NEWS MEDIA When the big get bigger
New York — Who tells what to think? Americans have an uneasy feeling that opinions, tastes, and voting habits are being shaped by a small group of corporate executives who control the mass media of this country. They worry that media conglomerates are gobbling each other up at such a rate that soon a couple of dozen corporations will control the country's newspaper, television, and magazine voices.
2 More and more news media are falling into fewer and fewer hands. Today, eight companies control the three television networks, Time and Newsweek magazines, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Washington Star (the only two newspapers in the nation's capital), The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, television stations in the most important cities covering at least 40 percent of the TV audience, the leading radio networks and stations, major segments of the cable television industry, leading book publishing companies, a string of newspapers in other key cities across the country, and a bevy of other media and non-media enterprises.
That is just too much, warns Ben Bagdikian, a former Washington Post editor who has made a personal crusade out of media concentration issue."They are too small a group of fallible human beings to have such unified control. . . ."
Even if they should be philosopher-sanits in their wisdom. This country was founded on the theory that no small group, even philosopher-saints, should have so much power over public information and discourse."
He's not the only one who thinks so.
3 Watching the steady erosion of the nation's newspaper ranks, Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona has, in his own words, been "beating the drum and sendin up smoke signals" for years about the danger that media power "is being crowded into fewer and fewer hands."
Representative Udall laments that, "As of last year out of 1,600 dailies, there were only 600 who haven't been absorbed by chains. They were being gobbed up at the rate of 50, 60, 70 a year, which means you have about a ten year supply. At that rate, they're all gone. There aren't any more."
It's not just newspaper chains doing the buying, either. Large corporations are taking over ownership of the press.
General Electric is in the process of buying Cox Broadcasting. After American Express' attempt to take over McGraw-Hill was vigorously repulsed, Amex successfully bought 50 percent of Warner Cable, one of the dominant forces in the burgeoning cable industry. Other corporate giants have been making discreet inquiries into media companies that may come on the market.
All of which sounds ominous to a large number of media people, government officials, consumer advocates, public interest lawyers, and others concerned with the power of the media. They are surprisingly resentful and angry over what they see as the concentration and arrogance of powerful media in America.
Consider the following:
* In a congressional hearing room, a conservative southern congressman leans across a table, points an accusing finger at a federal regulator and growls, "You're not getting at the monopolies who control the news media today . . . . There are three companies [the television networks] which hold the greatest aggregation of communications power this country has ever seen. Why can't we do anything? Du Pont had to divest its 49 percent of General Motors stock. Standard Oil had to break up."
* A black reporter for a major Midwestern newspaper lowers his voice so that his city editor cannot hear him and charges that there ism a kind of media monopoly in this country, although he sees no conspiracy to form one. There doesn't have to be a conspiracy, he says. "It's just that everyone is watching everyone else. One newspaper does a particular kind of story on someone, and then another picks it up, and another and another. Pretty soon, it becomes a tradition."
* Kathy Bonk, director of the media task force at NOW (National Organization for Women) in Washington, DC, adds that in most cities there is a small group of "media power brokers who have an upper class status and, by virtue of their class, are not a part of the communities they cover. . . . And if you want to reach the whole country, there are only three network news programs, all looking for quick and easy answers, for something glittery and impressive. It really is a closed system. It's a 'good ole boy network.' That's what it is."
Executives of major media corporations vigorously deny these charges. They maintain that American has the most diverse and lively free press in the world and that much criticism of it comes from dissatisfied special interest groups which want more exposure.
"Who doesn't get his day in court?" asks Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," rhythmically ticking off a list of minorities and their grievances that one sees displayed on the front page of the New York Times and in news segments of the television networks. And David Burke, assistant to the president of ABC, writes off allegations of a controlling media minority as "a spooky theory."
"Forty years ago," he says, "it was the Eastern Establishment. Before that it was the Jewish cabal . . . . The charge isn't any more true today than it was when Spiro Agnew advanced it." He argues that Americans are served a smorgasbord of information unrivaled anywhere else in the world.
