Who Owns the Media? (and why should we care?) (2/2/15)
Money, or the love of it, as is said in the bible, is the root of all evil. Yet it is also the case that Money, and the power and influence it can purchase, is the end game of the corporate driven world in which we now live. Our society has evolved, or perhaps devolved to a point where success is measured in the acquisition of money, power and influence, a rather unholy triumvirate. And, like the Hydra of old, this monster of multiple heads ultimately has but one body, the corporation.
Make no mistake, the game of obtaining that money, power and influence is nothing short of war, albeit a mostly cold one. There is a second saying, this one from Seneca the Younger, “Manus Manum Lavat,” “One hand washes the other.” We could see it as a variant of sorts on “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” though with one significant twist; both hands belong to the same body.
So why discuss two thousand year old aphorisms when we came here to talk about the media? Knowing who owns the media, ultimately, is insignificant unless we think about how those entities profit by it. Money? Well certainly, money is to be had. Power? Perhaps not so much in a readily observable sense, but most certainly “behind the scenes.” Influence? Ah, now we’re talking.
But how should we consider or define the parameters of our triumvirate? Even a child knows what money is. Cash, moolah, grease, lucre, scratch, gelt – call it what you will. Money is the civilized means by which you take from someone else that which you want to possess. Then, it becomes the means by which you ascribe value to the thing taken and in turn leverage it as an instrument of influence to obtain something else. Money can buy influence. Similarly, it can be argued that money can buy power or at least a seat at power’s table. Money and the allure of it, is capable of turning any thing, person or idea into a commodity.
Power, in its simplest guise, is the ability to compel or otherwise direct others to behave as you wish them to do. Long ago, power had to do with land ownership or tribal / feudal control of territory. Force was the tool to implement one’s power. But nature loves subtlety and, in time, brute force was replaced by wealth and the control of trade routes (commerce) and goods. Those commodities have changed over time, from olive oil and gold to crude oil and weapons, and now to information and the systems on which that information is delivered. The hard sell of power in today’s world may be sanctions, but the soft sell is influence. And the carrot dangling from the stick is still money.
Influence is the most subtle of the heads of our hydra. From something small and seemingly benign, great changes in direction can be wrought. If you need to cut down a tall tree standing close to a house, you might tie a rope around a high point of its trunk and apply tension to it. Then, as you begin to cut the tree, the tree leans into the pull of that tension. The more you cut, the more the tree leans, until it is finally ready to fall and drops along the line of that tensioned cord.
So it is with people and corporations. We have the money and they want it. We have entrusted the power to our governments, but they are buying it out from under us. We are the trees and corporations hold the axe. But, unlike trees, we have the ability to back away from the woodsman. And so the corporation must exert its influence on us, to keep us rooted in one place and leaning in the direction in which they need us to fall. To do so, that influence is carefully constructed to let us think that it is we who have decided in which direction to lean, when in reality, we have made our choice based upon the whisperings of the media, the conduit of influence, the corporation’s tensioned cord. And (to mix the metaphor), so it is that with eyes wide open we lay our head on the corporation’s block.
Now, in the 21st century, our three headed monster retains that one, corporate body and the modern corporation has indeed learned that “one hand washes the other.” The suggestion here is significant. In eras past, corporations would wheel and deal, horse trade with each other so that the actions of one would benefit all. The plastics industry would negotiate with the automotive industry to replace interior steel panels covered in fabric with molded plastic for a fraction of the cost to the auto industry and an increased share of the marketplace to the plastics industry. Relationships were formed and maintained to benefit multiple parties. You scratched my back and now I will scratch yours.
Today, there is a new trend. The mega corporation has diversified to own or otherwise control multiple industries, so that the needs of the one body can be met entirely internally. One hand of the body can wash the other. Power, money and influence are increasingly consolidated into an ever dwindling number of incredibly large corporations. And the Media is the greatest prize of all.
Why? It goes back to the concept of wealth. Once we accept that Power, Money and Influence move together like a whirlpool to draw in more and more of each other, we start to see that it is Wealth which acts as a glue binding the three together. And wealth, in and of itself has its own abstractions.
