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:
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
U.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.