media pl. of medium 2. an intervening thing through which a force acts or an effect is produced 3. any means, agency or instrument; specif., a means of communication that reaches the general public and carries advertising.

Webster’s New World Dictionary

In the lobby of Baghdad’s Mansour Hotel, a year to the day after the beginning of the US-led war against their country, a group of Iraqi students were hawking souvenirs to visitors. Offering to translate a local newspaper story for a delegation of women from the US organization MADRE, one of the students enthusiastically paraphrased a few sentences from a two-column story on MADRE’s delivery of milk and medicine to local hospitals. “The rest is nothing,” he said, when asked to comment on the remainder of the piece. “Nothing but government propaganda.”

In the United States it is not always so easy to be sure.

In Iraq, and other new states, the power structure of the national media is fairly obvious: It is largely identical with the state itself, under the supervision of a ministry of information. In many countries, the government owns and administers electronic media — television and radio — even where it does not exercise direct control, while print media is typically privately owned. The US is fairly unique in that virtually all media, electronic as well as print, is privately held, and overt censorship by the government is infrequent.

Mass media has emerged with the growth of modern political ideologies and the organization of societies globally in the form of nation-states. Along with other infrastructure, such as transportation and schools, it has played a role in the formation of those nation-states, reflecting the interests and perspectives of dominant groups. Mass media, as Eric Hobsbawm points out, have been an important means of making national symbols a part of everyday life, and “break[ing] down the divisions between the private and local spheres in which most citizens normally lived, and the public and national one.” [1] In some instances mass media is a vehicle of overt propaganda. In every instance, the mass media functions as a handmaiden to power, and the power structure of the media is bound up with the locations of power in society at large. The media, which specializes in appearances, itself constitutes one of the least visible structures of power in modern society.

The media, by its very nature, selects and interprets. Most Americans say they get their news from television newscasts. As critic Jerry Mander put it, each night three men talk and 50 million people listen. [2] Just as in the physical world the medium of the atmosphere or conducting material changes the appearance of light or other phenomena that pass through it, so do the various communications media refract, deflect and alter the information that passes through as “news.”

Economics of Media Power

One locus of power in any modern society is the state. In a developed capitalist economy such as the US, the other locus of power is economic. Media is business — big business. The top media conglomerates — Time Warner, Gannett, Dow Jones, the New York Times Corporation — are firmly ensconced in the upper-middle range of the top Fortune or Business Week 500. Profit margins of 20 or 30 percent were common for media companies in the 1980s, and have been among the highest of any corporate sector. [3] No wonder Warren Buffet, a major owner of ABC and a shareholder in the Washington Post Company, said that even in the current recession media companies represent “economic marvels compared with American industry generally.” [4]

Most media conglomerates have interests in both print and broadcasting. In 1982, Ben Bagdikian found that 50 corporations controlled half or more of the media business. By 1990, that number had shrunk to 23. The broadcasting business, which began as a private cartel in 1919, has never shed its founding characteristic. In 1919, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was an “umbrella monopoly” under which General Electric, Westinghouse, AT&T and United Fruit divided the radio market and called their network the National Broadcasting Company. CBS appeared in 1927; ABC in 1943. [5]

The mythic image of the publisher/owner as tycoon — William Randolph Hearst/Citizen Kane in his palatial estate, Robert Maxwell on his behemoth yacht — is not far off the mark. “Journalism,” the nineteenth-century American editor Charles Dana once said, “consists in buying white paper at two cents a pound and selling it at ten cents a pound.” [6] In 1990, at least four media executives drew over a million dollars in salary and bonuses, and more than a few others were not far behind. That is not counting the late Steve Ross, chairman of Time Warner, who got $78 million in salary and stock options in 1990 — $48 million more than the combined salaries of the 600 Time employees he laid off in 1991. [7]