Nothing is inherently worth anything at all until someone wants it and is willing to take it off your hands by converting it to the society’s accepted standard (money). And the value of that something can change dramatically in a very short span of time. Take for example a bushel of apples. The apples have no value when they are buds on the tree. Their value only appears when someone determines that they are or will be a desirable thing and wants to give you money for them. As a “future,” they have one value and once picked and ripening, their value increases. But, hold on to them too long and the apples spoil. Then, they are not worth anything. So it is that the problem with many standards of wealth is that they become outmoded. You might have been very wealthy if you owned the Overland Stage business, but when the railroad came along, the Stage’s value fell.
A second way to garner Wealth (and with it, Power, Money and Influence) is to develop a source of wealth which trades (in a parasitical sense) on other, established forms. The example here would be that the value of commodities such as iron, steel, oil, lumber or cattle can only become “wealth” if they can be sold, which in turn involves delivering them to the new buyer. So the Railroad and later, overland trucking and air transportation, become the controllers of the trade routes of commerce and siphon off wealth from all of the interests which come to rely on them. Look into the era of the “Robber Barons,” when powerful industrialists consolidated money and power through monopolizing industry in America, and note how many of these Barons were linked to the Railroad industry.
In 2015, we live in a rapidly changing world where it is harder to determine just where new sources of wealth will be centered. In this time, information itself, has become a commodity. The fascinating thing here is that “information” need not mean knowing the truth about something. Instead, it can mean, “controlling the lie” and the dissemination of that lie (influence). And, just as it can take the form of controlling what we see or hear, it can also take the form of controlling what we do not see or hear. Each is equally important to the corporate Hydra. And, in the “information age,” it is the Media, in all its forms, which directs what we think about and how we think about it. The Media, as Marshall McLuhan noted, is the message. The Media is not just the commodity of information, it is also the conduit (in a Railroad sense) over which other commodities travel. Control of the Media is control of Influence and, in the information age, influence becomes a valuable commodity unto itself.
In other words, if an institution or individual could influence the actions of a large group of people toward a desired end, a “reality” as good as the truth could be created. If we could be convinced, for example, that chocolate caused cancer, our actions regarding chocolate could be influenced. Prices would plummet and chocolate futures could be had cheaply. Print a retracting statement and convince us that chocolate is not only not harmful, but actually beneficial, and chocolate prices soar, benefitting the new owner of the stock.
Of course, there are laws against such behavior. But there are no laws against influencing belief systems as pertain to liberal or conservative political agendas, socialized medicine, alternative energy or foreign cultural standards. There are no laws prohibiting individuals, institutions or political ideologues from preying on our fear of undocumented and illegal immigrants to support their views on gun rights or for anti-abortionists to hurl murder accusations at people who work in Planned Parenthood facilities. In the age of the Robber Baron’s, the Railroad was king. In the information age, commerce and the influencing of public opinion ride on the Media’s tracks.
Once we see that the Media can influence how and what we think (and how we act upon it), it is a short leap of faith to understand how controlling the Media can benefit the Corporation (the Power Brokers). In recent weeks, I have noted a consistent and powerful ad campaign telling us how the Koch Brothers are essentially saving the country through fracking. All we would need is for the news stations broadcasting those ads to also run commentary supporting those assertions and we’ll have a chicken in every pot and a gas well in every back yard. Koch Industries, by the way, is a major contributor to the PBS science program, Nova. That does not mean that Nova will produce a special on the benefits of hydraulic fracturing. But it may mean that Nova will not produce a special on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing either. So, if Koch can produce an ad campaign in support of their corporate agenda and can also limit any rebuttal of same, it is a net win for Koch Industries.
