With the exception of one domestic broadcasting network, the U.S. news media are privately owned and operated, and always have been. Yet the nature of media ownership has been transformed in recent decades, with more and more media outlets coming under the control of a handful of large mass-media corporations, some of which have merged to form even-larger entities. From Washington, for Producer Barry Unger, VOA's Michael Bowman takes a look at America's media ownership, and what effect it has on the news.
Does it matter who owns and controls the media outlets people rely on for the news? Absolutely, according to one person encountered on the streets of Washington, local resident Jeff Bonnin. "It certainly colors the content of whatever stories we are reading. For example, the slant on the stories is relatively neutral in some cases, relatively right-wing in others." Other Americans perceive a left-wing slant to the news.
Fifty years ago, many American newspapers and local broadcast stations had local, hometown ownership.
That is no longer the norm, according to Jeffrey Dvorkin of the Committee of Concerned Journalists in Washington. "There are five large corporations that own most news media in this country. And they are under continuous pressure to ensure that there are larger and larger profits returned to their shareholders."
Virginia-based Gannett Company owns 98 newspapers and 18 television stations in the United States. Clear Channel Communications, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas owns 39 television stations and more than 700 radio stations, some of which compete against one another in the same local market.
Dvorkin says the news industry, like any business, must aim for profit. But he adds that the news media are a special case, with a specific responsibility within the democratic system. "Journalism has an obligation to inform people as citizens and to make sure that they have enough knowledge about the issues that concern them as citizens of their communities, of their country and the world, so they can make informed choices."
Concerns about media ownership are overblown according to the vice president-at-large at the Washington Post newspaper, Ben Bradlee. "The fact that the Washington Post Company owns a newspaper in Everett, Washington, and owns Newsweek magazine, and owns the Washington Post -- that really does not threaten the independence of journalism, to say the least."
Bradlee notes there are far more American news outlets today than when he entered the industry in the 1940s. Recent years have seen an explosion of specialty magazines, cable television channels, and information-related Internet sites.
But Bradlee adds that the number of newspapers has shrunk. Many of the newspapers that disappeared across the country were doomed by an inability to turn a profit. "You have got to be a successful business. If you lose a million dollars a year, which the Washington Post did for 20-something years, (then) you exist at the whim of a rich person (owner). I think the Washington Post became a much better paper when it began to make money."
But while corporate consolidation has led to greater profitability in the news industry as a whole, its impact on the quality of journalism is a matter of debate.
The Committee of Concerned Journalists' Jeffrey Dvorkin adds "There is the illusion of choice in terms of what you watch on television and hear on the radio, but in fact there are fewer independent outlets that are doing independent journalism than ever before."
Other analysts note that shrinking budgets for news coverage have led many media organizations to cut back on foreign reporting, making it harder for Americans to get in-depth news about international affairs.
The Voice of America is funded entirely by the U.S. government and may only broadcast outside the United States. But in other countries, government-controlled domestic news media are commonplace, according to government studies expert Stephen Hess at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"The great broadcast medias, stations and so forth throughout most of the world, are owned directly or indirectly by the government. Newspapers can be the voice of a political party, if you will. So to that degree, the American mainstream media -- mass media -- is much more the product of the market."
Regardless of ownership, it is a standard creed among American journalists that the news must be reported as accurately and impartially as possible.