Courtesy of The Other 98%, with over 33,000 likes and 13,000 shares. This is a popular meme repeated over the last several years. Depending on the meme, it’s six corporations, or sometimes only five that supposedly control 90% of our media content. This is claim is generally used to create a feeling of paranoia, which gets exploited politically for calls to further regulate media companies. However, when this claim is analyzed, it’s dubious at best.
Where Does This Stat Come From?
It’s quoted all over the place, sometimes even in respected outlets, but its origins are difficult to track down. The most popular claim is this: “In 1983, 90% of US media was controlled by fifty companies; today, 90% is controlled by just six companies.”
This is even quoted verbatim on the Wikipedia page about media cross-ownership, but the source for this quote, cited on the bottom of the page, is troublesome. It brings us to a Business Insider blog post, which is not an original source, or even reliable. In fact, the source used in the blog post is…a meme!
Yes, a meme that went viral in 2011 put out by a blog called Frugal Dad. The blog seems well-intentioned, but hardly a reliable source. It does list some websites on the bottom of the meme, but none of them seem particularly reliable or relevant to this statistic. In other words, most of the web uses “Frugal Dad” as the source for this statistic!
After much searching, it seems the original source for this claim comes from the book, The Media Monopoly (later revised to The New Media Monopoly in 2004) by Ben Bagdikian. He was a fairly respected journalist, although clearly left-wing and biased against large corporations. The book is similarly slanted, and while he has credible sources for some claims in it, there is no source or footnote given for his claim that the “Big Five” control the media, or 90% of it (see for yourself). The original “source” seems to be the opinion of Mr. Bagdikian! An informed opinion, perhaps, but not one based on a scholarly study of how and who Americans get their news from, or other objective means. Furthermore, it’s more than 10 years old, and a lot has changed.
It’s under this dubious source that we are warranted to continue our investigation of this meme.
The “Big Six” Claim
Bagdikian called it the “Big Five” in his 2004 book, claiming Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom and Bertelsmann (from Germany) controlled our media. This has morphed into the “Big Six”, as time and ownership has changed. These are the companies supposedly controlling almost everything in the US media.
- Comcast-major holdings include NBC (including CNBC and MSNBC), Universal Pictures, many smaller cable channels (including The Weather Channel, USA, Bravo and E!)
- Disney– ABC, ESPN, Pixar, A&E, Lifetime and Marvel Studios
- News Corporation– Fox (News, Sports and 20th Century), The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, FX, Barron’s, HarperCollins publishing
- Time Warner– CNN, Time Magazine, Warner Bros, HBO, Cinemax, the CW, TBS, TNT
- CBS Corporation– CBS, Simon and Schuster
- Viacom– MTV, Comedy Central, BET, Paramount Pictures
These six companies clearly own a lot of media, but is it really 90%? And what happened to Bertelsmann? They still exist, but apparently disappeared from influence in a few years? For the purpose of this analysis, we’ll focus on news media, as that’s what most would consider important (who cares who owns Marvel or the Weather Channel?).
Other Major Outlets
Here’s just a partial list of influential news sources not owned by these six corporations.
- New York Times- perhaps the most influential newspaper in existence. Owned by the New York Times Company
- Washington Post- owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon
- Associated Press (AP)- operated as a cooperative, non-profit association owned by many newspapers and broadcast members
- Tribune Company- owns some major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and LA Times, as well as many local TV and radio stations
- Hearst Publications- owns San Francisco and Houston Chronicle, as well as many local TV and radio stations. (Note: does have some partnerships with Disney)
- Yahoo!- owned by Yahoo Inc., the highest-read news website in the world
- MSN- owned by Microsoft, the 2nd highest-read news website
- Reuters- major British news agency, owned by Thomson Reuters
- PBS and NPR- owned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a non-profit government subsidized entity
- Huffington Post- owned by AOL/Verizon, a popular liberal blog with almost 7 million Facebook followers
- Bloomberg- owned mostly by Michael Bloomberg, an influential financial news source
- iHeartMedia- the predominant owner and distributor of talk radio, broadcasting the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity
- The Drudge Report- run by Matt Drudge. The conservative-leaning site aggregates content from other news agencies, but is very influential and uses many different news outlets, often foreign or more obscure
This doesn’t include the other large foreign news agencies like BBC, Al Jazeera, etc. or many smaller US outlets like Newsweek, Politico, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and countless others. When looking at this partial list of media sources, it not only seems dubious that 90% is controlled by the “Big Six”, but downright laughable. In fact, it seems plausible the “Big Six” might control less than half of media content. Considering this statistic is not reliably sourced (or sourced at all), it should not be considered credible.
Comparisons to Other Industries
Even if there were only six companies controlling 90%, would this be a problem? Let’s look at some other industries.
- Aircraft– 4 companies dominate almost all airliner manufacturing (Boeing, Airbus, Embraer and Bombardier).
- Cars- almost 80% of the market is controlled by 6 companies (GM, Ford, Chrysler Group, Toyota, Nissan and Honda)
- Cell Phones- 5 manufacturers make up more than 90% of the market (Apple, Samsung, LG, Motorola and HTC). Just 2 operating systems (iOS and Android) make up 98.4% of the market.
- Beer- 2 companies (Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors) make up 71% of the market.
- Social Media- 4 sites (Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Reddit) make up 76% of the market. No other site has more than 2% of the market share.
Clearly, we can have vibrant, competitive markets delivering great products where a few players control the majority of it. Often, big companies can do things better, or mergers can make things more efficient. In the case of news media, it takes a significant amount of resources to create an infrastructure that can investigate and report on all the news. Given this, it wouldn’t be surprising that it would become dominated by a small number of companies, but even so this seems not to be the case, as the news media has many more competitors than most other industries.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems, biases, agendas or group-think going on in the media. There likely are, but it’s doubtful that it’s due to the “Big Six” or “deregulation”. For example, it might have more to do with outlets being lazy and not vetting sources correctly, leaving it to the Meme Policeman to do for free!
In fact, access to different views and unique styles of reporting are more prevalent than ever. There are blogs, news sites, social media pages and videos from every perspective imaginable available on the internet. It used to be almost impossible for these voices to get into the media, as they would need to own either a newspaper, magazine or TV/Radio station. Ironically, viewers were much more limited in the past, when so many tuned into Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news. Now, it’s possible for anyone to have a voice, or to report the news with a blog or Youtube channel. Whether or not it’s listened to, or trusted, is a decision rightly made by the market.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders
As for the supposed lack of coverage for Bernie, it’s doubtful anyone who follows the news hasn’t heard plenty about him. Go to any major media source, and you’ll find coverage of his campagin. While The Other 98% might lament about the nonstop coverage of Donald Trump, one needs to go no further than their own Facebook page (which has over 2 million followers) to see this obsessive coverage in action. If this is happening even from a non-profit liberal opinion site, the intense coverage probably has other origins than a corporate conspiracy.