The Problem With Conglomerates

The following is an excerpt from my book Bruh, Read the News: A Teen Guide for Fighting Disinformation, One Critical Thinker at a Time, available in-print & eBook through Kobo, Bookshop.org, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and more.

In this chapter, we’ll discuss who owns the news and why that ownership is bad news for America. America’s largest outlets for news are owned by a handful of conglomerates. That’s a fancy word for a major corporation that owns several other companies in an effort to maximize market share. Here’s a list of the top media conglomerates as of 2022:

Comcast

Alphabet

Walt Disney

Facebook

Apple

AT&T

ViacomCBS

Sony

Fox

You probably recognize almost the entire list, and wouldn’t necessarily associate the companies with the news. These behemoths own cable and home internet service providers, including the largest, Xfinity; film studios like Marvel and Lucasfilm; sports channels like ESPN; CBS, DirecTV, and Sony Music Entertainment, among a myriad of other assets.12 It’s the fact that we’re expected to assume that the convergence of entertainment (like Marvel movies) and reliably sourced news (like CBS News) is somehow a good fit with a profit motive at play, that should cause anyone to be extremely skeptical.

Here’s a friendly reminder that there are 50 states in the United States of America, with thousands of cities, counties and communities, made up of different demographics and economic needs, supported by a wide range of different industries. The needs of the residents of West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, are vastly different from that of New York, one of the wealthiest.13 If the news on the major channels owned by the conglomerates above are so hyper-national in their approach to the news, is it any wonder why the needs of the various communities across the country are not being discussed, let alone addressed?

Unfortunately, the goal for news media conglomerates is centralization, and centralization is about streamlining resources and cutting costs. Throughout the years, I’ve heard friends and family criticize the news for running the same headlines with the same loaded language, which is a reasonable observation, but they approach it as if there’s some grand conspiracy. In fact, it has everything to do with the lack of diversity and extreme centralization of ownership in the media; the fact that so few companies own so much news.

Revenue is an important word to talk about. Just how are these conglomerates generating the money coming in? While selling advertising time and space has long been an important part of the news business, for companies like Alphabet, it represents the vast majority of revenue ($150 billion of $162 billion total). Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google have effectively created detailed profiles of users to serve up the most appropriate advertisements, further incentivizing advertisers to spend their advertising dollars with them, resulting in even more market share and power for just a few major corporations. Many, including members of Congress, have argued they are essentially monopolies: businesses in a market without perfect competition or without true competitors. Outside of public utilities like water and electricity, where monopolies are approved by local governments and prices are regulated, monopolies are bad for consumers. There virtually isn’t a price they can’t charge!

“But Google and Facebook are free,” you might be saying to yourself. Forgive me, but nothing is free. Advertisers are paying those companies for a reason. When a social media giant like Facebook and the apps provided by Google are “free,” it’s not because those companies are charitable, it’s because you are the product.

Corporate Media and a Conflict of Interest

In a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN in July of 2019, Bernie Sanders famously called out the corporate media, specifically CNN, for its revenue generating relationship with the health care industry that lobbies against a humane and equitable health care system like single payer, or at least Medicare for All (publicly funded and privately provided health care for all Americans). After CNN anchor and debate moderator Jake Tapper used, according to Sanders, a “Republican talking point,” accusing Democrats of trying to “take private health insurance away from 150 million Americans”14 by proposing the health care overhaul known as Medicare for All, Sanders pointed out the glaring conflict of interest.

“They [the healthcare industry] will be advertising tonight with that talking point.”15

File:Bernie Sanders (49554442566).jpgU.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with attendees at the Clark County Democratic Party’s 2020 Kick Off to Caucus Gala at the Tropicana Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada. Attribution: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

As Jake Johnson wrote for CommonDreams.org, “Sure enough, during the debate’s commercial breaks, ads by pharmaceutical giants and industry-backed organizations dominated the airwaves, further vindicating Sanders and other progressives who have raised alarm at the role corporate advertising plays in America’s media coverage.”16

When there’s so much money to be made from advertising, you can expect the news to cover less of what’s important and engage in less discussion of policy, and during the campaign season which seems to spread its calendar wings a little further every cycle, expect the news to cover the horse race instead of ask why Americans pay more for health care than any other country and still don’t enjoy universal coverage, as guaranteed in Canada, the UK and practically every other country in the developed world. You can expect the news to talk about the latest childish spat between Florida Governor Ron Desantis and U.S. President Joe Biden, rather than ask why college tuition or childcare grows at increasingly unaffordable rates year after year, and you’re all but guaranteed to hear and witness the talking heads of cable news poison the American airwaves with divisive vitriol like the dangerous levels of lead coursing through the water pipes of thousands of communities across the great United States.