There is a contrasting myth of the media as having a fundamentally adversarial relationship with power and the state. This probably derives from the origin of newspapers in the pamphlets and information sheets of the eighteenth century published by radicals like Thomas Paine and William Cobbett. The cheap daily press was pioneered in the US (the first one-cent daily appeared in New York in 1833). What made the transition from pamphlet to newspaper possible was advertising, further linking the media to the interests of the commercial and financial classes. While there are many courageous reporters and editors risking life and livelihood around the world, the mass media as an institution is invariably closer to power than truth. The myth is from time to time replenished by events such as Watergate, and by the whining of politicians like George (“Annoy the Media”) Bush when they are on a downhill trajectory. Much has been made of a recent survey indicating that a majority of reporters identified themselves as Democrats rather than Republicans. Apart from the questionable assumption that this places the reporters on the left politically, the fact remains that no such survey was taken of owners and publishers or boards of directors — as if that were somehow irrelevant (or perhaps irreverent).

The Politics of Media Power

The media’s prime political function is at an ideological level — disseminating what Anthony Giddens calls public doctrines “by which dominant groups manage to sustain their power through persuading others of the legitimacy of their rule.” [8] For the most part, this includes a deferential attitude toward power. One such “public doctrine” from the Middle East repertoire is the notion of a “peace process.” The presumption that Washington is committed to a negotiated solution of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seldom if ever held up against the record.

Despite the formal separation of media and state in the US, here the media routinely purveys news from the perspective of the government. When it comes to foreign matters, the media reports not so much what goes on in the world as what the White House says goes on. The state does not control the media in any crude or direct way, but the government more than any other party sets the agenda and the tone — how a story is presented or an issue debated, or if it is presented at all. With all the attention to opinion polls in the presidential election campaign and the Gulf war, for instance, who would imagine that four years of Nicaragua coverage in the New York Times, totaling more than 2,300 articles, would include only 30 passing references to opinion polls? Perhaps this was because the polls showed the US public opposed two-to-one to the Reagan administration’s provision of aid to the Contras. [9]

The mass media functions in relation to the state and other loci of power in some respects in the same way as an occasionally irascible pet to its master. Like the pet, the media requires the proper mix of muzzling, feeding and grooming, and must occasionally be brought to heel.

The obvious question in a discussion of media muzzling is censorship: Who decides what we do not read (see, hear)? Pentagon control of media access in the invasions of Grenada and Panama and in the war against Iraq was blatant and effective. The US government, usually citing reasons of “national security,” routinely withholds information from public disclosure.

Censorship also occurs at the level of ownership. NBC’s “Today” show planned to do a story on the largest consumer boycott in the US — until they learned it was the one directed against NBC’s corporate owner, General Electric (for production of nuclear weapons). [10] The reporter who compiled Fortune’s list of highest-paid executives quit in 1991 when executives of the magazine’s parent, Time Warner, “interfered with his efforts to estimate the 1990 compensation of company chairman Steve Ross.” [11]

Censorship can take the form of intimidation. Following a “60 Minutes” installment critical of Israel’s handling of the October 1990 “Temple Mount massacre,” CBS owner and chairman Lawrence Tisch called in reporter Mike Wallace and producer Don Hewitt for a tongue lashing. (Wallace’s version was subsequently confirmed by an independent Israeli judicial investigation.)

Other states and their partisans mount intimidation campaigns as well. When NBC broadcast a critical program on Israel’s occupation policies in 1987, the Likud government banned NBC from interviewing Israeli officials, and only lifted the ban when NBC agreed to air Israeli objections to the program.

When the Public Broadcasting System scheduled “Death of a Princess” in 1980, a “docudrama” critical of the judicial system and treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government and Mobil Oil Company, a major PBS sponsor and partner in the Saudi oil industry, mounted a public and behind-the-scenes campaign to have the program scrapped. The show was aired, but was coupled with a panel discussion of “experts” whose main function was to clean up the Saudi image tarnished by the film. Partisans of Israel have used this technique whenever PBS dares to schedule a program reflecting a Palestinian point of view: Campaign to get local affiliates to scrap the program, and insist on “equal time” wherever it is shown.

