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The Purpose of a Free Press

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

In researching this book, I ran across an astonishing piece of writing from our nation’s early years. It’s a fitting prologue for this chapter. In May 1831, a young French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the young nation of the United States of America. He was here at a pivotal time in American history. In the “Revolution of 1800,” Thomas Jefferson had ousted John Adams’s minority Federalist Party (largely made up of what Jefferson called “the rich and the well born”) and shifted control of the government to the Jeffersonian Democrats. To de Tocqueville (and most Europeans), American democracy was still very much an unproven experiment. De Tocqueville himself was skeptical that the American Experiment would last, as he thought that the “natural” state of man was to live in an aristocracy, but he was fascinated by the idea of an aristocracy made up of the workers. He was both skeptical and hopeful.

In 1835, just fifty-two years after the end of the American Revolution and forty-six years after the French Revolution, de Tocqueville closed his book Democracy in America* with a chapter titled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” Fascinated by that chapter title, which I had first seen on the Internet, I bought an 1862 edition of the book, translated into English. One of the three best-selling books of the entire nineteenth century, it was probably read twenty years earlier by Abraham Lincoln, as it was by almost all American politicians and most citizens. Turning the timeworn pages and reading the young de Tocqueville’s thoughts, I was astounded. It was as if he had seen America in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

De Tocqueville had a clear and prescient inkling of danger. He saw a nation where people had become isolated in their own homes, uninformed about the rest of humanity, and addicted to some entertainment that was so powerful it separated them from their fellow humans. He imagined that despotism, in the Spenglerian remnants of a democracy, would take a different form than despotism under authoritarian rule; it would take the form of creating an illusion of choice, and he struggled to find words to express what it would be.

Watch the Video: First they ignore, then ridicule, then fight you – then you win.

“It would seem that, if despotism were to be established amongst the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them,” he wrote.

I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new; and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it.

The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest—his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists, but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.1

His description, written in 1831, sounds astonishingly like our world today, which is so often observed as being centered around gratification—and isolation. And the mechanism for this despotism, he said, is the sort of perpetual gratification that keeps people happy.

He continued, writing about what would or could happen if, for example, large corporations were able to pipe 24/7 entertainment and dumbed-down predigested “news/infotainment” into every home in America:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary [care-taking] power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.

It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing….

Thus, it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes them well within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community.

In an observation that seems to describe the current state of political discourse, where only a very few ever actually get out on the streets and protest, de Tocqueville added, “The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals…”2

De Tocqueville also said that the press is the most important of all our democratic institutions; only a free press could preserve American democracy, and the loss of it to government or corporate powers would be the end of the democratic experiment, taking us back to the world of serfs and aristocrats that he considered the natural state of things. “I think that men living in aristocracies may, strictly speaking, do without the liberty of the press: but such is not the case with those who live in democratic countries….servitude cannot be complete if the press is free: the press is the chief democratic instrument of freedom.”

The Purpose of a Free Press Is Free Expression

The gadfly of American journalism in the first half of the twentieth century, A. J. “Joe” Liebling, commented, “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.”** It’s become even more true today, although you can replace the word man with the word corporation. And today there are fewer of those truly free resources than ever before. This is materially limiting the amount of information available to the public, creating the sort of environment de Tocqueville warned about in the quote above. We’ll cover the following issues:

  • The effects of consolidation of who owns the presses since fewer presses means fewer different voices reporting the news, and fewer owners means less diversity and dissent
  • The effect of heavily financed lawsuits that squelch expression in the media, such as the well-known suit against Oprah Winfrey for her comments about hamburger
  • The effects of the press being owned by a business that has pressure to deliver profits

Each of these issues is, in a different way, a consequence of the changes in America that have flowed from the Santa Clara “decision.”

