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Media Conglomerates’ New and Uncertain Empowerment

March 1, 2002


Two key decisions both coming out of Washington, D.C. – one a ruling, the other, a Congressional bill – have expanded the monopolistic power of the media.  Taken together, large media conglomerates will have unprecedented influence over the political information available to voters, especially in the last days of election cycle.

To these two decisions, add documented media ‘bias’, and we should be concerned about the future network political news delivery and how it might also influence political outcomes.  We know that super-conglomerate media executives are motivated by profit and shareholders needs. Rightly so; but many are also pushed by their “progressive” worldview.  What if these two natural inclinations of media businesses are aligned at a key moment in history – for example, when a major election is in dispute.

However, there are more optimistic outcomes possible – alternative news sources could grow in reliability and significance, as a growing, skeptical viewing/listening audience turns away from the bland or sensational, commercial news presentations of the new mega-conglomerates.  And expanded direct voter contact through get-out-the-vote programs may become more important and effective in the final days of campaigns.

Now a brief review of the two major decisions that could change broadcasting and news delivery in the future.

The first decision occurred in February.  A federal appeals court ruled that regulators wrongly blocked companies from expanding their hold on the U.S. television audience. The court held that the Federal Communications Commission's review of a rule limiting a company from owning television stations reaching more than 35 percent of U.S. households was "arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law." The Court sent the matter back to the regulatory agency to decide whether to retain the ownership limit, modify it or scrap it.

Consumer advocacy groups and smaller owners of broadcast stations immediately criticized the court decision.  They claimed it would set in motion a new wave of mega-mergers in the entertainment and media industries and a continued concentration of power among the biggest media companies.

Experts predict that as many as 100 TV stations could change hands if the audience limit rule is lifted or significantly relaxed.  Cable companies or broadcasters, who are now immediately free to consolidate in local TV markets, will probably acquire more stations.

Cable giants such as AOL Time Warner are likely to become more interested in acquiring TV stations in markets where they already own cable TV systems.

The second decision was by the House of Representatives, which passed the “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001,” or the Shays-Meehan resolution.  It prohibits the use of corporate and union treasury money for broadcast communications that mention a Federal candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary.   The bill targets a candidate's electorate (unions and corporations could finance these ads through their political action committees).

Under the new regulations, besides the candidate’s campaign, the networks are free to continue negative or positive reporting on candidates in the last two months of a general election.  They frame a candidate positives or negatives through presentations and evaluations of the candidates statements, performance, polls, speeches, reactions, and demonstrations. Candidate definition is in fact the very purpose of 30-second ads; admittedly, they’re highly charged and emotionalized.  In effect the networks and broadcasting units will gain expanded power to decide a candidate’s image.

That brings up the question of bias.

S. Robert Lichter provided evidence of how hard journalists lean to the left in his 1980 survey of the media elite. Lichter's findings were confirmed by the American Association of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in 1988 and 1997 surveys. The most recent ASNE study surveyed 1,037 newspaper reporters found 61 percent identified themselves as/leaning “liberal/Democratic,” compared to only 15 percent who identified themselves as/leaning “conservative/Republican.” And there is CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg who documents the slanting the news by his colleagues in his current bestseller, Bias.

So we have large media conglomerates able to grow larger, owning both cable and television systems, controlling more of the news stage in the waning days of our elections, the majority of whose reporters identify themselves as “liberal/Democratic.”

But not so fast.   One intended or unintended result of all this is that advertising may lose some of its persuasive power.

Instead, direct, person-to-person grassroots operations which is strengthened by the Shays-Meehan Bill will grow in effectiveness.  Local and state parties will be empowered to greatly expand get-out-the-vote programs.  These may be more effective in turning out swing, undecided, and less frequent voters – just those voters that are deciding many of our key elections, and who respond less favorably to political advertising.

And on the other end of the spectrum, thoughtful voters, who also may be part of the undecided, swing voting population may turn more towards alternative political news and analysis.  Internet sources for now must still be considered “alternative.”  Also add the extensive and popular talk radio circuit.  For now talk radio hosts are free to speak their mind even in the last 60 days of the campaign cycle – for now.

Thus, media conglomerates will see an expansion in their power, reach and control over traditional news services.  And if this edition of campaign finance “reform” is passed and made the law of the land, they will exert new power of candidate definition in the last days of our elections.

But the audience has grown more sophisticated.  The very expansion of media power may doom its overall effect on opinion and elections.  There remains something intriguing at the very core of journalism – to discover the truth, to find the story.  The audience may now become the reporter – sifting out the truth from bland, sometimes biased news pouring out of the new multibillion dollar news conglomerates.  That would be a healthy development.


Award-winning TV producer, talk show host, and Republican leader Arthur Bruzzone has written over 150 political articles for national and regional media, and has commented on political issues for American and European television and radio networks.  His articles and columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Campaign & Elections Magazine, among other publications.

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