efore I came
to the Federal Communications Commission my concerns about the ownership
of broadcasting and publishing in America were about like those of any
other generally educated person.
Most television programming from the three networks struck me as bland
at best. I had taken courses dealing with propaganda and "thought
control," bemoaned (while being entertained by) Time magazine's "slanted"
reporting, understood that Hearst had something to do with the
Spanish-American War, and was impressed with President Eisenhower's
concern about "the military-industrial complex." The changing ownership of
the old-line book publishers and the disappearance of some of our major
newspapers made me vaguely uneasy. I was philosophically wedded to the
fundamental importance of "the marketplace of ideas" in a free society,
and a year as law clerk to my idol, Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black,
had done nothing to weaken that commitment.
But I didn't take much time to be reflective about the current
significance of such matters. It all seemed beyond my ability to influence
in any meaningful way. Then, in July, 1966, I became a member of the FCC.
Here my interest in the marketplace of ideas could no longer remain a
casual article of personal faith. The commitment was an implicit part of
the oath I took on assuming the office of commissioner, and, I quickly
learned, an everyday responsibility.
Threats to the free exchange of information and opinion in this country
can come from various sources, many of them outside the power of the FCC
to affect. Publishers and reporters are not alike in their ability,
education, tolerance of diversity, and sense of responsibility. The hidden
or overt pressures of advertisers have long been with us.
But one aspect of the problem is clearly within the purview of the
FCC--the impact of ownership upon the content of the mass media. It is
also a part of the responsibility of the Antitrust Division of the Justice
Department. It has been the subject of recent congressional hearings.
There are a number of significant trends in the ownership of the media
worth examining--local and regional monopolies, growing concentration of
control of the most profitable and powerful television stations in the
major markets, broadcasting-publishing combines, and so forth. But let's
begin with a look at the significance of media ownership by "conglomerate
corporations"--holding companies that own, in addition to publishing and
broadcasting enterprises, other major industrial corporations.
During my first month at the FCC I studied the cases and attended the
meetings, but purposefully did not participate in voting on any items. One
of the agenda items at the July 20 commissioners' meeting proposed two
draft letters addressed to the presidents of International Telephone and
Telegraph and the American Broadcasting Company, ITT and ABC, Messrs.
Harold Geneen and Leonard Goldenson. We were asking them to supply "a
statement specifying in further detail the manner in which the financial
resources of ITT will enable ABC to improve its program services and
thereby better to serve the public interest." This friendly inquiry was my
first introduction to the proposed ITT-ABC merger, and the Commission
majority's attitudes about it. It was to be a case that would occupy much
of my attention over the next few months.
There wasn't much discussion of the letters that morning, but I read
carefully the separate statements filed with the letter by my two
responsible and experienced colleagues, Commissioners Robert T. Bartley
and Kenneth A. Cox, men for whom I was already feeling a respect that was
to grow over the following months.
Commissioner Bartley, a former broadcaster with the deep and earthy
wisdom one would expect in a Texas-born relative of the late Speaker Sam
Rayburn, wrote a long and thoughtful statement. He warned of "the probable
far-reaching political, social and economic consequences for the public
interest of the increasing control of broadcast facilities and broadcast
service by large conglomerate corporations such as the applicants."
Commissioner Cox, former lawyer, law professor, counsel to the Senate
Commerce Committee, and chief of the FCC's Broadcast Bureau, characterized
the proposed merger as "perhaps the most important in the agency's
history." He said the issues were "so significant and far-reaching that we
should proceed immediately to designate the matter for hearing."
Their concerns were well grounded in broadcasting's history and in the
national debate preceding the 1934 Communications Act we were appointed to
enforce. Precisely what Congress intended the FCC to do was not specified
at the time or since. But no one has ever doubted Congress' great concern
lest the ownership of broadcasting properties be permitted to fall into a
few hands or to assume monopoly proportions.
The 1934 Act was preceded by the 1927 Radio Act and a series of
industry Radio Conferences in the early 1920s. The conferences were called
by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert C. Hoover. Hoover expressed concern
lest control over broadcasting "come under the arbitrary power of any
person or group of persons." During the congressional debates on the 1927
Act a leading congressman, noting that "publicity is the most powerful
weapon that can be wielded in a republic," warned of the domination of
broadcasting by "a single selfish group." Should that happen, he said,
"then woe be to those who dare to differ with them." The requirement that
licenses not be transferred without Commission approval was intended,
according to a sponsoring senator, "to prevent the concentration of
broadcast facilities by a few." Thirty years later, in 1956, Senate
Commerce Committee Chairman Warren G. Magnuson was still warning the
Commission that it "should be on guard against the intrusion of big
business and absentee ownership."
