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Where the Media Momentum Is Headed

These days, many politicians are calling for campaign finance reform, but they keep raising as much cash as possible. Likewise, with less fanfare, journalists complain that their profession is turning into a money chase and they must keep pace.Meanwhile, the media consumer resembles the proverbial frog in a pan of water -- apt to be boiled to death before the gradual upturn of heat causes sufficient alarm. Accustomed to a steady rise in the degree of commercialization, few Americans take a leap toward active opposition.Constant commercial intrusions -- often laced with sexploitation -- seem normal and acceptable because they're so routine in a wide array of media outlets. A lot of news reports are more akin to product promotion than journalism.With cyberspace booming, it's difficult to predict exactly how media technology will change - - the main guessing game for the industry analysts featured in mass media. They love to speculate about technical advances and ierce battles for market share.But key questions get short shrift. Such as:* In the future, will media coverage be diverse?Prospects are bleak. Consolidation of media ownership has been so rapid in recent years that now just 10 corporations control most of this country's news and information flow. The top spot belongs to Time Warner, followed by Disney, Viacom, News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch), Sony, TCI, Seagram, Westinghouse, Gannett and General Electric.Those conglomerates are in business to maximize profits. They're hardly inclined to provide much media space for advocates of curtailing their power.* Who will have access to the glut of media programming?For the most part, people who can pay for it.Consider television. In most cases, the channels offered on local cable TV are selected by big national cable-system firms that function as "gatekeepers." Not only is the range of programming limited -- it's just available to viewers who can afford it. Basic cable service is liable to cost hundreds of dollars per year.* Who will control the huge institutions running the mass-media show?The brief answer is: millionaires and billionaires.* Who will decide what news is important and what information should be widely disseminated?In theory, journalists will. But, in practice, editors are accountable to media executives who, in turn, are accountable to management. Ultimately, owners set the tone and priorities.* In the media nation on the horizon, what's democracy got to do with it?The sad truth is likely to be: very little."Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," critic A.J. Liebling quipped several decades ago. And now, of course, the presses are a small part of the news-media picture.Already, just a few companies -- including General Electric (which owns NBC), Westinghouse (CBS), Time Warner (CNN and cable systems), TCI (cable systems) and America Online -- largely determine what makes it onto the screens we look at every day.There's no sign that this trend is going to slow down. On the contrary, it has accelerated since the landmark Telecommunications Act became law in February 1996. Now, to a great extent, a few mammoth firms are programming America's media.A hundred years ago, the writer Anatole France commented: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."Today, a flip side of his observation is the fact that the federal government allows you and me, and billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the right to buy as many newspapers, magazines, TV networks and satellite communication systems as we can.The notion that a "free market" equals free speech is comforting but misleading -- especially when a few bloated corporations have the economic weight to sit on the windpipe of the First Amendment.If we get realistic about the obstacles blocking democratic discourse in our society, we can summon the determination to fight for the media diversity that future generations deserve.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist on media and politics. His new book "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media" is being published in mid-April by Common Courage Press (1-800-497-3207).

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