ACLU Joins In On Media Ownership Hysteria

from the stick-to-civil-liberties dept

I’ve said before that I have trouble understanding what all the fuss is about with media consolidation. At a time when there’s an unprecedented explosion of new voices on the Internet, it’s difficult to get worked up about rule changes that would allow very slight concentration of newspapers and broadcast television, two industries that are declining in importance. Radley Balko notes that the ACLU is jumping into the debate. I don’t understand how lobbying for more restrictive media regulations promotes civil liberties. Even worse, the organization — whose work I normally support and admire — seems really clueless about the state of the media marketplace. For example, their Washington legislative director says: “Six major companies control most of the media in the country, including the most popular sites on the Internet.”

She doesn’t say who the six companies are, but I’m going to guess it’s the “big six” of Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, GE, Bertelsman, and News Corp. There’s just no way you can argue that these six companies own “the most popular sites on the Internet.” According to Alexa, most of the top 10 sites are owned by Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, all independent companies. Only MySpace, recently acquired by News Corp., is in the top 10. But maybe she meant the top 10 media companies? Well, a good source for the sites most discussed in the blogosphere is the Memeorandum Leaderboard. Three of the top 10 are controlled by the “Big Six”: CNN at #3, the Wall Street Journal at #9 and MSNBC at #10. Four others — the Associated Press, New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic, — are mainstream media outlets not controlled by the “Big Six.” The final three slots are held by the Huffington Post and the Politico (twice), pure Internet publications not owned by the “Big Six.”

Indeed, the whole idea that “six major companies” are gaining monopolistic control over the media marketplace doesn’t make sense. There are, in fact, a ton of independent media companies. In addition to the New York Times and Washington Post companies, there are other big, independent newspaper chains like the Tribune Company (owner of the LA Times and Chicago Tribune) and Gannett (owner of USA Today and numerous other papers). There are foreign outlets like the BBC and the Guardian. There are magazine publishers like Conde Nast, book publishers like Pearson, and music publishers like EMI. The “Big Six” own a lot of media outlets, to be sure, but it’s a big world, and there is no shortage of prominent media outlets that aren’t controlled by these major players. And as media critic Ben Compaine has documented, the media marketplace has barely gotten more concentrated at all in the last couple of decades. For example, between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s, the market share of the top ten media companies increased from 38 percent to just 41 percent. More importantly, there’s been a lot of turnover. The list of top media companies in 1988 would look very different from today’s top ten list. In short, there’s no real problem here. Given how many actual civil liberties problems there are in the US, I wish the ACLU would stick to what it knows best.

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Comments on “ACLU Joins In On Media Ownership Hysteria”

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chris (profile) says:

Re: You forgot one

exactly. i stopped listening to the radio because clear channel doesn’t play anything that i want to hear.

also, large scale media ownership leads to news and discourse that is based on a target market rather than representing the local demographics.

look at the ads during cnn or fox news: luxury cars, vacation spots, investment firms, and prescription drugs, that means that the news is a product marketed for wealthy middle aged white people. is there news for those of us who are not wealthy, middle aged, or white? there might be, but you can’t trust fox news or cnn to tell you that.

another example is that a number of american news outlets (CNN in particular) are mad at the whitehouse over the run-up to the war in iraq, so they choose not to cover either only negative news on the war, or not to cover the war at all. either way, we aren’t getting the whole story.

longfellowx (profile) says:

Look out behind you!

Uh oh. You can’t attack the go-to messaging point of the public interest groups with logic Tim. That just makes too much sense. I love the “six companies own the world” line. It’s the first rabbit out of the hat anytime the media critics get onto their soapbox. Ironically, the number one target of those critics, Clear Channel, is nowhere to be found on that list (by some measures, it ranks 16th in largest media companies). Media critics also like to ignore the rampant deconsolidation that continues to take place in the business as companies quickly realize that big isn’t always better. The news that Time Warner is spinning off its cable division is just the latest in a series of such stories. But take heed my friend. Logic has never been a proper shield against the thundering horde of hyperbole and bluster.

