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in response to jeff wilder
why media is getting soft
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)

This is an article I wrote in April 1999 after seeing a lecture by Ronnie Dugger, former publisher of The Texas Observer. I think it might help explain some things about modern-day news reporting. Enjoy.

Is the media in danger of being controlled by a handful of corporations? They already control it, says Ronnie Dugger, author, journalist, and publisher, from 1967 to 1994, of The Texas Observer, a non-profit newspaper.

During a lecture he gave at NYU last night, he cited some disturbing statistics leading toward the “complex moral collapse of publishing in the United States.” Today, according to Dugger, 98 percent of all of the country’s local daily newspapers are owned by one corporation in any given city. Due to laws passed within the last ten years, he added, one company can now own all of the radio stations and up to 35 percent of all of the television stations in the country, though this has not yet occurred. “It is not too much to say, I think,” he said, “that through this government, the hegemony of government is being replaced by the hegemony of the private corporations.”

Dugger believes that media conglomerates are only in the business of advertisement. He said that the small number of media corporations “amount to the accelerated ascension of major media owners and CEOs to more and more power over opinions, politics, economics, culture, and society.” He listed a few of the companies that enjoy a “new kind of central authority over information”: Time/Warner, Westinghouse, Disney, General Electric, NewHouse, Murdock’s news corporation, Reader’s Digest, and Paramount. According to Dugger, Rune Arledge, President of ABC News, once sent an order to the network’s news magazine program, “No issues.”

In 1983, he reported, 46 corporations owned and controlled more than 50 percent of the media. Today, he said, that number is down to 20. In 1945, 80 percent of United States’ daily newspapers were independently owned; by 1989, that 80 percent was owned by corporations. In that same time period, he added, more than half of the country’s magazine revenue went from being split between 20 companies down to two.

Because the media corporations are profit-run, Dugger feels that the news has been replaced by advertising and appealing to the lowest common denominator. He quoted Walter Cronkite – “Television today foreshortens reporting. We’re shirking our responsibilities as broadcasters.”

These corporations, Dugger charged, even control the government. Due to soft money, they can contribute practically unlimited funds to political campaigns. He offered as evidence legislation in the past thirty years, which has only served, he said, to aid corporate media monopoly under the guise of increased competition. “Since 1886,” he said, “the Supreme Court has given corporations all the constitutional rights of human beings,” such as the right to own property. In fact, Dugger claimed, the only right they do not currently enjoy is the vote.

Dugger then went on to offer a laundry list of suggestions and sweeping reform to solve the problem, calling on the federal government to do an about face regarding its policy on media regulation. Among his recommendations was to form a government subsidized private paper with no governmental quality control. He wants stiff, low limits on “how many media entities, and what kinds in what locations any one owner may have.”

He also advocated a tax on commercial advertising of five to seven percent, which he said would generate up to $10 billion a year, “both to reduce the infuriating volume of commercials and to finance the robust national public radio, television, and cultural educational networks.” He also recommends donating to the public treasury 25 percent of the radio and television licensees’ profits, and using those funds to fund the public sphere, including earmarked subsidies for categories of cable stations deemed “especially valuable for the public good.”

Dugger also called for graduated federal taxation on newspapers, in order to reward newspapers for investigative journalism, “on the basis of a ratio between a newspaper’s annual budget for investigative journalism and its annual profits.” He recommended that if corporations really feel they need to own a newspaper or television station, they should allow the journalists to form a guild within that organization and enjoy total editorial control.

All of this, Dugger said, will only come about if people begin pressuring the government to change the laws. He advocated a new line political party, which would put media reform on its platform. Since President Reagan abolished the “Fairness Doctrine” – any television or radio station giving time to one candidate in an election has to also give the same time to the other candidate – campaigns have been run only by the people with the most money.
Will these reforms work? They have to, Dugger said, “It’s not just journalism, but Democracy at stake.”


A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

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tracey kelley
8.16.01 @ 12:59p

I forwarded this to my husband's newsroom. hey all said "eeeek." While they try to maintain integrity as one of the few broadcast newshops still independently owned, they see examples like those featured all around them, and often wonder if the owner will just "pack it in" one day, leaving them trained gerbils waiting for pellets like many other news organizations. Very interesting - thanks for sharing.

michael beatty
8.19.01 @ 11:53a

[Dugger] also recommends donating to the public treasury 25 percent of the radio and television licensees’ profits

Tax and spend . . .

Rather than impose another tax, why not lift the limits & restrictions on advertising sales with which public broadcasting is burdened? Of course, commercial broadcasting won't like competition any more than they like taxes . . .

adam kraemer
8.20.01 @ 4:10p

Well, yeah, but if public broadcasting starts being able to run commercials, won't they cease to be public broadcasting?
Oh, and which names did I spell wrong?

michael beatty
8.22.01 @ 10:23p

Nothing personal. Just replacing the pronoun "he." : )

russ carr
8.28.01 @ 8:27a

Y'know, they may not be for fast food, lite beer or feminine hygiene products, but commercials are running rampant on our local PBS television affiliate. When I first started watching PBS (y'know... Sesame Street, Electric Co., Mr. Rogers) the only mention of "additional funding" would generally take the form of a voice-over and perhaps a static shot of a logo. Today those corporate (or even local) sponsors enjoy a good 30 sec. apiece in front of the actual show, wherein most extol the virtues of a particular product. If it looks like a commercial and sounds like a commercial...

PS: Roone Arledge.

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