Who’s in control? This is the question I have always heard, since I got involved with the media business many years ago. Journalists and consumers used to raise it at any occasion. And though it never changed, the answers were sometimes hilarious or full of pretensions of “objectivity” and “independence.” Another question was: are they in the West more independent than we, in the Arab world?
This is a bit more complicated than it seems.
Take the network of the existing media system in the United States: it shares about $120 billion (or more) spent annually by companies on advertising. Therefore, it is easy to say that “public” and commercial media are largely funded by corporate sponsors, which makes of them corporatist instruments of domination towards political power in the United States and abroad. So, where’s independence?
Some observers describe these networks of power created and controlled by giant corporations as “media cartels.” What seems of some concern here is the threat against democracy posed by the big companies controlling a huge amount of media and employees.
We read for example that during the four years following the 1985 merger between Capital Cities and ABC, CBS was acquired by The Loews Corporation, NBC by General Electric, and Time, Inc. merged with Warner Communications. The cooperation between these companies in the programming and development of new business probably undermines the independent companies and limit competition.
Yes, the media contributed to stopping the Vietnam War and ousting Nixon.
But the networks are today much more powerful than they used to be towards the end of the Vietnam War or during the Watergate scandal. So what? Are they more independent and objective?
It has been remarked that the Reagan administration has particularly helped the networks to expand the sphere of their profits and their power more than any other administration in American history. It is known that William J Casey, CIA director under Reagan was one of the main beneficiaries, personally and politically, from the merger between Capital Cities and ABC. As one of the founders of Capital Cities and as one of its old advisers and member of the board of directors and one of its biggest shareholders, he put an enormous pressure on ABC and all US news organisations to get more support from them to Reagan’s conservative agenda.
In 1984, Casey asked the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to revoke all licenses of ABC radio and TV in an act of retaliation against the broadcast by ABC News network of a report suggesting that the CIA tried to assassinate an American citizen. It was the first time apparently that a government agency tries to intimidate the US networks with the “Fairness Doctrine” of 1949. A month later, Capital Cities made its first offer to buy ABC. Two months later, Casey asked the FCC again to reconsider his complaint against the network based on the “Fairness Doctrine.” The following month, Capital Cities bought ABC.
For some observers, Casey’s pressure on US networks (especially ABC) was in line with other attempts by the Reagan administration to manipulate the US media for its own political and economic advantage. Besides, we are told that after the merger, the public learned that William Casey had 34.000 shares of Capital Cities, worth approximately $ 7 million at the time of ABC’s purchase.
Indeed, there is no reason to think that this kind of influence stopped with the end of Reagan administration. Actually, as we know “everything is connected to everything” and money is still at the center of the power networks which are also those of the media.
Besides, companies are not independent of political power to the degree that we imagine. If they support politics and politicians, they have their preferences. And business networks are so large and complex that a part is probably beyond the control of those who are used to pull the strings.
Example: in 1978, 1980 and 1987, several reports describe family and business relations between Capital Cities and the world of games as well as the conglomerate of real estate “Resorts International” and its mysterious predecessor: the Mary Carter Paint Company. According to some sources, “Resorts” which, reportedly, had links with CIA, organised crime, Howard Hughes, and former fascist leaders of Chile, Nicaragua, and Iran, owned also “Intertel,” a subsidiary company which was described by Rolling Stone magazine in 1976 as a “private company recruiting for the CIA.” “Intertel” was specialised in helping business leaders for the “assessment” of potential purchase targets.
About the liaison between the communities of media, money and power, there is much to say. In the 1970s, while the US became debtor, the culture and information industry emerged as a first rank source of economic growth.
Thus, through the power of US based transnational corporations, the Pentagon, and the US dominated financial groups, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the US financial leaders were able to maintain their leading role in post-war international political economy and exert their influence on the affairs of other nations in the name of “the American national security.”
Therefore, it is believed that the close ties between the US networks reflect the growing amalgamation between government, industry, and financial institutions, which poses a threat to independent citizenship in the global economy dominated by corporations.
Conclusion: the policies of today’s media –” at all levels-are more than ever shaped by transnational media conglomerates. I am not sure that with such a picture, we can still talk of “independence” and “objectivity.” These are vast networks of power expressing vested interests through massive coverage of global events. Is there room for different viewpoints, concerning the policies of the government? If some people turn towards “alternative media” for information, it is not really surprising, considering the fact that the mainstream media depend on big corporations who themselves recruit their leaders among ex-politicians, and sometimes we find the same persons sharing positions on different boards (in both media and businesses) plus in power.
Now, is not this the reason why the leaders of the Middle East decided that they needed to create their own TV channels to offset the information provided by CNN?