Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The New Media Monopoly?

Also last August: With the publication of the 7th edition of Ben Bagdikian’s The New Media Monopoly, Slate.com’s Jack Shafer composed a counterpoint to the media monopoly thesis. Basically Shafer contests the notion that our media are being monopolized by the "Big Five:" Viacom, Time Warner, News Corp, Disney, and Bertelsmann. (This was being written in the face of recent corporate mergers, including GE/NBC’s purchase of Universal, and the merger of Sony and Bertelsmann music to form SonyBMG). Shafer noted that the hold of these "top flight" media corporations is much more tenuous than we might imagine. He goes on:
    Bagdikian ignores the financial perils of media gigantism. Big isn't necessarily financially beautiful, as the markets have taught CBS Inc. and other conglomerates. In 1986, CBS was the country's largest media company, . . . . It owned a network, a top record label, a magazine division, and a book operation, among other assets. The combination proved fiscally unstable, and CBS dumped practically every property but the network before being acquired by Viacom in 1999.

Shafer also pointed out something that many others have commentated on: the so-called "synergies" media companies had hoped to reap from their mergers and acquisitions in fact rarely materialize - or at least not to the extent originally envisioned. Disney is often held up as the synergy company par excellence, but Shafer cited Disney's absorption of ABC as a "business failure." Time Inc. never really warmed to its union with Warner Bros.; and in the wake of the stock market's tech bubble bursting in 2001, it became painfully clear that AOL's merger with Time Warner was a huge millstone around the latter's neck.

Of course, any political economist and critical structuralist of the Robert McChesney variety would argue that it matters little which TNC (media TransNational Corporation) is on top at any given time - democracy and the mediated public arena are at risk as long as the TNC-based corporate-capitalist system is out of control and growing ever-bigger, gaming the system in favor of the super-rich and leaving the necessary alternative of public service broadcasting grossly underfunded and stymied. But Shafer rejects this notion, prefering instead to see competitive commercial media as a liberating force for good in the world. As evidence, he points to the critical structuralists' bete noir as evidence: Rupert Murdoch himself!

"The only Big Fiver whose center seems to hold," argues Shafer, "is News Corp. In my view, News Corp. leader Murdoch is a bit of hero, terraforming the media world by creating a fourth TV network when everybody said that was impossible. You don't have to like Fox News Channel to acknowledge that he's added ideological diversity to TV news and talk shows. His risky gambles on satellite broadcasting may make his company even more dominant." However, Shafer contends, not unreasonably, that "the 73-year-old Murdoch periodically drives his News Corp.'s finances off the cliff," and as a result, "if he doesn't total the company before he dies, we can confidently predict that his heirs apparent, Princes Lachlan and James, will." Market forces at work!

In the long run, argues Shafer:
    competition and the dynamism of markets keep any five media conglomerates from dictating "what most citizens will learn." But corporate ownership of media so rankles Bagdikian that I doubt the variations of who's on top and who's slid into corporate oblivion make much difference to him. I'm sure my testament that for all the news media's faults, its quality and variety have never been greater, sounds Panglossian to Bagdikian. But I challenge him to name a time in America's history when the news media did a better job than it does today. Who longs for the days of William Randolph Hearst? Of three broadcast networks? Of the days before the Internet?

I have problems with Shafer's piece - especially the last part, which I think sets up a false choice - but I'll return to this later. I'll finish this up for now by noting the one area of agreement between Shafer and Bagdikian. As Shafer puts it: "As misguided as Bagdikian is about the perils of media conglomeration, he makes excellent sense when barking about the political games the corporate owners of radio and broadcast TV stations play. If only he'd continued that line of thought in the seventh edition."

I've a funny feeling that Bagdikian will have something to say about Sinclair Broadcasting, Liberty Media, etc., and their role in the Bush-Kerry 2004 presidential race, when he comes to write his eighth edition.


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