The San Francisco Bay Area is often seen across the country as a “blue” outpost and a place where liberal ideas predominate. This image is especially widespread in media reports which emphasize cultural and political innovations. But the local media system which indulges in the self-congratulatory blather is itself a retrograde example of corporate consolidation and dominance. More like Texas than Vermont, if you like.
If the purpose of media systems is to connect and to exchange information, then Bay Area communication is about as controlled by big media corporations as the US is dependent on imported oil. The statistics are terrifying:
- Two companies get nearly half of the TV market's advertising revenues; five companies own more than one commercial TV station
- Four companies own half the Bay Area's radio stations and get 80% of the advertising revenues. Two of them own seven radio stations each.
- The two alternative culture newspaper weeklies are owned by the same company.
Being owned by the same company can result in the same content, no matter where you look. The newspaper conglomerate Media News Group will often print the same articles in the San Jose daily paper the Mercury News as they do in Oakland's daily paper the Tribune, 40 miles away.
This news echo chamber is sped along by both formal mergers and insidious semi-mergers, often called joint sharing agreements, where two TV stations or newspapers don't formally merge, but combine most aspects of their operations.
Mergers, formal or informal, lock in the status quo. And diversity, not only in content but also in ownership, is not the status quo. There is only one TV station in the Bay Area with any person of color owning a majority stake, KQSL. And similarly only one owned by women, KTSF. Radio is not much better with 12% minority ownership and only 3 radio stations owned by women.
The price we pay for turning a blind eye to media consolidation isn't just boredom. It's placing the power to determine what is important and what is newsworthy in the hands of just a few. Those few don't look like most of us and by ceding so much public property to 16 corporations and their subsidiaries, the majority of the population becomes marginalized in their own national discussion.
People have had some success turning media consolidation on its head by using social media to spoof the news echo-chamber and vacuous celebrity culture. It's affirmation that most of us don't want what these 16 corporations are trying to sell us. But the tools we use are part and parcel of those corporations, and social media sells our data and spies on us in return for the space to discuss what we want.
It doesn't have to be as bad as it is. Media is licensed and regulated, at least in theory, and consolidation, whether by outright mergers or sharing agreements, can be slowed down. Cross-ownership rules can be tightened. Media diversity studies can become real guides for measuring whether the population is represented by the media that serves them. Sneaky sharing agreements don't have to be approved. And independent and alternative media can be strengthened to provide an antidote to corporate-delivered news and entertainment.
When we look at media through a justice lens, the allocation of broadcasting spaces and internet pipes and newspaper columns is just like the allocation of any other public resource. The vital question is whether it is for the benefit of all or a private playground for the few. The Media Action Grassroots Network (Mag-net) believes media change must happen to end poverty, eliminate racism and ensure human rights.
Because if we wait politely for 16 corporations to let us talk about it, it will be too late.
Tracy Rosenberg has worked as Media Alliance's Executive Director since 2007. She has organized and advocated for a free, accountable and accessible media system, focusing on the protection and sustainability of alternative media outlets monitored the mainstream media for accuracy and fair representation and facilitated the training of numerous nonprofit organizations and citizen's groups in effective communications. She blogs on media policy at the Huffington Post and is published frequently in newspapers and blogs around the country. She currently sits on the boards of the the Alliance for Community Media Western Region and serves on the anchor committee of the Media Action Grassroots Network.