That’s the problem with conglomerates.

Book Review: Kill Switch, the Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy

A majority being held hostage by a political minority. That’s the story told in Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy by Adam Jentleson, a former deputy chief of staff for the (just recently) late U.S. Senator Harry Reid.

Jentleson’s clearest example for how the modern Senate hurts and holds back America is told through the story of the “background checks” bill from 2013. In the wake of the unspeakable brutal massacre of school children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary, the bill was a bipartisan effort that had the support of Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Joe Mancin. A right-wing, 2nd Amendment rights group even supported it. 55 senators were ready to vote in favor of universal background checks for gun purchases, while 45 were not. Because of the super majority needed to end a filibuster, Republicans didn’t even have to debate it, or stand on the floor of the Senate to explain to the American people why they opposed it. As the author notes,

“it had not mattered that the opponents of the bill lost the debate in the court of public opinion by a landslide…All they needed to do was hold together a minority of senators, most of whom would not face voters at the polls for several years…they were accountable almost exclusively to people who looked and thought like they did: white conservatives.”

According to Jentleson, the bill was “supported by 90 percent of Americans.” (p. 19)

Contrast that bipartisan effort with the legislative actions by Republican-controlled legislatures across the country since former president Donald J. Trump lost, but refused to concede the 2020 election. After he led an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, 148 members of Congress, all Republican, voted against certifying the election results in states like my own, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Since then, dozens of voter suppression bills have either been proposed or passed. The literature on the new Jim Crow is plentiful, with authors like Carol Anderson and Ari Berman documenting the multitude of ways in which the Republican Party makes it harder to vote. These tactics include the shutting down of hundreds of precincts since the Supreme Court gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 as well as the inconsistent and inequitable list of acceptable forms of ID (e.g. some states allow a hunting license, while prohibiting a college ID). Even ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sided with a Court of Appeals a few years ago that had declared a voter-ID law in North Carolina violated the 14th Amendment and aimed to eliminate minority votes with “surgical precision”. Mail-in ballots are also a large target, given that many states made it universal during the pandemic, even though the red state of Utah provides for universal mail-in, something Republican Senator Mitt Romney is very proud of, but Republicans don’t bat an eyebrow in that case. The GOP has even aimed its sights at limiting who can drop-off ballots and prohibiting the vanpooling of Native Americans from reservations to polling places.

How the Filibuster Was Established

The filibuster originated via the machinations of John C. Calhoun, who as vice president under President Andrew Jackson (his first term) and president of the Senate, allowed one member after another from the minority to debate a bill that would charter the Bank of the United States, in the hopes that the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, would miss the summer deadline. Eventually the majority would cough or make noises signaling for the filibustering members to shut up and end debate. However, the scheme had established a tactic not yet named, and “sparked a feeling of camaraderie among the minority of filibustering senators, even though they had no hope of actually defeating the bill.” (p. 51) Then, what’s called the last question rule was established that allowed a simple majority to end this intentional delay, but during the time of Woodrow Wilson in 1917, another change was made, Rule 22, which required that a super majority agree to end debate, at first 2/3rds then later reduced to what a super majority means in the Senate now, 3/5ths or 60 votes.

Though I knew that Republican obstruction in the Senate was a major problem during the Obama Years, I wasn’t aware of the extent until now. Jentleson pointed out that by the time Harry Reid had adopted the nuclear option for the purpose of presidential appointments in 2013, half of all the appointments that had been filibustered in the nation’s history occurred while Obama was president. That’s truly remarkable, and a sure sign that it is indeed the Republican Party that is the problem.