Is this subject really important to our democracy? Aside from the advice of the far-sighted de Tocqueville, consider these diverse opinions:

  • John Adams, our nation’s second president (who hated the way he was treated by the press), said, “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.”
  • Napoleon Bonaparte, who made a serious attempt to conquer his part of the civilized world, was of the opinion that “three hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
  • George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, said, “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”
  • Richard Nixon said, “The media are far more powerful than the president in creating public awareness and shaping public opinion, for the simple reason that the media always have the last word.”
  • In a move to block media access, George W. Bush moved his records and papers as governor of Texas into his father’s presidential library; and on February 11, 2002, the elder Bush said in a paid speech to roofing contractors that the press was a group “which I now confess I hate.”3

When people from Adams to Bush, Napoleon to Orwell all have such different ways of saying that the press is immensely powerful, it’s a sign that we ought to pay attention to what happens to it. Let’s look first at the shrinking diversity of outlets for news and information.

Can I Get a Wide Range of Views in the Media?

Less so than you might think—and far less so than when you were growing up. In 1984, according to media observer Ben Bagdikian, fifty corporations dominated the nation’s “daily newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books, and movies.” Following the deregulation and merger craze in the 1980s, that number dropped to twenty by 1993. As of 2003 it was just five.

On a longer time scale, the shift is even more startling. Bagdikian observes that in 1946, 80 percent of all American newspapers were owned by individuals and independent local companies. Today it’s the opposite: “80 percent [are] owned by corporate chains,” and only three corporations control “most of the business of the country’s 11,000 magazines.”4

When NAFTA was before Congress for a vote in 1993, Vermont congressman Bernie Sanders points out that about half of all Americans opposed ratification of the treaty. Of the hundreds of corporate chain–owned city newspapers across the country, only two ran editorials questioning NAFTA, while all the rest, echoing the position of America’s largest corporations, came out in support of it.

Looking at all media in the United States, in 2000 Bagdikian noted, “Today, despite more than 25,000 outlets in the United States, twenty-three corporations control most of the business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books, and motion pictures.”5 Current numbers are hard to come by because the media no longer publish their own numbers (and they’ve been scrubbed from Wikipedia by the Libertarian think tanks and individuals who have come to dominate Web media) but the number at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century is certainly smaller than twenty-three corporations.

If you’ve noticed that no matter where you are in the United States you can hear the same radio shows, there’s a reason: the FCC has recently allowed four giant media corporations to buy up radio stations nationwide to the point where those four companies now control 90 percent of total radio advertising revenues.6

Only 10 percent of Americans even have a meaningful choice as to their local telephone company. In Vermont a small, local company named Sovernet began offering high-quality local phone service along with DSL Internet access. So, in 2002 lobbyists for the big telecommunications companies got introduced into the Vermont legislature a “freedom in telecommunications” bill that would block Sovernet’s access to Verizon’s lines, effectively putting Sovernet out of the phone business. The bill was defeated, and Sovernet is still in business, but most Americans have no access to a truly local telephone company.7

Many of us are accustomed to viewing the Web as a wellspring of a vast number of information sources, free of restraining influence. Indeed, if properly used by knowledgeable people, it can be. But, in practice, perhaps not as much as we would think. In August 2001 the authoritative Jupiter Media Metrix research company reported on its Web site that just four corporations own the Web sites that more than 50 percent of Americans spend their time viewing.

Meanwhile right-wingers have formed companies to hire people to work from home, spamming Internet message boards and the comment fields on everything from YouTube to Facebook to all the newspapers with online “comment” functions attached to their news stories. One company, called Advantage Consultants, run by a former right-wing radio talk-show host and consultant, as of 2007 ran a Web advertisement that said:

Are you ready for a blog attack?

Get ahead of your opponent with Professional Blog Warriors.

Be prepared to “flood the zone” with comments from professionals who are ready to put your talking points on the blogosphere 24/7.

Whether it’s defense or offense, Advantage Consultants has a dedicated team of experienced blog warriors ready to advance your candidate or campaign.

Why wait for the attack? Launch your attack with a battery of blog and forum comments aimed at all media and blog sites in your district.

Contact us today and let us show you the Advantage in professional blog warfare.8

During the 2004 presidential election cycle, my message board at www was really hopping, mostly with listeners to my nationally syndicated radio show. And there were a few people who—often within
minutes, always within hours—would respond to every liberal/pro-Kerry post with Republican talking points and pro-Bush commentary. They were reasonable, articulate, and not belligerent, so we couldn’t get rid of them. A few were actually quite friendly and talked a lot about other issues (movies, sports, relationships, their private lives) in ways that endeared them to our members.

