Governments Love a Media Cartel—As Long as They’re in Control
In 1969, one of the country’s most controversial speakers delivered a fiery attack on the mass media. “For millions of Americans,” he declared, the three TV networks “are the sole source of national and world news.” Thanks to “a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government,” a “small group of men, numbering perhaps no more than a dozen anchormen, commentators, and executive producers, settle upon the 20 minutes or so of film and commentary that’s to reach the public.” This represented “a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.” And the people who wielded that power were concentrated in two cities—New York and Washington—where they “draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement to their shared viewpoints.”
It sounds like a radical critique of the power elite. But the speaker wasn’t Noam Chomsky or Stokely Carmichael. He was Vice President Spiro Agnew, reading a script largely composed by a young writer named Pat Buchanan. And Agnew wasn’t trying to end that government-licensed monopoly power. He was trying to bend it to his own ends.
Agnew had opened his speech with a rather different complaint: He didn’t like the way the networks had covered a recent presidential address. Not content merely to air Richard Nixon’s remarks on Vietnam, they had followed his words with commentary by a panel of news analysts, some of whom had been pretty critical. The vice president acknowledged that “every American has a right to disagree with the president of the United States and to express publicly that disagreement,” and then he offered a “but”: “But the president of the United States has a right to communicate directly with the people who elected him, and the people of this country have the right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a presidential address without having the president’s words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can even be digested.” Apparently, the problem with concentrating TV power in the hands of a small group of men is that they might not refrain from airing additional views after handing the president the microphone.
“Advocates for the networks have claimed a First Amendment right to the same unlimited freedoms held by the great newspapers of America,” Agnew added. “But the situations are not identical. Where The New York Times reaches 800,000 people, NBC reaches 20 times that number on its evening news. Nor can the tremendous impact of seeing television film and hearing commentary be compared with reading the printed page.” Besides, “we are not going to cut off our television sets and listen to the phonograph just because the airways belong to the networks. They don’t. They belong to the people.”
In that context, Agnew’s comment that the networks’ power was “licensed by government” sounded less like a social critique and more like an implicit threat. The goal wasn’t to break up the opinion cartel; the goal was to make it play ball. The speech signaled the White House’s willingness to use the regulatory apparatus as a pressure point, and the network bosses received the message. CBS soon suspended its practice of airing analysis after presidential addresses.
More than half a century has passed since then, and the media landscape looks very different now than it did in 1969. But it’s not hard to hear echoes of the old days when critics accuse social media sites of acting as arms of the state. For several years, they point out, officials have been pressuring platforms to suppress different sorts of speech, most recently when the administration urged Facebook and company to clamp down on posts that stray too far from the COVID consensus. And the biggest tech companies, like the TV networks, benefit from all sorts of government interventions, some of them overt subsidies, some of them tucked away in obscure corners of laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. State and corporate power have been entwined for generatio
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