Feeding and Grooming

Who determines what we do see, read and hear? The US government employs some 13,000 persons, at a cost of some $2.5 billion per year, to do public and media relations. The Pentagon alone accounts for some 3,000 of these, at a cost of $100 million a year. [12] On an ordinary day, the White House and Pentagon each hold two briefings, the State Department one. These briefings in many respects set the agenda for foreign news coverage (including coverage by foreign correspondents based in Washington).

If the US government did not already have this in-house taxpayer-funded propaganda machine, it would have to hire a public relations firm like Hill and Knowlton, the way states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco and the Emir of Kuwait (aka Citizens for a Free Kuwait) have done. [13] (Israel gets its PR advice from top Madison Avenue firms on a pro bono basis.) [14] The Kuwaitis paid Hill and Knowlton nearly $11 million for services like daily video feeds that were the source of most televised footage about the “Kuwaiti resistance,” and for “focus groups” around the US to determine which rationales would generate greatest public support for the Bush administration’s war policy. [15]

Reporters and news programmers rely heavily on public relations feeds. As critics Martin Lee and Norman Solomon put it, most journalism is hard to distinguish from stenography. A special label, investigative journalism, has been coined to mark off those efforts that go beyond the official communique and the corporate press release.

Most daily newspapers are owned by media conglomerates like Gannett and Knight-Ridder. Hearst, which owns 13 newspapers, sends out several editorials a day to its subsidiaries. Some must be used; others are optional. The New York Times Corporation owns 31 other dailies, and its news services have 600 outlets worldwide.

Reporters working in the Middle East rely on local feeders, who usually turn out to be “diplomatic sources” and other reporters. Part of the reason is that in many countries people can be arrested or worse for talking with a reporter. But it is also easier to do an assignment from the local five-star hotel. “If you looked at the phone books of correspondents in the Middle East,” says one reporter who has worked there for a major US daily, “80 to 90 percent would be diplomats — Western diplomats. And people trade these names.” [16]

The process through which information and analysis is filtered goes beyond the muzzlers and feeders to the components of media itself. This is the process in which information is coded — in which one country’s “naked aggression” becomes another’s “peacekeeping mission.” This is how a friendly monarch acquires a reputation as a “moderate.” [17] Even logos and theme music are part of the process. John MacArthur, in his book on the media and the Gulf war, asked rhetorically why CBS did not introduce its Gulf crisis segments with some bars of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a three-dimensional UN logo, and a voiceover saying, “The quest for peace: CBS News brings you continuing coverage of the world community’s efforts to avert war in the Persian Gulf.” [18]

In the case of the print media, the newsweeklies reproduce the glitz and superficiality of electronic coverage. In the Gulf crisis, major dailies provided some critical accounts of official policy, but in terms of proportionality the result is much the same. The people who decide which stories to feature sometimes have strong views on an issue. Take the case of A. M. Rosenthal, whose columns on the Middle East in the New York Times reflect a political outlook akin to that of Ariel Sharon. As a columnist his perspective is transparent. For nearly 20 years, though, Rosenthal was managing editor and executive editor at the Times: He did not publish a word under his own name, but he assigned reporters and stories; he had a major say in what the New York Times published and did not publish about Israel and the Middle East over several crucial decades, and how it said it. Rosenthal helped shape public perceptions of the region and US policy as events unfolded, and he will continue to shape the views of students and others who resort to the “newspaper of record” for an authoritative account of recent history.

For any party wishing to influence how a story is conveyed in the media, the three rules of thumb are: 1) get the first version; 2) get the headline; and 3) get the talk show. In addition to the formal networks embedded in the corporate structures of the US media, other, more informal networks contribute to the presentation and interpretation of the news. Less than two weeks before the presidential election, ABC’s “Nightline” asked whether the media was being unfair to the president, and invited the Bush-Quayle campaign to the studio to produce a report on the day’s news from their perspective — as if the news is not routinely presented from the White House point of view. The man who arranged the invitation was Bush’s communications assistant, Dorrance Smith, formerly a “Nightline” executive producer. When Smith announced his move from ABC to the White House, the Washington Post described him as “a lifetime friend of the Bushes.” [19]