After the election was over, they all vanished. Literally, the day after the election.

A few months later, one of them dropped me a private e-mail, thanking me for keeping him on the message board and telling me that he had been paid 10 to 25 cents per post, depending on the topic and how many people read it, and offering to do the same for me should I ever need his services to spam other people’s message boards with pro-Hartmann-radio-show messages.

He said that during that election season and over the course of a few hundred message boards where he was posting, he’d made enough money to cover much of the cost of his next year in college, and he hoped to continue. He’d been paid, he said, by “some political guys” connected with “a big company in D.C.”—I’m assuming a political party or lobbying company—but he was unwilling to give me any details.

During the 2008 election cycle, another, similar group of posters appeared on our message boards. And even after the election, they continue to heavily populate all the major news sites that attach “readers’ comments” to their news stories.

Although many Internet users think of the World Wide Web as a commons of ideas, it’s a commons whose access is now almost entirely controlled by a small number of very large corporations—and their political operatives, ideological partners, and shills, often working from home for a few extra bucks posting comments on message boards, commenting on news articles, and editing open-source information sites like

Even Internet Search Engines

The once-independent search engines are now selling to the highest bidder the right to be displayed at the top of the list. As a recent ad for search engine placement noted, “Eighty-five percent of all traffic is generated via search queries and over 90 percent of that traffic is driven to the top 30 results. If you’re not in the top 30, you’re not in a position to compete!”9 At virtually all the current search engines, top placement, sponsor placement, or top-of-fold ad placement are for sale on keyword searches.

Similarly, much has been written about the homogenizing effects of media mergers, further reducing diversity and trying to find the lowest common denominator to produce the best earnings—at the cost of sacrificing the good reporting that Americans used to take for granted.

The pressure to homogenize is economic, driven by the business incentive to generate economies of scale by being big and by being able to offer advertisers the largest audience size or attractive demographics at a low rate. Another major factor is the increasing amount of capital that’s required today to be a broadcaster because of an important change that happened in the 1980s—a change implemented by the government at the request of the corporations. At that time a major piece of the commons was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Not surprisingly, the winners were big corporations.

Who Owns the Airwaves?

The theory used to be that the airwaves over which television and radio signals pass were part of the national infrastructure, just like the highway system or the air-traffic control system. Nobody could own them because they were the ether that floated above the nation, the property of the people, yet some regulation of them was necessary to prevent chaos. Cable systems run under or over public streets, just like the public utilities and the airwaves, and so similarly are part of the public’s infrastructure, the commons.

It was also felt that the airwaves were part of the free press that the Founders and the Constitution asserted was so essential and crucial to a vibrant and living democracy and an informed citizenry. Therefore the Federal Communications Commission was formed to regulate the usage and the content of what freely passes over the airwaves of America to Americans.

During the 1980s, however, the media corporations successfully lobbied that the national airwaves should no longer be the shared property of the citizens. Instead, they said, the airwaves and the channels should be carved up by region and frequency and sold off to the highest bidders at frequency auctions. When we auctioned off this part of the commons, it went into the hands of parties that already enjoyed many unequal advantages over humans.

This was followed in 1996 by the Telecommunications Act, the product of prodigious lobbying on Capitol Hill, which, according to media watchdog Ben Bagdikian, “swept away even the minimal consumer and diversity protections of the 1934 act that preceded it.”10

Auctioning off the airwaves had a secondary effect that was perhaps more important than who owned them. When we auctioned off the airwaves, the corporations that bought them claimed that we gave up the right to have a say in their use. The free press became corporate-owned, and today groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) regularly chronicle examples of news programs and journalists concealing corporate misdeeds and crimes or offering up publicity stories about the products of network owners or major advertisers.11 It’s not just a matter of running flattering stories; it affects the process of filtering which investigative stories get on the air. And this is not just the opinion of a watchdog group; it’s reported by those on the inside.

