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Why Big Media is Bad for Democracy

news, mass media
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Amazon’s $8.45 billion acquisition of MGM was astounding, but it wasn’t unexpected. The acquisition is part of a larger strategy to join a select group of media giants that between them — and through hundreds of mergers, partnerships and acquisitions —owns almost all entertainment and information media in the United States. The process where progressively fewer organizations control increasing shares of the mass media is known as media consolidation. And although it’s (conveniently) rarely talked about on the news, the speed and scale at which it’s occurring could prove to be an existential threat to our democracy. 

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

Malcolm X

Lack of competing viewpoints

One issue that media consolidation creates is a lack of competing viewpoints. It’s not unsafe to assume that a handful of companies aren’t going to be able to fully represent the diverse viewpoints of millions of people. And in a society with a wide spectrum of views, news organizations will cater content to the mainstream to maximize ratings, but this means much of the important issues that make up the political conversation are lost as a result. Issues that are pivotal for the progression of the country — healthcare reform, economic policy and public safety — often are ignored in favor of the endless clickbait provided by the culture war.

Controlling the narrative

Perhaps more seriously, it is possible for owners of mass media giants to use their huge arsenal of outlets to control how a certain issue gets covered, which, if you’re Jeff Bezos —the owner of both The Washington Post and an increasingly politically active Amazon — could very well be useful.

The embodiment of this kind of strategic use of media is Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire owner of Fox News, who was reportedly interested in buying the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times in 2012, two years after making a $1 million donation to the Republican Governor’s Association. In addition, the now reversed acquisition of TimeWarner by AT&T — which Trump’s Justice Department attempted to block — handed control of one of the most popular news channels in America to a company that, in 2018, was second only to Alphabet (Google’s parent company) in political contributions.

All of this is before you even consider foreign influence, particularly the close financial ties these large organizations have with China; NBC signed a deal in 2010 with China’s state-run media organization Xinhua, which the State Department has since identified as a “foreign mission.”

Money over quality 

Due to the fact that advertising makes up an essential part of both print and visual media companies’ revenue, there is an incentive to tailor content to suit the needs of advertisers. Advertisers can threaten to pull ads for coverage that isn’t favorable to their interests. And they often require that “complementary” articles be written as part of ad buys. As a result, the information that millions of Americans rely on is not informed by public interest or quality journalism but is tailored to suit any number of interests.

‘In 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of U.S. media; today, it’s down to just six.’

Resistant to market pressure

With many independent outlets competing for ratings in a competitive news landscape, advertisers wouldn’t have as much influence. When an outlet starts to stray from the interests of its audience, that audience eventually leaves, ironically making the channel less attractive to advertisers. 

Advertisers will always have some control over corporate media, but what’s changed is that there are far fewer sources of power to influence today. In 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of U.S. media; today, it’s down to just six. Under this highly consolidated system, where news organizations are financially sheltered within large companies (ABC news at Disney, NBC at Comcast, etc.), ratings become less important: ABC can afford to lose ratings so long as Disney’s ad revenue keeps rolling in. Although advertising revenue is still tied to ratings, news outlets are less dependent on their daily fluctuation and less responsive to the demands of their audience.

What about the Internet?

While the internet does represent a safe haven for independent journalism (Anyone can start uploading to YouTube.), the reality is the most popular online websites still tend to be ones owned by one of the handful of media giants. Outlets such as Buzzfeed (owned by Comcast), Complex (Verizon), and Vice (Disney) have seen their popularity rise with increased adoption of the internet, but they all have eventually been acquired. However, the increasing number of independent media outlets finding success on the internet does present a threat for large media companies.

“The most powerful entity on earth”

Media consolidation is one of the biggest issues in America because, whether we like it or not, we live in a society controlled by mass media. This immense power starts to really show around election season when connected politicians call in favors to get as much airtime as physically possible on the big networks. Due to the lack of independent outlets in our current system, the ability for politicians to share their platform with millions of Americans is in the hands of these six companies — which are essentially able to facilitate the election of politicians that, for whatever reason, they would like to see get elected. In 2020, a victim of this was outsider Andrew Yang, who was given very little airtime relative to his performance in the polls, with major networks even repeatedly leaving him out of graphics showing all the candidates.

The media is one of the only things we have to make sense of the world, and at the moment, it’s being controlled by under 100 people. These people aren’t monsters; they’re capitalists with a responsibility to maximize the performance of their companies and beat their competition at all costs. They’re perfectly within their rights to do so provided they’re playing by the rules, but when you look at the concentration of power in U.S. media, you have to ask, are the rules really fair?

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