First, the disclaimer. I don't believe in conspiracy theories. There is no secret group plotting to dominate the world. But I do believe that the concentration of the global media is in the hands of a few, a very select few. This issue is all the more important after the recent marriage of AOL and Time Warner.
What's wrong with media concentration? Well, nothing. That is if you accept conventional wisdom which claims that the larger the corporate enterprise the better for consumers and by extension the world in general. Indeed, Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin told reporters that the merger was not just about money, it was about making a better world for people. He's partly right. It's about money and power/influence.
Any concentration of power in limited circles poses a problem and control of the media poses even greater concerns. The global media are now dominated by less than two dozen firms. The largest are Time Warner (Publishing, Movies, CNN, HBO, Time Magazine, People Magazine, etc.), Disney (ABC, Disney, A&E, History and ESPN Channels, Publishing, Radio Stations, etc.), Bertelsmann (TV Channels, 100 newspapers and magazines, Radio Stations, etc.), Viacom (Radio Stations, TV, MTV, Nickelodeon, Publishing, etc.), and News Corporation (Fox, 132 newspapers including London Times and New York Post, TV Guide, Publishing, etc.). The dozen or so of the largest firms essentially determine what we listen to, what we watch on TV, what is cool and in style, what is considered newsworthy, etc.
Consider that in the United States, only 25 per cent of the 1,500 newspapers are independently owned. The rest are part of larger news conglomerates. For instance, The New York Times and the Boston Globe are part of a 34-newspaper chain owned by the Sulzberger family. Their stable includes about a dozen magazines, publishing companies as well as radio and TV stations. The Washington Post Company owns the similarly named Post as well as a number of other media outlets, including Newsweek. The two "competitors" (The New York Times and The Washington Post) jointly publish the International Herald Tribune, which has a large international circulation. The same can be repeated for the other media companies, including the non-print sector.
In Canada, media baron Conrad Black controls 61 of the 105 daily newspapers in the country, including the National Post, Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette. Interestingly, 14 of the 16 dailies in British Columbia are also in his hands. In addition to his Canadian holdings, Black controls hundreds of newspapers in the U.S., Britain and Israel, including the Jerusalem Post, The Daily Telegraph and the Chicago Sun-Times. As a freelance writer often at odds with Black's view of the world -- particularly when it comes to Middle East issues -- I find that my market has been seriously restricted. I have gone from being a regular freelancer for the National Post to being restricted to the few dailies that are not in Black's control. My last contact with the Post is quite illustrative of the state of freedom of the press.
I had approached a Post editor about doing a piece about the EgyptAir crash and the connection certain media had made between a prayer said by the pilot and the catastrophe. I sent her the piece, quite similar to my iviews.com column that appeared on November 17, 1999 titled "Islamic `Experts' in EgyptAir Crash Need Lessons in Islam." The editor responded that the piece could not be used as the story was still quite "fluid." A few days later she published Daniel Pipes' take on the crash. The gist of his piece: Egyptian distrust of the U.S. investigation should make Americans reconsider all the aid and loans to that country.
These media giants not only wield influence over the outlets they directly control but because of their shear volume they determine what is considered newsworthy by the others and what opinions see print or air time. Clearly, if the large media houses consider it important then you can bet that the rest of the pack will follow suite. Indeed, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III confirms this in a book he co-wrote with Thomas M. DeFrank (The Politics of diplomacy: Revolution, war and peace). Though nothing new to those who have read the works of McChesney, Noam Chomsky or Edward Said's Covering Islam, it is always nice to get it straight from the horse's mouth. Baker wrote, "After the meeting, I had Larry Eagleburger take Silajdzic to see the EC troika political directors (who happened to be visiting the Department) and asked Margaret Tutwiler to talk to the Foreign Minister about the importance of using Western mass media to build support in Europe and North America for the Bosnian cause. I also had her talk to her contacts at the four television networks, the Washington Post, and the New York Times to try to get more attention focused on the story." Are these media outlets the communications division of the American government?
The power wielded by a few was clearly evident with the Commentary's attack on Edward Said this fall. A story whose reach would have been restricted to Jewish and right wing readers of Commentary was catapulted into international exposure by The Daily Telegraph (Black's papers are extremely pro-Zionist) and the New York Post (Commentary's editor-at-large has a son John who is an editor at the Post). As expected, the New York Times, the Washington Post picked up the story. In Canada, Black's National Post, with national circulation, resurrected the issue some time later and by then the Globe and Mail, the other national Canadian daily, had also caught on. This news item went from a limited audience to an international one in no time.
Even the independents are not truly independent. The larger media houses set the tone for the rest. Moreover, the independents must rely on larger news services for material, as they don't have the resources to hire their own staff. In addition, according to media expert Robert W. McChesney, the media giants actively engage in joint ventures with their so-called "competitors" to reduce competition and risk.
The voracious appetite of these media giants to swallow smaller fish now appears to be turning to the Internet. What many initially considered to be the great equalizer may not be so. McChesney, who teaches at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, expressed the feeling of many when he told the New York Times: "The Internet was established by massive public subsidies, and now, without a shred of public debate, the system has become the plaything of a handful of billionaire investors who use their power to commercially carpet-bomb every possible moment of our lives."
What to do? Well, for one thing, elected officials must be made aware of the danger to democracy posed by this trend. These media giants clearly effect, if not shape, the social, political, economic and cultural outlook of an ever-increasing global audience. Elected officials must realize that there are serious concerns about the increasing media concentration. Secondly, the situation makes it even more crucial that alternative media voices get maximum support. Clearly, as long as freedom of the press is restricted to those who own the press, the only way to ensure that alternative voices are heard is to own and operate alternative media outlets.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs