the awesome power of the contemporary mass media has in one generation been a major factor in reversing the country's progressive political, social, and economic momentum of the twentieth century. As a result, in the United States, the 21st century inherited a new, more extreme brand of conservative policies.
Twentieth-century politics began with a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), at a time when every city of any size had five or more competing newspapers with a broad range of politics, right, center, and left. With the support of a number of influential periodicals and a portion of its newspapers, Theodore Roosevelt initiated historic conservation of natural resources and dismantled huge interlocked corporate conglomerates, then called trusts. The control of trusts in writing laws, bribing officials, and damaging the social welfare had been exposed month after month by some of the country's leading writers in its most influential periodicals—Lincoln Steffens, Owen Wister, Ida Tarbell, Louis Brandeis (16 years before he became a member of the U.S. Supreme Court), Upton Sinclair, and many others. Their investigative articles appeared in major media—newspapers published by Joseph Pulitzer, E. W. Scripps, and the early Hearst. Articles asking for reform were centerpieces of influential national magazines like Harper's, Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, McClure's, and Century.
That fundamental period of confronting the urgent new needs of industrial democracy ended when J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller decided to buy Harper's and Atlantic and other angry financiers paid high salaries to the most skilled editors to take positions more compatible with the vision of Wall Street banking houses. That, along with World War I, ended the period of reform.
A similar period of reform repaired the chaos created by the wildly uninhibited free markets of the 1920s. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (1932–1945) established new social and regulatory agencies after the Great Depression's corporate breakdowns. The New Deal also established immediate jobs and agencies for housing and feeding the country's poor and middle-class families. While Franklin Roosevelt, unlike his cousin Theodore, had no overwhelming media support before his election, the newspapers, which were the only medium that really counted at the time, had lost much of their credibility. They had glorified the failed policies that produced the shambles of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. By the time that Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, desperate unemployment, and murmurings of popular revolt were ominous. Fear led many of the once-conservative or neutral newspapers and magazines to moderate opposition to the election of Roosevelt.
Roosevelt created what were, for that period, radical reforms, like the Securities and Exchange Commission to monitor corporations that sold shares to the public, Social Security to create old age pensions for much of the population, and laws that prevented banks from speculating in the stock market with their depositors' money. The uninhibited free market had created the wild euphoria of every-man-a-millionaire in the 1920s, which then led to the chaos. This had a temporary chastening effect on the main media's normal philosophy of "leave business alone."
In contrast, the presidencies of Ronald Reagan (1981–1988) and of the Bushes—George H. W. Bush (1989–1993), the 41st president, and his son, George W. Bush, the 43rd president, who took office in 2000—again created an abrupt reversal. After his ascendancy to the presidency in 2000, the younger Bush engaged in a systematic reversal or cancellation of earlier natural resource conservation plans, reduced welfare, and adopted economic policies that hastened the flow of wealth to the most rich. The theory espoused by President Reagan had been that the wealth at the top would trickle down to create jobs for middle-class and poor workers. It was a long-discredited theory characterized by John Kenneth Galbraith: "if you feed the horse with enough oats, sooner or later it will leave something behind for the sparrows."
Any dynamic democracy inevitably changes political direction as conditions and public desires evolve. The radical changes of the late twentieth century obviously reflected universal alterations in technology, world economics, and other underlying tides. But the contemporary power of mass media imagery controlled by a small number of like-minded giant corporations played a powerful role. The media of that period, particularly broadcasters, were compliant with requests of the Reagan White House, for example, to limit access of reporters to the president himself. The former actor's folksy personality distracted much of public attention from the disastrous consequences that followed an expanded national debt. What happened after the 1990s in the American economy was an eerie echo of the wild storms of the 1920s that brought the crash of 1929.
There are multiple reasons for the politics of any country to change, but with growing force the major media play a central role in the United States. In the years after 1980, conservatives began the chant of "get the government off our backs" that accelerated the steady elimination of a genuinely progressive income tax. They adopted the goal of uninhibited corporate power. Political slogans advocating a shrinking government and arguments involving that idea filled the reportorial and commentary agendas of most of the country's major news outlets. It was the beginning of the end of government-as-protector-of-the-consumer and the start of government-as-the-protector-of-big-business. And the news industry, now a part of the five dominant corporations, reflected this new direction.
By the time Bush the Younger had become president, the most influential media were no longer the powerfulHarper's, Century, and other influential national organs of one hundred years earlier that had helped to expose abuses and campaigned to limit the power of massive corporations. In sharp contrast to the major media that led to Theodore Roosevelt's reforms, the most adversarial media in 2000, both in size of audience and political influence, were the right-wing talk shows and a major broadcast network, the Murdoch News Corporation's Fox network, with its overt conservatism. Murdoch went further and personally created The Weekly Standard, the intellectual Bible of contemporary American conservatism and of the administration of Bush the Younger. Murdoch's magazine is delivered each week to top-level White House figures. The office of Vice President Cheney alone receives a special delivery of thirty copies.
