Giant Conglomerates Devour News Media - Limit Scope of American Journalism

By Bishop, Ed | St. Louis Journalism Review, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Giant Conglomerates Devour News Media - Limit Scope of American Journalism


Bishop, Ed, St. Louis Journalism Review


General Electric builds engines for fighter jets.

General Electric also owns the National Broadcasting Company.

If, as most people believe, the modern media are the gatekeeper of the public's perceptions, if their cameras focus people's points-of-view, then the following question seems appropriate:

Is it in General Electric's best interests, in the best interests of its major stockholders, for NBC News to portray the world as dangerous and filled with conflict, a place where people should be wary and arm themselves, or is it in its best interest to portray the world as a place where most disputes are settled through negotiations without warfare?

That is only one of a myriad of questions raised by the revealing portrait of interlocking media properties on page 10 and 11.

SJR's cover story details the vast, integrated holdings of four giant media conglomerates: General Electric, Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company and Westinghouse.

It is interesting to note that the holdings of these four huge corporations reach far beyond television networks and newspaper chains. They own companies that touch almost every aspect of the lives of everyone in the United States and most people around the world. They own companies that manage hazardous, radioactive and toxic waste. They own bookstores and movie studios, sports franchises and cable networks. They produce plastics, home appliances, whiskey and children's programming.

Perhaps just as interesting are the partnerships that these conglomerates have formed with each other. For example, General Electric, through NBC, and Disney, through ABC, in partnership with yet another huge company, the Hearst Corporation, own cable television's A&E and History Channels. Also, if the Turner Broadcasting deal with Time Warner is approved, that new giant will not only own the world's largest news operation, CNN, it will also control access to most of cable television. Competition from other cable news organizations will be very difficult at best.

On top of that, the new federal Telecommunications Act seems to allow even more concentration of ownership in the hands of giant conglomerates. Although the press has not been able to explain the new law very well - in fact, many of those affected by the act are confused by it - the act seems to invite trust building: the complete integration of all forms of communication in the hands of a very few, very wealthy and powerful corporations.

This new media cosmos is extremely complicated.

In fact, SJR'S cover story this month is not really a traditional prose story at all - it's a chart prepared by Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and commissioned by The Nation magazine.

SJR received the chart from Miller at the founding convention of the Cultural Environment Movement at Webster University this March. Since then staff members at both The Nation magazine - which has also published it - and SJR have refined it.

The chart focuses on the four colossi that control television news. Companies such as S.I. Newhouse, TCI or AT&T although huge corporations in their own right, don't appear. The chart is a tale about who brings you the evening news.

From SJR's point-of-view, however, basically the chart is a tale about the end of journalism as we have known it.

Of course, journalism has always been a business. But it was a business traditionally protected by individual owners from the enormous pressures applied by large, publicly traded corporations. No more.

Today, journalism - magazines, books, newspapers, television and radio stations - are simply properties, profit centers.

Or, as Kevin Horrigan told SJR when Westinghouse bought the CBS radio network, including KMOX here in St. Louis, and demanded a 50 percent profit: "There's really no pride in working for a 'property.' It used to be a special place to work. …

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