A Pew Center for the People and the Press poll in 2000 found that 61 percent of investigative reporters thought corporate owners influenced news decisions, and 41 percent of reporters could list specific examples of recent times that they themselves had chosen or been forced to change or avoid news stories to further or benefit the interests of their media corporation.12

Cost of Access Is Un-democratizing Elections

Along with the airwaves at the auctions went the notion of public service announcements. During the same administration, the FCC requirement that television and radio stations give free time for political debates was repealed. This gave corporations that owned radio and television stations a double wind-fall: they get to own what they had rented and now politicians have to pay for advertising if they want to get their message to the public. Again, the effect is that ordinary humans find it harder than ever to be heard because the previous equal-time provision no longer applies: you have to pay.

And campaign airtime doesn’t come cheap. The average U.S. Senate campaign now costs more than $6 million, whether the candidate wins or loses. That’s $6 million to raise in six years—$1 million a year, $20,000 a week. Can you imagine starting every day in your office knowing, as corporate lobbyists begin to file in to visit you and promote their causes, that by the end of the day you have to raise another $4,000 or you won’t have your job after the next election?

And the price is rising. During the 1998 House and Senate elections, more than $1 billion was paid to media corporations for ads by parties, politicians, and interest groups seeking to get their word out to the public. That’s double what was spent in 1992 and seven times the amount paid to media corporations by candidates and political parties in the 1978 elections—before the frequency auction and the end of the equal-time rule. In just the first four months of his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush raised and spent more money than Bill Clinton and Bob Dole combined had raised and spent in the entire election cycle four years earlier.13

The Obama/McCain election was our nation’s first billion-dollar campaign—money far beyond the reach of average citizens. Obama received huge support from people within the financial services industry, and within the first year of his presidency they were repaid with trillions of taxpayer dollars in loans and bailouts, allowing them to pay themselves billions of dollars in bonuses (which could then be recycled, in part, back into more campaign contributions).

There are serious questions about whether the way our government works today is giving everyone in this democracy a fair chance of having their voice heard. Increasingly, the only voices we can hear are those backed by corporations with plenty of money.

The Impact on Local and National Politics

For the most part, average Americans have stopped voting. During the 2000 election, about 55 percent of eligible American voters—more than 100 million people—didn’t bother to vote. Ask them why, and you’ll most often hear, “What difference does it make?”

According to the Federal Election Commission, in that election about 50 million who were registered didn’t show up to vote. In a “To Whom It May Concern” Web letter during the 2000 election, author and political filmmaker Michael Moore wrote about the impact of corporate ownership of the media and corporate influence of the electoral process—and how working Americans are reacting. He addressed his letter to the new American majority—those who have given up on voting.

“The reason you, the majority, no longer vote in America,” he wrote, “is because you, the majority, realize there is no real choice on the ballot.” He pointed out that more than 80 percent of American voters didn’t bother to show up for the primaries—that’s more than 160 million nonvoters. He suggests that in a world where “six multinational corporations” deliver the majority of all information Americans get from radio, television, newspapers, and the Internet, American voters apparently feel that their political process no longer offers them any choices worth voting for.14

And this is the way some politicians and political parties want it. As the late Paul Weyrich, a Republican consultant who claimed much credit for the wins of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, told a group of Christian Republican operatives, their job was to discourage all but the most fervent (anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-gun) base to not vote.

“I don’t want everybody to vote,” Weyrich said. “Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”15

That, of course, is the reason for negative campaigning. Negative campaigns—attack campaigns—rarely cause more people to show up for the person running the attack ad, but they depress the vote overall, causing people to get cynical and say, “They’re all crooks; why bother?” and thus allowing fringe-issues-based voters to carry a disproportionate amount of voting power in an election.

We’re not as bad as the former Soviet Union, of course, but Moore continues, echoing the widespread American concern that “a handful of companies now call all the shots. They own Congress. They own us….To keep our jobs we have had to give up decent health care, the 8-hour day and time with our kids, the security that we’ll even have a job next year, and any unwillingness we may have to compete with a 14-year-old Indonesian girl who gets a dollar a day.”16

The Effect of the Newsroom’s Being a For-profit Enterprise

Earlier we noted that smaller businesses tend, in general, to be focused on the nature of their trade. When they’re absorbed into bigger businesses, especially the biggest ones, pressure tends to increase to deliver value for the shareholders—that is, to make money. In news operations almost all the money comes from advertising—and ad prices depend on how many people are watching. So business managers are necessarily required to do what they can to improve income.

