link to this year's media map
The National Entertainment State, 2006
[from the July 3, 2006 issue]
Where do Americans get their news and who controls what they consume? Ten years ago, when The Nation first charted a map of the National Entertainment State, four colossal conglomerates spread across the media landscape. Today, that map has significantly changed, because of the rise of new media and a vigorous reform movement, but the old corporate giants still hold most of the cards. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft are quickly rising, but are not included in this chart because they do not own--not yet, anyway--the major television networks, which remain Americans' #1 source of news.
Illustration by Peter Ahlberg. Research: Emily Biuso, Sarah Goldstein.
The National Entertainment State (Forum)
[from the July 3, 2006 issue]
Ten years ago, just after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, The Nation published a special issue on the National Entertainment State. The issue featured a centerfold chart depicting the tentacles of four colossal conglomerates that were increasingly responsible for determining how Americans got their news--Time Warner, General Electric, Disney/Cap Cities and Westinghouse. And essays by Norman Lear, Walter Cronkite and Mark Crispin Miller, among others, looked ahead to a period of no-holds-barred consolidation green-lighted by the new legislation. Today, after a decade of strategic mergers, impulsive couplings and messy divorces--not to mention the birth of "new media" as well as a vigorous media reform movement--the landscape is considerably more complex, though it still bears the oversized footprints of a few
giants. This is reflected not only in the detailed fold-out map that appears in this issue but in the range of contributions to this year's forum.
The centerfold is an invitation to step back from the outrage of the moment--be it over Rush Limbaugh's addled ranting, Bill O'Reilly's spin or the White House press corps's inability to distinguish between journalism and stenography--and see the big picture in gruesome detail. It reminds us that while we might hate the rigid recitation of conservative talking points on Fox News programs and love the Internet frontier reached via MySpace.com, both Fox and MySpace are owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It tells us that when we are wondering whether we should trust an NBC Nightly News report on the greening of nuclear power, it is important to keep in mind that NBC's owner, General Electric, has a more than passing interest in the development and operation of nuclear power plants. And the chart also reminds us that GE owns Universal Pictures and Universal Studios, making it a major player in the creation of the culture--the TV shows and movies--that goes so far to define what Americans think and do.
It is the power that a handful of corporations continue to wield over the media we consume--even the new media of a supposedly liberating Internet--that ought to concern us as citizens. It is not enough to hope that the Internet will set us free. Yes, the World Wide Web is evolving in ways that few anticipated a decade ago, and yes, as the optimism of Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and the skepticism of Mark Crispin Miller illustrate, there are differing views among progressives of what that
evolution is likely to mean. It is a good bet, however, that another forum participant, Rebecca MacKinnon, is right when she argues that new-media companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft will in relatively short order either displace some of the old-media companies on the chart or acquire or merge with them. (Those entities do not appear on this year's chart simply because they do not own major television networks--not yet, anyway--and the Internet has yet to surpass television as Americans' number-one source for news.) But the vast frontiers of new media are being colonized by big players of old media, which just won round one in the fight over "net neutrality" with the House's passage of the COPE Act, legislation that would allow commercial sites to dominate the net. With the FCC preparing another attempt to strike down rules that guard against local media monopolies, we are entering a period of intense struggle over the fundamental questions for both old and new media: Who will own what, and will the rules regulating ownership be written to benefit the owners or the rest of us? The powerhouses of today's National Entertainment State stand ready to answer those questions as they always have, by using all their might to make sure that the new boss is the same as the old boss.
But the past need not be prologue. As Robert W. McChesney, Jeffrey Chester and others explain in this issue, the media reform movement that has taken shape over the past decade can do far more than merely police the margins of this Big Media map. It can, and must, chart a course of activism that makes real the promise of new media, that confronts the problems of old media and that recognizes the necessity of creating
genuine diversity of media ownership and communicative opportunity, anchored by civic rather than commercial values. If this movement realizes its potential, the next chart of the National Entertainment State will be a map of our media, not theirs.
A Ten-Point Plan for Media Democracy
by JEFFREY CHESTER
[from the July 3, 2006 issue]
Ten years after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, digital technologies are rapidly reshaping the country's communications system. It will be the most powerful media environment ever created--always "on" with connections via PCs, digital TVs and an array of mobile devices, delivering a torrent of personalized, interactive and virtual content, much of it coming from the nation's most powerful traditional and new media companies (e.g., AT&T, Comcast, Google, Microsoft). The next several years are critical to insure that the promise of what we now experience online--and its vast potential to help build a just civil society--is fulfilled. With Congress poised to pass legislation that rewrites key parts of the
Telecom Act, the following ten action items should be on any media reform agenda.
