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Who Owns the Media?

With the country’s widest disseminators of news, commentary and ideas firmly entrenched among a small number of the world’s wealthiest corporations, it may not be surprising that their news and commentary is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics.
––Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley

CNN logo with round red lettering

America Online logo spelling AOL and a triangular icon in blue
The New York Times logo
Disney logo with a picture of the Magic Kingdom castle

Fox News logo of white print in a black box

USA Today logo with the slogan ³Your News‹When You Want It²

Viacom logo in a blue box

Like all reliable watchdogs, the media are expected to bark, but when its many-faceted voice is owned by a small number of corporate masters, concerns about its willingness to keep barking arise.

The trend of media conglomeration has been steady. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

There are also major news organizations not owned by the “big five.” The New York Times is owned by the publicly-held New York Times Corporation, The Washington Post is owned by the publicly-held Washington Post Company and The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times are both owned by the Tribune Company. Hearst Publications owns 12 newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as magazines, television stations and cable and interactive media.

But even those publications are subject to the conglomerate machine, and many see the “corporatizing” of media as an alarming trend. Ben Bagdikian, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of The New Media Monopoly, describes the five media giants as a “cartel” that wields enough influence to change U.S. politics and define social values.

Internet Ownership

Originally, the Internet was the champion of free thinkers, embraced as a liberating force from corporate owned media. But over time even online news sites joined radio, television, newspapers and magazines as properties of the small handful of media conglomerates.

In raw numbers, 80 percent of the top 20 online news sites are owned by the 100 largest media companies. Time Warner owns two of the most visited sites: CNN.com and AOL News, while Gannett, which is the twelfth largest media company, owns USAToday.com along with many local online newspapers.

What we should be most concerned about, Bagdikian says, is the narrowing of choices, because that removes from voters the full spectrum of views and information with which to choose its government—a dangerous trend that threatens democracy itself.

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