DaveW says:


The “explosion of new voices on the Internet” is for the most part just a bunch of opinionators who get their actual journalism from Big Media. There are some exceptions, of course, but for now, websites and newsgroups are not paying anybody to spend a week or two going out and investigating one story. Nor do Net sites have the privileges that “legitimate” mainstream news organizations do.

All that will certainly change in the near future, but in the meantime arguments that use the Net to argue that it doesn’t matter whether there’s diverse ownership of Big Media is just clueless. To miss that fact that media ownership is about local markets, not national statistics, is just clueless. But I guess when you’re a self-proclaimed all-round “expert” like Timothy Lee, cluelessness is OK as long as it serves the purposes of corporate welfare.

longfellowx (profile) says:

Re: Expert?

And here come the knives.

Let’s deconstruct DaveW’s comment quickly.

First, the Web is just a “bunch of opinionators.” Nevermind that DaveW has more of an ability to contribute to the debate about media ownership now than he has at any point in American history. In the past, DaveW would have had to read a column by someone like Tim in the newspaper, or a magazine, or watched it on one of his three local channels, and then would have to craft a response, either via pen or his typewriter, and then mail in his letter, hope it doesn’t get dismissed by some intern, and possibly make it to air or into print, in order to help influence the debate. Today, DaveW can do all that instantly, from his desk at work between bites of his 11 a.m. peanut butter sandwich. Yes, the Web is a “bunch of opinionators” DaveW. And for once, you can be one of them.

Second, “actual journalism” comes from “Big Media.” Yikes. That’s not in the media critic handbook. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be the opposite, right?

Third, “media ownership is about local markets, not national statistics.” That is, of course, true to a degree. Tim, though, was responding to the “six media companies control your mind” argument, which references the national media marketplace. If it’s only about local markets, does that mean if you live in a city that has two daily newspapers, three or four local broadcast stations, and a few Web sites, you needn’t worry about the influence of “Big Media?” And which local market exactly are you talking about?

Finally, Web enterprises don’t have the money to commit to large investigative journalism. It’s true that news organizations have yet to tip in favor of Web production, and they may not for several years. But it brings up a more important point about investigative journalism. It costs money. It’s generally the most expensive kind of reporting. How do regulations that prevent struggling newspapers from purchasing a television station help the quality of investigative journalism? With ad revenue, readership and influence dropping, how are newspapers supposed to fund more investigative journalism? And before you say “produce a better product and I’ll read it,” note that even the best newspapers in the country are suffering from similar losses. In this age of media overload, quality only gets you so far.

Tim Lee (user link) says:

Re: Expert?

DaveW, I don’t even know where to begin. Maybe with a list… Slate, Salon, the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, and the Politico are all totally new online media outlets that do original reporting. In addition, mainstream media outlets like the Atlantic have significantly beefed up their online presence and have people on staff who write primarily for an online audience.. And non-profit magazines like the American Prospect, the Nation, National Review, and Reason have done original reporting for years, but they are reaching a much broader audience now that they’re online.

You can see the same pattern in tech news. Wired, TechCrunch, CNet, Ars Technica, the Register, and Paid Content all have paid staff that do original reporting. None of those pre-date the World Wide Web.

Remember that 30 years ago, most people got to choose from half a dozen TV stations, a dozen or so radio stations, one or two local newspapers for their news, and a handful of national magazines for their news. The total number of media outlets available to the average American probably wasn’t much more than 50. Google News now indexes more than 4500 news sources, some of them mainstream media outlets, others independent. If that’s not an “explosion of new voices,” I don’t know what would be.

zota says:

selective editing

Tim, you edited the ACLU’s statement. The sentence you cut off:

“Three titans, Comcast, AOL and Time Warner, own 40 percent of households with cable…”

They’re talking about overall media access. If one company is able to control local radio, tv and newspapers, and they can control the internet traffic coming into your home, all without regulation or limit, that is a serious problem.

Your point about what websites get the most traffic is an argument you’re having with yourself…

DJohnson says:


While I agree that the internet does allow a broader range of views and voices than we’ve had in the past, does the reach of the internet compare to the reach of TV, radio or newspapers? That’s an honest question, not a leading one. I seem to remember that in polling most people still get their news from the major networks’ evening newscast more than anywhere else, though the internet is certainly gaining while newspapers are waning.

