How Deregulation Created a Corporate Media Nightmare

In this excerpt from ‘The New Power Elite,’ sociologist Heather Gautney explains how the consolidation of media into a few powerful corporations is a key part of the neoliberal project to co-opt this pillar of social and political engagement.

The following is adapted from Heather Gautney’s new book “The New Power Elite,” available from Oxford University Press.

Neoliberalism’s conceptual roots can be traced to a group of academic historians, philosophers, and economists who in 1947 formed the Mont Pelerin Society, named after the Swiss spa where the society first convened at a meeting financed by banks and insurance companies.1 Members of the society—which included notables like George Stigler, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, James M. Buchanan, Karl Popper, and Friedrich von Hayek (F. A. Hayek), among others—called themselves “neoliberals” in reference to the 19th century pro-market ideas that influenced them and their commitment to “individual liberty.”In the neoliberal worldview, the market is a neutral playing field on which anyone can realize upward mobility and personal success through hard work and competition—and that hard work and competition, they believe, are the stuff of innovation and civilizational greatness. Only through unfettered entrepreneurial pursuits can a society achieve a high standard of living and liberty and justice for all. The state’s role, therefore, should be to safeguard property rights and competition, not regulate market activity or impinge on people’s private property and freedom of choice. Fundamental to this narrative are the twin concepts of choice and personal responsibility.

At the heart of neoliberalism is a class program to erase or distort history, present itself as a given, and destroy the social solidarities, intellectual independence, and sense of obligation that constitute egalitarian societies and robust democratic public spheres. To neoliberals, the very idea of a public, a common good, or even a representative state is anathema to human freedom and the unfettered pursuit of property and private interests. With the ascendancy of this worldview, organs of knowledge production and public discourse—schools and universities, political parties, and civic associations—have been co-opted or starved of vital resources, and the social solidarities and tolerances they engender greatly diminished. 

With governments in their pockets and billions of dollars at their backs, neoliberals legitimize their class program by demonizing the very idea of a public sphere and representative state as a threat to human freedom and the pursuit of wealth. They have worked to reduce civic and political life to consumer choice and combat sport, and enabled media monopolists to sow disinformation and desensitize people to contradiction. In keeping with the playbook of modern authoritarian regimes, they have colonized institutional pillars of political engagement—schools and universities, the media, political parties, and community organizations—to sever people’s connection to their government and to each other. 

The Corporate Media

In the United States, political extremism and the wholesale commodification of the news media were not always the norm. In the postwar period, a handful of television networks and newspaper chains dominated the news business, but their aim was to reach the widest possible audience and address the country as a whole. This was in part due to the Fairness Doctrine in the Federal Communications Act of 1934 that positioned broadcasters as public trustees in charge of cultivating an informed citizenry and safeguarding the public interest. As a condition of federal licensing to use public airwaves, the Doctrine required broadcasters to cover controversial issues in a fair and nonpartisan way, and as amended in 1959, mandated equal airtime for public office seekers.2 

Conservatives opposed the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that it favored the liberal media and that the free market, not government, was the optimal means of mediating among disparate viewpoints in the news. They contended that the equal airtime requirement infringed on broadcasters’ First Amendment rights, but when they tried to bring it before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, the court upheld the Doctrine, asserting that free speech was “the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters” and that “it is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited market-place of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee.”3

If U.S. policymakers were at least in part driven by the value of an informed public, that disappeared in 1987 when Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revoked the Fairness Doctrine, citing both First Amendment rights and technological change. Whereas the Doctrine was predicated on a scarcity of news sources available through a handful of major news networks, cable TV enabled access to a diversity of news outlets and opinions that, conservatives argued, should be mediated through market competition and self-regulation.4

After Reagan lifted the rule, the number of explicitly conservative, and fascist, media programs skyrocketed, driven by talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Bob Grant. As Limbaugh grew his audience into the tens of millions with rails against “feminazis” and “environmentalist wackos,”5 Grant spewed xenophobic rage, calling immigrants “subhumanoids” and African American churchgoers “screaming savages.”6 This new generation of deranged radio personalities, hostile to the mainstream news media, provided the foundation for the emergence of conservative news outlets on cable TV like Newsmax and Fox News. 

Reagan vetoed Democrats’ efforts to save the Doctrine, but when Clinton and the New Democrats took office, corporate-driven deregulation of the media became bipartisan consensus. The same year that he demolished the U.S. welfare system, Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with a decisive majority in both the House (414 in favor, 16 against) and Senate (91 in favor, 5 against), including support from ultra-conservative Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.7 Driving Democrats further away from the idea of the media as a public good, Clinton promoted deregulation as an accelerator of competition that, he assured the country, would bring more consumer options at lower prices. In his pitch for the bill, he gushed about the wonders of the “information superhighway,” which, like most great highways, was built by the federal government, and not the private sector, as neoliberals would like people to believe.8Opponents like then-congressman Bernie Sanders and activist groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) pointed to how media industry lobbyists had “bought and paid for” the legislation and warned that it would increase prices and encourage monopoly, which is exactly what it did.9

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 dramatically reduced New Deal–era FCC rules in place to stem conflicts of interest and corporate monopoly on media ownership. It allowed large corporations and wealthy individuals to buy up and dominate media markets, leaving smaller outlets to fail or get “merged” into larger corporations. U.S. telecommunications firms could acquire foreign companies and vice versa, and cross-industry ownership regulations that prohibited firms in one sector from operating in and controlling those in another were relaxed. Notably, the law granted the FCC the authority to review and modify its media ownership rules every four years to ensure that they remained in the public interest. This endowed the FCC with incredible deregulatory power that media giants like News Corp exploited to undermine remaining restrictions on conglomeration.10 In the name of unfettering the emerging online industry, moreover, the legislation absolved internet companies from liability for user-generated content, which opened the door for the spread of conspiracy theory and disinformation that plagues online media today.11

