Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Merger Mania in the Media: Can We Still Get All the News We Need?

By John H. McManus

John Smith lives in Los Angeles. On his way to work this morning, Smith catches the news on KLOS over his car radio. When he arrives at the office, he peruses a copy of Women's Wear Daily, the bible of the apparel industry for which he works. After a hard day at the office, he returns home, puts up his feet, and watches the local news on Channel 9, followed by Peter Jennings on 7 (while his kids are occupied with the Disney cable station). And he reads himself to sleep with the newest issue of LA Magazine.

Observing Smith's day, you notice he has access to an impressive array of information sources. But does he? Each of these media outlets - the radio station, the trade journal, both TV stations, the cable station, and the magazine - may soon be owned by the same company, through a proposed merger of Walt Disney Co. and Capital Cities/ABC.

Is the concentration of media ownership represented by Disney/ABC a problem, or, more specifically, an ethical problem? On the surface, the creation of media giants may seem to have more to do with business considerations than it does with morality. But media concentration and its effect on the information you need to run your life are worth considering from an ethical point of view, especially as such deals proliferate.

In broadcasting, concentration of ownership-already a trend - is becoming the rule as merger mania hits the industry. If a proposed CBS-Westinghouse merger goes through, the conglomerate would own 15 TV stations (more than the law currently allows), not to mention 39 radio stations. Another intended merger - of Time Warner Inc. and Turner Broadcasting - would produce the largest media and entertainment conglomerate in the world, reaching more than 40 percent of cable households. And a third deal - between News Corp. Ltd. and MCI - would make the products of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire available through a broadcast network (Fox), TV stations, newspapers, magazines and your home or business computer.

In the print media, concentration of ownership has long been the trend. Just after World War II, four out of five U.S. newspapers were independently owned. By 1989, only one in five was not the property of a chain. In 1981, 20 corporations controlled most of the nation's 11,000 magazines. Only seven years later, the number shrank to three corporations.

Ethics and the News: A Framework
The numbers are impressive, but you may still be asking yourself, What's the ethical big deal? At the heart of the question is an argument about democracy and about rights.

For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume democracy is the best form of government from an ethical point of view; it is the most likely to ensure the rights of all citizens, to treat all groups fairly, to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, etc.

For a democracy to succeed, the public needs sufficient information to make informed judgments on the important issues of the day. We cannot, for example, produce the greatest good for the greatest number if we do not have accurate data about a policy and its possible effects. James Madison, chief drafter of the U.S. Constitution, wrote: "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Some philosophers argue that when Madison and the other framers of the Constitution wrote the First Amendment - protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press - they intended an implicit contract between the people and news providers. The press would be granted exceptional protection from government interference; in return, the press would provide the information necessary for informed civic decisions.

A term frequently used to describe what the people get out of this contract is "the public's right to know." That right constitutes the foundation of almost every journalistic code of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists, for example, declares: "We believe in public enlightenment as the forerunner of justice and in our Constitutional role to seek the truth as part of the public's right to know the truth."

To satisfy the public's right to know, the press is obligated to provide, in the language of the 1947 Commission on Freedom of the Press, "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning."

With that framework in mind, we can now return to the original question: What are the ethical ramifications of media concentration? To put the issue another way: How does media concentration affect the public's right to know?

For the public to have adequate information for decision making, all sides of a story must be aired. Critics argue that concentration reduces the number of issues raised and the number of voices heard. Those voices that do get through, opponents continue, are too often subject to conflicts of interest that slant their presentation of the news. Nonsense! reply the leaders of large media corporations and their defenders. Big corporations provide citizens more volume, choice, quality, and objectivity in the news than ever before.

The Case Against Media Concentration
To serve the public's right to know, competition must exist in the marketplace of ideas. That belief is at the heart of the case against media concentration. Diverse media ownership can create the robust and unconstrained debate that allows the best ideas to prevail. Consolidation, in contrast, constricts the number of information providers and can cut down on the debate that is essential to a democracy. To return to our opening example, Smith, though he uses six outlets for information, is really only getting his news from one source. How will he learn all sides of the story?

Compounding the problem is the fact that the people who are in a position to own or control the few huge conglomerates now providing the news often share similar points of view. Here, according to media critic Ben Bagdikian's 1992 book "The Media Monopoly," is the danger:

"Today the chief executive officers of the 23 corporations that control most of what Americans read and see can fit into an ordinary living room. Almost without exception they are economic conservatives. They can, if they wish, use control of their newspapers, broadcast stations, magazines, books, and movies to promote their own corporate values to the exclusion of others. When their corporate interest is at stake - in taxes, regulation, and anti-trust action - they use that power in their selection of news and in the private lobbying power peculiar to those who control the media image - or non-image - of politicians."

Bagdikian and his fellow critics provide some evidence for threats to the public's right to know arising from media concentration. First, large media corporations sometimes mobilize their communications assets to accomplish a single owner's specific political ends. The late Robert Maxwell, whose communications empire was among the world's largest, once said owning newspapers "gives me the power to raise issues effectively. In simple terms, it's a megaphone."

The larger the megaphone, the greater the danger that an owner can control wide segments of public opinion, limiting the airing of opposing views. Fox TV network owner Murdoch, whose News Corp. Ltd. makes him the world's largest producer of newspapers, changed the political orientation of Britain's best-selling newspaper The Sun from Labour to Conservative when he bought it in 1974. As a result, a goodly chunk of British voters got to read nine full pages of anti-Labour articles the day before the last election, including an interview with a psychic who claimed Mao Zedong, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin were supporting the Labour candidate from beyond the grave.