Sadly, there is a much more sinister aspect to the manipulation of our beliefs and values involving the Media, and it plays out daily in the 24/7 deluge of “news.” It has been amply demonstrated that if the media can “prime the pump” by influencing the populace to think in a particular way, the government can reliably act on that belief system to gain our acquiescence to policy. Think not? Consider that after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, William Randolph Hearst’s empire of over thirty newspapers (Yellow Rags), slanted and falsified stories to drag our country into a war with Spain in support of a “Cuban Revolution.” It has been reported that the artist, Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Havana to report on the action, wrote back to Hearst that everything was quiet in Cuba and that there would be no war. Hearst’s reported response, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
How does it play out in 2015? Money, power and influence move in circles, outward from corporations, through beneficiaries and then back to the corporation. In our world, large corporate sponsors back political candidates with money they have earned from the populace on the assumption that once in office, those candidates will work to pass legislation favorable to the corporation. To insure their success, some of those corporations have become owners of the media and thereby disseminators of slant (agenda). Favorable legislation translates into increased profits, a significant portion of which are plowed back into campaign financing and the buying of still more favor in Washington.
So, just who does own the Media? In 2015, 90% of American media outlets are controlled by six corporations. Media outlets are defined as television stations, newspapers, radio stations, motion picture companies, the major record labels, book and magazine publishers and the providers of access to the internet. With just six corporations owning nearly all of it, a very few people (and their agendas) determine what we see, read and hear and, in the case of the “news,” how it is interpreted. This gives those same corporations the opportunity to influence how and what we think, without the need to provide equal time to the opposition.
In 1983, that same 90% of the American media was owned by 50 companies. Through mergers and acquisitions, it has been whittled down to six and may well dip to five by the end of this year. And, when we say 90% of the media outlets, we mean some 1500 newspapers, 1100 magazines, 9000 radio stations, 1500 television stations, 2400 publishers, and all of the major film companies and record labels.
The six “parent” corporations are: Comcast, News Corp., Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner, and CBS. But of course, in the era of mega corporations, each of the six parent corporations owns a number of other companies.
Comcast, the largest broadcasting and cable company in the world, also owns NBC and Universal Pictures. At this writing, Comcast is in the process of trying to purchase Time-Warner, which would spread the 90% across just five corporations. Comcast, from its base in Philadelphia, has the seventh largest lobbying budget of any company or organization in the world and oversees the “Comcast Corp. & NBC Universal Political Action Committee.” This lobbying group delivered 3.7 million dollars in campaign money to finance various political candidates for the U.S. Federal Government between 2011 and 2012. Their lobbying efforts have also resulted in legislation banning cities from offering free public broadband. Their Chairman, Brian L. Roberts, inherited the company and retains a 33% voting authority, while earning a reported yearly salary of some $31 million.
News Corp. and its Chairman, Rupert Murdoch, owns the largest circulated newspapers on three continents, The Wall St. Journal in North America, The Sun in Europe, and The Australian in Australia. Additionally, News Corp. is the owner of Fox Television and 21st Century Fox, the fourth largest broadcasting and cable company in the world. News Corp. also owns the publisher, Harper Collins, the New York Post, Barron’s and the Dow Jones Index among many other interests.
Disney is the world’s second largest broadcasting and cable company, after Comcast. In addition to the Disney channel, the corporation also owns ABC, ESPN, A&E, Pixar, Miramax and Lucasfilm. In March of 2014, Disney bought Maker Studios, a YouTube company generating billions of views each year, with the intent of using its content to advertise to young consumers. Disney’s current chairman and CEO is Bob Iger.
Viacom is the world’s fifth largest broadcasting and cable company and has Sumner Redstone as its Executive Chairman. Viacom in turn is held through a separate corporation called National Amusements, of which Sumner Redstone owns 80% and his daughter, Shari 20%. In addition to Viacom Media Networks, the corporation also owns MTV, CMT, BET and Paramount Pictures, and has a controlling interest in CBS. Viacom operates 170 networks reaching 700 million subscribers in 160 countries.
Time Warner is the world’s third largest broadcast and cable company. Among the companies to which Time Warner is parent are Time (magazine) Inc., Warner Bros., Turner Broadcasting, HBO, CNN, DC Comics, Cartoon Network, Hanna-Barbera, Castle Rock Entertainment, HLN, TNT and TBS. Their Chairman and CEO is Jeff Bewkes.