Before Clinton’s radical legislation passed into law, approximately 50 companies controlled 90 percent of the media and entertainment industries; as of 2022, only five or six conglomerates control the same market share. With overlapping membership on corporate boards of directors and interconglomerate coordination and joint ventures, just a handful of giant corporations dominate everything from book and magazine publishing, to radio and cable and network TV, to movie studios, music companies, theme parks, and sports teams. In command of these goliaths is a small cadre of billionaires and multimillionaires12 who exert near-total control over today’s global media landscape. In The New Media Monopoly, Bob Bagdikian described these dynamics in the starkest of terms, arguing that today’s mega-media corporations and their leaders wield “more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history.”13

In some instances, that despotism has been exercised in broad daylight. When the Los Angeles Times reported on Disney’s shady business dealings in Anaheim, California, where its theme park is located, the media giant blacklisted the Times from its movie screenings and interviews. When billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson secretly purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it spurred a mass exodus of journalists and editors citing curtailed editorial freedom and shady business dealings and management.14 PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, a right-wing billionaire, took down Gawker Media by bankrolling a lawsuit against the gossip site in revenge for its reporting on his sexual orientation. When billionaire Michael Bloomberg ran for president, Bloomberg News journalists were instructed not to cover it, leading to resignations. For years, billionaire Rupert Murdoch has openly used his vast media empire to advance his political agenda. Many more such manipulations happen behind closed doors, including the inevitable self-censoring of journalists and editors looking to hold on to their sought-after jobs.

Listen to the Current Affairs podcast interview with Heather Gautney as she discusses The New Power Elite

While some members of the press dedicate their lives to truth-telling and checking power, much of today’s media has committed itself to abetting power elites’ practice of foreclosing political alternatives and advancing their interests through distortion and manipulation. Day after day, and night after night, the tug of war between liberal and conservative outlets is moving the media further away from its ostensible mission to inform citizens and increasingly toward systemic disinformation and “alternative facts”—with dire consequences for the future. When a society ceases to value intellectual and public life, and when people are unaware of who controls the information they take as fact, and unsure who to believe, they lose the ability to think and act critically, and to resist authoritarianism in its most violent, and amusing, forms.

Read a transcript of our podcast interview with Heather Gautney.

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  1. Nicholas Shaxson. The Finance Curse: How Global Finance Is Making Us All Poorer. New York: Grove Press, 2018, p. 41. 

  2. Dylan Matthews. “Everything You Need to Know About the Fairness Doctrine in One Post.” Washington Post. Aug. 23, 2011. Accessed July 2022. 

  3. Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. et al. v. Federal Communications Commission et al. Supreme Court of the United States. 395 U.S. 367. Decided June 9, 1969. Accessed July 2022. 

  4. Tom A. Collins. “The Future of Cable Communications and the Fairness Doctrine.” College of William & Mary Law School. Faculty Publications 506, 1975. Accessed July 2022. 

  5. Bob Baker. “What’s the Rush? Radio Loudmouth Rush Limbaugh Harangues Feminazis, Environmental Wackos, and Commie Libs, While His Ratings Soar.” Los Angeles Times. Jan. 20, 1991. Accessed July 2022. 

  6. Tom Hays. “Bob Grant, Conservative Radio Host, Dies at 84.” Washington Post. Jan. 3, 2014. Accessed July 2022. Also see Paul Vitello. “Bob Grant, a Combative Personality on New York Talk Radio, Dies at 84.” New York Times. Jan. 2, 2014. Accessed July 2022. Despite the dangerous media environment that suspending the Fairness Doctrine unleashed, in 2011 Obama’s FCC dissolved the Doctrine entirely—or as Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson put it, shot it “in the head and then danc[ed] on its grave . . . with all the enthusiasm of News Corp lobbyist.” Tim Dickinson. “So Long, Fairness Doctrine.” Rolling Stone. Aug. 24, 2011. Accessed July 2022. 

  7. Eric Boehlert. “One Big Happy Channel?Salon. June 28, 2001. Accessed July 2022. 

  8. Telecommunications Bill Signing.” C-SPAN. Feb. 8, 1996. Accessed July 2022. 

  9. Michael Corcoran. “Democracy in Peril: Twenty Years of Media Consolidation Under the Telecommunications Act.” Truthout. Feb. 11, 2016. Accessed July 2022. 

  10. James Fallows. “The Age of Murdoch.” The Atlantic. Sept. 2003. Accessed July 2022. 

  11. 47 U.S. Code § 230—Protection for Private Blocking and Screening of Offensive Material. Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. Accessed July 2022. 

  12. Jim Rutenberg. “Behind the Scenes, Billionaires’ Growing Control of News.” New York Times. May 27, 2016. Accessed July 2022. Also see Rupert Neate. “‘Extra Level of Power’: Billionaires Who Have Bought up the Media.” The Guardian. May 3, 2022. Accessed July 2022. 

  13. Ben H. Bagdikian. The New Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004, p. 3. 

  14. Laura Wagner. “More Journalists Leaving ‘Las Vegas Review-Journal’ After Sale to Billionaire.” National Public Radio. May 9, 2016. Accessed July 2022. 

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