These concerns of Congress and my colleagues were to take on fuller
meaning as the ITT-ABC case unfolded, a case which eventually turned into
an FCC cause celebre. It also demonstrated the enormity of the
responsibility vested in this relatively small and little-known
Commission, by virtue of its power to grant or withhold membership in the
broadcast industry. On a personal level, the case shook into me the
realization, for the first time in my life, of the dreadful significance
of the ownership structure of the mass media in America.
THE ITT-ABC MERGER CASE
"ITT is a sprawling international conglomerate of 433 separate boards
of directors that derives about 60 percent of its income from its
significant holdings in at least forty foreign countries. It is the ninth
largest industrial corporation in the world in size of work force. In
addition to its sale of electronic equipment to foreign governments, and
operation of foreign countries' telephone systems, roughly half of its
domestic income comes from U.S. Government defense and space contracts.
But it is also in the business of consumer finance, life insurance,
investment funds, small loan companies, car rents (ITT- Avis, Inc.), and
This description of ITT's anatomy is taken (as is much of this ITT-ABC
discussion) from opinions written by myself and Commissioners Bartley and
Cox. We objected, vigorously, to the four-man majority's decision to
approve the merger. So did some senators and congressmen, the Department
of Justice, the Commission's own staff, the American Civil Liberties
Union, a number of independent individuals and witnesses, and a belated
but eventually insistent chorus of newspaper and magazine editorialists.
What did we find so ominous about the take-over of this radio and
television network by a highly successful conglomerate organization?
In 1966, ABC owned 399 theaters in 34 states, 5 VHF television
stations, 6 AM and 6 FM stations (all in the top 10 broadcasting markets),
and, of course, one of the 3 major television networks and one of the 4
major radio networks in the world. Its 137 primary television network
affiliates could reach 93 percent of the then 50 million television homes
in the United States, and its radio network affiliates could reach 97
percent of the then 55 million homes with radio receivers. ABC had
interests in, and affiliations with, stations in 25 other nations, known
as the "Worldvision Group." These, together with ABC Films, made the
parent corporation perhaps the world's largest distributor of filmed shows
for theaters and television stations throughout this country and abroad.
ABC was heavily involved in the record production and distribution
business, and other subsidiaries published three farm papers.
The merger would have placed this accumulation of mass media, and one
of the largest purveyors of news and opinion in America, under the control
of one of the largest conglomerate corporations in the world. What's wrong
with that? Potentially a number of things. For now, consider simply that
the integrity of the news judgment of ABC might be affected by the
economic interests of ITT--that ITT might simply view ABC's programming as
a part of ITT's public relations, advertising, or political activities.
This seemed to us a real threat in 1966, notwithstanding the character of
the management of both companies, and their protestations that no
possibility of abuse existed. By 1967 the potential threat had become
ITT's continuing concern with political and economic developments in
foreign countries as a result of its far-flung economic interests was
fully documented in the hearing. It showed, as one might expect, ITT's
recurrent concern with internal affairs in most major countries of the
world, including rate problems, tax problems, and problems with
nationalization and reimbursement, to say nothing of ordinary commercial
dealing. Its involvement with the United States government, in addition to
defense contracts, included the Agency for International Development's
insurance of 5.8 percent of all ITT assets.
Testimony was offered on the fascinating story of intrigue surrounding
"Operation Deep Freeze" (an underwater cable). It turned out that ITT
officials, using high-level government contracts in England and Canada,
had brought off a bit of profitable international diplomacy unknown to the
United States State Department or the FCC, possibly in violation of law.
Further inquiry revealed that officers and directors of ITTs subsidiaries
included two members of the British House of Lords, one in the French
National Assembly, a former premier of Belgium, and several ministers of
foreign governments and officials of government-owned companies.