This threat would be less serious if only one news outlet were affected. But, in the United States, proposed deregulation of the telecommunications industry may allow companies to own previously prohibited combinations of media outlets in a single market - cable systems, TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers. At this writing, a conference committee of the House and Senate is hammering out legislation that could, among other things, raise the limit on how much of the TV viewing market can be controlled by a single company. If such a bill becomes law, people may believe they are getting a wide variety of news, but, in fact, variety may be threatened because much of what they learn will be controlled by a few large corporations.

So concentration can interfere with the public's right to know by limiting the sources of information. The danger is even greater when news media own, or are owned by, non-news businesses. Both situations threaten to create unethical conflicts of interest. While the news side of the business may be morally obligated to provide a truthful account of the day's events, the non-news corporate partners may have a stake in slanting that account to favor their interests. Information that would adversely affect interconnected or owned businesses may be downplayed. Positive news about such corporate siblings may be promoted.

For example, in his "Top Ten Ways CBS Will Be Different Now That It's Owned by Westinghouse," Dave Letterman quipped, "My first question for each guest will be, 'So, tell me about your appliances.'" Joking aside, serious conflicts arise when companies like Westinghouse and General Electric buy TV networks. General Electric, which merged with NBC in 1986, is a major defense contractor and makes a wide variety of products such as jet engines and nuclear reactors. These sometimes become the subject of news. How aggressively can NBC report on its corporate parent and on larger questions affecting GE's profits, such as political debates over defense spending? In such an atmosphere, the news is unlikely to provide a "truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events."

By heightening conflicts of interest and diminishing sources for information, the concentration of ownership in the media threatens the public's right to know and abrogates the news providers' moral contract with society.

The Case For Media Concentration
Proponents of large media corporations argue that the public gets more of what it needs to know today, in an environment of concentrated ownership, than it did 50 years ago when ownership was more diverse. In fact, rather than reducing competition in the marketplace of ideas, bigness has actually fostered it in several cases. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, for example, now compete with local newspapers nationwide because they have the capital to exploit satellite technology. CNN has brought a new source of news into every broadcast area. Surely public access to necessary information is improved by the entry of these giants into the local mix.

Today, media require the resources of a large corporation to meet their moral obligations to society; on the most basic level, if they are to serve the public's right to know, they've got to get information to the public. Small companies lack the capital to launch satellites and string entire cities with cable. If the communications revolution is to spread information around the world, corporations with global reach are needed.

When Michael Eisner, Walt Disney chairperson, announced his company's merger with ABC, he described how the combined resources of the two companies would allow them to provide programming services for China and India. "Think of all the things we can do together," he said. "I am totally optimistic that one and one will add up to four here."

Even when a company like Disney/ABC owns many different outlets, diverse voices can still be heard. Our friend John Smith, for example, may be getting all his information from the same company, but company ideology does not drive the content of that information; Smith and other members of the audience determine what will appear in any given media outlet. Each outlet reflects the demands of the market it serves. Even anti-establishment ideologies - such as those sometimes espoused in rap music - will be produced if they meet the test of the market. In contrast, products that reflect the values of media owners won't sell unless they serve a market better than their competitors.

Concentration has had no negative effect on the comprehensiveness of the news or on its intelligence. In fact, the contraction of ownership in media has coincided with general improvement in the quality of U.S. news media. Most academic assessments, even those by Bagdikian, acknowledge the depth, objectivity, and relevance of news has generally improved in the 20th century, even as ownership became concentrated. Although other factors such as the rising education level of reporters and editors have had some impact on that quality, at the very least, corporate bigness did not halt the trend.

Some people argue that concentration is actually responsible for at least part of the improvement. "If you look at the two largest newspaper chains - Gannett and Knight-Ridder - one of the outcomes of more newspapers coming into those groups has been that a number of the small- and medium-sized papers have clearly gotten better because of the resources of the larger company, the higher standards of journalistic practice, the investment in training, the ability to attract higher quality editors," said Jay Harris, chairperson and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, a Knight-Ridder paper.

Large corporations may also protect journalistic integrity, helping ensure that the public will get all sides of the story. The conglomerate has its eye on the bottom line, not on the sensitivities of local constituencies. This profit-maximizing motivation may actually shield reporters and editors from the pressures that once plagued those who worked for a news medium owned by a family in the community. Such families often pushed journalists to favor their friends or political allies - conflicts of interest in the news business are not unique to conglomerates.

"It's not the size of the owner," said Harris. "It's what the owner chooses to do. What are the primary motives of the owner? What are the values? I can see no inherent positive or negative outcome in terms of the way journalism is done from any particular form of ownership."

In sum, say the defenders of concentration, at least in the communications industry, a few large corporations are better able to serve a democracy's need for accurate, comprehensive information than many smaller competitors. During the 20th century, the concentration of media ownership has occurred because such consolidation best served consumers of news or the public.

Which brings us back to John Q. Public, AKA John Smith. As he moves through his day, are the media he relies on providing him adequate information to conduct his business intelligently, to raise his children effectively, to participate meaningfully in the public life of his community? Because democratic rights underlie these questions, media concentration continues to be a crucial ethical issue.

John H. McManus is assistant professor of communications, St. Mary's College, Moraga. His recent book, "Market-driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware?" (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994), won the Sigma Delta Chi Medallion of Excellence for Research.

Further Reading:

Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly, 4th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

Demeris, David Pearce. The Corporate Newspaper: Menace or Messiah? (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1996).

Meyer, Philip. Ethical Journalism (New York: Longman, 1987).

Murdock, Graham. "The New Mogul Empires: Media Concentration and Control in the Age of Convergence," Media Development, 41 (4) 1994.

Schiller, Herbert I. Culture ,Inc: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).