Once again the point in pursuing this issue is not to decry profit. The point is that when corporations are allowed to operate with that goal to the detriment of other values, it can harm how well the system performs the functions we depend on, particularly those necessary to a vital democracy.

A month after the September 11 attacks, in a C-SPAN interview with Marvin Kalb on October 13, CBS News anchor and managing editor Dan Rather made a sobering admission. “We were asleep,” he said, speaking of a time that he identified as starting in the 1980s and picking up steam throughout the 1990s and into mid-2001. “We went for titillation,” he said, in apparent reference to the Monica Lewinsky and Gary Condit stories the press relentlessly pursued. They had ignored the “clear warnings” of earlier attacks such as the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center, which should have told both America’s news and intelligence agencies that there were people intent on harming us.

Rather pointed out that international news bureaus were being closed during the 1990s, and the press had failed to focus on news, going instead for what he called “the sensational” and “the personal.”

Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, who in his time was rated “the most credible man in America,” told in the years before he died, “Like you, I’m deeply concerned about the merger mania that has swept our industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news, and making the bottom line sometimes seem like the only line. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.”17

But it is, in large part because Ronald Reagan stopped enforcing the Sherman Act or the Fairness Doctrine, which required radio and TV stations to run “real news”—versus infotainment—as a condition of keeping their licenses. The entire process was exacerbated by Bill Clinton’s signing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, following which all of the nation’s network news departments were merged into the entertainment and profit-making parts of the networks.

Using Lawsuits to Suppress Information

There’s a completely different way in which some companies influence what shows up in the media: some will sue to keep people from saying anything bad about them or their products, even if there’s plenty of evidence. Because of their unequal resources, they can threaten (and follow through on) lawsuits, which can be effective at squelching criticism. People who fight back may be financially ruined, and many people simply quit before matters reach that point.

The same concern applies to news outlets that might be sued. After all, if a company will weigh the dollar value of a safer gas tank versus the cost of victims’ lawsuits, aren’t they likely to perform a similar risk assessment here? And if the only parameter that’s measured is cash, cash will become the basis of the decision. An engineering decision, or a journalist’s editorial decision, becomes a profit decision.

A key turning point on this issue may have been 1989. When CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that a pesticide used on apples may pose health risks to humans, the apple-growing industry lost millions of dollars in sales. In response thirteen states passed “veggie libel laws,” making it a crime to disparage the food supply. The most famous case of laws being used in this way was the suit filed by Texas beef producers against Oprah Winfrey for casually remarking (some would say joking) on her show that she was personally going to stop eating hamburgers after interviewing a guest about mad cow disease.

Seattle attorney Bruce Johnson, who defended CBS in the initial suit by the apple industry, said these laws “are designed specifically to stop the Rachel Carsons of the world from alerting the public to food-safety risks. If these were in effect in 1962 [when Carson published Silent Spring, her groundbreaking book about the dangers of DDT], they would have sued her and forced her into bankruptcy.”18

Similarly, in early 1998 when investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson produced a three-part series on how a synthetic hormone routinely given to American cattle could be causing cancer in America (and not in Europe, where it’s banned), their television station fired them after they refused to “tone down” the story.


The station is owned by a well-known media conglomerate, and the manufacturer of the chemical—a massive and powerful multinational corporation—apparently threatened to sue if the story ran, which would have decreased the media chain’s profits from its news operations.

The Fox News TV outlet was sued by Akre and Wilson for terminating them without just cause, and a jury of their peers unanimously awarded them $250,000. Fox appealed the case, and the Appeals Court determined that the corporation’s right to free speech included its right to lie—and to require its employees to lie and to fire them if they didn’t. So far that decision stands.19

Our representatives have passed whistle-blower laws to protect people who make such discoveries. But if you’re in court and you simply don’t have the resources to stick with it—the playing field is simply not level with that of a billion-dollar corporation—the law can be defeated by the wealthier party’s lawsuits. As it happened, the fired reporters sued under Florida’s whistle-blower law and a jury ruled in their favor. But the suits and appeals and countersuits have exhausted these two reporters’ funds.