As it seemed to Commissioners Bartley and Cox and to me when we
dissented from the Commission's approval of the merger in June, 1967, a
company whose daily activities require it to manipulate governments at the
highest levels would face unending temptation to manipulate ABC news. Any
public official, or officer of a large corporation, is necessarily clearly
concerned with the appearance of some news stories, the absence of others,
and the tone and character of all affecting his personal interests. That's
what public relations firms and press secretaries are all about. We
concluded, "We simply cannot find that the public interest of the American
citizenry is served by turning over a major network to an international
enterprise whose fortunes are tied to its political relations with the
foreign officials whose actions it will be called upon to interpret to the
Even the highest degree of subjective integrity on the part of chief
ITT officials could not ensure integrity in ABC's operations. To do an
honest and impartial job of reporting the news is difficult enough for the
most independent and conscientious of newsmen. Eric Sevareid has said of
putting on a news program at a network relatively free of conglomerate
control: "The ultimate sensation is the feeling of being bitten to death
by ducks." And ABC newsmen could not help knowing that ITT had sensitive
business relations in various foreign countries and at the highest levels
of our government, and that reporting on any number of industrial and
economic developments would touch the interests of ITT. The mere awareness
of these interests would make it impossible for those news officials, no
matter how conscientious, to report news and develop documentaries
objectively, in the way that they would do if ABC remained unaffiliated
with ITT. They would advance within the news organization, or be fired, or
become officers of ABC--perhaps even of ITT--or not, and no newsman would
be able to erase from his mind the idea that his chances of doing so might
be affected by his treatment of issues on which ITT is sensitive.
Only last year CBS was reportedly involved, almost Hearst-like, in a
nightmarish planned armed invasion of Haiti. It was an exclusive, and
would have made a very dramatic start-to-finish documentary but for the
inglorious end: U.S. Customs wouldn't let them leave the United States.
Imagine ITT, with its extensive interests in the Caribbean engaged in such
The likelihood of at least some compromising of ABC's integrity seemed
inherent in the structure of the proposed new organization. What were the
probabilities that these potentials for abuse would be exercised? We were
soon to see the answer in the bizarre proceedings right before our eyes.
During the April, 1967, hearings, while this very issue was being
debated, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that ITT was going to
extraordinary lengths to obtain favorable press coverage of this hearing.
Eventually three reporters were summoned before the examiner to relate for
the official record the incidents that were described in the Journal's
An AP and a UPI reporter testified to several phone calls to their
homes by ITT public relations men, variously asking them to change their
stories and make inquiries for ITT with regard to stories by other
reporters, and to use their influence as members of the press to obtain
for ITT confidential information from the Department of Justice regarding
its intentions. Even more serious were several encounters between ITT
officials and a New York Times reporter.
On one of these occasions ITT's senior vice president in charge of
public relations went to the reporter's office. After criticizing her
dispatches to the Times about the case in a tone which she described as
"accusatory and certainly nasty," he asked whether she had been following
the price of ABC and ITT stock. When she indicated that she had not, he
asked if she didn't feel she had a "responsibility to the shareholders who
might lose money as a result of what" she wrote. She replied, "My
responsibility is to find out the truth and print it."
He then asked if she was aware that I (as an FCC Commissioner) was
working with a prominent senator on legislation that would forbid any
newspaper from owning any broadcast property. (The New York Times owns
station WQXR in New York.) In point of fact, the senator and I had never
met, let alone collaborated, as was subsequently made clear in public
statements. But the ITT senior vice president, according to the Times
reporter, felt that this false information was something she "ought to
pass on to [her]...publisher before [she wrote]...anything further" about
the case. The obvious implication of this remark, she felt, was that since
the Times owns a radio station, it would want to consider its economic
interests in deciding what to publish about broadcasting in its newspaper.
To me, this conduct, in which at least three ITT officials, including a
senior vice president, were involved, was a deeply unsettling experience.
It demonstrated an abrasive self-righteousness in dealing with the press,
insensitivity to its independence and integrity, a willingness to spread
false stories in furtherance of self-interest, contempt for government
officials as well as the press, and an assumption that even as prestigious
a news medium as the New York Times would, as a matter of course, want to
present the news so as to serve best its own economic interests (as well
as the economic interests of other large business corporations).
But for the brazen activities of ITT in this very proceeding, it would
never have occurred to the three of us who dissented to suggest that the
most probable threat to the integrity of ABC news could come from overt
actions or written policy statements. After the hearing it was obvious
that that was clearly possible. But even then we believed that the most
substantial threat came from a far more subtle, almost unconscious,
process: that the questionable story idea, or news coverage, would never
even be proposed--whether for reasons of fear, insecurity, cynicism,
realism, or unconscious avoidance.