1. Media Ownership
The GOP-controlled FCC wants to eliminate key media ownership restrictions affecting TV and radio stations, cable systems and newspapers. Expect fewer owners of our most powerful outlets and a further decrease in journalism budgets.
Action: Join the new "Stopbigmedia" coalition (www.stopbigmedia.com) to promote diversity of media ownership and content. Also, work against the renomination of FCC chair Kevin Martin.
Sprawling new media powerhouses are emerging, in which offline and digital content and distribution, advertising and marketing are tied to the same multinational giants. For example, the pending AT&T and BellSouth merger will create a colossus spanning voice, broadband and video.
Action: Join with Media Access Project (www.mediaaccess.org) to fight the AT&T/BellSouth merger. Push for new laws to restore our trust in antitrust.
3. Network Neutrality
We can't permit the Internet to come under the control of phone and cable companies, like Comcast and AT&T, that want to transform it into a toll road, with fast lanes for corporate media and a digital dirt road for everyone else.
Action: Join the "strange bedfellows" coalition, which includes MoveOn.org, the American Library Association and the Christian Coalition, pressing Congress to pass "network neutrality" rules to protect the principles of nondiscrimination and open access. Join Save the Internet (www.savetheinternet.com).
4. Spectrum Management
The wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) has been an unprecedented success, with more than 35,000 hot spots (many of them free) operating in the United States. But for the wireless broadband revolution to continue, it needs new unlicensed spectrum. Big communications companies, including broadcasters, want to keep for themselves what should be the public's airwaves.
Action: Urge the FCC to set aside additional spectrum for unlicensed use and support legislation currently in Congress that will make unused TV spectrum available for Wi-Fi applications. The New America Foundation (www.newamerica.net) has been leading the charge for enlightened spectrum management.
5. Community Broadband
Municipal wireless systems represent the most promising alternative to the two-fisted stranglehold that cable and telephone companies currently have over the broadband Internet. Fourteen states, acting at the behest of the cable and telco lobbies, have passed laws limiting these efforts, and others are considering such restrictions.
Action: Urge your Representatives to support federal legislation (e.g., the municipal broadband provision in the otherwise objectionable Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement [COPE] Act) that will restore the right of cities to undertake their own broadband projects. See Free Press's Community Internet page
As the recent furor over NSA access to millions of private telephone records makes clear, we need to update privacy protections for the digital age. Such protections should extend into the commercial arena too, where new data-collection and -mining technologies, coupled with personalized marketing campaigns, represent a new threat to our personal privacy.
Action: Call for a thorough overhaul of existing privacy regulations, beginning with a requirement for "affirmative consent" before personal data can be collected, and covering the latest developments in digital data collection and analysis. See the EPIC website (www.epic.org).
7. Intellectual Property
Just as privacy protection must move from the analog to the digital domain, so must copyright law reflect the reality of networked computers and other personal devices. Congress's initial effort in this regard, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, went way overboard in its desire to protect content owners (namely, the entertainment industry), and the principle of "fair use" suffered accordingly.
Action: Urge your Representative to reject the Bush-backed Intellectual Property Protection Act (which compounds the DMCA's excesses) in favor of legislation that preserves fair use. See www.publicknowledge.org.
8. Universal Digital Service
Millions of Americans still lack basic Internet, let alone broadband. We need new approaches to achieving "universal service," the policy that sought to make telephone service affordable for low-income and rural Americans.
Action: Call for Congress to expand the Universal Service Fund in the digital era, and support efforts to bridge the digital divide through municipal Wi-Fi and community networking projects.
9. Diverse Broadband Content
The phone industry is building a new system that will deliver interactive TV programming and broadband content (e.g., Verizon's FiOS and AT&T's Project Lightspeed). Cable is also expanding its network offerings. Progressive media must make sure their content is on these networks. We must also build and expand new media services, including digital TV programming channels, broadband websites and mobile networks.
Action: Urge phone and cable companies to open their system to progressive, alternative and diversely owned content. Funders must support an independent digital infrastructure.
10. Minority Ownership
African-Americans, Hispanics and others have fared poorly in the media business, owning only a handful of radio and TV stations. Most of the cable outlets aimed at minorities are owned by corporate giants (e.g., Viacom now owns BET and Comcast controls the new TV One service for African-Americans).
Action: Civil rights groups need to take a more adversarial approach to the media monopoly--seeking minority ownership of local and national broadband outlets.
about Jeffrey Chester
Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org), a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining the diversity and openness of the new broadband communications systems. He is the author of the forthcoming Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, to be published in late fall by The New Press.