So, where is the problem? Why have congressional sub-committees, federal agencies, and a couple of federal courts spend hundreds of hours worrying about media concentration?
According to many sources in these governmental agencies and the public interest lawyers who have spurred them to action, there is an undercurrent of concentration -- not of economics, but of ideas -- that should alarm civil libertarians in America. They argue that, where there is power, power will be abused. And, if you want examples of abuse, they say, all you have to do is look at those American communities where the concentration of media power is already an established fact.
In places like Atlanta, Georgia, for example, the only two general circulation daily newspapers are owned by the Cox family. Until recently, they also held a controlling interest in a major media conglomerate with a cable television company, radio stations, television stations, a trade publishing operation -- amounting to what one Cox employee calls "a stranglehold on the Atlanta market."
Cox has been, in many ways, a crystalized example of a media empire with enormous power, forced by regulation and the threat of increased regulation to divest itself of some of that power. Last year, the company announced a decision to sell its broadcasting company (which includes most of its non-newspaper media enterprises) to General Electric for about $488 million in GE stock.
For many years before this decision was made, the Cox newspapers had been the target of frequent criticism for exploiting the advantages of a newspaper/tlevision/radio combine in Atlanta.
Much of this criticism came from former and present Cox employees, but the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, the two Cox papers, have been singled out for heavy fusillades in other media as well. The Columbia Journalism Review published a supplement in 1971 entitled "The Atlanta Journalism Review," raking the papers over the coals for inadequate racial coverage, for vulnerability to business interests and pressure groups, and for dominating the Atlanta media markets.
In the years since that supplement was published, there has been little change in the use of media power in Atlanta, according to a number of reporters for the papers and informed local sources.
"Atlanta Newspapers have a monopoly here," charges Sidney Moore, a local attorney with a consumer/criminal practice and who used to be a utility watchdog in the state of Georgia. He charges that close personal and professional ties exist between Cox executives and Atlanta business interests and that these are unhealthy for the papers and the city.
"All of the higher-ups in major Atlanta corporations are members of the same clubs . . . with Cox executives," he complains. "They have lunch together every day and wind up supporting each other's position. It's a real tight-knit group."
Reporters at the Cox newspapers complain that neither paper paid more than cursory editorial attention to a joint enterprise Cox has been involved in to build an oil refinery in Portsmouth, Virginia, until The New York Times did a lengthy feature on the subject. The refinery and Cox's involvement had been the subject of "only routine business stories of a few inches in length in the Atlanta papers" until the editors finally picked up the Times piece and ran it without change themselves.
The lack of serious initiative in covering the Portsmouth refinery is surprising, observers say, in light of the fact that the Atlanta papers have campaigned vigorously for the preservation of precious coastal landscapes in the past, that the issue is highly sensitive in the state of Georgia, and that it involves one of the most visible Atlanta Corporations.
The charges of vulnerability to business interests have not died out, according to angry reporters on the newspapers who say that a reporter was recently dressed down by his editors for writing a story unfavorable to Georgia Power, the local utility, which, confide reporters, has enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Atlanta papers for a long time.
Editors at the papers deny that Georgia Power or any other Atlanta business has special access to their pages and point out that the business community in Atlanta thinks the papers are anti-business, although they acknowledge that the papers are anti-business, although they acknowledge that the papers' own reporters have an entirely different view.
Public interest lawyers have argued before the Federal Communications Commission that the Cox conglomerate should be forced to divest itself of broadcast and cable televition holdings. But Cox pre-empted this argument by initiating a deal to sell its broadcast stations to General Electric and also divesting itself of its cable properties.
According to Garner Anthony, chairman of the executive committee of Cox Broadcasting, a major reason for selling was "increasing regulatory pressure on common ownership of different media in the same market area."
This "pressure" is the result of complaints from a variety of public interest law firms, consumer groups, and Washington politicians, which prompted the Federal Communications Commission to establish several regulations designed to help dilute this media power, at least on a local basis.