This is a perfect, living example of how the playing field is anything but level when an immortal, nonbreathing corporation is given the same protections as humans.

The Suppression of “Advocacy” Ads

When tried to purchase airtime on ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks for their “Buy Nothing Day” commercials, the networks refused them, year after year. The ads have an “in your face” edge to them, but they aren’t at all violent or pornographic: they encourage people to “give it a rest”—to take a single-day break from consumerism.

When asked why the networks wouldn’t allow the American people to see the ads—for any price—a spokesman at one of the networks said it quite directly: “We don’t want to accept any advertising that’s inimical to our legitimate business interests.”20 So much for their stewardship of the commons in the public interest.

The vice president of program practices at another of the Big Three networks brought up a more commonly used dodge: “We can’t run your ad,” he told Adbusters. “It’s an advocacy ad.”

“I came from Estonia, where you were not allowed to speak up against the government,” says former advertising executive Kalle Lasn, head of Adbusters. “Here I was in North America, and suddenly I realized you can’t speak up against the sponsor. There’s something fundamentally undemocratic about our public airways.”21

During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Americans noticed a sudden explosion of television ads—particularly on the cable news networks—for the companies that make fighter jets and military hardware. There was a similar increase in ads for oil-drilling operations. Because most consumers aren’t in a position to go out and buy a billion-dollar jet or a billion-dollar oil rig, some were openly baffled about why these companies would be so heavily advertising on the news networks.

While it’s impossible to prove motivations—although most of the ads stopped once Bush began the invasion—those of us who have worked in the media in the years since Reagan and Clinton knocked down the wall that used to separate news from sales/profits understood that what these companies may well have been implicitly saying to the networks was something like, “We’ll give you millions in advertising dollars if you don’t challenge the coming war, which will be incredibly profitable to us.”

Similarly, a cadre of ex-military brass were paraded in front of the TV cameras as “analysts” on the upcoming war, and it was never revealed during the interviews that the men, in aggregate, had been paid tens of millions for their “consulting” work on behalf of military contractors.

Corporate influence of broadcast content happens in radio too. Folksy “man of the people” Jim Hightower’s radio show was syndicated by one of the Big Three American networks in 150 markets with more than 2 million listeners until that network was bought out by an even larger entertainment conglomerate. Hightower mentioned on the air that his new parent corporation had replaced some of its full-time workers with contract laborers recruited from a local homeless shelter. On another show, he accused his network of “bending down and kissing the toes” of a tobacco company advertiser. Soon his show was canceled.

The reason given to the press was that his show wasn’t making enough money from advertising, but Hightower pointed out that he would have been very profitable if the network had allowed him to run $250,000 worth of ads that the unions had tried to buy. Those ads, however, were “advocacy advertis- ing,” the network said, so they never made it to the air.22 Remember, unions are not persons under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Effect on Crime Reporting

Corporate influence on news content continues to have serious ramifications on what we know—and thus how well prepared we are to make fundamental decisions for our communities and ourselves.

Consider crime reporting. Everybody who watches American television knows about the repeated troubles of Rodney King since his famous (and much-televised) beating by the Los Angeles police or Mike Tyson’s difficulties with rage. But how many Americans know that in a 1982 study of America’s five hundred largest corporations, it was found that in the past ten years 23 percent of them had been convicted of a major crime or had paid more than $50,000 in penalties for serious misbehavior or both?23

Stories about welfare moms make the news with no problem, but stories of the billions in taxpayer money given to oil companies appear mainly in the business press—where they’re recognized as triumphs for the companies involved, events that will favorably raise their stock value.

As I watched Kalb’s interview of Dan Rather, it seemed that Rather often came close to raising these topics, but that neither man wanted to step into the role of the fictional Howard Beal in the startlingly predictive movie Network, when he yelled about corporate/political influence on news, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!”

Doesn’t the FCC Protect the First Amendment?