So the argument is not really is the deregulation of media ownership a bad thing, per se? The question is how to ensure that the broadest range of topics, views and feedback is available, especially in terms of local coverage.

Dave says:

You're all missing something

There is a large percentage of the population that doesn’t get their news and information on-line. I know they don’t count in your opinion but they have to be considered.

Having 6 or so conglomerates control the information the non-Techdirt reading elite see is bad. They end up with a very limited and extremely biased view of the world. Fox News is the best example. There are a large number of people who view Fox as the be-all and end-all of news reporting. Saying that Salon or BoingBoing or whoever is there to give “un-biased” views doesn’t work. The average person isn’t ever likely to know about them or use them.

For the next X years, far too many will be reduced to hearing far too few voices.

Saying Google News or any on-line source is the solution doesn’t even address the real problem.

MarSOnEarth says:

Re: You're all missing something

This *has* to be emphasized. At the core of the media consolidation issue is not how many sources of content are available to those who look for it, but who controls the messages those who think are not consuming them are consuming. It’s about who controls all that content that sips in through osmosis into the passive minds and shapes what their ‘topics of the day’ are.

zota says:

Tim, I just went through a few of the “independent” publications in your list:

Wired is owned by Conde Nast. Which is owned by Advance Publications, an American media company that owns many newspaper chains, magazines, cable companies and ISPs.

Ars Technica was bought by Wired (Conde Nast/Advance)

CNet was purchased by CBS. CBS is owned by Viacom.

(If you believe TechCrunch is a vital source of mainstream news, there’s not much anyone can do to help you…)

Wolfy says:

The control of media by Corporate Amerika is what got George Bush appointed President, and what got him elected to the office the second time. It’s also the reason that Bush was able to lie to the public (about Iraq) and the reason he was able to get away with it. I greatly fear the day that the corps control the media fully…

ab5tract says:

clueless in cyberspace

are you really serious about this tim? techdirt gets so butt hurt about so many things regarding media, and generally has a very anti-conglomerate view, and now you post this piece, saying you “don’t understand”?

the MSM took us to war. anyone who didnt see it in 2003 certainly sees it now, especially in light of ‘psyops on steroids’. the idea that one guy (or group) can go all mr. burns and buy up virtually all the media outlets in a community does not bother you? you don’t see anything amiss in the shoddy reporting of cnn and fox news? is it impossible for you to see that increasing corporatization of media means that people who don’t live in new york or online will hear virtually no news or argument that doesn’t tow the “god blessed our capitalist overlords” line?

i read the nation. guess how many people know about it? any chance of nation style analysis ever reaching the audiences of the MSM? people who read the nation already knew that an invasion of Iraq would only lead to greater instability. it was the people who only get their news from the MSM that needed that information, and the MSM was precisely the structure that would never give them that. the internet will not save us if it ends up owned by Them. and if you think thats really outside of the realm of possibility, then by all means go all neoliberal on this and support ever increasing conglometerization. go ahead. just don’t complain to me when we are sitting side by side in a concentration camp for the intelligentsia.

ab5tract says:

Re: Re: clueless in cyberspace

I’m glad to sound “comically paranoid”. You sound tragically inverted, yourself.

An example, Olberman is getting hit by both O’Reilly Factor and the New York Post. Why? Because they are “produced” by the same a$$ hole. That is a nation-level catfight. What happens when this sort of crap happens at a local level? Where do you turn to get your story out when every media outlet in your community is owned by the same corporate whore? America is being raped by the cock of lies. Japan’s government forced shared access to broadband lines, and 20 mbps lines cost $21 a month. That was the cost the last time I checked, which was years ago. Do you think we will ever hear that angle of net neutrality debated in MSM?

zota says:

More independent media:

Slate, started by Microsoft, was bought by the Washington Post. The Washington Post Company owns various newspapers, broadcast stations, and a cable provider.

The Politico is a publication of Capitol News Company, LLC, a division of Allbritton Communications Company. Allbritton Communications Company also owns tv stations in nine markets, all of them ABC affiliates (owned by Disney). To finance Politico, CEO Robert L. Allbritton largely relies on his family’s media and banking fortune, which — as an interesting aside — was tied to money laundering by former Augusto Pinochet.