CONCENTRATION OF CONTROL OVER THE MEDIA
Since the ITT-ABC case left the Commission I have not ceased to be
troubled by the issues it raised--in many ways more serious (and certainly
more prevalent) for wholly domestic corporations. Eventually the merger
was aborted by ITT on New Year's Day of this year, while the Justice
Department's appeal of the Commission's action was pending before the U.S.
Court of Appeals. However, I ponder what the consequences might have been
if ITT's apparent cynicism toward journalistic integrity had actually been
able to harness the enormous social and propaganda power of a national
television network to the service of a politically sensitive corporate
conglomerate. More important, I have become concerned about the extent to
which such forces already play upon important media of mass communication.
Perhaps such attitudes are masked by more finesse than that displayed in
the ITT-ABC case. Perhaps they are even embedded in the kind of sincere
good intentions which caused former Defense Secretary (and former General
Motors president) Charles Wilson to equate the interests of his company
with those of the country.
I do not believe that most owners and managers of the mass media in the
United States lack a sense of responsibility or lack tolerance for a
diversity of views. I do not believe there is a small group of men who
gather for breakfast every morning and decide what they will make the
American people believe that day. Emotion often outruns the evidence of
those who argue a conspiracy theory of propagandists' manipulation of the
On the other hand, one reason evidence is so hard to come by is that
the media tend to give less publicity to their own abuses than, say, to
those of politicians. The media operate as a check upon other
institutional power centers in our country. There is, however, no check
upon the media. Just as it is a mistake to overstate the existence and
potential for abuse, so, in my judgment, is it a mistake to ignore the
evidence that does exist.
In 1959, for example, it was reported that officials of the Trujillo
regime in the Dominican Republic had paid $750,000 to officers of the
Mutual Radio Network to gain favorable propaganda disguised as news.
(Ownership of the Mutual Radio Network changed hands once again last year
without any review whatsoever by the FCC of old or new owners. The FCC
does not regulate networks, only stations and Mutual owns none.) RCA was
once charged with using an NBC station to serve unfairly its broader
corporate interests, including the coverage of RCA activities as "news,"
when others did not. There was speculation that after RCA acquired Random
House, considerable pressure was put on the book publishing house's
president, Bennett Cerf, to cease his Sunday evening service as a panelist
on CBS's What's My Line? The Commission has occasionally found that
individual stations have violated the "fairness doctrine" in advocating
causes serving the station's economic self-interest, such as pay
Virtually every issue of the Columbia Journalism Review reports
instances of such abuses by the print media. It has described a
railroad-owned newspaper that refused to report railroad wrecks, a
newspaper in debt to the Teamsters Union which gave exceedingly favorable
coverage to Jimmy Hoffa, the repeated influence of the DuPont interests in
the editorial functions of the Wilmington papers which it owned, and
Anaconda Copper's use of its company-owned newspapers to support political
candidates favorable to the company.
Edward P. Morgan left ABC last year to become the commentator on the
Ford Foundation-funded Public Broadcasting Laboratory. He has always been
straightforward, and he used his final news broadcast to be reflective
about broadcasting itself. "Let's face it," he said. "We in this trade use
this power more frequently to fix a traffic ticket or get a ticket to a
ballgame than to keep the doors of an open society open and
swinging....The freest and most profitable press in the world, every major
facet of it, not only ducks but pulls its punches to save a supermarket of
commercialism or shield an ugly prejudice and is putting the life of the
republic in jeopardy thereby."
Economic self-interest does influence the content of the media, and as
the media tend to fall into the control of corporate conglomerates, the
areas of information and opinion affecting those economic interests become
dangerously wide-ranging. What is happening to the ownership of American
media today? What dangers does it pose? Taking a look at the structure of
the media in the United States, I am not put at ease by what I see.
