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IN FOCUS – Media Consolidation

Man with TV on head

It is entirely predictable that a tyrant would want to control what the People hear and read.  Some on the Left might prefer the only broadcast news outlets in America to be the 1,400 radio and television stations funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to ensure that no unapproved populist voices would be heard.  But the existence of tens of thousands of privately owned newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, podcasts, and websites has made control difficult to exercise — even for the government.

But if ownership of the most influential media outlets could only be consolidated into the hands of a few friends of the State — and the rest censored — the problem of what government now terms “disinformation, misinformation and malinformation” could be minimized.  Consolidation of ownership is what we have now — but it wasn’t always this way.

Media Diversity in America

There were 37 newspapers in the colonies at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and remarkably, 43 by the end of the war.  By 1800, there were between 150 and 200 newspapers, which ballooned to 346 by the year 1814.  By 1900, there were 2,226 daily newspapers and about 14,000 weekly newspapers, accounting for over half of the newspapers worldwide at that time.  At its peak, there were over 22,000 newspapers in the early Twentieth Century.

Once upon a time, many small towns had two or more newspapers, often openly competing with each other, offering competing ideas.  The small town of Cassville, Missouri, for example (population today 3,000) still has two weekly newspapers (and for many years had three) including the “Cassville Republican” and “Cassville Democrat.”  Crawfordsville, Indiana (population 15,000) still has two daily newspapers.  With a few notable exceptions, this type of media diversity is long gone.

One excellent history on the American press explains that “journalists once were politicians, some of them the most prominent candidates, officeholders, and party operatives in the nation.”  Remarkably, in the major Presidential election of 1920, the two parties each nominated a longtime Ohio newspaper editor:  Warren G Harding for the Republicans and James M. Cox for the Democrats.  See Jeffrey L. Pasley, The Tyranny of Printers (U.Va. Press: 2001).

As late as 1945, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black could assert correctly that the First Amendment “rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.”  Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1, 20 (1945) (emphasis added).  That was then.

Telecommunications Act of 1996

Paradoxically, one of the reasons media diversity continued as long as it did was the existence of certain restrictions on competition.  The Federal Communications Act of 1934, and rules adopted in 1975, established a complex set of barriers to entry into certain markets preventing, for example TV or radio stations from owning a daily newspaper in the same market.  That may sound anti-competitive, but it ensured that smaller, less profitable companies would not be gobbled up by large firms, resulting in “market consolidation.”

Did you ever wonder why the Establishment Media fawns over Bill and Hillary Clinton?  One of the many reasons is that it owes them — a lot.  In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA) to bring down barriers to entry.  The 128-page bill (short by today’s standards) was sold to the American people as pro-free enterprise deregulation, allowing anyone to enter any communication business.  It was pushed through Congress with the help of many Republicans, including Newt Gingrich.

Twenty years later, it was reported that “more than 90 percent of the media is owned by just six companies.  Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney.”  Beginning with passage of the TCA, “media companies have dramatically increased efforts to wield influence in Washington, with a massive lobbying presence and a steady dose of campaign donations to politicians in both parties….”   Big Media richly rewarded the Clintons for their support.  In the 2016 election, “the Big Media lobby [backed] Hillary Clinton.  Media industry giants have donated way more to her than any other candidate in the race.

By any standard, the trend has been toward massive consolidation.  “The top 25 companies that own the most newspapers control the fate of nearly one-third of all papers, up from 20 percent in 2004.  This included two-thirds of all dailies – 812 – and almost a fourth of all weeklies – 1,376.”  “By 2018, fewer than one-third of the country’s 5,829 weeklies with circulations under 15,000 were locally owned.”  In 2018, “the largest 10 companies owned 1,500 papers, including almost half – 572 – of the country’s 1,283 dailies.”  Predictably, the result has been less ideological diversity, more media groupthink, and a more tightly controlled information narrative.

This law has allowed radio also to be consolidated.  “In 1995, before the Telecommunications Act was passed, companies were not allowed to own more than 40 radio stations.  ‘Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Clear Channel [now called iHeartMedia] has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations.’”  Now leftist, anti-American billionaire “George Soros has purchased a potentially controlling stake in America’s second-largest chain of radio stations,” more than 220 stations, just in time to influence the 2024 elections.

The specific means which government uses to control the media are the subject of many scholarly articles and books.  Media Capture (Columbia U. Press: 2021) is a collection of essays, edited by Anya Schiffin, explaining some of the techniques used.  These can range from funding to threats.  Leaks from the intelligence community are only provided to media outlets who are willing to cooperate, and any outlet which does not toe the line will soon find access limited.  It has been said that one is never fired from big media for lying — only for telling the truth.  And when media is consolidated, being fired from one outlet can result in being blackballed by the others.  Real investigative journalism is rare, and journalists who expose too much can be jailed.  As a result, media increasingly speaks with one voice, all preserving the government’s narrative on any subject.

Censorship of the Rest

The 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory, with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, told the story of a government obsessed with a taxi driver who did his own research and wrote an anti-government newsletter called Conspiracy Theory, with only a handful of subscribers.  The premise of that story was credible to some when the movie came out and to many more 27 years later.  If Jerry Fletcher was publishing his newsletter today, it would likely be online.  And the government just might try to censor this “threat” to “the narrative” which it promotes to conceal what it does.  We will address controls over social media in another article, but the lesson from media consolidation is that bigger does not necessarily mean better.  The little guy who has no reason to lie is often a more reliable source of truth than what our establishment press has become.

Editor’s Note: To read the articles in this series, please click here.

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