How did I get this info so quickly? First, I got a very expensive education. Then I used a very nice laptop and a pricey Time-Waner cable internet connection over my in-house wifi. In other words, I’m in the very top fraction of human information access. Yeah! Feels good, doesn’t it? Good thing we don’t have to rely on “dead media” for our inforamtion! Pity those poor suckers living in the bottom 80% eh?

That renaming ritual almost sounds like a some kind of bizarre corporate sex fetish…

chris (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

At what point in American history do you feel citizens had access to more information than they do today?

the question isn’t do we have access to tons of information, of course we have tons of access.

the question is who owns all of that information?

is all of this information we have access to free of corporate/government influence?

do we have access to ALL of the information, or just what the media has chosen for us?

can we trust the media to tell us the whole story, or just feed us sensationalized sound bytes?

is the information that we have access to real investigative journalism, or the opinion of so called experts?

who chooses and qualifies these experts?

that was the problem with the run up to the invasion of iraq. there was this feedback loop between the whitehouse and the mainstream media. the whitehouse “leaked” info to the media, then pointed to the media and said “see! it’s in the news!”

yeah, some blogger pointed out a discrepancy in one reporters story, that’s the exception that proved the rule. all the bloggers that railed against the invasion of iraq made no difference at all.

the more diversity there is in media, local, national, and international, the harder it is for this stuff to happen.

Tim Lee (user link) says:

Re: Re:

So most large media outlets are owned by large media companies. I’m shocked! Next you’ll tell me that the most popular brands of cars are made by large car companies.

In all seriousness, the issue isn’t how big media outlets are, but how many choices people have. The ACLU claimed that six big media companies control most of the media outlets. That’s false. In fact, the ten largest media companies control fewer than half of the media outlets. Somehow, I don’t think it would have had the same punch if the ACLU had said “Twenty-six major companies control most of the media in the country, including the most popular sites on the Internet.”

If the ACLU had made a point about the limited number of options for local media coverage in smaller metropolitan areas, I probably wouldn’t have quibbled with it. But that’s not what they said. And what they did say is demonstrably false.

Duane (profile) says:

Normally I'd agree with you Tim

but in this, you are very wrong. Somebody needs to be getting up in arms about this, because greater consolidation of media is bad for us. I happen to live in one of the places where Clear Channel owns 8 of the local radio stations. As a consequence, my music choices are the same crap, the same crap1, the same crap2, etc.

I can deal with this because I have other options, but if consolidation continues and bleeds into TV and newspapers news will go the same way.

If you want to see just how few companies own such big pieces of media, try It’s probably a little out of date, but I’m sure the situation has only worsened.

longfellowx (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Information or data. Either one. When, exactly, do you feel the nation’s news and information consumers had it better than they do today?

Net Neutrality? At this point, I’m agnostic. While I share the concern of proponents who say the last mile holders could use their advantage over access to benefit themselves, I have yet to see any serious moves by those holders (i.e., cable companies and telcos) to cut off end-to-end innovations. Too much Chicken Little talk has clouded the debate. Those companies have a legitimate fear that abusive control will trigger harsh regulation. So for now, they have been mostly hands off.

On the other side, I am equally fearful that a government unfamiliar with Internet technology will craft rules that do far more harm than good. Draft examples of Net Neutrality bills that have been floated in Congress are dangerously vague. Regulation of this sort is like chemotherapy. You better be damn sure you have cancer before you start the treatment.

I’d ask you what you think about NN, but I’m pretty sure i can guess.

JB says:

Joe Six Pack with Dial-Up Internet

The point about consolidated ownership and Clear Channel isn’t that the choice in music has been limited. The point is that there are millions of people driving to and from work each day who listen to the radio. You don’t have to be cross-eyed to see that Clear Channel slants their editorial content to support their own viewpoint. This slant is being hammered home every day to millions of people listening in their cars.

These people are not exposed to an “unprecedented explosion of new voices on the Internet”.

zota says:

Information or data. Either one.