Most American communities have far less "dissemination of information
from diverse and antagonistic sources" (to quote a famous description by
the Supreme Court of the basic aim of the First Amendment) than is
available nationally. Of the 1500 cities with daily newspapers, 96 percent
are served by single-owner monopolies. Outside the top 50 to 200 markets
there is a substantial dropping off in the number of competing radio and
television signals. The FCC prohibits a single owner from controlling two
AM radio, or two television, stations with overlapping signals. But it has
only recently expressed any concern over common ownership of an AM radio
station and an FM radio station and a television station in the same
market. Indeed, such ownership is the rule rather than the exception and
probably exists in your community. Most stations are today acquired by
purchase. And the FCC has, in part because of congressional pressure,
rarely disapproved a purchase of a station by a newspaper.
There are few statewide or regional "monopolies"--although some
situations come close. But in a majority of our states--the least
populous--there are few enough newspapers and television stations to begin
with, and they are usually under the control of a small group. And most
politicians find today, as Congress warned in 1926, "woe be to those who
dare to differ with them." Most of our politics is still state and local
in scope. And increasingly, in many states and local communities,
congressmen and state and local officials are compelled to regard that
handful of media owners (many of whom are out-of-state), rather than the
electorate itself, as their effective constituency. Moreover, many mass
media owners have a significant impact in more than one state. One case
that came before the FCC, for example, involved an owner with AM-FM-TV
combinations in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, along with four newspapers in
that state, seven newspapers in Oklahoma, and two stations and two
newspapers in Arkansas. Another involved ownership of ten stations in
North Carolina and adjoining southern Virginia. You may never have heard
of these owners, but I imagine the elected officials of their states
return their phone calls promptly.
The principal national sources of news are the wire services, AP and
UPI, and the broadcast networks. Each of the wire services serves on the
order of 1200 newspapers and 3000 radio and television stations. Most
local newspapers and radio stations offer little more than wire service
copy as far as national and international news is concerned. To that
extent one can take little heart for "diversity" from the oft-proffered
statistics on proliferating radio stations (now over 6000) and the
remaining daily newspapers (1700). The networks, though themselves heavily
reliant upon the wire services to find out what's worth filming, are
another potent force.
The weekly newsmagazine field is dominated by Time, Newsweek, and U.S.
News. (The first two also control substantial broadcast, newspaper, and
book or publishing outlets. Time is also in movies (MGM) and is hungry for
three or four newspapers.) Thus, even though there are thousands of
general and specialized periodicals and program sources with significant
national or regional impact, and certainly no "monopoly" exists, it is
still possible for a single individual or corporation to have vast
What we sometimes fail to realize, moreover, is the political
significance of the fact that we have become a nation of cities. Nearly
half of the American people live in the six largest states: California,
New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio. Those states, in turn,
are substantially influenced (if not politically dominated) by their major
population-industrial-financial-media centers, such as Los Angeles, New
York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia--the nation's four largest
metropolitan areas. Thus, to have a major newspaper or television station
influence in one of these cities is to have significant national power.
And the number of interests with influence in more than one of these
markets is startling.
Most of the top fifty television markets (which serve approximately 75
percent of the nation's television homes) have three competing commercial
VHF television stations. There are about 150 such VHF commercial stations
in these markets. Less than 10 percent are today owned by entities that do
not own other media interests. In 30 of the 50 markets at least one of the
stations is owned by a major newspaper published in that market--a total
of one third of these 150 stations. (In Dallas Fort Worth each of the
network affiliates is owned by a local newspaper, and the fourth, an
unaffiliated station, is owned by Oklahoma newspapers.) Moreover, half of
the newspaper-owned stations are controlled by seven groups--groups that
also publish magazines as popular and diverse as Time, Newsweek, Look,
Parade, Harper's, TV Guide, Family Circle, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and
Popular Mechanics. Twelve parties own more than one third of all the
In addition to the vast national impact of their affiliates the three
television networks each own VHF stations in all of the top three
markets--New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago--and each has two more in
other cities in the top ten. RKO and Metromedia each own stations in both
New York City and Los Angeles. Metromedia also owns stations in
Washington, D.C., and California's other major city, San Francisco--as
well as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Oakland. RKO
also owns stations in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Memphis,
Hartford, and Windsor, Ontario--as well as the regional Yankee Network.
Westinghouse owns stations in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Fort
Wayne. These are but a few examples of today's media barons.
There are many implications of their power. Groups of stations are able
to bargain with networks, advertisers, and talent in ways that put lesser
stations at substantial economic disadvantage. Group ownership means, by
definition, that few stations in major markets will be locally owned. (The
FCC recently approved the transfer of the last available station in San
Francisco to the absentee ownership of Metromedia. The only commercial
station locally owned today is controlled by the San Francisco Chronicle.)
