Corporate Media and the Free Market

The role of the US media in disseminating official ideology has increased, over the last few decades, in proportion with media corporatization and concentration. Since the bombing of the Twin Towers by Saudi nationals, and the Bush regime’s subsequent assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq, the corporate media have systematically failed as stewards of the means of communication.

Thus, completely absent were stories on whether Iraq was a real threat to US national security outside of official discourse. Nearly all of the experts on international relations and global geopolitics in academia objected to Administration claims of an imminent threat, but the corporate media largely chose to get ‘expert’ opinion only from the White House, Pentagon, and neoconservative think tanks. Few and far between were stories on civilian deaths and suffering; US use of internationally condemned weapons such as cluster bombs and depleted uranium weapons; forged, shoddy and overwhelmingly unconvincing evidence in support of Bush’s arguments for war; et cetera.

Instead, we are force fed Pentagon PR copy. It’s hard to tell whether the red-white-and-blue TV graphics-including US military hardware specs that seemed to come straight out of a video game-also came from the Pentagon or were actually created independently by the networks.

(Recall Dan Rather’s open-ended, unscreened interview with Hussein. Even if it were possible to get a similar one with Bush, who really believes that Rather would throw hardballs and question Bush’s veracity, as he did with Hussein? Would Rather, or any network anchor, seriously interrogate Bush on the unproven links between the Iraqi regime and Al Qaeda, or the WMDs yet to be found?)

This came as no surprise to leftists, who’ve been criticizing media concentration for years, arguing that this is what you get when defense contractors like GE own media conglomerates such as NBC. The US media-from radio and TV to books and film-are now dominated by less than ten mega-corporations.[1] Yet, the Federal Communications Commission is currently recommending a series of changes in ownership rules that will further media concentration.

Two proposals, in particular, comically display the true intent of the current round of ‘deregulation.’ The FCC says it must modernize the ownership rules in accordance with changing markets and technology, by increasing the national television ownership cap from 35 to 45% of the national audience. Yet, they also propose to retain the ‘UHF discount,’ which counts two viewers of a UHF station as one. This rule, enacted when viewers had to use special antennas to receive UHF stations, is the true anachronism. Thus, while cable and satellite TV have made this rule obsolete, it is maintained in conjunction with a new rule that will serve only one purpose: to increase media concentration.

These proposals have generated criticisms from a number of quarters. As reported in the May 13 New York Times, there is even dissent from Democrats-that’s right, dissent from Democrats!-within the FCC, and from within the media: “Local affiliates and small broadcasting stations . . . say it would homogenize entertainment, discourage local news coverage in favor of national broadcasts and reduce the commercial leverage of the local stations to offer independent programming.”

These and other criticisms of this current round of media deregulation are on target. However, there is another great hypocrisy here. The theory behind deregulation is to increase so-called market efficiency. But by leading to increased concentration in the market, such ‘deregulation’ increases market imperfections (i.e., oligopolies), thus increasing ‘distortions’ in the market and decreasing efficiency, not to mention diversity.

Yes, that’s right. An agency in the Bush Administration is deliberately crafting anti-free market ownership rules. And this type of action (which often takes place through changing regulations by largely unaccountable agencies, rather than through legislation) is the rule in the Bush Administration, not the exception. And this type of action (which essentially re-writes rules to favor wealthy owners at the expense of workers) has been regularly occurring since the neoliberals gained control when Reagan entered office on a platform of entrepreneurialism, free markets, and small government. Regarding the latter, the total federal outlay doubled from $590 billion in the year Reagan took office to $1 trillion in his final year.

Yet, the American mythology of free markets and hard work is still firmly believed by most, even many in the majority of workers whose real (inflation-adjusted) wages have stagnated for the last three decades. In this mythology ‘big government’ is the enemy, and any sort of ‘regulation’ of private industry distorts the magical workings of the market.

However, this mythology is based loosely on economic theory. Yet, in that economic theory, what the ‘free market’ refers to is not necessarily markets free of government intervention. Rather, the magic (i.e., allocative efficiency) of the market comes when markets are perfectly competitive and consumers have perfect information about all their choices. In this scenario, which exists only in theory, the consumers will be sovereign and markets will respond to their preferences (hence, the ‘invisible hand’).

But as any Econ 101 textbook says, the opposite of a perfectly competitive market is a monopoly or oligopoly. When such exists, the concentrated power of the oligopolists distorts the market in the same way that some forms of government intervention might. Thus, if a set of ‘deregulatory’ policies actually increases oligopoly, as the current FCC proposals promise to do, then they are anti-free market policies. The Bush Administration, of course, knows this.

But there are two other lessons here. First, it turns out that government intervention may actually increase the efficient function of markets by, say, reducing oligopoly and fostering competition. This is exactly what the current set of FCC regulations, about to be scrapped, do.

Second, who are the forces behind these anti-free market initiatives? Of course, they are the Bush Administration and the mega-corporations behind the lobby. The American mythology of hard work and free markets is so convincing that many people simply don’t realize a basic, undeniable fact: capitalists may like competition for other people, but they all want a monopoly in their own market.

The relentless drive of capitalists and their political lackeys to cut government services and deregulate the economy is largely an attempt to shift concentrated power away from the government (where it is in principle accountable to the people) and into the private hands of multinational corporations. As this currently takes place in media ownership, it is all the more ominous given the role of such media concentration in filtering and narrowing the public information and discourse. [2]


[1]. McChesney, Robert W. 1997. Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. See also Ben H. Bagdikian. 1992. The Media Monopoly, Fourth Edition.

[2]. On the role of concentrated wealth and power in filtering the news, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent.

MATT VIDAL is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

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Matt Vidal is Senior Lecturer in Work and Organizations at King’s College London, Department of Management. He is editor-in-chief of Work in Progress, a public sociology blog of American Sociological Association, where this article first ran. You can follow Matt on Twitter @ChukkerV.