Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Where are Newspapers at "Dominant" Media Companies?

Quick: Name the three most influential newspapers in the United States today.

Did you say The New York Times? The Washington Post? The Wall Street Journal? There may be one or two others: The L.A. Times; maybe, in its fashion, USA Today. Even in this age of falling newspaper circulation, these newspapers often set the agenda for what gets covered by the TV news operations. I can't count the number of times I've seen a story on ABC Evening News or CNN that is straight from the pages of the Journal the day before.

Quick again. Which of the five monster media companies that Ben Bagdikian says in the 7th edition of his Media Monopoly book "decide what most citizens will or will not learn" owns these papers?

Answer: None. For all the properties these five (Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, Disney, and Bertelsmann) own, not one is a national newspaper or even a moderately influential one. Sure, all but Bertelsmann reach a large television audience (though a smaller one than 20 years ago). Yet on the crucial news and information scale they are at best second tier players when it comes to agenda setting. Indeed, even the Watergate story, perhaps at the pinnacle of reportorial events of the second half of the 20th Century and within the broadcasters' heyday, it was The Washington Post that did the heavy digging.

This observation of the disconnect between the presumed "power" of some five or whatever number media companies and the absence of any of the important print media in their portfolios is courtesy of Jack Shafer, who is the media critic for Slate. In his review last August of Bagdikian's latest iteration of the multi firm "monopoly" series Shafer writes:

But the Big Five determine what the majority learns only in those places where the newsstand sells only the New York Post and Time and where TV receivers have been doctored to accept signals only from CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Fox News Channel —which is to say nowhere.

I repeatedly hear this litany of five dominant media companies. Yet not one of them is dominant across all-- even most-- mass media. None of the first four (Bertelsmann is not in the television, cable, or radio business in the U.S.) is even dominant in television, as they split up, along with GE's NBC/Universal, about half of the all households on a typical evening. Five players sharing 55 million households may be a good business, but it ain't dominance. GM, Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Toyota each sell lots of cars, but none dominate the market the way GM did into the 1970s when it alone accounted for just shy of half of all cars sold.

The other half of households are watching someone else's programming or perhaps reading someone else's newspaper. To be sure, some might be reading Time Warner's People magazine instead of watching a Fox produced movie on Viacom's Showtime cable channel. They could also be among the millions doing something else altogether: online bidding at eBay, watching the Spanish language Univision network, downloading music at iTunes, reading this or one of millions of other Blogs -- or maybe helping their kids with homework.

I know there's a small cadre of media bashers who get no solace from this analysis. To them (and I am confident none will be reading this Blog) it really makes no difference how many providers there are. To them, so long as the media are driven by private enterprise and the marketplace anything they produce is tainted.

But for everyone else, I ask once again: Do you have more choices in types of programming and selections of viewpoints today than 20 years ago? Or if you're under about 30 -- and your choice 20 years ago was mostly in the form of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, Sesame Street or Dr. Seuss -- do you truly find that you can't locate the music, art, opinion, film, entertainment, sports, or games that you would prefer to have over what is out there?

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