But the basic point is simply that the national political power involved
in ownership of a group of major VHF television stations in, say, New
York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., is greater than a
democracy should unthinkingly repose in one man or corporation.
For a variety of reasons, an increasing number of communications media
are turning up on the organization charts of conglomerate companies. And
the incredible profits generated by broadcast stations in the major
markets (television broadcasters average a 90 to 100 percent return on
tangible investment annually) have given FCC licensees, particularly
owners of multiple television stations like the networks, Metromedia,
Storer Broadcasting, and others, the extra capital with which to buy the
New York Yankees (CBS), Random House (RCA), or Northeast Airlines
(Storer). Established or up-and-coming conglomerates regard communications
acquisitions as prestigious, profitable, and often a useful or even a
necessary complement to present operations and projected exploitation of
The national problem of conglomerate ownership of communications media
was well illustrated by the ITT-ABC case. But the conglomerate problem
need not involve something as large as ITT-ABC or RCA-NBC. Among the
national group owners of television stations are General Tire (RKO), Avco,
Westinghouse, Rust Craft, Chris Craft, Kaiser, and Kerr-McGee. The problem
of local conglomerates was forcefully posed for the FCC in another case
earlier this year. Howard Hughes, through Hughes Tool Company, wanted to
acquire one of Las Vegas' three major television stations. He had recently
acquired $125 million worth of Las Vegas real estate, including hotels,
gambling casinos, and an airport. These investments supplemented 27,000
acres previously acquired. The Commission majority blithely approved the
television acquisition without a hearing, overlooking FCC precedents which
suggested that a closer examination was in order. In each of these
instances the potential threat is similar to that in the ITT-ABC
case--that personal economic interests may dominate or bias otherwise
CONCENTRATION AND TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE
The problem posed by conglomerate acquisitions of communications
outlets is given a special but very important twist by the pendency of
sweeping technological changes which have already begun to unsettle the
structure of the industry.
President Johnson has appointed a distinguished task force to evaluate
our national communications policy and chart a course for realization of
these technological promises in a manner consistent with the public
interest. But private interests have already begun to implement their own
plans on how to deal with the revolution in communications technology.
General Sarnoff of RCA has hailed the appearance of "the knowledge
industry"--corporate casserole dishes blending radio and television
stations, networks, and programming; films, movie houses, and record
companies; newspaper, magazine, and book publishing; advertising agencies;
sports or other entertainment companies; and teaching machines and other
profitable appurtenances of the $50 billion "education biz."
And everybody's in "cable television"--networks, book publishers,
newspapers. Cable television is a system for building the best TV antenna
in town and then wiring it into everybody's television set--for a fee. It
improves signal quality and number of channels, and has proved popular.
But the new technology is such that it has broadcasters and newspaper
publishers worried. For the same cable that can bring off-the-air
television into the home can also bring programming from the cable
operator's studio, or an "electronic newspaper" printed in the home by a
facsimile process. Books can be delivered (between libraries, or to the
home) over "television" by using the station's signal during an invisible
pause. So everybody's hedging their bets--including the telephone company.
Indeed, about all the vested interests can agree upon is that none of them
want us to have direct, satellite-to-home radio and television. But at
this point it is not at all clear who will have his hand on the switch
that controls what comes to the American people over their "telephone
wire" a few years hence.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
It would be foolish to expect any extensive restructuring of the media
in the United States, even if it were considered desirable. Technological
change can bring change in structure, but it is as likely to be change to
even greater concentration as to wider diversity. In the short run at
least, economics seems to render essentially intractable such problems as
local monopolies in daily newspapers, or the small number of outlets for
national news through wire services, newsmagazines, and the television
networks. Indeed, to a certain extent the very high technical quality of
the performance rendered by these news-gathering organizations is aided by
their concentration of resources into large units and the financial
cushions of oligopoly profits.
Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the risks of concentration are
Chairman Philip Hart of the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee
remarked by way of introduction to his antitrust subcommittee's recent
hearings about the newspaper industry, "The products of newspapers,
opinion and information, are essential to the kind of society that we
undertake to make successful here." If we are serious about the kind of
society we have undertaken, it is clear to me that we simply must not
tolerate concentration of media ownership--except where concentration
creates actual countervailing social benefits. These benefits cannot be
merely speculative. They must be identifiable, demonstrable, and genuinely
weighty enough to offset the dangers inherent in concentration.