Cults of Expertise

Since reporters are supposed to report, the media shops elsewhere for analysis and interpretation. On a foreign story of any importance, an interview with or guest appearance by a government official — a “player” — is almost obligatory. Next in line are “former players.” Most active media “experts” are “former players.” Few, if any, have any background as independent scholars. “The policy expert and adviser,” writes James Smith in his book about think tanks, “if they aspire to be of use, must speak to power in a political and bureaucratic context; and they must speak a useful truth. Their claims to the truth must always be viewed in light of their relationship with power.” [20]

In order to buttress their presentations with “credibility, authority, confirmation of objective truth,” the media has cultivated a small group of “unofficial sources” who can be counted on to reinforce the perspective of the “official sources.” Janet Steele found that “a relatively small group of unofficial sources” dominated the airwaves. Most of these came from think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings and the Heritage Foundation. These institutions, many of them established in the last 20 years to advance conservative and right-wing policy agendas, are largely corporate-funded. It is not unusual to find a major institute such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies getting contributions from military contractors like Lockheed and from media companies like the New York Times, for whom the resident expert might write an op-ed promoting a particular arms procurement program. Steele documents the “operational bias” behind such media consultancy: The “experts” are trotted out to answer the unanswerable (“What is going to happen next?”) and the transparently ridiculous (“What is Saddam thinking?”). The result is specious stereotyping. The “experts” are seldom asked hard questions about the policies that lie behind the current crisis, for often they are the people who were responsible for those policies or who endorsed them at the time. [21]

The think tanks and their experts serve a further purpose of lending an air of “balance,” on the presumption that there are never more than two sides — liberal and conservative, or Democrat and Republican — to any issue. On the Middle East this approach produces some bizarre moments, as when an associate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is invited to intervene from a pro-Israeli slant (fair enough) and is “balanced” by a “Palestinian perspective” from the Brookings Institution! [22]

The problem posed by the power of the media is not an intellectual one. The decision to escalate to war with Iraq was wrong for a lot of reasons, but not because the bombing of Baghdad was timed to coincide with US evening news shows. The problem is political: the policies that ruling circles impose. In a modern capitalist society, Gramsci has written, the state is charged with providing a balance between coercion and consent in securing citizen compliance with those policies, and acceptance of the dominant interests they serve. The mass media is a crucial institution in facilitating that balance, so that consent may generally play the larger role.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
[2] Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: William Morrow, 1978).
[3] Richard Harwood, “Journalism: A Look Toward the Millennium,” Washington Post, November 27, 1992.
[4] Karen Rothmyer, “The Media in Recession: How Bad Is It?” Columbia Journalism Review (September-October 1991), p. 25.
[5] Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).
[6] Cited by Lewis Lapham, Harper’s (May 1991).
[7] Rothmyer, pp. 23, 26.
[8] Anthony Giddens, Social Theory and Modern Sociology (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), p. 256.
[9] Martin Lee and Norman Solomon, Unreliable Sources (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1990), p. 138.
[10] Extra! (January-February 1991), p. 4.
[11] Extra! (November-December 1991), p. 12.
[12] Lee and Solomon, p. 104.
[13] Susan Trento, The Power House (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
[14] Robert Friedman, “Selling Israel to America,” Mother Jones (February-March 1987).
[15] Morgan Strong, “Portions of the Gulf War Were Brought to You by…the Folks at Hill and Knowlton,” TV Guide, February 22, 1992.
[16] Interview, November 1992.
[17] On this filtering process, see Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon, 1988).
[18] John MacArthur, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), p. 86.
[19] February 28, 1991.
[20] James Smith, The Idea Brokers (New York: Free Press, 1991), cited in Janet Steele, “Enlisting Experts: Objectivity and Operational Bias in Television News Analysis of the Persian Gulf War,” Media Studies Project (Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1992), p. 13.
[21] Steele, passim.
[22] Steele, p. 22.

How to cite this article:

Laura Flanders, Joe Stork "Power Structure of the American Media," Middle East Report 180 (January/February 1993).

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