It is not simply a random artifact in media politics that three of the largest broadcast outlets insistently promote bombastic far-right political positions. Murdoch's Fox radio and television have almost unwavering right-wing commentators. The two largest radio groups, Clear Channel and Cumulus, whose holdings dwarf the rest of radio, are committed to a daily flood of far-right propagandistic programming along with their automated music. Twenty-two percent of Americans polled say their main source of news is radio talk shows. In a little more than a decade, American radio has become a powerful organ of right-wing propaganda. The most widely distributed afternoon talk show is Rush Limbaugh's, whose opinions are not only right wing but frequently based on untruths.
Dominant media owners have highly conservative politics and choose their talk show hosts accordingly. Editor Ron Rodriques of the trade magazine Radio & Records said "I can't think of a single card-carrying liberal talk show syndicated nationwide." The one clearly liberal talk show performer, Jim Hightower of ABC, was fired in 1995 by the head of Disney, Michael Eisner, the week after Eisner bought the Disney company, which owns ABC.
The political content of the remaining four of the Big Five is hardly a counter to Fox and the ultraconservatism and bad reporting of dominant talk shows. American television viewers have a choice of NBC (now owned by General Electric), CBS (now owned by one of the Big Five, Viacom), and ABC, now owned by another of the Big Five, Disney. Diversity among the tens of thousands of United States media outlets is no longer a government goal. In 2002, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, expressed the opinion that it would not be so bad if one broadcast giant owned every station in an entire metropolitan area.
The machinery of contemporary media is not a minor mechanism. The 280 million Americans are served, along with assorted other small local and national media, by 1,468 daily newspapers, 6,000 different magazines, 10,000 radio stations, 2,700 television and cable stations, and 2,600 book publishers. The Internet gave birth to a new and still unpredictable force, as later portions of this book will describe. Though today's media reach more Americans than ever before, they are controlled by the smallest number of owners than ever before. In 1983 there were fifty dominant media corporations; today there are five. These five corporations decide what most citizens will—or will not—learn.
During these years the political spectrum of American politics has been shifted far to the right. What was the far right 40 years ago is now the center. What was liberal is now seen by the dominant party as radical and even unpatriotic. The shift does not reflect the political and social values of the American public as a whole. A recent Harris poll showed that 42 percent of Americans say they are politically moderate, middle-of-the-road, slightly liberal, liberal, or extremely liberal, compared to 33 percent for the same categories of conservatives, with 25 percent saying "Don't know or haven't thought about it."
Dollars versus Votes
One force creating the spectrum change has been, to put it simply, money—the quantities of cash used to gain office. Spontaneous national and world events and the accidents of new personalities inevitably play a part in determining a country's legislation and policies. But in American politics, beyond any other single force, money has determined which issues and candidates will dominate the national discourse that, in turn, selects the issues and choices available to voters on Election Day.
The largest source of political money has come from corporations eager to protect their expanded power and treasure. The country's massive media conglomerates are no different—with the crucial exception that they are directly related to voting patterns because their product happens to be a social-political one. It is, tragically, a self-feeding process: the larger the media corporation, the greater its political influence, which produces a still larger media corporation with still greater political power.
The cost of running for office has risen in parallel with the enlarged size of American industries and the size of their political contributions to preferred candidates and parties.
In 1952, the money spent by all candidates and parties for all federal election campaigns—House, Senate, and presidency—was $140 million (sic). In 2000, the races spent in excess of $5 billion. Spending in the 2000 presidential campaign alone was $1 billion.
The growth of money in politics is multiplied by what it pays for—the growth of consultants skilled in, among other things, the arts of guile and deception that have been enhanced by use of new technology in discovering the tastes and income of the public.
Television political ads are the most common and expensive campaign instrument and the largest single expenditure in American political campaigns. Typically, the commercials are brief, from a few seconds to five minutes, during which most of the content consists of slogans and symbols (waving Americans flags are almost obligatory), useless as sources of relevant information. Television stations and networks are, of course, the recipients of most of the money that buys air time. This is why the country's political spectrum is heavily influenced by which candidate has the most money.
Incumbents always have an advantage in attracting money from all sources because even conservative business leaders want influence with whoever happens to vote for legislation, even if it is a liberal. Nevertheless, if one eliminates incumbents, the big spenders have almost always been the winners. Beginning in 1976, candidates who spent more than $500,000 were increasingly Republicans. Conservatives perpetually accuse Democrats of bowing to special interests. In the conservative lexicon, these are code words for labor unions. And, indeed, labor unions in 2000, for example, gave Democrats $90 million and Republicans only $5 million. But in the 1990s, corporate and trade association Political Action Committees have given Republicans twice as much money as they have to Democrats and in quantities many multiples of labor union political contributions. In the crucial midterm 2002 elections, when control of the Senate depended on a few votes, Democrats spent $44 million and Republicans $80 million. Republicans gained control of Congress, undoubtedly helped by President Bush, who, two months before the election, suddenly declared that the country would go to war against Iraq and that opponents would be seen as supporters of Saddam Hussein's tyranny. That alone took domestic economic troubles off the front pages and out of TV news programs.
Increasingly, House and Senate candidates have spent their own money on campaigns, a choice available only to multimillionaires. Thus, the money both of the wealthy and of corporate interests has come to dominate American politics in the single generation during which the country's political spectrum has shifted far to the right.
This is excerpted from The New Media Monopoly, by Ben H. Bagdikian. Copyright © 2004 by Ben H. Bagdikian and published by Beacon Press, Boston. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy The New Media Monopoly at Amazon.com.