A greater overall quantity of noise does not equal a more even distribution of information… But if you really see no difference between signal and noise, I guess there’s really not much point discussing this, is there?

a government unfamiliar with Internet technology

You might want to lay off the corporate anarchy. I hear it makes you go historically blind.

zota says:

longfellowx, the fact that Americans have access to more technology gossip blogs than ever before does not necessarily make them better informed voters. Maybe you really should read the memo.

Are you suggesting that our governing bodies do have a firm handle on Internet technology?

When you stuff four decades of networking protocol into the memory hole, does it make you feel virile?

Anonymous Coward says:

Some of these points have been said before, but I have three reasons I don’t agree with Tim here.

1) Consolidation means bigger companies (conglomerates) own more and more media. MSM becomes less of a local editor-run thing, and more of a corporate-run business. Do these various companies have a balanced political position (some left, some right) or do they seem to gather up on one side of the political spectrum? Where do you think that takes the bias in MSM?

2) I read a variety of great publications online and offline. So do most of the people here. Sheeple, on the other hand, don’t. They watch MSM and “news” shows like Fox News, CNN, Inside edition…or “the news” from the local affiliate. I could say they listen to Clear Channel radio too, but the truth is the American household TV is on something like 11 hours a say, with the average person watching in 7 hours. THAT IS THE MEDIUM OF THE MASSES. And the TV-drones make up the majority of our citizens, each armed with one vote. These people can be led like sheep in any direction by simply inserting bias into the message. Education is one thing that can reduce this effect, but sadly, we don’t seem to be getting better on this count.

3)Blogs and independent sources, while often great, are also surrounded by a lot of “noise” in the form of lousy blogs. Audiences tend to believe TV, but question blogs. I’ve seen “As seen on TV” as an advertiser’s argument for credibility, but I don’t think I’ll see “As seen on the Internet” anytime soon. People with bias who look to the Internet usually find sites that support that bias, instead of reading multiple different sites for a broader view. Smaller news outlets such as blogs or small radio stations often don’t have the staff, budgets, or time to do lots of original research, hire full-time investigators/journalists, to travel to locations, etc. As such, much of the news reported is actually opinion layered on top of news from other outlets. Don’t get me wrong, often that opinion is refreshing, insightful, adds value — what else would I think as a writer here at Techdirt! Often, we can even guess the reality behind PR spin, holes in stories, pure BS, conflicting stories, historical re-writes, etc. But still, we are limited by the source materials and original research that is already out there.

So for these three reasons, I agree that too much media consolidation is bad, reduces the diversity of the information and opinion being offered to the majority of Americans, and that the Internets mostly offer diverse ideas to the minority of people who are seeking diverse ideas in the first place.

zota says:

Tim, since you and the ACUL you’re talking about news organizations, let’s look at the top 10 Alexia news sites:

Three actually are controlled by “Big Six” media conglomerates: CNN, MSNBC, Fox. Two are news aggregators that don’t do original reporting. Three are British. One is Australian (and also owned by News Corp). The ACLU’s statement is factually correct.

zota says:

Conde Nast is independent of the “Big Six”

In addition to Conde Nast, the Advance/Newhouse corporation also owns around 25 daily newspapers and serves over 2 million cable subscribers. In terms of global media conglomerates, They’re ranked around #10. )You also mentioned Gannett, who are ranked at #8.)

Tim, if you’re point is that American information control is in any way similar to American automobile manufacturing, then we’re just going to have to disagree. I still want to have some hope for the future…

H. E. Larson says:

Media Consolidation;

You seem to have missed the point this is about local media sources not so much national or international. Like the economy which starts at the bottom and works up, disinformation works the same way. Just look at what consolidation has done so far to, radio,except for NPR is a load of stinky, TV, always a wasteland, except for PBS, has become more of a ad source than one of mediocre shows. Some of this is due to the current political situation, which is more big business than politics. Which is why I for one applaud the ACLU they understand when anything is controlled by a group of less than five it is a bad thing. I mean do you really think that nobody knew selling bad loans was going to end in a mess. They might have not thought that it would be such a big mess but they knew a big cowpie was coming sometime. This has happened before the teapot dome(oil), SOHIO(oil). Do we not learn from the past, monopolies bad diversity good.

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