In early 2001 George W. Bush appointed as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission a young man named Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, himself a former member of the board of directors of media giant AOL. Michael Powell was apparently rather new to the ideas of de Tocqueville and Jefferson when he took his job. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2001, “Asked at his maiden news conference for his definition of ‘the public interest,’ Powell joked, ‘I have no idea.’ The term can mean whatever people want it to mean, he said. ‘It’s an empty vessel in which people pour in whatever their preconceived views or biases are.’”24

Those biases at the FCC since became clear, as Powell’s team showed. Other FCC commissioners included two former industry lobbyists.25 Powell’s chief of staff was a former Disney lobbyist, and his legal adviser was a former lobbyist for another media giant.26

The week of Powell’s appointment, media analyst Tom Wolzien said, “I think you’ll see a little bit more of a free-market approach, perhaps less attention to consumer groups and more of letting companies do more of what they want.”27

According to Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR), “One of Powell’s first acts as chairman was to approve 62 pending radio station acquisitions, handing still more outlets to two of the country’s largest and grabbiest conglomerates…”28

On April 24, 2001, Powell told the Associated Press, “There is something offensive to First Amendment values about that limitation [on concentration of television station ownership]” because, FAIR notes, “it restricts the number of people one company can talk to.”

In a December 2000 speech before a corporate-sponsored group in Washington, Powell said, as quoted by the Chicago Tribune, “Our bureaucratic process is too slow to respond to the challenges of Internet time. One way to do so is to clear away the regulatory underbrush to bring greater certainty and regulatory simplicity to the market.”29

When the proponents of corporations having personhood suggest that corporations should have the ability to aggregate media so that the largest multinational corporations among us will have free speech, they often trot out the argument that deregulating the media (or any other industry) encourages competition. The actual effect, as Ben Bagdikian so eloquently documents, is the reverse: there are fewer and fewer competitors, less variety and fewer viewpoints for consumers to choose among, and a massive grab of media by a small number of huge multinational corporations.

One of the most visible results of this is that business coverage has become an important part of every corporate-owned newspaper and broadcast network (even though 42 percent of stock market gains between 1989 and 1997 went to America’s top 1 percent of individuals, and 86 percent of stock market gains went to the top 10 percent, and numbers in the twenty-first cen- tury are even a bit more heavily weighted toward rich individuals), reflecting the prime moral value of corporate culture: profit.30 At the same time, the 100 percent of American citizens who are consumers and who confront a one-in- three chance of contracting cancer in their lifetimes find virtually no mention in the mainstream corporate-owned media of issues relating to shoddy products, criminal business practices, or environmental toxins.

Indeed, as Bagdikian notes, “From 1987 to 1994, the purchasing power of the minimum wage dropped 35 percent,” an issue that hits 12 million more Americans in a much more real and powerful way than the Dow Jones Industrial Average (even considering stocks in pension plans held by the middle class). “If the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 35 percent in seven years it would have been an ongoing and urgent issue in newscasts and on page one in newspapers, with insistence that official action be taken,” Bagdikian says.31 But these are not issues that hurt profits—they enhance profits. So instead we hear that when more people become unemployed, the Dow goes up because it means corporations can then negotiate lower labor costs. The human toll is apparently not an issue.

And that media competition extolled by FCC Chairman Powell? FAIR remarks, “Powell opposed the opening of the bandwidth to new microradio [small, local community stations with limited transmission range] voices on grounds that it might dilute audience share (and ad revenue) for commercial stations.” (Although, in fairness, it should be noted that one of the groups that has historically most strongly argued against the expansion of micro-stations is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which sees them as competition for its PBS and NPR brands.)32

In a Democracy…

As the twentieth century came to a close, corporate-controlled media was reaching the most distant corners of the world, and its effects were seen in strange ways. In 1995 parts of the island of Fiji, which had never before seen television, got the tube. Three years later researchers talked with several groups of Fijian girls whose average age was seventeen. They found that before television, only 3 percent had ever thrown up to try to control their weight. After three years of television, however, 15 percent of those teenage girls were clinically bulimic.33

The first step in a values-driven advertising campaign is to disempower humans—convince people that there’s something wrong or deficient about them. The teenage girls of Fiji sure got the message and got it quickly. In the United States, with its own startlingly high prevalence rate of bulimia among young girls, we say, “It’s a serotonin deficiency” that can be cured with anti- depressant drugs, but the Fiji example tells us it may be easier to cure it by removing the television set.

