The Big Six’s big media game

These top six companies control 90% of the media in the United States.

Mira Nalbandian

These top six companies control 90% of the media in the United States.

Just 37 years ago, there were 50 companies in charge of most American media. Now, 90% of the media in the United States is controlled by just six corporations: AT&T, CBS, Comcast, Disney, Newscorp and Viacom. This means that just 232 media executives are calling the shots for the vast majority of the information we are presented with, controlling a total Big Six net worth of over $430 billion.

It’s been no secret that Big Tech companies — the nickname for the enormous corporations like Facebook or Google — have come under fire recently for their controlling practices. While Facebook and other media giants sought to combat extremism and political misinformation on their platforms, specifically in light of the 2020 presidential election, Bill Baer and Caitlin Chin of Brookings remind us that this only demonstrated the power that social media giants hold over what we consume.

But even more than that, past the small screen of social media, the other forms of information, arguments and entertainment we consume are still being controlled by a very small amount of Facebook-type corporations. At an individual level, this may not appear to affect what’s presented in the news. Personally, I sometimes have a hard time seeing why a vague, distant-seeming corporation like Comcast would impact the traditionally reliable reporting of a single journalist at NBC News. At West, two-thirds of 63 students polled said they get most of their news from national organizations.

The idea is that when six corporations, whose primary motivations are to ultimately profit as much as possible, are in charge of what we consume, the narratives do not challenge the status quo in the ways that could inspire large-scale change. I’m not saying a New York Times article can’t be plenty critical of the government or of the many social ills plaguing this country. As a whole when reporting begins to fulfill the needs of a multi-million or billion-dollar corporation, it seeks to benefit this corporation, no matter the cost.

What benefits a news corporation? In the past, newspapers relied on subscriptions or individual sales. Likewise, radio or television programs rely on advertisement sales. While the medium has changed, the sentiment stays the same. News companies need ad sales or subscriptions to make money and to secure these, they need popular content. Entertainment companies, which NBC, CBS, Fox and others also operate as such, are no different.

The top six media corporations own many familiar entertainment and news brands. (Leah Schroeder)

While this may benefit the company, it inherently stifles dissent. To a corporation, challenging opinions that may not be as popular as mainstream views do not serve to generate profit and thus are not worthwhile. Though a publication may rarely operate in such a sinister manner, this underlying thought of what makes readable content in any form is pervasive, suppressing creativity. It’s journalism in the age of capitalism, and if it can’t make money, it’s not worth approving. As Jack Schafer writes in Politico — which is run by an enormous, capitalist-loving German corporation — “For much of America’s history, news entrepreneurs entered the market expecting to make money.”

Many privately-run newspapers are losing money as local publications continue to bite the dust, losing more and more readership to the Big Six. Only six students surveyed said they found most of their news from a local source. Some are trying to escape the world of for-profit journalism. The Chicago Sun-Times announced its merger with the local NPR non-profit affiliate in January. But in a world where you still have to be incredibly rich to run a newspaper, this switch means little. 

Even if it’s a local source, the Big Six is still influencing what you read by stealing their markets and forcing them to adapt. As Schafer puts it, “The rich always say they’ll never try to influence the nonprofit journalism they fund, but that’s laughable. Like for-profit operators, they want to see the news reported in their image.” 

For-profit or non-profit local news, are still being run by the rich for the rich. Even media giant Lee Enterprises owns our beloved Post-Dispatch, one of 77 daily newspapers under their ownership.

If you’re now feeling lost about where to turn for your news or entertainment, you’re not alone. Corporate instability unfairly impacts the type of media we have access to, and the type of media has access to us. While we must keep pursuing different avenues of journalism that strive to overcome corporate dominance, we can’t forget to push back against that corporate dominance in the first place. This dominance is supported by the U.S. government as well. Just look to the big banks that received government funding over ordinary citizens back in 2008 or the corporations that were first in line for bailouts at the beginning of the pandemic.

Journalism in America and around the world is not separate from corporate takeover and influences our lives every day. Yet, everywhere we turn for independent journalism, a corporation lurks behind smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to turn to the companies we know and trust to give us the news we need. Nevertheless, it’s important to consume a variety of information, and some of that must include media that hasn’t been produced by a money-hungry corporation. 

This, on its own, won’t solve the problem, though. As citizens of the U.S., we must challenge subjection and protest corporatism. Contacting elected officials or writing to those corporations themselves can only do so much when they will do anything to stay in power and keep profiting off of us. We must use direct action, including protests, to rid ourselves of corporate control. Only when we are free can we truly appreciate media that does not seek to pad a bank account but instead is created to inform and entertain regardless of its monetary value.