I often hear that there are only five or six major corporations that control almost all of the U.S. media outlets, but I’ve never seen a list. When one thinks of AM and FM radio, network and cable television, the Internet as well as newspapers and magazines, can this really be true? General Electric, Clear Channel, Rupert Murdoch, and the Corporation for Pubic Broadcasting come to mind, but who else might complete the list? –A.J., Wisconsin

Uh, A.J.? It’s public broadcasting, not pubic broadcasting. (Chronic problem in this business.) You’re right that the mass media are basically a playground for big corporations, but there are way more than five or six. The online list maintained by the Columbia Journalism Review currently includes 45 firms, ranging from Viacom and Time Warner to outfits most people have never heard of–e.g. A.H. Belo, owner of the Dallas Morning News. Make no mistake, these companies are huge–Belo, for one, takes in $1.4 billion a year and owns or operates eight print outlets, 20 TV stations, and ten cable news channels. But 45 companies sharing the U.S. media pie is a lot different from slicing it up into just half a dozen pieces.

Hold on, you say. Everybody knows that the companies at the very top control a disproportionate share of what mainstream America sees and hears. True up to a point. Browsing the Web I find a colorful 2001 chart from a watchdog operation called the Media Channel that identifies the six largest media corporations in the world. Half are American, and all have huge assets here: Time Warner (Time magazine, Warner Brothers, HBO, CNN, AOL), Disney (ABC, ESPN), Bertelsmann (Random House), Viacom (CBS, Paramount, MTV, the Infinity radio network), News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch’s vehicle: Fox TV, the New York Post, HarperCollins), and Vivendi Universal (with labels such as Polygram and Motown, it controls a fifth of the world’s music sales). If cable giant Comcast succeeds with its $54 billion bid for Disney, it’ll be the biggest media company of them all.

Let’s focus on the news-gathering end of things, though, since it bears directly on the ability of American citizens to make informed choices and thus on the health of our democracy. The Big Six control three of the four major TV networks plus CNN (Vivendi is trying to combine with the fourth, NBC). But they don’t control any of the ten largest U.S. newspaper companies. (The top three are Gannett, whose flagship is USA Today; the Tribune Company, which publishes the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times; and the New York Times Company.) Newspapers aren’t the dominant force they were 50 years ago, but they still set the national media agenda–their coverage strongly influences what decision makers think and talk about. Historically in the U.S. there’s been something of a fence between national television networks and newspapers. What’s more, on both sides of that fence there are still a fair number of competitors duking it out–it’s not yet time to worry about the dissemination of news and opinion in the U.S. falling into the hands of a tiny corporate cabal.

At the local level, though, the situation is murkier. A local media company often controls the major newspaper in a given market as well as several broadcast or cable outlets, and sometimes owns nonmedia properties like sports franchises too. Many fear that this concentration of ownership will impede the free flow of information, as the professors put it. In Chicago, for example, the Tribune Company owns not only the largest newspaper but also WGN TV, WGN radio, and the Cubs baseball team. Lately the Cubs have been trying to extend the bleachers at Wrigley Field, increase the number of night games, and come to terms with neighboring property owners, who charge fans to watch Cubs games from rooftop decks. These are matters of bitter controversy, and some think coverage thereof in the Tribune has been suspiciously restrained. The Tribune’s public editor, Don Wycliff, denies any top-down meddling, and I believe him–but it’s not unreasonable to wonder if every big media company is equally principled. Local media consolidation can also bring other problems: for instance, the pressure to cut costs that comes with centralized ownership often means fewer reporters and less local news coverage. Civic groups are still railing against the recent relaxation of federal rules that limit companies’ ability to own both newspapers and TV stations in the same market, but the issue has yet to galvanize the public at large. Let’s hope people wake up. If TV broadcasters and newspapers merge at a national scale and the nightly news, the cable guy, and the Daily Bugle all start sporting mouse ears, I for one am going to get a little freaked.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.