CBS Corp. is the world’s sixth largest broadcast and cable company, with Leslie Moonves as President and CEO and Sumner Redstone (from Viacom) as majority shareholder and executive chairman. CBS Corp. is parent company to CBS, Showtime, Simon & Schuster and TV guide.
The 2010 revenue for the big six corporations totaled 275.9 billion dollars. The big six control 70% of cable television. For comparison’s sake, the other 30% of cable is owned by a total of 3,762 separate businesses. When Comcast bought out NBC, the merger assured Comcast control of no less than eleven major U.S. markets, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
An example of how this level of corporate ownership of the media plays out comes from one of the also-rans, iHeartMedia Inc., the parent corporation to Clear Channel. Heavily invested in Radio, iHeartMedia Inc. owns some 1200 radio stations across the country. 80% of their playlists are identical. In this example, people across the United States are listening to the same songs, in the same order. In terms of the influence on the listeners, simply stated they are being led to believe that those songs are the “good ones,” the ones chosen because they are worth listening to. Could that have some impact on which songs are downloaded or which CDs are purchased? It seems a distinct possibility. It absolutely determines which music publishers receive royalties from song plays.
Transpose that same concept to a collection of television stations and their news programming, and it is easy to see how an extremely large group of people across the country might be fed the same news, with the same slant, to achieve the same level of influence in their understanding of the world. The results of that influence might be reflected in what those people purchase, which political party they support, a conservative or liberal bias in their world view, and maybe which political policies they accept on faith.
The pyramid component to this must be considered as well. Six corporations control 90% of what you see, read and hear. And six people, Brian Roberts, Rupert Murdoch, Bob Iger, Sumner Redstone, Jeff Bewkes and Leslie Moonves, head those corporations. They don’t need to sell us on their agendas, they only need to convince their boards of directors. The board of directors explains the agenda in terms of its ability to produce profit to the shareholders, corporate policy is set and the media outlets they control adjust programming and news reporting to institutionalize an agenda in support of those policies.
The agenda produces money, which in turn purchases influence and curries favor with power. The agenda also shapes what we think and how we think it. That same agenda is carefully crafted to position our thinking to be in line with the agenda of power. Power rewards the corporation, strengthening it and enabling it to advance an agenda on an even grander scale. And how does the corporation sleep at night? Quite soundly, thank you. The corporation rests in the assuredness that it is returning a profit to the shareholder and, after all, business is business.
If you find it comforting to believe that these efforts to manipulate the thinking of the American people may be benign or short term in their design, I would direct your attention to a famous quote by President Calvin Coolidge, made in January, 1925 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:
“… it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” (emphasis added)
Try reading it again and substituting the following phrases:
for “press,” media
for “intimate touch,” working engagement
for “more reliable,” more trusted
for the first instance of “business,” concern
It is interesting to me that Coolidge, speaking from the bully pulpit in his role as elected leader of the country, changed the entire focus of the concern of the American people in three sentences. The chief “business” of the American people was not “business,” it was freedom. Yes, industrialization had taken hold in this formerly agrarian country, but that concern rested with the industrialists who profited by it. The average American was (and probably still is) concerned with family, defense of the country and homestead from outside aggression, and personal freedom, the freedom to follow one’s own pursuit of happiness. Coolidge, a highly intelligent man, would certainly have known that. Instead, his statement marks a demarcation line. He is essentially saying that a decision has been made to prioritize business (and money, influence and power) over the ethics and morality of his fellow countrymen. Only business pays the bills and keeps the government’s lights on.
It is far more than a trivia question to know who it is who owns the Media. It is wrapped up in far greater considerations of whose agenda is being presented to us as the true way. When an election cycle starts and we wonder why it is that we haven’t a choice of better candidates, consider who or what institutions make the candidates in the first place. Who tells us what to believe? Who paints the picture and from what angle? And just whose voice is shouting, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain?”