This guideline is a simple prescription. The problem is to design and
build machinery to fill it. And to keep the machinery from rusting and
rotting. And to replace it when it becomes obsolete.
America does have available governmental machinery which is capable of
scotching undue accumulations of power over the mass media, at least in
theory and to some extent. The Department of Justice has authority under
the antitrust laws to break up combinations which "restrain trade" or
which "tend to lessen competition." These laws apply to the media as they
do to any other industry.
But the antitrust laws simply do not get to where the problems are.
They grant authority to block concentration only when it threatens
economic competition in a particular economic market. Generally, in the
case of the media, the relevant market is the market for advertising.
Unfortunately, relatively vigorous advertising competition can be
maintained in situations where competition in the marketplace of ideas is
severely threatened. In such cases, the Justice Department has little
inclination to act.
Look at the Chicago Tribune's recent purchase of that city's most
popular and most successful FM radio station. The Tribune already
controlled two Chicago newspapers, one (clear channel) AM radio station,
and the city's only independent VHF television station. It controls
numerous broadcast, CATV, and newspaper interests outside Chicago (in
terms of circulation, the nation's largest newspaper chain). But, after an
investigation, the Antitrust Division let this combination go through. The
new FM may be a needless addition to the Tribune's already impressive
battery of influential media; it could well produce an unsound level of
concentration in the production and supply of what Chicagoans see, read,
and hear about affairs in their community, in the nation, and in the
world. But it did not threaten the level of competition for advertising
money in any identifiable advertising market. So, it was felt, the
acquisition was not the business of the Justice Department.
Only the FCC is directly empowered to keep media ownership patterns
compatible with a democracy's need for diversified sources of opinion and
In earlier times, the Commission took this responsibility very
seriously. In 1941, the FCC ordered NBC to divest itself of one of its two
radio networks (which then became ABC), barring any single network from
affiliating with more than one outlet in a given city. (The Commission has
recently waived this prohibition for, ironically, ABC's four new national
radio networks.) In 1941 the Commission also established its power to set
absolute limits on the total number of broadcast licenses any individual
may hold, and to limit the number of stations any individual can operate
in a particular service area.
The American people are indebted to the much maligned FCC for
establishing these rules. Imagine, for example, what the structure of
political power in this country might look like if two or three companies
owned substantially all of the broadcast media in our major cities.
But since the New Deal generation left the command posts of the FCC,
this agency has lost much of its zeal for combating concentration. Atrophy
has reached so advanced a state that the public has of late witnessed the
bizarre spectacle of the Justice Department, with its relatively narrow
mandate, intervening in FCC proceedings, such as ITT-ABC, to create court
cases with names like The United States vs. The FCC.
This history is an unhappy one on the whole. It forces one to question
whether government can ever realistically be expected to sustain a
vigilant posture over an industry which controls the very access of
government officials themselves to the electorate.
I fear that we have already reached the point in this country where the
media, our greatest check on other accumulations of power, may themselves
be beyond the reach of any other institution: the Congress, the President,
or the Federal Communications Commission, not to mention governors,
mayors, state legislators, and city councilmen. Congressional hearings are
begun and then quietly dropped. Whenever the FCC stirs fitfully as if in
wakefulness, the broadcasting industry scurries up the Hill for a
congressional bludgeon. And the fact that roughly 60 percent of all
campaign expenses go to radio and television time gives but a glimmer of
the power of broadcasting in the lives of senators and congressmen.
However, the picture at this moment has its more hopeful aspect. There
does seem to be an exceptional flurry of official concern. Even the FCC
has its proposed rulemaking outstanding. The Department of Justice, having
broken into the communications field via its dramatic intervention before
the FCC in the ITT-ABC merger case, has also been pressing a campaign to
force the dissolution of joint operating agreements between separately
owned newspapers in individual cities, and opposed a recent application
for broadcasting properties by newspaper interests in Beaumont, Texas. It
has been scrutinizing crossmedia combinations linking broadcasting,
newspaper, and cable television outlets. On Capitol Hill, Senator Phil
Hart's Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee and Chairman Harley Staggers'
House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee have both summoned the
Federal Communications Commission to appear before them in recent months,
to acquaint the Commission with the committees' concern about FCC-approved
increases in broadcast holdings by single individuals and companies, and
about cross-ownership of newspapers, CATV systems, and broadcast stations.