One such step was the so-called cross-ownership rule, which maintained that media corporations could not own both a newspaper and television or radio station in the same market, except in certain "grandfather cities," where such cross ownerships already existed.
The FCC did single out a number of "egregious cases" where existing cross ownerships were especially dangerous to the free flow of news and information and therefore contrary to the public interest.
Atlanta was not one of these cities on the FCC's hit list, but a source close to the chairman believes that the Cox media combine was soon to become another target of forced divestiture and that some Agency specialists believe this is why Cox made the deal with General Electric.
Atlanta is not the only city where corporate media control has clouded the reputations of local newspapers and televition stations.
A recent exhaustive report in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled "The Ties that Blind," which explores the relationships between newspaper companies and other institutions that share the same directors, raises questions about the effect corporate control has had on news reporting in a number of cities.
According to the report, Otis Chandler, head of the $1.4 billion Times-Mirror media conglomerate, which owns the Los Angeles Times, provided a classic case in point:
"In the late 1960s, Chandler joined the board of GeoTek Resources Fund, Inc., founded by his friend Jack Burke to sell partnerships in oil well drilling ventures. Chandler talked up the company to Times-Mirror executives, political figures, and Hollywood personalities, convincing another Times-Mirror director to serve on the board and attracting such investors as Evelle Younger, soon to be California's Attorney General. But all was not well at GeoTek. By 1971 the Securities and Exchange Commission was checking into the company, and by early 1972 Chandler requested Burke resign and filed a lawsuit against him. It was a good story but the [Los Angeles] Times didn't write it.
"Eventually, the Wall Street Journal did on August 11, 1972.
"A front page story featured Chandler's role in the GeoTek developments. The Times, under pressure, ran a story the next day, largely based on an interview that financial editor Robert Wood conducted with the publisher, but buried it on page eight of an inside section. Wood doesn't even recall hearing of GeoTek until the Journal story appeared."
Cases of this kind are not hard to come by. Neither is the kind of situation where local conglomerates use their media muscle to their own advantage.
In Spokane, Washington, where the Cowles family owns newspapers, television, and radio stations, as well as sizable chunks of downtown and suburban property, there have been repeated charges of abuses of power, including the use of these media of influence city development plans to favor Cowles family holdings. At one time, Cowles lease arrangements for a downtown department store renting its land included a clause requiring the store to advertise in a Cowles newspaper.
In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the media combine excluded all but its own television station's program listings from its daily newspaper (the only one in the market), prominently featured this programming in a weekly television guide, and engaged in other questionable practices that eventually led to a divestiture of some media holdings.
Will national media-corporations behave more wisely and be more circumspect in the use of their power?
The question is a valid one in light of the land-office frenzy with which media corporations are buying up newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations, cable properties, and even other conglomerates. These deals and super-deals cast a long shadow on the future of the first amendment, according to many media critics.
"You may have five or six people in this country at some point, who own enough newspapers and television stations and all kinds of media, deciding who's going to run the country," warns Representative Udall. "The potential is there. And you don't have to go very far back in our history [to see how it can be abused]. Colonel [Robert R.] McCormick [former publisher of the Chicago Tribune ] and old man [William Randolph] Hearst [founder of the Hearst empire] were not only interested in money. They were interested in power. You didn't run for high office in the Midwest and Illinois, unless you went hat-in-hand to Colonel McCormick's office. These were men who wanted to make presidents and break presidents."
Few critics say that today's media managers are out t make and break presidents with their power, but they are worried that the power to do so is there. They would like an open debate on media concentration and on improving news coverage in general.
"We see a 100 times more about the subject of children's programming than we do about the power of the media and the problems of media concentration," complains Congressman John Lafalce (Democrat-New York) who has been holding hearings on the subject.
"It is such a serious problem that it should be discussed as inflation is discussed, as the presidential primaries are discussed, as energy is discussed. The media determine the agenda of America."