How to Define Corruption

Among the best examples of political history in the book centers around a dispute between Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). At the time, McCain was implicated, among other senators, in a financial and federal oversight scandal that was a clear case of multiple conflicts of interest related to a businessman named Charles Keating. As a result, and likely motivated by a level of political expediency, McCain became one of the few Republicans who believed campaign finance reform was a necessity due to what he viewed as corruption: pork barrel spending and corporate lobbying. He and Democratic Senator Diane Feingold would champion what would be known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or McCain-Feingold for short. In 1999, Mitch McConnell called out McCain on the Senate floor, demanding that he name names to explain his general allegations of Senate corruption. (pp. 194-95) The dispute could be narrowed down to two definitions of corruption: the McConnell version, where there’s an explicit understanding that a lobbyist is handing over campaign contributions in exchange for either support or opposition to a piece of legislation, and the McCain version, which according to the author, lines up with the view of the Founders: that excessive amounts of money contributed to campaigns serve as a violation of the public trust in leaders and institutions that should put the interests of the country over their self-interest and preservation. (pp. 196-197) The Supreme Court would later side with McCain in McConnell v. FEC, but only a handful of years later, effectively overturn that decision with the disastrous Citizens United decision (2009) in which the conservative wing of the Supreme Court equated unlimited and corporate contributions to American politics with free speech.

Thoughts This Book Provoked

1. What I’ve realized is we’re a better country than the modern Senate allows.

2. One important takeaway from the book is the fact that American sentiment has often been ahead of the laws its country’s legislators have passed. Anti-lynching legislation and laws to end poll taxes were supported by a majority of Americans in the 1930s/40s, but a majority of U.S. senators were stopped by the minority’s use of the filibuster. In short, the filibuster added decades to the needless suffering of and lack of protection for Black and Brown Americans.

3. How radical it is that in the American system a person can be elected president with less than 50% of the vote, yet a simple majority in the Senate can be blocked from voting on legislation supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans by a super minority of senators, or more specifically, one objection in the form of a phone call or email.

4. You tell me how it makes any sense that the Senate requires 60 votes to end a filibuster, but the Republican Party can go nuclear on Supreme Court nominations, resulting in the confirmation of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh with just a simple majority, 54 and 50 votes, respectively (pp. 230 and 232).

5. I’m reminded of the common refrain that “historians today are revisionist,” which might as well be an insult because it suggests that historians are lying through their coffee stained teeth. A good analogy for why this is wrongheaded begins with the famous painting titled Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. The Founders are standing in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The signing of perhaps the greatest document, second only to the Declaration of Independence, occurs. And you know what? It never happened that way. It’s a microcosm of the kind of job that historians are tasked with: uncovering the falsehoods, sharing the facts and providing real context. If that’s “revisionism,” well then, so be it.

How “Ha” Sings the Blues

When I was a kid, around 14-15, I was in my parents basement in the summer trying to bench press a measly 50 lbs when a new video came on BET. I never put the weight locks on, so when I heard what I considered trash at the time, one arm gave in, tilting the bar to the right as a 25 lb weight slid off and ran into the wall. My mother screamed down from the kitchen, “Derek, what was that?” I was appalled. It was the official video for what became a breakout hit, “Ha,” by the rapper Juvenile.

I was used to a different kind of MC. I was tuned into the type that was influenced by the likes of Rakim and Kool G Rap. I was used to the powerful delivery of KRS-One, the cadence of O.C., or the smooth and monotone voice of Guru. Juvenile’s sound was foreign to my ears.

A kid who had grown up on the Golden Era of hip hop, creative wordplay and thought provoking lyrics over boom bap beats, I thought Juvenile couldn’t rap. How wrong I was, thinking back now. Here I am in my late 30s and I can the hear the influences of the blues in his music.

Watching The Howlin’ Wolf Story recently, a documentary about the great blues musician, then shortly thereafter hearing “Ha” by Juvenile got me thinking about how connected their music really is.

Howlin’ Wolf was born in Mississippi during the terrifying Nadir Period when thousands of Black Americans were lynched by racist mobs decades before the Civil Rights Era. In adulthood, he moved to Chicago. On the other hand, Juvenile is a Cash Money Millionaires rapper from New Orleans. On the surface, there appears a picture showing two different experiences, but if you look a little closer, you’ll find hues and colors that make those experiences share much in common.

To hear Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) tell it in The Howlin Wolf Story (2003), directed by Don McGlynn,

“…I’m gonna tell you what the blues is: when you aint got no money, you got the blues. When you aint got no money to pay your house rent, you still got the blues. A lot of people’s hollerin’ about “I don’t like no blues cuz when you aint got no money and can’t pay your house rent and cant buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you aint got no money, you got the blues, ‘cause you’re thinking evil.”