Representatives John Dingell, John Moss, and Richard Ottinger have
introduced legislation which would proscribe network ownership of any
nonbroadcast interests. And as I previously mentioned, President Johnson
has appointed a task force to undertake a comprehensive review of national
Twenty years ago Robert M. Hutchins, then chancellor of the University
of Chicago, was named chairman of the "Commission on Freedom of the
Press." It produced a thoughtful report, full of recommendations largely
applicable today--including "the establishment of a new and independent
[nongovernmental] agency to appraise and report annually upon the
performance of the press," and urged "that the members of the press engage
in vigorous mutual criticism." Its proposals are once again being dusted
off and reread.
What is needed now, more than anything else, is to keep this flurry of
interest alive, and to channel it toward constructive reforms. What this
means, in practical fact, is that concern for media concentration must
find an institutional home.
The Department of Justice has already illustrated the value of
participation by an external institution in FCC decision-making. The
developing concept of a special consumers' representative offers a
potentially broader base for similar action.
But the proper place to lodge continuing responsibility for promoting
diversity in the mass media is neither the FCC nor the Justice Department
nor a congressional committee. The initiative must come from private
sources. Plucky Nader-like crusaders such as John Banzhaf (who
single-handedly induced the FCC to apply the "fairness" doctrine to
cigarette commercials) have shown how responsive government can be to the
skillful and vigorous efforts of even a lone individual. But there are
more adequately staffed and funded private organizations which could play
a more effective role in policy formation than a single individual. Even
the FCC, where the public interest gets entirely too little representation
from private sources, has felt the impact of the United Church of Christ,
with its interest in the influence of broadcasting on race relations and
in the programming responsibility of licensees, and of the American Civil
Liberties Union, which submitted a brief in the ITT-ABC case.
Ideally, however, the resources for a sustained attack on concentration
might be centered in a single institution, equipped to look after this
cause with the kind of determination and intelligence that the Ford
Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, for example, have brought to bear
in behalf of the cause of public broadcasting and domestic satellites. The
law schools and their law reviews, as an institution, have performed well
in this way for the courts, but have virtually abdicated responsibility
for the agencies.
Such an organization could devote itself to research as well as
representation. For at present any public body like the FCC, which has to
make determinations about acceptable levels of media concentration, has to
do so largely on the basis of hunch. In addition, private interest in
problems of concentration would encourage the Justice Department to
sustain its present vigilance in this area. It could stimulate renewed
vigilance on the part of the FCC, through participation in Commission
proceedings. And it could consider whether new legislation might be
appropriate to reach the problem of newspaper-magazine-book publishing
If changes are to be made (or now dormant standards are to be enforced)
the most pressing political question is whether to apply the standards
prospectively only, or to require divestiture. It is highly unlikely, to
say the least, that legislation requiring massive divestiture of multiple
station ownership, or newspaper ownership of stations, would ever pass
through Congress. Given the number of station sales every year, however,
even prospective standards could have some impact over ten years or so.
In general, I would urge the minimal standard that no accumulation of
media should be permitted without a specific and convincing showing of a
continuing countervailing social benefit. For no one has a higher calling
in an increasingly complex free society bent on self-government than he
who informs and moves the people. Personal prejudice, ignorance, social
pressure, and advertiser pressure are in large measure inevitable. But a
nation that has, in Learned Hand's phrase, "staked its all" upon the
rational dialogue of an informed electorate simply cannot take any
unnecessary risk of polluting the stream of information and opinion that
sustains it. At the very least, the burden of proving the social utility
of doing otherwise should be upon him who seeks the power and profit which
Whatever may be the outcome, the wave of renewed interest in the impact
of ownership on the role of the media in our society is healthy. All will
gain from intelligent inquiry by Congress, the Executive, the regulatory
commissions--and especially the academic community, the American people
generally, and the media themselves. For, as the Supreme Court has noted,
nothing is more important in a free society than "the widest possible
dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources." And
if we are unwilling to discuss this issue fully today we may find
ourselves discussing none that matter very much tomorrow.
Copyright © 1968 by Nicholas Johnson. All rights