After you read this page, set down this book and walk around for the next five minutes—indoors or out—and notice how many advertising messages and logos you see or hear. Have any of them suggested that you should slow down your life, spend more time with your family, or seek deeper meaning and richer states of consciousness? Or are they all “Buy from us—we’ll make you happy” messages?

Daily exposure to such messages has produced—no doubt as an unintended consequence but real nonetheless—a deep angst and existential emotional and spiritual crisis around the world. We will successfully confront this existential angst when corporations no longer have the same rights as humans.

Then our politicians can go back to being statesmen and stateswomen, and our doctors won’t have to deal with an insurance industry that controls life-and-death decisions based solely on cost. Then our commons can be clean because we—the people—decided that’s how it should be.

Then making money will be back in perspective: a fine thing to do—but please don’t overwhelm our media, wreck our world, and harm our children’s future in the process.

*Democracy in America is the name by which this work is most commonly known, and that is the title of later printings. The original work, published in 1835, was titled The Republic of the United States of America, and Its Political Institutions, Reviewed and Examined.

**Many sources say the correct quote is, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” but the point is the same either way.


1. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Republic of the United States of America, and Its Political Institutions, Reviewed and Examined (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1862).

2. Ibid.

3. Maureen Dowd, “The Axis of No Access,” New York Times, February 13, 2002, https://

4. Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

5. Ibid.

6. Brendan I. Koerner, “Losing Signal,” Mother Jones, September/October 2001, https://

7. Ibid.

8. The 2007 ad is archived at -mistake.html. The company’s Web site is

9. From an e-mail received by the author.

10. Ben H. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005).


12. Pew Research Center for People & the Press, “Self Censorship: How Often and Why— Journalists Avoiding the News,” April 30, 2000, a survey in association with the Columbia Journalism Review,


14. Michael Moore, “A Letter from Michael Moore to the Non-voters of America,” July 19, 2000, -make-me-wanna-ralph.


16. See note 14 above.

17. -thats-the-way-it-is.

18. Martha Groves, “Push Grows for Law on ‘Veggie Libel,’” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1997,

19. The history of the event is on the Web at

20. Adbusters, November 14, 1996. You can listen to various network rejections of the ads at


22. Eric Alterman, “Radio squelch (radio talk show host Jim Hightower),” The Nation, October 16, 1995.

23. Russell Mokhiber, Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business and the Abuse of the Public Trust (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 18, 19; cited in Robert A. G. Monks and Nell Minow, Power and Accountability (New York: HarperCollins, 1991),

24. Neil Hickey, “Unshackling Big Media,” Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2001.

25. Kathleen Abernathy, “a longtime Telco lobbyist” according to Broadcast and Cable magazine, May 21, 2001; and Michael Copps, a former lobbyist for a trade group and a Fortune 500 plastics company.

26. Marsha Macbride is a former Disney lobbyist, and Susan Eid is a former lobbyist for MediaOne Group.

27. Tom Wolzien of Sanford C. Bernstein and Co., quoted in Tim Jones, “More Media Freedoms Seen Under New FCC Chairman,” Chicago Tribune, January 24, 2001.

28. Janine Jackson, “Their Man in Washington,” FAIR Extra!, September/October 2001,

29. Ibid.

30. David Wessel, “U.S. Stock Holdings Rose 20 Percent in 1998,” Wall Street Journal,
March 15, 1999.

31. Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

32. See note 28 above.

33. Anne E. Becker, MD, PhD; Rebecca A. Burwell, MPhil; Stephen Gilman, BA; David B. Herzog, MD; and Paul Hamburg, MD, “The Impact of Television on Disordered Eat- ing in Fiji,” a paper presented at the 2000 meeting of the International Conference on Eating Disorders, New York.

This material is not covered under Creative Commons license and cannot be published without the permission of the author and Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Copyright Thom Hartmann and Mythical Research, Inc.

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