On “Ha”, Juvenile’s lyricism meets the Wolf’s definition. He’s “thinking evil” as he raps in second person.

“You full of that diesel, ha,
You duckin’ them people, ha
Your face was on the news last night, ha
You the one that robbed them little dudes out they shoes last night, ha”

But on the hook, he evolves from one of the traditions of blues music, that of expressing one’s grief, howlin’ about having the blues, to not letting the factors that lead to the blues, hold you back:

“You a paper chaser, you got your block on fire
Remaining a G until the moment you expire
You know what it is, you make nothin’ out of somethin’
You handle your biz and don’t be cryin’ and sufferin'”

In much the same way that Howlin’ Wolf explains what it means to have the blues, Juvenile’s “Ha” speaks to the same mood. “When you aint got no money, you got the blues” says Howlin’ Wolf, while Juvenile raps “you gotta go to court, ha”.

On Howlin’ Wolf’s track “Back Door Man,” Howlin’ is talking about sleeping with another man’s woman and sneaking out in the morning.

“When everybody’s tryin’ to sleep
I’m somewhere making my midnight creep
Yeah, in the morning the rooster crow
Something tell me I got to go
I am a back door man”

– “Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf, written by Willie Dixon

The story shares a lot in common with the kind of sleeping around that Juvenile talks about in “Ha”.

“That’s you with that badass Benz, ha
That’s you that can’t keep your old lady ’cause you keep [expletive] her friends, ha” – “Ha” by Juvenile

Juvenile’s personal life reflects the soul of the blues, a musical genre rooted in the hearts, minds and spirits of the descendants of African slaves. He’s had legal troubles, and personal tragedies, including the murder of his 4-year old daughter. Though I’ve never listened to much of his catalog, my research into this connection has piqued my interest.

I can remember in the wake of Hurricane Katrina catching his video for “Get Ya Hustle On” (2006). The video opens with the message: “This is a tribute to those who died in the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm may have passed, but for thousands, the struggle is just beginning.”

It goes on to spotlight a neighborhood where homes were destroyed and cars turned over, where crosses adorned with framed pictures cover makeshift grave sites like the scene of fatal accidents, while face masks of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Mayor of New Orleans at the time, Ray Nagin, are worn by young Black kids. As one of the boys turns a mask over to put it on, the words “Help is Coming” are printed on the inside. As history shows, for many, help never came, or at best, came too late. The attitude and point of the song is: no one is going to save you. Your federal government failed you. It always will. Get your hustle on.

“Your mayor ain’t your friend, he’s the enemy
Just to get your vote, a saint is what he pretend to be “

“Everybody need a check from FEMA
So he can go and sco’ him some co-ca-llina
Get money! And I ain’t gotta ball in the Beemer
Man I’m tryin to live, I lost it all in Katrina (damn)”

“[Expletive] Fox News, I don’t listen to y’all ass
Couldn’t get a nigga off the roof with a star pass
Talkin’ y’all comfortable right now to your own land
Till a nigga catch ya down bad, starvin’ and want cash”

The song and video reminds me of the award winning documentary that I only recently watched this past February in honor of Black History Month, Trouble the Water (2008).

The documentary centers around Kimberly Rivers Roberts–and her husband–who filmed herself the day before the storm, as well as the morning that it hits. She’s eventually forced to the attic of her home. She continues to film after the storm and flooding recedes as she looks for her neighbors in the Ninth Ward, all of them vulnerable, including a man, who appears to be an addict, that she spotted asleep on the steps of a porch the day before the storm and had woken up to warn about the hurricane. Though she and her husband survive the storm, their neighborhood was never the same, and they eventually relocate, attempting to get help from FEMA.

Roughly 80% of the city was flooded after the levees broke. At least 1,800 people died. The way the poor, much of them Black Americans, were left without a means of evacuating or immediate help from the government, is reminiscent of the aftermath of the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau near the end of Reconstruction in 1872, a national tragedy regretted by W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, for both its obvious neglect and its costly mismanagement, the same type of criticism that FEMA and the George W. Bush Administration rightfully received.

Juvenile’s hip-hop may not be the sample-based, east coast hip-hop that I grew up on, but his poetry and the root of his music is just as relevant and poignant, and its relationship to the soul and simplicity of the blues, as well as the historical experience and present reality of Black Americans cannot be overstated. Now you’re gonna give it a listen, ha.